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Good Touch, Bad Touch: Gurus, Power, and Adjusting vs. Groping on the Yoga Mat

by YD on December 9, 2010

in In Class,News

Ack! Remember this pic? It’s infamous! Though there are some discrepancies over it’s authenticity, there’s no question the subject of good touch bad touch in yoga adjustments is tricky business. If you’ve been following the Graspin’ Aspen case in CO you know it could warrant jail time and sex offender status.

Or how about this one? The classic Bikram Messiah adjust.

Were the adjustments welcomed? Did the students have a choice? We don’t know! But, there have been plenty of other scandalous events of wandering hands (and you could probably share an experience of your own) so we have to wonder, where do we draw the line between groping and adjusting, respect of our Gurus and respect for ourselves?

YogaCityNYC has an incredibly poignant article where devout Ashtangi Anneke Lucas faces those very same questions, in very tangible way. Anneke recounts her power paso doble with the late master Sri K Pattabhi Jois. In short, Anneke was, in her own words, groped by Jois in Halasana.

In absolute shock I rolled to sitting and found myself staring across the room at Sharath, Pattabhi Jois’ grandson, who stared back looking as horrified as I felt. I heard Pattabhi Jois remonstrating: “Bad Lady!” and the mild laughter of the crowd at the guru’s old joke. In disbelief, I crouched on all fours to look into Pattabhi Jois’ eyes. He smiled as if he had no idea what had just transpired, and said: “You no come out of pose.” I sensed that if I were to respond in public, he would have felt the humiliation he had just made me feel, gotten angry, and sent me packing; I thought I might be banned from the ashtanga world altogether, and held my tongue.

But instead of remaining silent, she gave Pattabhi Jois a piece of her mind. When it came time for the customary long line of students offering their reverence to Guruji after practice, Anneke let him have it:

-     “Guruji, why you no respect women?”
-    “I no understand! I no understand!”
-    “In this country it is against the law to touch women on their genitals or their buttocks. It is against the law!”
-    “Okay, tomorrow I no touch!”

And that was that. The next morning, we sped through the fastest ever led primary class. Pattabhi Jois was in quite a mood, and didn’t adjust anyone. I had told a friend about my private conversation with the guru of the previous day, and we were full of glee. Throughout the practice, the more annoyed Pattabhi Jois sounded, the more we laughed.

The rest of the story, which we strongly encourage you to continue reading, casts light on the student/teacher relationship, the way we glorify our Gurus, and how cultural differences, strong egos and respect for ourselves and others are all under the microscope on the yoga mat. At the end of the day, Anneke and Guruji both learned important lessons from each other.

But as the story, and these photos so deftly illustrate, our Gurus have power, as well as, lest we not mention, incredible knowledge, insight, and wisdom. But are we all too starry-eyed, vulnerable, or naive to take a stand against inappropriate touching of lady parts? Or man parts for that matter?

OR, is everyone just overreacting?

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{ 34 comments… read them below or add one }

John December 9, 2010 at 2:10 pm

There’s a sequence in the Iyengar DVD from Estes Park, CO (Iyengar’s last visit to the US, in 2005) where he “gropes” Manuso Manos in headstand as he demonstrates how the pelvis should be aligned, touching him in the perineal area, etc. A bit discomfiting to be touched so in front of hundreds of students, I’m sure!

My teacher addresses this issue quite firmly in her teacher training – always ask if you can touch and be very conscious of being misinterpreted.

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Charlotte December 9, 2010 at 2:22 pm

Donna Farhi’s book, “Teaching Yoga,” goes into this issue. When she was researching her book, many, many women contacted her to tell their stories, and of the psychological and emotional toll these inappropriate adjustments and affairs (in some cases) had on their lives.

I was inappropriately adjusted by a famous teacher, who ran his hands over my chest, back in 1987. My first instinct was to pull away, but then because I was relatively new to yoga (only 5 years of practice), I trusted that the teacher had not meant anything untoward. A few years later, the same teacher was called out by a number of women who had also received questionable adjustments.

