Play is my Tao. It fuses the yoga and movement practices I share. So much so that I am writing a book about it. To play in a yoga or movement practice—any practice, really—does not mean that there is no discipline. In fact, the discipline itself (for many people) can be a source of enjoyment and experienced as a type of play.
Play can take many forms. It can involve taking risks, like the risk I am taking by writing this. And it can greatly enhance the meaning, joy, and fulfillment of what it is to be human. For me, the process (and practice) of play are endlessly fascinating inquiries, and they can inform and change our lives for the better.
But one thing is important. Play—if it is truly play—is voluntary. We are not forced to do it. We cannot force ourselves or others to do it. Then it is not play. I feel the same way about the practice of yoga.
I see speech (and touch) in a similar vein.
Our human organism and the world we live in are complex. Due to this complexity, any action that we take or do not take is informed by myriad factors, both known and unknown to us.
So, it is with great care that I write this essay. It is my choice, though I have struggled with doing so and have composed several iterations, written and rewritten over many times. I talked to friends about it, and have woken up in the middle of the night wondering if it is worth doing so. I am afraid of how what I write will be received or interpreted. Why? Because this is about upsetting things that have come to light in the Iyengar community—and in the larger yoga community as well. And because I care about the people who make up that community, which I have been part of for the past three decades in some way or another.
I care deeply about the inquiry I call practice, and the inquirers; that is also why this is so hard. I question my ability to express accurately and fully what I want to say.
In the spirit of practice, and the risk of connection, I will try.
Like so many of my friends and colleagues, I have been upset and saddened by what has come to light in the Iyengar yoga community in the last several months. For those not familiar with what has happened, the community was rocked by serious allegations of sexual misconduct involving the well-known Manouso Manos. There were investigations that resulted this teacher being stripped of the Iyengar teaching credentials given to him by BKS Iyengar.
Since that time, various videos of BKS Iyengar have surfaced on social media. They are moments excerpted from classes at Iyengar conventions or conferences, and took place in the early 2000s or even slightly before. They depict a harsh approach, very rough physical adjustments, and, in one episode, a student being hit for placing a prop the wrong way (or in a way that was deemed wrong by Mr. Iyengar). In the wake of this, and the decertification of Manouso, there have been calls for those in Iyengar yoga to come forward and share their stories of abuse, whether physical, sexual, or verbal.
For my part—and it is difficult to say this—I, too, have experienced what can be called abusive teaching in Iyengar yoga. And I have always found this aspect of what some might say is “traditional” Iyengar yoga pedagogy to be oppressive and disturbing. I think that the authoritarian and hierarchical structure of Iyengar yoga (and other lineage traditions like Ashtanga yoga) has contributed to the silence about abuses of power that have occurred in plain sight, and were even recorded, for many years. And in the case of both the Iyengar and Ashtanga yoga communities, those abuses of power have been tolerated and even normalized, so much so that speaking out about them (as obvious as they were) seemed nearly impossible, at least from within the group.
I am sorry that students and teachers have suffered abuse in Iyengar yoga, or in any other type of yoga. To state the obvious, no kind of abuse—physical, sexual, or verbal—is okay. I do not believe it is okay for any teacher to strike or harshly adjust a student. I believe touch is a powerful thing and requires the consent of the recipient. I do not believe consent is implied by merely attending a class.
I know the impact of being suddenly kicked in the upper back while in a headstand variation. Yes—it was meant to bring my attention to the area between my shoulder blades, but it did not have the intended effect. It created a strong fight-or-flight response in my nervous system such that I could not fully trust the teacher after this event. Was that how he wanted this touch to be felt? Maybe.
After that incident, I found that my body would reflexively brace itself in his classroom. Far from bringing the type of awareness we hope to cultivate in yoga, this type of “touch” can elicit a type of hyper-vigilance in the nervous system of the student. One is continuously on guard to protect oneself from the next kick.
The unfortunate impact of this type of teaching is one of the reasons why I have come to embrace a different way, a very different approach. And I am not only speaking of harsh physical reprimands. It goes deeper—to how we view and treat each other as people. Seeing the videos that were posted reminded me of what I have moved away from—and why.
I think we (as teachers) are there to facilitate a process of inquiry. That means respecting the physical autonomy and agency of everyone in the classroom.
I know many teachers of Iyengar yoga feel similarly, as I have spoken to them, exchanged emails, and have had many difficult conversations about this topic. There are many sensitive, kind, and compassionate teachers of Iyengar yoga all over the world. Some have been my teachers, and others have been my students. I am grateful for having had the opportunity to study with them all. As teachers, these people do not employ forceful and/or inappropriate touch or violent speech. Behavior that is coerced or forced (including speech) is not the type of communication I want to engage in. Isn’t that a part of the problem we are dealing with here?
Some will say the ability to exercise choice is difficult within the context of group, such as a yoga community, especially one like Iyengar yoga. Human beings are social animals. Our sense of identity (in part), and feelings of belonging can feel inseparable from that of the group. I agree. And that might be the case in any group or community. It is scary to speak about difficult topics, especially if you are in a group that might not welcome voices of dissent. I am choosing to speak, though some part of me feels it is risky. I am choosing to nurture what I have come to value in practice and in play, and to uphold the values I have chosen to live by.
One of those values is agency. I believe that students should have agency over their bodies and be able to choose whether or not to receive touch, whether or not to do a pose, how long to remain it in, etc. I think that we as teachers serve to facilitate an inquiry, one in which students are given the space and permission to explore, to play or not to play, to be as they are or explore their own edge, to learn about their embodiment and all that that entails. Through this inquiry they might expand their movement vocabulary, become more aware of their breath and patterns of thinking and moving. They might change long-held self-limiting beliefs and feel a new sense of freedom and joy in movement. They might feel more confident and at ease in themselves. Practice is an incredible place to expand our sense of what is possible. It is a space of “what if?” and “how might we?”
So, I wonder how might we hold space for the practice of respectful discussion and dialogue regarding these difficult topics, giving each other permission to speak or not to speak. I know for myself, the complexity of emotions that I have felt around the recent events in the Iyengar community has made writing this (a form of speech) feel almost impossible. The situation is complicated by so many factors that I choose to not articulate here.
As inadequate as my attempt at communicating might be, I hope it will serve as an invitation. An invitation for connection. An invitation for us to connect with each other, and with the larger yoga community about the things we care about. We can try to have respectful discourse, even if we do not always agree with each other. I hope we can learn by listening to each other, and by supporting one another as we awkwardly navigate this thing called being human.
Play, practice, and pretty much anything worth doing in life does sometimes involve taking risks. Writing this feels like taking a risk, but it is also voluntary, like play itself. I am hoping that the risk will be worthwhile in that it will help us better connect with, and respect, each other. I am a play (and practice) enthusiast, taking a risk. Risking connection.
Photo: Jamey Welch