Thoughts on the Teacher-Student Relationship

In the days following Michelle Goldberg’s expose for Slate Magazine concerning allegations of sexual harassment and misconduct at Jivamukti Yoga, a lot of debate and discussion has taken place on the Internet.

Many teachers and students are genuinely trying to grapple with what happened and think and speak carefully about it. But there are also views being expressed that are unsettling, either because they are, thoughtless, hasty, defensive, or, most troubling, reflect an inchoate and amorphous notion of relevant concepts like power, consent, ethics, and even Love.

Before I say more about that, let me say two things: we should all strive to be both clear in our thinking about this particular case and its wider implications, as well as forgiving and charitable to all parties. To do so is to understand that our fallibility is a central part of our humanity. However, if you are a person who believes that the teacher in question or the founders of Jivamukti Yoga (or anyone at all, for that matter) are incapable of erring, then you should read no further, for you will not be persuaded by reason. (You are also the person about whom the author of the Slate article is concerned, by the way.) To those folks, there is little to say at all on the matter. But to the rest, here are a few thoughts that I hope might sweep away some of the dust and offer clarity.

Firstly, Jivamukti is, as its founders Sharon and David constantly remind us, a brand and a business. It is also an institution of learning and, as such, sets out specific guidelines for the teacher-student relationship (section 4), as well it should. Let’s get right down to the first issue: what we know happened between this particular teacher and student, that is, what is not in dispute by either party, was unequivocally unprofessional and a violation of the Center’s own policy on sexual harassment and teacher misconduct. The policy states that “all forms of sexual behavior or harassment are unethical, even when a student invites or consent to such behavior,” and then goes on to give a rather capacious definition of sexual behavior, including speech and gestures. This sort of policy is consistent with that of many public institutions and private businesses. So, regardless of what one thinks of the student’s intentions, actions, or will, the Center and the teacher are responsible in a very specific way and ought to be held accountable. The very idea that that is even in question by so many followers of Jivamukti is incredible and requires taking the untenable position that the Center and its founders were wrong in the first place to have such a policy OR, as Jivamukti has recently claimed in a legal motion to have the entire case dismissed, those guidelines are merely suggestions and not binding. They certainly do not read like suggestions; rather, they read like actual policies and a description of what is expected of teachers and, of course, that is exactly how they were intended.

Secondly, it has long been established that meaningful consent cannot be achieved in conditions of inequality. Now, maybe you want to say that words like ‘equality’ and ‘inequality’ have no place in a satsang of Jivas where “it’s all about peace and love, man.” Again, if you are that person, then reason-based arguments are not likely to persuade you, and feel free to read no further. Love is a crucial component of yoga, but there are true and false forms of Love, as anyone who has lived long enough to be in Love and to be merely infatuated knows. One need only be in the presence for but a few moments of the most senior teachers at a place like the Jivamukti Center to understand that everyone there is not equal. (Indeed, I suspect that is precisely why the ethical guidelines say very little about what is expected of the student. They recognize that it is the teacher who wields much of the power, and so is charged with the ultimate responsibility of ensuring that the integrity of the teacher-student relationship remains in tact.)

I am not saying that all are not equal with disdain or even regret, and I am incredibly indebted to many of those senior teachers at Jivamukti. I do not view them as my equal as yoga teachers or practioners, but rather as my superiors. Equality is not always appropriate, nor is it always productive, and I would say that is the case in nearly every learning environment. Authority is crucial for things like spiritual and philosophical development. If we acknowledge that the two parties were at least unequal with respect to status in the Jiva community, in the workplace (and the Center is most definitely a workplace), and in the context of the teacher-student relationship, then we have established that consent is at best tenuous, if not impossible. (And, of course, this is why taking into account inequality on the basis of gender, race, and age is so relevant in many sexual harassment cases.)

When you enter into that sort of mentor-apprentice arrangement you are, interestingly, consenting to be in a vulnerable position, and so it is absolutely crucial that the teacher, the Center, and the wider Jiva community all work to protect and nurture the student, to guard against actions that may not be in her or his best interest. That also involves, by the way, being clear with the student if he or she demonstrates behavior that suggests they are not psychologically, emotionally or physically healthy enough to engage in the work together, which requires that the teacher be lucid and perceptive enough to do so. One need only review the public court files for this case and, in particular, the transcripts of a conversation between the teacher and student, to see that this was clearly not the case here. In that conversation, the student, after having received the benefits of a therapeutic relationship that helped her to see the inappropriateness of all that had unfolded, is lucid, grounded, and firm; the teacher, on the other hand, is desperate, confused, and utterly incoherent. This suggests, among other things, that perhaps the teacher is not psychologically or emotionally well enough to hold the position that she, incredibly, continues to hold.

