Are you a survivor of sexual violence?
Me too. We too.
Sexual violence is a human rights violation that predominantly affects women and girls as a consequence of systemic and structural inequality. Around the world, rape and sexual abuse are everyday violent occurrences affecting close to a billion women and girls over their lifetimes. – EQUALITYNOW.ORG
Following the international #MeToo avalanche of the last decade, The Thomas Reuters Foundation surveyed 548 global experts on Women’s Issues, asking them to discern the most dangerous countries for women and girls from 198 United Nations member states.
(Note: why does it matter if a country is a member state of the United Nations? The United Nations established THE UNIVERSAL DECLARATION OF HUMAN RIGHTS in 1948 to prioritize the dignity, liberty, and equality of all human beings – to which all member countries are suppose to be bound and committed. Sexual assault, abuse, violence, and rape are very clear breaches of this foundational international agreement, as well as evolving and ongoing international treaties.)
The 2018 Reuters Survey found INDIA to be the # 1 Most Dangerous Country for Women & Girls, with the USA not far behind as the # 10 Most Dangerous Country for Women & Girls. Both countries received the worst scores in the category of sexual violence. – CNN.COM
In INDIA, a woman experiences a rape every 16 minutes. – INDIA.COM
In the USA, 1 out of every 6 women have experienced rape or attempted rape. – RAINN.COM
Indians, Americans, Indian-Americans, it is heartbreaking to wake up to this reality. However, we can’t fall back asleep on it. We need to address it. We also need to acknowledge that Women & Girls are not the only ones who experience rape and sexual violence. Men & Boys experience rape and sexual violence too.
In the USA, 1 out of every 10 rape victims are male. – RAINN.COM
As of 2016, the Indian Penal Code does not even recognize men as potential rape victims. Additionally, around 57% of children across the country are being abused by adults they trust and more than half of these children are male.” – MAPSOFINDIA.COM
Sexual violence can affect all genders, ages, and nationalities.
I’m focusing here on the USA and India because I’m an American woman who has experienced sexual violence in India. You can read more about my own experience below.
Meanwhile, this is a world-wide crisis. In any country, for any gender, the experience of rape and sexual violence can cause long-lasting and deeply-consequential feelings of worthlessness, voicelessness, powerlessness, alienation, and degradation. Universal Human Rights and the goals of “dignity, liberty, and equality for all” can look like a pipe dream to those who have suffered from their absence.
Legislators and educators play an important role in addressing this international crisis. Alternative health and wellness providers, including yoga professionals, do too.
WE can help make the shift from “rape culture” to “consent culture”. We can create a more compassionate culture! We can help de-escalate the crisis of sexual violence in many ways. Especially as alternative health and wellness providers, we can help people feel better in body-mind-spirit right where we are. We can help each other see transformation from helpless victim to helpful revolutionary. We can also help to dissolve the power structure and stigma around experiences of sexual violence, which is part of what is already so revolutionary in the #MeToo Movement.
At first, I remember thinking it might have been easier to die than to fight for my life against my attacker because it felt like I was being punished to go on living. Thankfully, all feelings and thoughts, even these, are impermanent. We can make shifts sooner than later if we have the tools to do so.
Yoga gives us tools.
Yoga has tools that can help de-escalate the undercurrent of sexual violence and transform rape culture into a compassionate culture. There is some irony in this statement.
Yoga also has shadows:
1) Yoga, in all its ancient wisdom and compassion, comes from India. India has recently been surveyed as the #1 most dangerous country in the world in relation to sexual violence.
2) Yoga has become an exponentially popular, billion dollar industry in the USA. The USA has also recently been surveyed as the #10 most dangerous country in the world in relation to sexual violence.
3) Yoga as a “guru industry” has itself been a hot bed for sexual violence and #MeToo truths and reconciliations. Many of the most powerful yoga gurus (from whom modern yoga practice has been derived) and some of their most influential disciples have fallen from institutional grace due to the allegations and revelations about their sexually violent shadows, i.e.: Swami Satchidananda, Swami Muktananada, Amrit Desai, Sogyal Rinpoche, John Friend, Bikram Choudhury, Sri K. Pattabhi Jois, Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche, Yogi Bhajan, to name a few.
I’ve been practicing yoga since 2004, and specifically the Mysore Ashtanga lineage since 2013. While I never personally met its founder, Sri K. Pattabhi Jois (1915 – 2009), ALL of my most influential yoga teachers have been his direct students. He was called affectionately by many of them as “Guruji”. While studying directly with at least a dozen different students of Sri K. Pattabhi Jois on a daily basis and through many workshops over the past 17 years, I never heard any stories of even questionable behavior on his behalf. It was only in 2018 when the sexual assault reports about Sri K. Pattabhi Jois from Karen Rain first erupted that a few of my teachers started talking about Guruji’s shadow-side. Why hadn’t they mentioned it before?
Ashtanga Yoga has been such an important ingredient in my own healing from sexual violence, and in the healing recipes of many other practitioners, that it’s such a paradox to learn that the guru of our lineage was himself sexually violent, according to some of his students.
How can an angelic teacher for some be a demonic teacher for others?
It can be very challenging to hold two truths at the same time: 1) Guruji deeply helped many of his students. 2) Guruji deeply hurt some of his students.
What in yoga culture causes/enables a perversion of power that permits sexually abusive behavior to occur in classes and/or outside of classes?
