Reader advisory: Some accounts of sexual abuse in this story contain explicit details and strong language that some may find upsetting or objectionable.
Her classmates were rolling back and forth -- no one could have seen the alleged groping by the teacher, West said. “I was amazed, shocked," she added. "I came out of the pose. He quickly got up and walked away and then didn't bother me for the rest of the class."
West shared her story in response to a KQED callout for #MeToo accounts in the Bay Area yoga world. An ensuing investigation revealed a range of allegations by seven women against five teachers: from inappropriate massage to a violating touch in class, from drugging to unlawful sex with a minor. KQED found that the yoga community is struggling to rein in this sexual misconduct and abuse in its ranks. Some experts believe the lack of oversight of teachers and schools is adding to the problems of an industry experiencing explosive growth, where touch and trust are a fundamental part of the practice.
The women are telling their stories amid a global outcry and reckoning over sexual misconduct and abuse -- the #MeToo movement -- at the highest levels of political office and in many industries, such as film, media and food. The growing number of accounts has forced many businesses and sectors to examine their codes of conduct, reporting processes and handling of bad actors.
In yoga, experts and leaders say, that soul-searching is only beginning.
West, 50, said initially she was in denial about the November 2013 incident in San Diego -- she felt “psychologically shackled” to Iyengar yoga and kept attending classes with San Francisco-based Manouso Manos. Later, she was afraid to come forward with the allegation: afraid she’d be shunned by the Iyengar community for accusing a famous instructor and afraid it would hurt her livelihood as a yoga teacher of nearly two decades.
But that changed in 2015, when West alleged she saw Manos verbally abuse two students in class (which he denied through a spokesman). Though it wasn’t sexual abuse, seeing the experience of the other students was a wake-up call for her to finally distance herself from that world, she said. Then, in 2016, she read a 1991 news article that compelled her to go public: It said Manos had groped students in the 1980s.
A Flood of #MeToo Stories in Yoga
Some of those stories became public in December 2017 when a well-known yoga teacher and activist, Rachel Brathen, also known as Yoga Girl, released more than 300 accounts she received in response to a callout for #MeToo incidents. They included rape, groping, inappropriate touching, assault and harassment.
“Everybody knows that there are all these allegations out there. Why are these men still gracing the covers of yoga magazines? Why are they still headlining festivals? Why are they still out there leading teacher trainings, telling young women how to enter this practice?” Brathen told KQED. “It's very, very infuriating.”
To date, Brathen has received between 500 and 1,000 #MeToo stories worldwide. The most stories she got from the U.S. were about incidents that happened in California, while New York was second.
In nearly half of the accounts, an attacker wasn’t named; but in those that did, some named the same teacher, said Brathen. Following legal advice, she removed details that could ID the accused.
The #MeToo stories “shattered the yoga world,” wrote Yoga Journal. Roche said the accounts were “heartbreaking.”
A thread through many of them was “that teachers would take advantage of the inherent power dynamic in the teacher-student relationship,” she said, leaving students feeling “exploited and taken advantage of.”
Some cases of sexual abuse involving high-profile yoga teachers have gone public, such as that of Bikram Choudhury, founder of the California-based Bikram Yoga empire who was accused by multiple women of rape (he was never charged), according to The Associated Press, and that of the now-deceased Krishna Pattabhi Jois, who popularized Ashtanga yoga and was accused by nine women of sexual assault. Many others remain shrouded in secrecy and so-called whisper networks.
Yoga Alliance, formed in the late 1990s, issued a new sexual misconduct policy and procedures for handling these cases earlier this year, but the group declined to share the number of such complaints it had previously received.
“It's (yoga) been a bit of a hunting ground,” said Matthew Remski, a yoga teacher, trainer and culture critic who has written about sexual abuse in the community. “Because of the dominance hierarchies, the pedagogy, the implied consent -- the general sense that the practitioner is there to have their body perfected or to perfect their body and that they are going to submit or surrender to the instructions so that can be so.
“Those have been dominant themes,” he added. “And you know, sexual assault is about power -- it's not about sex.”
‘Anyone Can Be a Teacher’
Yoga Alliance said as of Aug. 31, it had nearly 92,000 registered yoga teachers -- surging from 9,700 in 2004 -- and 6,355 registered yoga schools, jumping from 280 that same year.