Because I was a yoga novice, and was in some ways starry-eyed by the idea of working with a famous teacher, I gave him the benefit of the doubt. So, I can understand where the author of the article is coming from. In the yoga world we want to believe that our teachers have our best interests at heart. We see them as somehow more than human and above such behaviors. Even when behaviors are recognized as inappropriate, they are further excused as “teaching moments.”

In this way the yoga world is no different from the rest of our culture. We worship famous teachers and are blind to their humanness. As a teacher, I present myself as the fallible human that I am. The pedestal is a false (and dangerous) place that can only get in the way of the teacher-student relationship.

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Shanna December 9, 2010 at 2:33 pm

It is all about perception. If you see it that way, you will take it that way. I am sure that if someone photographed me adjusting my students they would find something that looks slightly erotic when taken out of context.

People get paid $100 an hour to rub people down with hot oil and call it message. If my husband did it, I would call it foreplay. It is about perception.

I have plenty of male teachers who give awesome adjustments and they are chest to chest with me while doing it. It doesn’t even cross my mind that they want to have sex with me.

I hate that pic of Jois and I wish people would stop circulating it and I am kind of disappointed in Yoga Dork for digging it up. Anyone who does Ashtanga knows that students often fall down when they do that posture that is in the picture, Pattabhi Jois probably instinctively without thinking, was trying to hold them up.

Yes, there are pervs out there but 90% of the time it is the student with the perverted mind and not the teacher. It is kind like how some heterosexual males freak out around Gay men because they assume that they most want to sleep with them or misinterpret their every move as flirting. There is something going on inside of them that makes them feel threatened. Everyone does not want to have sex with you. Get over it!

Shanna
http://www.wellnessfrominside.typepad.com

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Charlotte December 9, 2010 at 3:21 pm

Shanna, thanks for your thoughts. I agree that touch can be misperceived, and that at least some of the misunderstanding can be in the experience of the “touchee.” I am not comfortable blaming the victims, however. It’s not about my or anyone else’s ego needing to feel that the teacher is attracted to us. I was completely naive about the adjustment I received until I heard several years later about the truly unbelievable adjustments this same teacher had given to others. Judith Hanson Lasater advises that teachers always ask students’ permission before adjusting them. I think this is wise. The students who are comfortable and open to adjustments will consent; others will not.

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Shanna December 9, 2010 at 5:33 pm

Just like it is the student’s job to guard against injury in yoga class, it is also their job to also let the teacher know if they don’t want to be touched. If you are teaching to over 100 students daily, it is not even feasible to ask everyone of them about their injuries, health issues and touching preferences. In my years of teaching I have NEVER had anyone in my class who did not want to be touched. On the contrary, they get upset if I don’t touch them!

Touch is scientifically proven to be therapeutic and healing. It is a big part of Medicine and teaching Hatha Yoga. If you go to the hospital, you expect the doctors and nurses to touch you. I have never had a doctor, dentist or nurse ask me if they can touch me. They walk up to me, explain what they are about to do and do it. Yoga is therapy as well and touch is expected by most.

My heart goes out to anyone who is a victim of unwanted touch but that doesn’t mean we should throw the baby out with the bathwater.

Shanna
http://www.wellnessfrominside.typepad.com

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charlotte December 9, 2010 at 6:11 pm

I agree that touch is therapeutic, and for the most part, in almost 30 years of yoga practice 99.9% of the adjustments I’ve gotten have been sensitive and appropriate. That’s what made the inappropriate few stand out. (To be clear, in all these years only one adjustment I’ve received has felt sexual. A few other adjustments I’ve received have been more rough or forceful than I was comfortable with.) My students like adjustments too, and I do give them adjustments, but always with their permission. My experience coincides with yours in that my students have always consented to adjustments, but I feel it’s important to give them the option. As you said above, you can’t know everyone’s history and how they feel about being touched, so I give them the option to say no.