Managing teacher-student relationships predicated upon inequality necessitates discrimination when accepting students, and we teachers should desire students who are critical thinkers, have healthy boundaries, and know that spiritual growth requires self-care not self-abnegation. Indeed, in this case, the student’s success was dependent upon her willingness to serve well and to be dutiful.

Now, we could say something like, “Well, if she didn’t want those things, she should have just said no,” and “a teacher’s power is given by the student,” and to such things I want to say, really?

I took Leslie Kaminoff to be saying precisely that when he was quoted in the Slate article, albeit in a rather insensitive manner. Perhaps we should ask ourselves, what sort of world have we helped to create where a woman, or any person, could be asked to do the sort of things that were asked of this student by her teacher and somehow not screw up the courage to say, “No, wait, this is wrong and I won’t participate in it.” Who among us can never recall a time in our lives when we succumbed, even if in a small way, to someone who had some bit of power over us–whether for the sake of getting along, protecting other interests we may have had, not wanting to be seen as a troublemaker, not wanting to give proof to the lie that the teacher was infallible, wanting to please, and so on? To say such a thing like “she should have known better” is certainly uncharitable, if not entirely incorrect, and fails to take into account all of the ways in which young women are taught to acquiesce, to be good girls, to go along to get along.  Yes, she could have said no, if she was willing to walk away from her career and community, if she wasn’t worried about emotional, psychological, and financial backlash, and so on. Those stakes are pretty high. And, yet, the student in this situation is not a mere dupe. It is totally possible to know that something is wrong AND be afraid or unsure of how to address it it. Let us be generous and remember when we may have felt this way in our own lives.

But the larger point I want to make is that the “she should have known better” response to such a clear violation on the part of the teacher is utterly bizarre and clearly a deflection. It strikes me that such a thing could only be uttered by a teacher who is afraid of such allegations coming his own way one day, or someone who has not yet thought deeply enough about how difficult it is to refuse something when doing so means the complete unraveling of one’s entire universe.

Jivamukti teachers and mentors are being paid to impart some knowledge and skills to students that, it is presumed, they did not possess before seeking out a teacher. Fraudulent talk of “I am merely a reflection of my student’s holiness and power” aside–no one says that when it’s time for the teacher to be paid. Nor should they. The problem is not with the inequality in the first place, but rather with a failure to adequately protect the most vulnerable in such circumstances. And when those of us in the Jiva community, which ascribes to a form of ethical veganism wherein looking at a frog the wrong way makes you guilty of the deepest sort of cruelty, cannot see abuse and a violation of brahmacharya between two human beings right in front of us, something has gone terribly awry.

Thirdly, Jivamukti Yoga taught me that it is my moral responsibility to see my students as holy beings who have sought me out for some guidance, some bit of truth. To love my students and to see them in just this way is to, first, respect them, and, second, to uplift them. If I feel I cannot do so for whatever reason, I am bound to let them go. That did not happen here, and it should have. You can respect someone who is not your equal; it is considerably harder to do so if you are simultaneously objectifying them sexually and asking them for sexual favors.

Finally, the Jiva community’s inability to say clearly and unequivocally, no, this behavior is unacceptable, as is the Center’s failure to appropriately respond, is precisely why so many remain skeptical of yoga as a method for physical and spiritual growth. For much of the outside world, times are changing (though it is surprising how many still defend such obviously egregious behavior when engaged in by someone thought to be a masterful teacher), and we yogis are lagging behind romanticizing and sensationalizing what we all know to be creepy at best, unjust at worst.

Yoga’s failure to get with the times (to be “hip,” as Sharon would say) will be the source of its downfall for years to come. In other words, this shit doesn’t fly anymore, nor should it. Yoga is not for every one, David is right about that. But if our goal is to bring yoga to those who are ready to receive it, we may want to consider that a goodly number of completely reasonable people out there read that Slate article and thought, “Yeah, that shit is bananas.”

May all beings everywhere be happy and free.

 

 

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