But that growth has not been accompanied by much oversight.
Yoga teachers aren’t licensed in the U.S. (In some states like Oklahoma, instructors of teacher training programs have their qualifications approved as part of a school’s licensure). No state agency, such as a medical board, oversees instructors, disciplines or investigates them, or defines their practice.
Roche said that, to her knowledge, there is no federal regulation of yoga.
“Anyone can be a yoga teacher. Anybody could just open a studio and start teaching yoga. They don't have to have any credentials whatsoever. They could have read a book on yoga,” said Judith Hanson Lasater, Ph.D. and physical therapist, who has been teaching yoga in the Bay Area since 1972.
“There is no accountability, professional accountability of yoga teachers in the United States,” she added. “All you need to be a yoga teacher in the United States of America is students.”
Laura Camp, owner of Flying Studios in Oakland, said the yoga industry was in its adolescence.
“It's almost like, I'm going to say, snake-oil salesmen -- you know, before medicine was codified in the Old West -- and people could just put a shingle up and say I do this,” Camp said. “The seminal crisis of this industry right now is sexual abuse and that has to stop.”
Oversight does exist in a few states. Minnesota, Oklahoma, Washington and Wisconsin actively regulate yoga teacher training programs, according to Yoga Alliance and a KQED analysis. California typically regulates schools that offer such programs as part of a broader portfolio of study -- currently, that number stands at about 15, according to the state’s Bureau for Private Postsecondary Education.
Potential harms of government oversight include the burden of fees and rules on the industry’s many small businesses, Yoga Alliance said. And though licensing may serve “as a form of quality assurance,” defining what a yoga teacher must teach would exclude some practices and “stifle creativity,” the group said.
When asked if this stance reflected the position of the new Yoga Alliance leadership, which came onboard in May 2017, the group said it was refining its stance but generally opposed regulation specifically targeting the practice or teaching of yoga.
Leading yoga experts were split on government oversight.
“Regulation and oversight would have consequences for people who have been truly doing not just unethical behavior but what is actually illegal behavior with their student,” said Lasater, whose credentials include C-IAYT (IAYT certified yoga therapist) and E-RYT-500 (experienced registered yoga teacher, 500 hours of training). “A lack of credentialing creates an arena where almost anything goes, from dangerous adjustments, to teachers with little or no training, to the possibility of major boundary crossings -- sexual, physical and emotional.”
Roche said she didn’t think a lack of government oversight had left the door open to sexual misconduct, but thought Yoga Alliance not having a scope of practice and an updated code of conduct in place -- it’s working on both now -- did.
“In its earlier years, Yoga Alliance maybe did fall a little bit short,” she said. “I don't think anybody envisioned that it would become ... in lieu of government regulation, the self-regulating body for the industry.”
Some dispute that it is: Adhering to any Yoga Alliance standards, codes, guidelines for teacher training programs -- even registering with the group -- is voluntary.
“It doesn't matter if you have a certificate to teach yoga if ... you cannot be prevented from teaching,” Lasater said. “You see what a mess it is? It's a mess.”
Many studios and teachers elect to opt out of the Yoga Alliance world, said Gary Kissiah, a lawyer, yoga philosophy teacher and author. “Teachers can certainly open yoga studios and teachers can teach without having any association with Yoga Alliance.”
Kissiah, who in January published a guide for studios on dealing with sexual misconduct, said he was skeptical that government regulation could solve the problem and felt effective change would come from the ground up. A first step: educating students about what is proper conduct by teachers.
"These teachers basically conned them into thinking it’s part of their spiritual development, a part of the spiritual practice, a part of the tradition -- all these sorts of things,” he said.
Kissiah wrote in his guide that yoga could be lost if “we allow it to collapse into ethical and sexual scandals, watered-down physical education classes and commercial exploitation.”
“If this fire just keeps burning out of control, at some point, the states are going to say we need to step in here and do something,” he told KQED.
‘I Wish I Had Come Forward. ... He’s Still Doing This’
Bell, then 32, was doing a variation of downward dog: In the pose, a practitioner’s chest is parallel to the floor -- with their legs shooting straight down from their hips -- and their hands on the wall.
That’s when, Bell said, Manos groped her.
“He came up to me from behind, put his hands on my collarbone and swept his hands over my whole front body right over my breasts,” she said. “I was stunned at first. It was like, ‘What? Did he really just do that?’ And then immediately -- because I was this starry-eyed newer student and he's this well-known and well-respected teacher -- immediately I started doubting it.”
Manos did not recognize nor was he familiar with Bell, his spokesman said. No complaint was ever filed, he said, and Manos denied that any adjustment he may have made was inappropriate.
Bell said she buried the incident, but in fall 1989 she heard rumors about other sexual misconduct allegations against Manos -- some that became the subject of a 1991 expose in West, a now-defunct magazine then published by the (San Jose) Mercury News.
Allegations had first surfaced against Manos in 1987. He told a representative of the Iyengar Yoga Institute of San Francisco that it wouldn’t happen again, wrote reporter Bob Frost.
More allegations were reported in 1989 and the institute suspended him from teaching in October of that year, Frost wrote. (Frost said there were no corrections to the article in which he quoted Manos as saying: “Though there are inaccuracies in the statements made in this article I do recognize the gravity of the subject matter.”) No criminal charges were filed against Manos, Frost wrote. KQED didn’t find any civil or criminal charges either.
B.K.S. Iyengar, who is “universally acknowledged as the modern master of yoga,” according to the Iyengar Yoga National Association of the United States (IYNAUS), asked the community to forgive Manos, Frost wrote. In October 1990, the S.F. institute’s board of directors voted to reinstate him, Frost wrote.
A spokesman for Manos said the West article was inaccurate, saying Manos wasn’t suspended but voluntarily left (he said he didn’t know the reason for his departure) and didn’t seek reinstatement but was invited to return. He also said Manos denied past and current allegations of sexual misconduct. He didn’t know why Manos hadn’t sought a correction to Frost’s article if he believed there were inaccuracies.
Lasater, who said she was on the board of directors at the time, told KQED she resigned from it after the vote. She said she personally knew of up to five allegations against Manos -- and that she was in a room where he admitted to the sexual misconduct.
“I had a board member’s responsibility to keep our students safe,” she said. “I wasn’t convinced ... that this wasn’t going to happen again.”
West filed a police report in March 2018; the San Diego Police Department said it determined the incident to be a misdemeanor. The case was not forwarded to the city attorney for prosecution because it fell outside the statute of limitations, police said.
West also filed a complaint against Manos with IYNAUS, in which she included corroborating statements from four people who she’d told over the years about the alleged incident. When KQED asked Manos for comment about West’s allegations, his representative shared his May 15 statement to IYNAUS.
“I have devoted 42 years of my life to teaching and educating tens of thousands of students in a professional and ethical manner,” he wrote. “I categorically deny Ms. West’s allegations, but still feel horrible that a student of mine has these feelings.”
Manos said West was a student over many years: “It does not make sense to me why she would continue to take my classes if she supposedly felt uncomfortable.”
“I am shocked that any adjustment I may have provided to Ms. West in a classroom filled with 50 students has been characterized by her as an ‘assault’ of a sexual nature,” he said, noting that he asks students if he can touch them before making any hands-on adjustments. “That is a very serious accusation and one I do not take lightly.”
Bell, 63, a yoga teacher and writer/editor who lives in Salt Lake City, said she wrote about the alleged groping in 2013 and 2017. But she never named Manos, thinking he’d taken responsibility and wasn’t doing it anymore, nor did she file a police report or complaint with a yoga body.
“I didn't come forward until now -- until I found out that indeed he was still doing this and the incident was strikingly similar to what happened to me,” she said.
Bell said another person in the yoga community connected her to West.
“Damn, I wish I had come forward” sooner, she said. “When I heard her story, I felt like, wow, he's still doing this, and maybe I could have helped. So I felt bad ... that I didn’t say anything all those years.”
West wasn’t upset with Bell for not saying anything -- but she was upset with the national Iyengar yoga association (IYNAUS).
“They knew that he'd been at this" for decades, West said. “We weren't forewarned that essentially this predator was in our midst and we weren't able to make an informed decision as to whether or not we were even going to walk into his class. ... Why didn't we all know about this?”