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nadia December 9, 2010 at 5:00 pm

Huh. I’m also a little exhausted with this photo being circulated. I’ll readily admit that I never had the opportunity to practice with Pattabhi Jois, I came to the Ashtanga system as his health was failing and have small children which prevents me from travel. So I have no personal testament to his character – only what I have read and heard from senior Ashtanga teachers and other practitioners. As a teacher myself, I often adjust men as well as women by directly touching their butts (yoganidrasnana adjustment anyone?), and when assisting with drop-backs, get pretty close to the dudes’ ‘junk’. I also have a background in dance where such hand to crotch/butt action commonly takes place during partnering work. So, perhaps it’s a lifetime in movement arts that lends me to a ‘what’s the big deal’ reaction to this…it just looks like an adjustment to me. For the record, I also have a background in women’s issues ranging from work as a doula to several years of working with victims of Sexual Assault and Domestic Violence. I think that the context is important when making a judgement on this photograph.

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Darby December 9, 2010 at 5:19 pm

In Kundalini Yoga, teachers do not touch students during the kriya… period. : )

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Svasti December 9, 2010 at 6:26 pm

So many points to talk about and consider. But to be somewhat irreverant, I totally cackled over “Messiah Bikram”. ;)

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Carol Horton December 9, 2010 at 7:17 pm

It would be terrible to throw the baby out with the bath water; becoming hyper-sensitive about adjustments because we are too worried about sexualized touch. Yoga and massage are I think the only two things left in American society where it’s OK for a professional to touch clients/students. It’s true that touch can be profoundly healing and personally I find yoga methods that do not adjust lacking in this regard.

BUT it’s completely naive to think that all sorts of abuses of power aren’t common in yoga, as well as churches, sanghas, and groups of all types that create highly charged relationships (often triggering a lot of subconscious projection, transference, etc.) between teacher and student (or whatever). Personally, my sense is that Jois was exploiting his power and that it’s very troubling that this went on and on in the US, among students certainly exposed to feminism etc. However, Jois is not the only one and the abuses are not necessarily sexual in nature. There’s many, many ways to abuse power and exploit trust.

Yoga teachers are flawed human beings too, and I think that too much adoration can go to their heads – the abuses are generally I’m sure not intentional; just their own unfinished business coming up and acting out.

I recommend reading Jack Kornfield’s chapters on this issue in either “A Path With Heart” or “After the Ecstasy, the Laundry” for some really insightful discussions of all this.

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charlotte December 9, 2010 at 10:03 pm

Thanks for your insight, Carol. I agree that abuses of authority take place across the board, in many walks of life, and the yoga community is not immune to this. And what you say is true—that it takes many forms and is often unconscious. Yoga teachers, like everyone else, are works in progress. We all have our blind spots and issues we’re working out. When these things are left unexamined, of course they are going to come out in our relationships. I love both of Jack Kornfield’s books that you mention. Having dedicated his life to insight meditation, Kornfield is able to convey the pitfalls of power with understanding rather than judgment. I second your recommendation of his books, along with Donna Farhi’s “Teaching Yoga.”

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Shanna December 9, 2010 at 10:07 pm

Carol,

Did you study with Pattabhi Jois? If so, how long and when?

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Carol Horton December 9, 2010 at 10:17 pm

Shanna: I never studied with Jois. I took Ashtanga classes weekly for about a year and learned the primary series, then practiced it for maybe another year regularly on my own before moving on to other methods.

My comments on Jois are ONLY suppositions based on reading stories like this online. The accumulated evidence leads me to take the charges seriously, but of course that could be wrong. I really have no personal stake in the Jois issue one way or another, except that given the popularity of Ashtanga I find the whole thing weird and troubling. It’s not like some obscure teacher that no one’s ever heard of . . .

I do however have other negative personal experiences in the yoga world (and elsewhere) that contribute to my perspective. As well as other experiences – not necessarily bad, but just seeing the processes of transference etc. at work – having done it myself – and having seen it in some of my students – makes me quite convinced that yoga stirs up a lot of subconscious stuff that can cause these types of negative dynamics to play out.

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Shanna December 10, 2010 at 8:37 am

Thanks for your answer Carol. I don’t mean to be mean but it is usually people who have never studied with Jois who say these things. I understand you are making educated comments based on accumulated evidence but people take what you say very seriously.

Would you want people saying things about you who have never met you as if they were fact?

I do know of someone,unrelated to yoga, who was convicted on molestation charges. When someone asks me about it, I don’t comment on the cases because I wasn’t there and I honestly don’t know what happened. He may or may not have done it. He was always nice to me but I would never call his accusers liers. I don’t know enough to comment.

Like I said, I don’t mean to be mean, but making such serious accusations about Jois or anyone else without direct experience is serious business and should not be taken lightly.

shanna
http://www.wellnessfrominside.typepad.com

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Annie Oh December 10, 2010 at 5:37 am

Hey Shanna:

I am so glad you posted and left your perspective here in the comments. It’s an important one. I want to point something out to you though and it’s a VERY important distinction. I’ve was a massage therapist for 15 years and had hundreds of therapists working for me when I opened a national business. You should know that inappropriate touching and groping goes on in massage ALL the time, statistically 90% of these incidents are perpetrated by men. Men are sexually aggressive creatures by nature and for some men family, friends, society and practice allow them to grow up to be gentle and appropriate with people who have not given them permission, but with some men, these things have a different impact.

Sexual molestation is NOT about someone wanting “to have sex with you” – it is a power play. People touch other people in inappropriate ways when they are vulnerable, literally, because they CAN. On the massage table a stronger, bigger person, with more knowledge of the situation, with his clothes on, while the client is supine and naked creates the Ego-lusion that the massage therapist “has the power” but in fact the therapist only has the power the client gives him. In yoga the word “guru” and all it’s nutty icky connotations give the Ego-lusion of a power discrepancy when in fact none exists.

Note in the story above by Charlotte note that she was cowed by his power that she actually believed he potentially had the power to deny her the right to practice Ashtanga yoga if he got angry. Also note that he DID get angry. Her interpretation of the situation, what he did, the way he and his grandson looked at her, his response, etc. is all seen through the lens of her discomfort, so it isn’t THE truth about what happened but it does present us with an interesting question:

Why do we have to idolize teachers? Is it because we are so Ego focused that we can only learn from people who are above us somehow? Elevated? If so I suggest that we as a society need to adjust so that we can learn from our children, from the homeless man on the corner, from the illegal immigrant who cleans our toilets and watches our children, from anyone. We need to cease the practice of idolizing one end of the sharing of information so that it can flow more freely from one person to another.

No more gurus. I don’t have one. I won’t be one. Learn yoga. Teach yoga. Live yoga…

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Shanna December 10, 2010 at 8:51 am

Wow Annie, “men are sexually aggressive by nature”? Wow. Just Wow. My heart goes out to all men out there who live in a world where they are depicted as monsters.

The fact that the person in the story was “cowed” by his power, was the person’s problem. I have been terrified myself of the consequences of getting on a powerful person’s bad side but I am not going to blame it on the person. If I keep working for ABC company even though I am afraid of my boss and losing my home, it is not my bosses fault. It is MINE. I gave away my power. I am the one who carried fear in my heart.

I will make a confession. I was kind of scared to go to Mysore and study with Jois. What if he didn’t like me? What if the adjustments were too strong? Would I be able to say no? What if I wasn’t good enough? All of that stuff was my own garbage. It was my on citti vrittis or mind stuff as the sutras talk about. If I would have went to Mysore with that mind garbage, It would not have been positive.

I know some amazing yoga teachers who are super sweet but people idolize them. The teacher is not looking for this behavior from their students but the students do it anyway. They constantly speak of their humanness but it doesn’t matter. They still get worshiped. It has to do with the citti vritti of the students. Though some people do abuse power, some people are just given it and have to heft the responsibility.

I am not saying that people get molested or touched improperly because of their own mind stuff. People who violate others against their will should not be tolerated. I am saying though that we have to be responsible for our citti vritti.

Shanna
http://www.wellnessfrominside.typepad.com

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Carol Horton December 10, 2010 at 9:19 am

Shanna: You are right. I want to make it clear that I have no idea what really happened with Jois in this case or the others that I’ve heard about. Because of my general views on the subject of how unfortunately common it is for power abuses to occur in these sorts of situations (as well as the compelling nature of the writing in this case), I’m inclined to believe that there was a real problem there. But I really don’ know and don’t want to make any sort of accusations or denunciations. In my view, this is an issue for the Ashtanga community to work out as you feel is appropriate.

