Time for change
The Yoga Teachers Union launches campaign to shine a light on endemic sexual harassment in the yoga industry
The Yoga Teachers Union has launched its first national campaign, fighting to protect yoga teachers from sexual harassment, and to ensure their safety and dignity at work.
It has been a long-standing but largely unspoken issue within the yoga world for many years — one that has already affected so many lives and careers. The union is now demanding action from the nation’s yoga governing bodies and membership organisations to protect the workers essential to bringing yoga to village halls, communities and studios up and down the country.
A yoga studio or class is perceived as a space of sanctuary to focus physical and mental wellbeing — for many yoga teachers, that sadly isn’t the case, notes Hayley Johns, secretary of the Yoga Teachers Union. Severe sexual harassment, fear of speaking up, feeling unsafe, potential of losing work and being ‘blacklisted’ are being reported widely.
“Yoga teachers face the threat of sexual harassment on a daily basis, like women across the gig economy,” says Johns. “This is an issue we’ve all known about for years and many of us have had personal experiences with it.”
Heavy case load
Since forming as part of the Independent Workers’ Union of Great Britain (IWGB) in October 2020, The Yoga Teachers Union has taken 39 disclosures of sexual harassment, with 80% of the casework the Union is currently undertaking involving active sexual harassment cases drawn from the membership, which is 91% women or non binary.
Sexual harassment, in general, is a huge societal issue in the UK, with one in every two women experiencing sexual harassment in the workplace. Yet it is estimated that only one in five report problems to their managers, with just 1% reporting to their union reps.
“Since coming together in the union, we’ve seen just how widespread and endemic harassment really is — evidenced by the volume of disclosures and active cases we’ve had reported to us, adds Johns.
“In the yoga industry, teachers often work alone in private settings and without regulation or adequate structures; we have nowhere to turn when we are harassed at work. But when we come together as a union, we are no longer alone. Together, we can demand action from those in positions of power to improve safety and conditions for yoga teachers and students across the UK.”
The Independent Workers’ Union of Great Britain is a grassroots memberled union fighting for justice for areas in sectors ranging from yoga teaching to charity workers.
The perfect storm
The problem is one that will be familiar to many yoga teachers across the UK and beyond.
“Every yoga teacher has a raft of stories on sexual harassment, with solicitation and constant sexualisation of yoga teachers happening on a daily basis” says Femke Gow, an independent yoga teacher.
“I’ve personally arrived at scheduled 1:1 yoga lessons to find nowhere to put mats and the student has no intention of doing yoga. This is deeply uncomfortable and I don’t feel safe going to do my job.” Abuse under the guise of ideas from yoga philosophy or a guru’s teachings also takes place in large studios and yoga centres, where questioning or raising concerns is stamped out through coercive control, dependency and fear of exclusion.
Yoga teachers form part of the gig economy, with this sector forecast to grow to 7.25 million workers by the end of 2022. Most yoga teachers work on a freelance basis for multiple studios, gyms and often run their own independent classes, with employed opportunities and protections few and far between.
These conditions create a perfect storm for abuse to go unchecked and unreported; precarious working conditions, inadequate reporting mechanisms, and a general lack of accountability for perpetrators mean teachers are at high risk of sexual violence, with many fearing loss of work if they do speak out.
Finding a way forward
The yoga industry is unregulated in the UK, and there are a number of bodies or member organisations for yoga teachers, teacher trainers and schools to register with on a voluntary basis. This means there is no single route for reporting, teachers attempting to file reports and then being deflected away and different bodies and organisations policies and processes on sexual harassment and reporting varies wildly.
To move forward, The Yoga Teachers Union has drawn up three clear, simple demands to move towards ending this culture of harassment and harm, and provide yoga teachers with safety and dignity at work:
• Every yoga venue has a sexual harassment policy that is clearly visible and accessible to teachers and students.
• Governing bodies and membership organisations implement clear and appropriate reporting and escalation policies for teachers and students.
• Awarding bodies make modules on sexual harassment consent, power dynamics and duty of care mandatory in all foundational teacher training awards.
Have your say
Have you experienced any of the issues identified in this article? If you’d like to share any thoughts or comments then please email: firstname.lastname@example.org To make direct contact with The Yoga Teachers Union please visit: yogateachersunion.co.uk