A third woman told KQED Manos slipped his hands inside her bra and massaged her breasts while she was in a resting pose during a 1986 class in New York – an account shared in the Frost article. She wrote California Iyengar yoga leaders in 1990 after she learned Manos would attend an upcoming convention in San Diego despite the sexual misconduct allegations.
Bonnie Anthony, chair of the convention’s coordinating committee, replied in a May 7, 1990, letter, saying she was “willing to give him this one more chance.”
“It was our recommendation to Mr. Iyengar (and he agreed) to keep Manouso in a low profile at the Convention,” Anthony wrote. “Manouso has a problem, much like alcoholism. He has openly admitted it to Mr. Iyengar and to others and is in therapy, along with his wife, Rita.”
KQED contacted Anthony, sharing with her the May 7 letter plus one the woman sent in response dated May 27 and an earlier one to Lasater from April 18, 1990. Anthony replied: "The matter re: Manouso was settled many years ago and I have nothing additional to add to the record."
Manos' spokesman denied the 1986 allegation and said he doesn't have anything to say about the letter.
IYNAUS declined to answer KQED’s questions about its current Manos investigation or past allegations involving him, citing confidentiality.
When asked about the San Francisco Iyengar institute’s handling of the previous allegations against Manos, Brian Hogencamp, president of the Iyengar Yoga Association of Northern California, said he did not know or have additional information to make a comment. Manos is not a teacher at the S.F. institute; he plays an unpaid, external, advisory role to the teachers of one program, Hogencamp said.
Donna Farhi, a yoga instructor since 1982 who was on the board of Yoga Journal in the late 1980s, said by email that the publication got letters around that time from several women, unknown to each other and from different states, alleging Manos had “sexually molested” them in class.
“We made the decision not to feature him in the magazine, or to allow his name to appear in any advertising that might be purchased by someone hosting him,” said Farhi, who is helping Yoga Alliance draft a code of conduct for teachers and is an author of five books, including one on ethics for yoga teachers.
Farhi said she knew of West’s and Bell’s allegations, and they showed how students could be abused in class.
“When students are in positions where they can’t even see each other, it’s almost impossible for these women to get substantive evidence from others that these incidents did indeed happen,” she said.
'We’re Not the Yoga Police'
In a December 2017 post sharing her #MeToo experience of being sexually assaulted by a teacher, international yoga instructor Kino MacGregor said she reported the attack to Yoga Alliance.
“They replied with a standardized email saying that they could take no action. It made me so mad because it felt like there was no accountability in the yoga world,” she wrote.
Roche said it was awful to see Yoga Alliance being called out in that story, but added, “I'm glad she did.” The group separated policies for handling sexual misconduct from other grievances; Roche said they needed to be treated with more sensitivity and care.
“We are not law enforcement, unfortunately,” she added, echoing a line in a video to the membership in which she said, “We’re not becoming the yoga police.”
“We don't have the same resources that they do, and so we won't be able to take the same kind of action that law enforcement would,” she told KQED.
The national Iyengar yoga association, which formed in 1991, investigates complaints of ethical violations, including sexual misconduct, said Manju Vachher, chair of the group’s ethics committee.
The committee recommends sanctions to the executive council, if necessary, Vachher said. Information is shared with the parties involved and occasionally with the executive council.
“Your interest in exploring how the yoga community is responding to the ‘Me Too Movement’ is important,” Vachher said in an email. “I am not able to do an interview or discuss any cases due to the confidentiality issues. During and after any investigative process, we uphold strict standards of privacy for all parties ...”
Vachher declined to answer questions about the number of complaints made against Manos to IYNAUS since the late 1980s allegations arose and how many teachers the group has sanctioned over sexual misconduct complaints (and what the sanctions are for such violations).
West doesn’t think the committee can be an independent arbiter of Manos, who is on the association’s senior council.
“They're just one arm of an organization -- the same organization giving him these accolades and awards,” she said.