Also, while I agree with you about taking responsibility for one’s own “stuff,” the real issue here is the responsibilities – and capabilities – of teachers. People WILL project, idolize, etc. – and personally I find Western psychological understandings of transference most helpful in understanding why that’s going to occur. Teachers need to be working on their own “stuff” in order to be able to handle all this responsibly. Some don’t do enough work, and others try their best but fall down nonetheless.

Students and communities with strong attachments to the teacher and what he or she means to them have a strong bias towards keeping silent, making excuses, or being in denial when problems do occur. Because to acknowledge these sorts of serious flaws in a teacher is very painful and shakes up your world.

Again, I’m just speaking in general terms here – I don’t want to take a stance on this particular case because as you say, I don’t know. But that’s my general framework of concerns.

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charlotte December 10, 2010 at 11:51 am

Great points, Carol. I also agree with Shanna that we all have to take responsibility for our own “stuff,” both as students and teachers. And I know firsthand about the bias toward keeping silent. I did that for several years, and denied that the inappropriate adjustment I received was a problem. When someone finally did speak up, the teacher copped to it, apologized and changed his behavior. While I don’t feel at all emotionally scarred from the inappropriate adjustment, the incident did make me understand the importance of trusting my intuition and speaking out.

Whether we like it or not, when we take the teacher’s seat, we are in a position of authority over our students. It’s not a matter of being power hungry; we have knowledge and skills that they want to learn, and to some extent, they need to be open in order to learn from us. That openness sometimes requires that students suspend their deeply held beliefs and ideas in order to learn something new. In that process, there can be a sense of vulnerability. I think that first and foremost, it is the sacred responsibility of a teacher, doctor, lawyer, psychologist, etc. to be aware of this and to behave responsibly. This means that we also own up to our own “stuff,” and continually practice to unwind it.

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Yogini# December 10, 2010 at 11:59 am

Touch may not always be necessary in a verbally well-taught sequence. One of my best experiences with yoga was with a male teacher who did not touch at all; some of the sequence— if one could call it that; it was a hatha class—did include Kundalini energetics. This guy was to me like the pied piper. Sadly, though, his class (in a throwback, mellow style) was not popular.

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charlotte December 11, 2010 at 11:41 am

If you support him and tell others about his class, perhaps his class will become more popular. It’s sad that we middle-aged teachers who have spent half our lives studying yoga are so often discounted in favor of young bucks teaching fast-paced classes. There is no substitute for years of living and practicing.

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Mary December 10, 2010 at 12:32 pm

That picture of Pattabhi Jois makes me feel uncomfortable. But that’s just my reaction. I would not be surprised to find out that his intention was completely “innocent.” The real question for me is, how did those ladies being adjusted feel about it? And did they feel free to talk to him about his adjusting?

I would feel terrible if my students didn’t feel comfortable with something I was doing in class, but didn’t feel free to talk to me about it.

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elisa December 10, 2010 at 2:58 pm

Yes, I’m sure Mr. Jois was cupping these women’s vulvas with his hands to keep them from falling over, LOL. Amazingly, everyone else in the class seems to be staying in the pose without anyone fondling their crotches to help them stay upright.

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Joyce December 10, 2010 at 3:13 pm

So it sounds like no matter what our particular opinions are on the subject we could all agree that: touch is powerful. Yet we all respond differently to being touched, and what is or isn’t appropriate in a yoga class. I have learned from my teacher that anytime you are about to put your hands on a student there should be a moments pause. No matter how long we have been teaching, or how many students we have touched, if we believe the touch is powerful enough to heal it deserves a moment, a breath, and then contact. If I pause before I put my hands on a student I can get a sense for how they will respond and whether the touch needs to be gentle or strong. If we pause for a moment we know that where we are about to put our hands is appropriate, and then we have the chance to learn from our student rather than just touch them.

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Delaney Faulk December 10, 2010 at 4:04 pm

I studied with P Jois in Mysore. Everyone there knew that he had certain proclivities and what was going on. I left his practice and went to work with another Mysore teacher.