In the case of Sri K. Pattabhi Jois, where sexual violence was only reported in his classes, it seems that many of his devoted students never saw such behavior in class. Maybe some also just didn’t want to see it, and maybe some didn’t want to question it, either. Maybe some were afraid of being “disrespectful”.
All too often, we put “gurus” on pedestals that serve our own egos. When our egos are no longer served, what do we do?
I’ve seen responses to this controversy range from demonization to denial.
There is a middle way between demonization and denial.
What if the deeper disrespect is ignoring the wholeness of a human being and their many sides?
Can we acknowledge that humans have many sides? Every human being has flaws because every human being, no matter how liberated or refined, is shaped by cultural constructs.
Dismissing the multi-dimensionality of the human being is to make a caricature of our humanity that lets culture off the hook.
So, if yoga culture has not been spared from rape culture, how can yoga culture help to transform rape culture in our communities at large?
Here’s the twist:
Perhaps it is precisely because “Yoga” as a sub-culture shares this crisis of sexual violence with the larger rape-culture in the world today that yogis and yoginis can help to heal this larger culture * as long as * we continue to seek to heal our internal communities in conversation with our larger communities. We need to continue to acknowledge and discuss how yoga has a history of both help and harm so that we may learn to better relate with each other, look out for each other, and strengthen the whole, great, universal, vow of yoga that is yama यम. The mahāvratam (great vow) of yoga is predicated on the core value of ahimsa (non-violence).
Our small spiritual bubbles are never really separate from the bigger social picture!
How has yoga practice helped me, along with countless others, reclaim our bodies, our minds, our spirits after surviving sexual violence? Consistent yoga practice (known as sadhana) can give the practitioner a mirror into the mind by which we can learn to see and shift our thinking, the qualities of our actions, and our overall well-being. Perhaps this mirror of the practice can be extended to a mirror of the community.
Our yoga communities can hold a mirror to our larger communities. In seeing and discerning these reflections, we can help create the shift in our yoga communities and our larger communities.
Addressing the ailments in our yoga communities can help us to address the ailments in our larger communities.
What are some of the tools that the yoga culture can offer to the global crisis of rape culture?
To name a few:
1) Vocabulary. Language shapes our experience. Yoga can help us to to transform our conversations, and thereby our experiences, of this issue by helping people see our bodies and minds with greater nuance, discernment, and compassion.
2) Equanimity. Equanimity is a core seed and fruit of yogic discipline, and ultimately a great liberator in conversation and action. When we regard our physical bodies with greater and greater equanimity, which yoga practice invites us to do, we already begin to de-escalate the violence. There is violence in shame, and perhaps in excessive pride too. Equanimity helps us to feel less and less shame/pride about our bodies and bodily experiences. To the contrary, we start to feel more respect and wonder for them. When we develop respect and wonder for our bodies, and we no longer see parts of our bodies to be more or less shameful, or more or less coveted, or more or less “objects” of pride: we have begun to undercut the momentum of sexual violence in our culture. Sexual violence is predicated on a power structure that disrespects the human body and shames/prides its sexual organs while perpetuating a biased vision of the body that is attached to its sexual functions and averse to others. Equanimity re-establishes the body in a wholesome perspective that encourages education and acknowledges the myriad aspects and functions of the body to which we are otherwise either attached or averse, or totally ignorant.
3) Listening and Compassionate Touch. Touch, like any medicine, can heal as much as it can harm. The physical practice of yoga with its corollary tradition of giving and receiving postural assists can be one of the most therapeutic experiences for survivors of sexual violence, and perhaps even in reforming perpetrators of sexual violence, because it can re-educate and restore our relationship with touch. When touch is infused with the compassionate intention to listen and to heal it connects both the giver and the receiver in the spirit of mutual benefit and supreme love. A compassionate touch can help to rebuild a temple from its ruins.
Questions for further reflection:
How might we cultivate healthy identities that do not define self-worth through our bodily experiences?
How can we demonstrate respect for personal boundaries and individual choice while also respecting the welfare of our interdependence, community, and unity?
How may we help each other move through the fear and judgement around discussions of sex, sexuality, sexual experiences, and sexual energy, in order to cultivate more calm, clarity, and compassion for this subject and its corresponding social crisis, rather than remain in a passive-aggressive space of indignation, ignorance, shock, and alienation?
As for my own experience of sexual violence in India…
It was a wakeup call.
It has required many years of processing.
I have yet to tell my story in a way that feels reflective of its whole, but here are some shards of the story that have been scattered in different media outlets. It was quite shocking to see the amount of misreporting around my story after my initial police report got leaked to the media in Mumbai in 2009. It was terrifying to wake up in India the next day and see falsified accounts of my experience on the TV and in the papers. My name wasn’t dragged around the press but it still affected me to see that. Years later, in 2017, just before the #MeToo movement heated up in the press in the USA, I had reached out to a local journalist to help me try to tell my story accurately. It was again shocking to see how that report in the NJ Record got picked up by the NY Times and then used by other “online journalists” without any checking-in with me and even worse, this time some of them used pictures that they directly lifted from my Facebook account (see the article by India Today – link below) in association with their reports without my consent nor even notification.
Please note, I do ultimately appreciate the reporters who have reported around my story because their doing-so is a practical contribution to ringing the bell and alarming people to the reality of this violence and our way through it in the world today; however, there is violence in reporting too.
So I do not actually endorse all the details in these reports (and other sensationalist reports not here listed) because, as mentioned, all the facts were not verified with me before their publishing. Maybe one day I will write it all more clearly myself. Meanwhile, here are a few of the reports: