Yoga's Harvey Weinstein

In the last few days, my Facebook feed has been flooded with “me too” stories—a troubling, if not surprising, testament to how widespread sexual harassment and assault are.  Harassment is so common that I realized—after watching 10 Hours Walking in NYC as a Woman—that I had unconsciously absorbed the idea that it was just part of being a woman. Unwanted (usually male) attention seemed like an uncontrollable force of nature.

Only it’s not. It’s a choice on the part of the individual. Beyond that, it’s also a cultural choice: whether we create a society that permits this kind of aggression or calls it out.

A few months back, I started writing down my thoughts about the yoga world’s Harvey Weinstein: Bikram Choudhury. After years of sexual misconduct allegations, the hot yoga innovator was finally ordered to pay 6.4 million dollars of punitive damages in 2016. In 2017, he fled the country and there is now a warrant out for his arrest.

As with Weinstein, these allegations were not new. When Benjamin Lorr published Hell-Bent (his alternatingly earnest and comic quest through the Bikram swampland) in 2012, Choudhury’s misdeeds were an open secret.

These kinds of “open secrets” are corrosive: they tarnish us all with our complicity and pave the way for future abuses. Open secrets are usually the reserve of the powerful—people who can threaten us with something to lose if we challenge them. Both Weinstein and Bikram used their wealth, influence, and deep legal teams to muzzle those who might speak out against them—a disturbing illustration of how power can purchase silence.

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The irony is that power is conferred by consensus. As a group, we can prop up or take down an abuser. But this rarely seems to happen at the height of an abuser’s power. Harvey Weinstein, Bikram Choudhury, Roger Ailes, and Bill Cosby were in their 60s and 70s when their crimes were fully exposed. It’s only once the tide is turning against an abuser that we give credence to their victims’ accusations.

That we find it so easy to ignore allegations is telling. We may chalk it up to an innocent-until-proven-guilty mentality but I think there’s something more nefarious at work: we don’t take sexual harassment and intimidation seriously. Worse, we don’t take the victims—often, but not always, women—seriously.

This eats away at our very humanity. Whether it’s a catcall on the street or coercing a colleague, the message that underpins it all is “you don’t have a right to be here.” When we stick our heads in the sand, we all reinforce that message.

Change will only happen when we turn our heads toward what we look away from and amplify the voices we'd sometimes rather not hear.

Notes on Feminism (and Yoga)

The word “feminism” has a long history of making people uncomfortable. Even while there is a growing trend of identifying as feminist, we still seem to be wrestling with its meaning.

Several years back, a clip of Joss Whedon speaking about the word “feminist” made the rounds on social media. (His own imperfect feminism has since been taken to task.) The heart of his argument is that “[the term] 'feminist' includes the idea that believing men and women to be equal, believing all people to be people, is not a natural state. That we don't emerge assuming that everybody in the human race is a human, that the idea of equality is just an idea that's imposed on us. That we are indoctrinated with it, that it's an agenda.”

It’s an idealistic argument that tries (unconvincingly and impractically) to separate “nature” from culture. And while Whedon accurately points to what many people may find discomfiting about the word—it sounds like an agenda—he fails to appreciate its more positive aspect: being “feminist” means you’re for something. (As far as I know, there’s no equivalent word for being against racism or homophobia.)

Being of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s mindset that we should all be feminists, I find it disheartening to see critics like Jessa Crispin argue against feminism. Her critique is that the mainstreaming of feminism has rendered it meaningless. Rather than seeing a broadening base as an opportunity, she distances herself with a hipster’s disdain.

I side with Roxane Gay, who writes: "Feminism's failings do not mean that we should eschew feminism entirely. People do terrible things all the time, but we don't regularly disown our humanity. We disavow the terrible things. We should disavow the failures of feminism without disavowing its many successes and how far we have come."

If we fail to feel the urgency and necessity of feminism, it’s in part because women’s stories remain largely untold. As journalists Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn note in Half the Sky: “When a prominent dissident was arrested in China, we would write a front-page article; when 100,000 girls were routinely kidnapped and trafficked into brothels, we didn’t even consider it news. Partly that is because we journalists tend to be good at covering events that happen on a particular day, but we slip at covering events that happen every day—such as the quotidian cruelties inflicted on women and girls.”

Gender inequality affects us all, regardless of our race, socioeconomic status, or the personal pronoun we use. The consequences, however, are by no means uniform, and more vulnerable populations tend to be disproportionately disadvantaged. If you believe the work of feminism is done, you’re probably not looking far enough afield.

So where does yoga fit in? We have a large and ever-growing community of women engaged in a practice that purports to empower us. In many ways it does: yoga can help us cope with trauma, repair our relationship with our bodies, manage stress, boost our self-esteem, foster introspection. Really, the benefits are too many to list.

But a lot of this work happens in an atomized way. Empowerment begins with the self, but it needn't end there. The vision of Shakti Project is to build a community that links our personal flourishing to the service of women worldwide.