Isn’t it bad karma to stalk a Yogi?

The aspirations at yoga studios may be high-minded but some seek more than a workout
Joanne Latimer

Isn’t it bad karma to stalk a yogi?

It’s not unusual for handsome young yogi “Ben” to receive tokens of affection from his students. Sometimes he gets books. Sometimes it’s herbal tea. But recently, one student sent him a box of four dead rats after a private yoga session at her home. “She asked me to stay for dinner but I could see she set the table with silverware and candles, so I declined,” recalls Ben, who doesn’t want to draw negative energy to his studio by using his real name. “Soon after, the box of rats arrived. It also contained a long letter explaining how the rats were a reflection of her love for me. I had to get a restraining order.”

Yoga studios may have high-minded aspirations, but the sexual component won’t go away. Transgressions occur on both sides. Witness the popular YouTube series, Inappropriate Yoga Guy, lampooning men who come to yoga classes to hit on women. “It’s a bawdy affair,” quipped John Philp, author of Yoga, Inc. “There were sexual harassment suits flying fast and thick in the 1990s against yogis, yet yogis are targets, too. Yoga Journal, the industry’s bible, calls it the pedestal problem.”

Dave Bruni, a yogi at Downward Dog in Toronto, who is in a committed relationship with another yogi, reports that while 99 per cent of the attention he gets (including being asked out for tea) is non-sexual, “sometimes students cross the line. Recently, I had a student come up before class, onto my mat, and whisper ‘I’m not wearing any panties.’ ”

How do female yogis cope? “It’s part of the job,” said Sadie Nardini, an instructor at YogaWorks in Manhattan. “I’ve been stalked, given inappropriate presents, asked out three times since I got married last year, and I’ve seen teachers teach a whole class to the sexy guy in the front row.” Montreal-based yoga enthusiast and event producer Jay Iversen has seen the reverse, too: “Over the years, I’ve noticed some male teachers are drawn to adjusting the beautiful women in the class. It’s only human nature.”

Let’s not forget that, in these situations, everyone’s a consenting adult, and that is exactly what makes the ethics of yogi-student relationships so fraught. “Sexual politics on the yoga mat are complicated,” explains London, Ont., native and Bikram yoga student Wayne Norman, a professor of ethics at Duke University. “Taking a yoga class is not the same as taking a pottery class. It involves a higher level of trust.” Students are often looking for more than a workout. Some don’t just want a guru or a girlfriend; they want a parent. Yogi Allison Ulan, co-founder of Ashtanga Yoga Montreal, took a personal vow not to get involved with students, but the studio itself—like most—has no official policy against dating. “We deal with the issue extensively in teachers’ training and on a case-by-case basis,” says Ulan, a pro at redirecting student crushes. “As soon as you set yourself up as a yogi, you get projection—lover, parent, best friend. Some new teachers start to believe the projections and that sexual energy can cause harm. Teachers need to send out the right signals.”

What happens when signals aren’t enough? “Remain aloof,” advises Darby, the founding guru at Sattva Yoga Shala in Montreal. (He’s known internationally by his one name.) “Be nice, but don’t respond. If you want something to happen [with a student], it will. You’re in control.”

The Canadian Yoga Alliance has no interest in trying to control yogis with a code of ethics. “It’s not our mandate,” says co-founder Violet Pasztor Wilson. “We’re a networking tool.” Nobody, notes Philp, “wants to have these delicate conversations. Any other industry—psychology, physiotherapy—would be crying out for regulation at this point.”

Diane Bruni, owner of Downward Dog in Toronto and Dave Bruni’s sister, takes offence at the suggestion that regulation is necessary. “We consider ourselves a community, not an industry,” she said. “We have no policy or code of conduct because we rely on common sense.”

“That only works until it doesn’t work,” says Philp. “You want guidelines once someone—yogi or student—steps over the line. Having said that, I don’t know how you’d enforce anything across the wide spectrum of yoga styles and studios.”

Qicology Canada founder David Donnelly takes the whole question of yoga sexual ethics to a higher level: “When you make a decision to be involved in healing, you sign a spiritual contract. If you break that contract, the universe will expose you one way or another.”