For someone to say that power doesn’t exist or isn’t abused has no understanding of history or human behavior. People are not angels just because they roll out mats well.

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jaclyn December 10, 2010 at 5:02 pm

Mutual respect, when it enters gray areas, can be a tricky maze to navigate. But it seems that a lot of these instances could be avoided by a simple ‘May I adjust you?’ The issue can also be addressed up front in a class as it begins; hopefully, that will lead to acceptance of cultural differences and practice preferences.

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Chris December 10, 2010 at 9:03 pm

Be your own guru…

especially when yours touches your vulva!

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Chris December 10, 2010 at 9:08 pm

PS. I hate Ashtanga assists – even when they aren’t touching my special parts…every single Ashtanga class I have taken, the assists are aggressive and way too strong. I never go back to a teacher like that, but I am running out of Ashtanga teachers in my area.

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Yogini# December 10, 2010 at 9:49 pm

It doesn’t have to be Ashtanga … I’ve been traumatized by though-appropriate, yet ambushing, shock-and-awe, heavy assists in vinyasa classes … where once – in flagrante delicto – they did not back the hell off when told to … and it felt they purposely wanted to bring me to a very scary place …

Maybe big shots and celebrities they used to teach, ate it up … but they do churn through more than their fair share of students because of this …

Moreover, it’s close but no cigar … No, the best incidence of countertransference from a yoga teacher – in my book – remains that later hatha teacher who needed to do no adjusting – he’s about twice the age of the other two (and thus closer to mine) …

Now, I am trying to pick up the pieces with another teacher, in yet another vinyasa style which is ahead of its time (and is not supposed to be given to adjustments) but they do adjust … anyway; yet not the kind of adjusting where they practically pick you up off the floor and throw you off balance …

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charlotte December 11, 2010 at 11:33 am

In Donna Farhi’s teacher trainings, she spends a lot of time on teaching people how to make adjustments from a place of receptivity and partnership. Instead of being the all-knowing teacher who is going to “correct” a pose or push a person further into it, the adjustment is an inquiry for both teacher and student. The adjustments are never harsh or violent, because the teacher is not going into it with an agenda. In this modality, the teacher is asking a question in partnership with the student rather than giving them the “answer.” This requires more of a teacher than giving the same old rote adjustment to everyone, but ultimately both teacher and student learn something from it.

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Holden Francoise December 12, 2010 at 3:40 am

I saw guru rape a girl on the TV
and they know they killed our heroes too

We sing the Death Song kids
Because we got no future
And we know that nothings true

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David December 13, 2010 at 7:18 pm

I just want to put my two cents into this very important discussion, I have struggled with the issue of touch in my teaching and how to approach it from the right place. I started teaching at 25 and was completely unprepared for the amount of attention that I received from the opposite sex. Thankfully, I never bought in to an image of myself as deserving that kind of attention. Even so, doing adjustments when one is desperately attracted to someone is tricky.

For some time I thought the problem was about my lack of a more elevated perspective. I ran across a zen teaching that advised to look upon attractive bodies as ‘rotting flesh over bones’. No, seriously. I did this! For two years, I taught yoga to corpses.

Eventually, I awoke to the fact that I was a man. And I like girls. And Yoga classes are full of girls. And there is nothing wrong with any of that. I didn’t need to suppress my natural urges, I needed to see past them.

Now when I touch people I ask myself: ‘what am I touching this person with?’
Love? Lust? Compassion? Frustration?
No teacher can be sure that a student will not read something into a touch that was not intended, but every teacher MUST be very clear about their intent in touching a student.

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Tony December 15, 2010 at 6:57 pm

Thanks for sharing your insight. It seems to apply on and off the mat.

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Anneke December 16, 2010 at 11:11 pm

Thank you all for sharing your opinions and experiences here! How nice that most are sensitive and insightful. Thank you Yogadork for bringing up the subject again and printing excerpts of my article. And thank you for the photo of the Bikram Messiah adjust!

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admin December 17, 2010 at 3:08 pm

Thank you Anneke for sharing your story!

And to all for sharing your thoughts, concerns and personal experiences.

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