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Six Yogis Discuss Recent Abuse Scandals

Prompted by the recent scandals that have plagued NYC’s yoga community, five high-level yoga teachers—Alison West, Anneke Lucas, Julie Dohrman, Tamar Samir—and a professional trauma therapist, Beth Dobrish, met at Yoga Union for YogaCity NYC’s eleventh Deeper Learning Series panel.

Editor Cynthia Kling moderated the discussion in a room crowded with perplexed practitioners. She opened the discussion by asking Dobrish, “Why is there so much anger directed at the victim, and why is it so hard for them to speak up?”

Dobrish explained how incredibly difficult it is for victims to come forward and report abuse. “I actually think that it’s really unsafe to report it, if it’s not done carefully and with the right amount of support. As we’re seeing, vehemently, victims are dismissed, scapegoated. Coming forward and speaking-up raises a lot of really challenging questions,” she said. And “it’s actually not necessary for someone to confront their abuser to heal from abuse.”

She then mentioned that, unfortunately, many people who are abused have been abused before and it’s a toxic cycle. “It’s really vital that they have professional support in processing their own experiences before they even think about bringing it to some public level,” she said. “I was wondering about a channel to report anonymously…?”

The panelists then opened-up about their personal experiences.

Samir, a Jivamukti-trained teacher who taught at the center for nine years, spoke about the recent allegations, which “had been circulating in our school for several years,” she said. “I heard the story from various people before I heard it from Holly [Faurot]. When my wife Nora and I asked her to tell us the story, we felt we had to report it.”

They discussed it with several other teachers first, “so it was a group of teachers who reported it. A lot of people think that it was just Holly, but it actually was us, and we asked for an investigation,” she said.

Afterwards, Samir felt that it was difficult to continue working at Jiva. “There was a veiled hostility towards me as a whistle-blower,” she said. “I felt that there was an effort to tamp-down the opinion about what was actually happening.”

When the organization addressed the issue via a written statement on behalf of the entire school, it did not coincide with her thoughts. “I couldn’t continue representing the school if the school didn’t represent my point-of-view,” she said.

So she left Jiva. “I’ve seen a lot of senior Jivamukti teachers making statements to encourage people to be silent. Things like ‘namaste out of it,’ or ‘don’t complain,’ or ‘don’t blame.’ And that is a form of spiritual bypassing,” she said. “We have to be advocates for each other and for students when something like this comes up.”

An audience member, who used to teach at Jiva, chimed-in regarding Sharon Gannon and David Life’s written response to Faurot’s plight.

“They’re essentially using the same things that they taught us as justification,” she added, tearfully. “It’s so painful because I’ve been teaching this stuff for 15 years, and now I feel like it’s complete garbage.”

Dohrman, an ex-Anusara teacher, shared her experiences with John Friend’s empire.

“I was a whistle-blower, and the result was ‘wham!’—I got fired,” she said. She was branded with the proverbial scarlet A. “I was made an example of what not to do and how not to be.”

Anusara has an ethics committee and “John used to laugh all the time that the committee would just sit in cobwebs because no one ever needed to complain about Anusara teachers or anything like that. The biggest irony, of course, is that he was called to the committee and he refused to go.”

After she was exiled, Dohrman continued her personal therapy and sought spiritual support outside of Anusara. “I dove into my new practices and looked for work. It was a really terrible four-year experience of feeling outcast from the community.”

Lucas, founder of Liberation Prison Yoga and survivor of a European pedophile network, spoke about her experiences with Ashtanga’s K. Pattabhi Jois. Whispers of unwanted physical contact had permeated Mysore for decades, and when Jois visited New York for a workshop, he groped her. “I knew immediately that I couldn’t speak-out because there were 400 people in the room and I would’ve been banned,” she said. But she wasn’t ready to be kicked-out of the Ashtanga community, so “I had to do it my way.”

Lucas confronted Jois privately. “He said, ‘Okay, I no touch.’ And it turned-out to be all right. He didn’t touch anyone else for the remainder of the workshop, and maybe not afterwards either,” she said.

Kling wondered if the “guru system” works in this country.

“No. Absolutely not,” Dohrman said. “We’re Western. I think that culturally this is not something we know or really understand. The big challenge in these guru-imitator communities is that there’s a fine line between the culture of a community and the cult of a community. Looking back at Anusara, I was in a cult. I didn’t realize it, but I was.”

Samir added that “another way to describe a cult is a high-demand group. So a group that has a very intensive culture. Evaluate whether you’re under an authoritarian structure of some sort. You can ask yourself if there are any ramifications to speaking your opinion.”

“So what do we do? Do you have an idea?” Kling asked West.

“I don’t know what the answer is yet,” West said. “Perhaps, as a state, we can come-up with a means for all studios to consider these issues. And, to have as part of Yoga for New York, a committee that can help coordinate these kinds of things so it’s not just one studio dealing with the issue. Unfortunately, we all have to be willing to do unpopular and unpleasant things.

"Let’s hope that, five years from now, it will be commonplace that every studio will have its policies and that we will have created an environment where it will feel awkward, to say the least, if one were to ever engage in inappropriate behavior. We’re just thrashing this out together, so if you have suggestions, it’s going to be wonderful because here we are opening the door.”

—Michael Laskaris

Save the date!:

Next Monday, May 23, Yoga for New York will have a meeting regarding the creation of an Ethics Committee for the New York yoga community.

Location: Yoga Union, 37 W. 28th St., Manhattan

Time: 12pm

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