I recently heard this NPR story about a yoga teacher who injected right-wing conspiracy views into her classes. I cringed, as I knew this was a the dark side of yoga.
Yoga doesn’t make national news unless it’s something bad. This was one of those rare stories that made me feel gross. First, some non-yogis will assume everyone in the yoga world is like that. Secondly, there are yogis on the fringe of falling for those toxic beliefs.
The Opposite of the Dark Side of Yoga
These dark stories still exist on the web. So I wanted to share my expectations as a yoga student and as a teacher.
My experience as a yoga student has been incredibly positive. I’ve had good teachers who I felt care for me and how I do in class. Before and after class, they’ll greet students with a smile. Many of those teachers I consider friends. I admit I live in a yoga dream world of sorts. It’s not a dream world of rainbows and sunshine. It’s one of empathy, kindness, compassion, joy, and love. At the same time, my yoga world acknowledged we’re dealing with hard things in life and doing our best.
I want everyone to have this ideal experience when they come to class.This is the opposite of dark yoga.
Routine and Expectation
As a teacher, I strive to model this. The students I see in class are caring individuals, and dedicated to their practice. All come to class for the physical work. For some, it’s about letting their minds escape for an hour as they move. Regardless, my job is to guide them to do the best they can on the mat.
When class starts, it’s time for the teacher to start focusing on poses and how students should move their bodies. Sure, there might some light humor: a teacher making fun of themselves or telling a lighthearted story. But everything else is about breath and the movement to guide students to do their best.
Immediately after class ends, sometimes there’s friendly conversation. Then we’re back to the world outside, which will vary depending on geography, education, and socioeconomic status.
Reinforcing What’s Right
Politics should not have a place in a yoga studio. However, it’s good to reinforce certain positive (default) behaviors and mindsets – especially when the climate gets tense. I think this is easier to do where I live in a liberal university town; perhaps it takes more bravery in other parts of the country.
One studio in my area (at the time of this writing) has on its website that students should provide proof of vaccination against COVID-19 if they’re visiting for the first time (or first time visiting in-person if a returning student).
Another studio (where I did my teacher training) displays a “Black Lives Matter” sign in its window. Both, I feel, are expressions that say “we care about you”.
Finding What Works for You
When you see a yoga studio in town, you have a choice on whether to go in and practice. And when you take one class, you have a choice on whether you want to return and become a regular. You will also gravitate naturally toward some instructors than others.
If yoga becomes a regular part of your life, following your teachers on social media becomes a natural extension of that love of practice. If you like how an instructor teaches and are drawn toward that person, you’ll generally like what they share on social media and become a fan or follower.
It’s also OK to stop going to classes led by instructors whose values don’t align with yours.
The NPR story noted above interviewed a student who questioned the conspiracy-minded teacher, someone she initially liked and trusted.
Hot 26 Scandal
I think about this as I learn about Bikram Choudhury – the man who popularized Hot 26 (the yoga class I love to practice and currently teach). (After watching the Netflix documentary about him, I’m straying away now from saying he’s the “founder” ). Choudhury lost a civil lawsuit in 2017 for sexual harassment, gender discrimination, and wrongful termination and has dodged paying more than $7 million by being a fugitive. He’s also been accused numerous times of sexual assault and rape but still continues to teach in other countries, and is scheduled to teach in Canada starting this month.
I appreciate that he popularized the sequence I enjoy so much. And I imagine it’s a unique experience to be in a class led by the person who many have looked up to. But knowing what I do now, it’s also important to recognize that yoga teachers – much like doctors, journalists, judges, or most any other person doing a job – don’t leave their values at the door when going to work. Teacher trainees everywhere wondering if they can separate the teacher from the person – especially when the practice isn’t copyrighted – should ask themselves if there’s kind, trustworthy people elsewhere to learn from who will respectfully challenge them. This is combatting the dark side of yoga.
I like that all my teachers know my name. They encourage me and challenge me with care, but also know, trust, and respect me. And those are all good things to vote for.