Trauma, Vulnerability & Charisma: ahimsa, satya, svadhyaya & viveka in yoga culture by Debbie Farrar

OK yoga world, you are grown up enough to hear this now...

Here’s just one of the reasons why I am against the regulation of yoga.


There are people in yoga world, some of them quite popular teachers, who prey on vulnerable people. Vulnerable people do not have the choice to take responsibility. That is why they are vulnerable & why a trauma sensitive approach is required. If we hide and shy away from the yoga shadows, and our own shadows, pretending everything is perfect we do not do vulnerable people any favours. We effectively serve them up on a plate to people like Bikram because it is us saying that yoga land is perfect that entices vulnerable people who are looking for a safe haven into the world of yoga. 

We have to stop saying everything is nice and perfect all the time, its ok to say you don't like stuff. Even if it is stuff that someone else likes. I don't like Bikram Yoga. There. It doesn't make me unyogic! Or judgemental! It makes me discerning.

We cannot keep saying vague stuff in an attempt to be nice its like; "oh yeah, he's really nice and like you should totally try his class" and "like yeah, she's really lovely" and nonsense like "yeah when he did that adjustment on me it was like my kundalini was rising all the way up to my heart and there was like a spiritual explosion". 

No there wasn't. This is mystification of abuse. Your heart palpitations were your body saying get the heck out of dodge, this guy is a sleaze ball! 

We need to start talking sense to each other and being discerning, and that means all of us being brave enough to say things that others may not agree with. 

It is precisely all this non-violent communication & politeness & fear of offending folk or of being seen to be judgemental that means we avoid saying anything that might disagree with someone else. If we have to filter our every word through lenses of what other people might think or whether they might get offended, or whether we would be seen to be unyogic or unspiritual, we are effectively shutting down our ability to say NO when we need to. 

Those of us who do have the ability to take this responsibility owe it to the vulnerable people who do not have the capability to take that responsibility to create a culture within which they feel safe and able to say NO because others around them are saying NO all the time. 

I want more NOs; not a NOS!!

NO, I do not want that adjustment. NO, remove your hand from my thigh. NO, I don't understand what you are saying when you are talking about my swadhisthana chakra being out of balance. Talk to me in plain words. And if you do not understand what is being said and someone creeps you out, it is OK to say so and walk away. Its more than OK, its essential!

Trouble is, I've been in many yoga situations where the person who does that gets called unyogic, or unspiritual, or lacking in compassion. Stopping that kind of passive aggressive accusation is how we give agency back to those from whom it has been taken. 

That's how we create a yoga land that is purna purnam. No amount of chanting will make it so without the appropriate behavioural change. For me that starts with saying NO to NOS and not caring who tells me I am unyogic, lacking in compassion, cruel or angry because of it! Deferring our agency to an external regulatory body is adding yet another lens through which we have to filter our behaviour. Yoga has plenty of these already. Here's 3 really good ones; ahimsa, satya & svadhyaya.

Ahimsa is not simply do no harm. It is not passivity. Sometimes himsa or forceful action is necessary in the short term so that in the long term you do not yourself become a vulnerable person by giving away your ability to say NO. Please can we stop using ahimsa like the finger point of blame at anyone who does something we do not agree with? Please can we start to recognise the difference between being a bit upset because someone doesn't like what we said and taking offence? There is a huge difference. This leads me to...

Satya, honesty. Let's stop saying what we think other people want to hear. How is that going to help them? They already know what they want to hear. They do not need you to tell them. OK, its nice to validate others once in a while, when they are unsure of their own agency, however if we are be of any use in helping them develop their own discernment, we need to offer the opposing view too. Devil's advocacy is a great way to test out your own viewpoint. Its even in the sutras! Yes, that stuff about if you think a negative thought, you can turn it around, that works both ways you know. Chances are honest reality is not really where you want it to be, nor is it in completely the opposite direction, but it may just be somewhere in the middle and sometimes you need to go to try on the other perspective for a while. Which brings me to...


Svadhyaya, self enquiry. Not just reading the scriptures and taking someone else's commentary peppered with their hidden agendas as the truth; but practising discernment, using your judgement or viveka. Judgement is not bad. Its very useful. You can use it to look at what you are bringing to your relationships. And you have relationships with everyone and everything you come into contact with, even your yoga teacher. One particularly relevant aspect of the student-teacher relationship springs to mind: are you actually handing agency over to them? Do you just want them to tell you what to do? Do you like it when they touch you in a certain way? What are you getting out of that touch? Really? Its OK, you can be honest with yourself. 

And you can say NO, even if that means walking out of the class for a few seconds to catch your breath, buy yourself some time and assess the situation more clearly. I've done this on loads of occasions. Sometimes I've thought about it, realised the trigger was mine & gone back in. Other times I have stayed away because my body was saying no and it wasn't being listened to. People have done it to me when I am teaching. Sure at first I used to wonder what I had done, until I plucked up the courage to start talking about this stuff. Turns out many of us have been traumatised in some way. A woman once walked out of my class because she was reminded about having being attacked. I had spent months going over every word I said in class wondering whether it was something I said, had I offended her in some way? No, she had just needed processing time & I was trying to be a mind reader. I was not as trauma sensitive as I am now, because I was still trying to hide from my own traumatic experiences. Self enquiry is necessary for us to be able to look those violences against us square in the face. Until we do that in ourselves it is difficult for us to see these patterns in others. A trauma-sensitive teacher will not mind if you leave and come back in at any time. They will not give a hoot about your making a noise. They will be happy you are practising ahimsa, satya & svadhyaya. 

If you feel your teacher might object to you doing your own thing, then maybe they are stuck in their own trauma patterns too? After all, yoga attracts vulnerable people, and some of them go on to be yoga teachers.


Debbie FarrarComment