There is a concept in Buddhist philosophy called Right Speech, which means to refrain from frivolous gossip, embellishments, or obfuscations. It invites us, to instead use the precious gift of speech as something to uplift, share, educate, and inspire with.
In Yogic philosophy there is a similar principle called satya, or truth, and its partner ahimsa, non-harming, which imply that
we have a responsibility to present the truth in a way that creates wholeness, and healing.
Even difficult facts can be presented in a compassionate, caring way that causes the least amount of trauma to all involved.
These are in the same vein as a concept that my mother offered to me when I was a child. “If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say It.” A rather concise statement, but the essence of the message is the same: our words have the power to either harm or heal, and it is up to us as human beings to learn to use the gift of verbal communication wisely and helpfully.
When one is a reporter, this can be a challenge. Dramatic stories sell. Scandals concerning sex, money, or both, help ratings. Beloved leaders falling from grace, is headline news. I understand this as an unfortunate reality.
What I take issue with, is when reporters utilize unrelated events, poor research and plain opinions and generalizations to make something sound dangerous, scandalous, and dramatic. The latest NYTimes article by W.J. Broad, insinuating that yoga practice incites sexual arousal in practitioners, and leads to abuse of power by teachers, is simply unfounded and untrue.
Yoga does not “fan the sexual flames”, any more than playing tennis does. Any physical sport that increases circulation is bound to be a powerful antidepressant and libido booster, which is something the pharmaceutical companies would rather we not know. Any vigorous cardiovascular activity, be it brisk walking, swimming, or yoga, has a long list of benefits that include mood elevation. This does not lead to sexual misconduct. My personal experience in my many careers from restaurant work, to emergency medicine, to yoga, leads me to observe that there is in fact LESS frequency of sexual misconduct in the yoga world. It’s simply that it gets more headlines when it does occur.
Yoga practice is a long and rich tradition with many facets from spiritual devotion, to volunteerism and service, to simply physical fitness. We as students and practitioners have the opportunity to draw water from this well in any way that we choose.
The benefits and dangers of a yoga practice are most often found in the ingredients we bring to it, because yoga refines what lies within.
If you practice yoga poses in a peaceful, mindful, compassionate way, slowing down and observing with care, you will not injure yourself. If you practice yoga poses pushing and shoving your body around, competing and full of ambition, you may very well injure yourself. It’s what you bring to it.
If a teacher, boss, politician, or person in power uses their influence in a way that is beneficial to everyone, with humility, in the spirit of selfless service, then abuse will not happen. If that same person uses their influence in a way that is prideful, letting their ends justify their means, taking liberties with and advantage of their supporters and admirers, then abuse will inevitably happen. Not just in the yoga world, but anywhere.
If anything, yoga practice has taught me to not blindly follow any one teacher, but to draw from multiple sources, cross-reference, empirically test, and trust the intuition and guidance that my own heart provides. To do my own research, and check my sources. Upon checking Mr. Broad’s history, it seems that he had a yoga-related injury in 2008, and is obviously lashing out at yoga in the media since. While I sympathize and wish for Mr. Broad’s healing and recovery, I’m not completely convinced that yoga caused the injury. He very likely brought an attitude of over extending into the classroom if his articles are any indicator.
Beryl Bender Birch, a lovely Ashtanga teacher well into her 60’s with a happy marriage, says “You don’t get injured doing Yoga. You get injured doing Yoga WRONG.” Yoga, done from a place of compassion, selflessness, mindfulness, and earnestness is nothing but good medicine.
I have a childhood friend I found on facebook, who, when we met for brunch in NY after 30 years, sighed when he heard I was a yoga teacher. “You would hate what I do for a living”, he said. “I have to think of scary things and make it sound like people are actually in danger, so that they don’t change the channel. Shark attack, home invasion, cancer scare, toxicity levels, violent crime, terrorist attack…I create the tension… and then you get to undo it.” He openly admitted, that journalism has succumbed to sensationalism in the attempt to keep advertisers money flowing. So, the latest NYTimes article is probably not the last one we’ll see touting the dangers of yoga practice, unfortunately.
To practice yoga, is really to undo the tension our world and media create, to untie the knots of our own past karma and experiences, and to reveal the truth in our present surroundings. What we give, is what we get, out of a yoga practice, and out of life itself. It is with this spirit of inquiry, openness, and earnestness that I hope we continue to see the gifts Yoga has to offer, in the form of right speech, and compassionate communication.
Christine Navarro 🙂