'He Felt That I Needed to Feel More Into My Body’
At first, Smith said things felt great: Her mentor at Piedmont Yoga in Berkeley and Oakland, Zubin Shroff, dubbed her the “minister of joy” for sharing uplifting news items. After her one-on-one sessions began with Shroff in fall 2016, however, things took a turn: She said he had her meet him at his West Berkeley condo, where they discussed personal things about her life -- rarely yoga. Finding the experience odd, she eventually stopped going.
After a short break, Smith said, Shroff reached out, saying they should restart the sessions. And, she should let him give her a massage.
“He felt that I needed to feel more into my body and that would involve him doing massage. Shiatsu massage. I've never had shiatsu massage,” said Smith, 40, who works in financing and funding for small businesses. “I didn't even look it up -- but that's how trusting I was of the situation.”
Smith said the sessions in February and March 2017 were “all massage that got increasingly uncomfortable,” on a futon mattress. Unlike before, there was no conversation. They were both clothed.
"In the fifth (final) session, he spent the majority of the time massaging my butt and groin,” she said in a June 2017 statement to the Berkeley Police Department. “He literally massaged my butt and innermost part of my groin, as close as he could possibly be without physically touching my actual vagina.”
She thought the shiatsu was “extremely weird and uncomfortable, but just part of the procedure,” she said in her police statement. “He was my instructor so the last thing I expected was for him to do anything inappropriate."
When asked about Smith’s allegation, Shroff said in an email that he did not touch anyone inappropriately. In that same correspondence dated March 1, Shroff said he was no longer the studio’s director and noted it was “the end of a prolonged transition phase” where he had “been stepping back from directing the studio and teaching.” (Piedmont Yoga is a storied Bay Area yoga institution that has a checkered past with one of its founders, Rodney Yee, marrying a student and having sexual relationships with other students, according to various media reports.)
Smith wasn’t the only student getting massage from Shroff: Sarah Shimazaki said she had about 10 shiatsu sessions at Shroff’s condo starting in March 2017, paying about $40 for each one. She said the shiatsu was a “positive” experience that helped her where talk therapy hadn’t, and Shroff never touched her inappropriately.
Another student, who didn’t want to be identified, said Shroff told her during a one-on-one session at his condo in December 2016 that he offered shiatsu “at no cost” to students. She declined and said she later wondered, “ ‘Why is he offering me a free massage?’”
“I thought he was creeping on the people he was attracted to or the people who somehow appeared to be vulnerable,” she said.
Smith reported the massage to two teachers in the program and to the police. One of the teachers, Leslie Howard, told police she didn’t know Shroff was offering massage to students, nor had she heard of him providing massage sessions to any other students.
When she asked him about the massage, Howard said Shroff told her: “I totally get it, I won't do this anymore.”
“My thought, my feeling about Zubin is his heart is in the right place,” Howard said. “He has let so many people who can't afford yoga programs do the program for little to no money.”
Howard also said that when she asked Smith if Shroff had touched her inappropriately, Smith said “no.”
Shroff was a certified ohashiatsu consultant from 2011-13, according to the New York-based Ohashi International Ltd, which also said he graduated from the institute’s six-level curriculum program.
But Shroff didn’t have a license to perform massage in Berkeley, said Matthai Chakko, assistant to the city manager. Nor was he certified with the California Massage Therapy Council (which said such ohashiatsu credentials would not qualify someone to get certification with the organization).
California doesn’t have state licensing for massage, but the vast majority of its cities and counties have massage therapy ordinances. While certification with CAMTC is voluntary, cities are required by state law to accept it.
Berkeley authorities opened a code enforcement case regarding Shroff’s lack of massage and business licenses. In late June, Shroff was sent a notice of violation, which serves as a warning to encourage compliance, Chakko said.
“At the scheduled site inspection this week at his Berkeley condo, Mr. Shroff stated he has relinquished his part-ownership with Piedmont Yoga and no longer conducts any business within the City. Code Enforcement verified that his unit is vacant and actively listed for sale,” Chakko wrote on July 20.
“The case is now closed,” Chakko said. “Should new information arise, or if we find future violations with his involvement, we will pick up where we left off.”
Chakko said Shroff wasn’t penalized over the zoning violation, noting it was the city’s initial contact and the goal is to bring people into voluntary compliance.
Berkeley police forwarded Smith’s case with a charge of misdemeanor sexual battery to the Alameda County District Attorney’s Office, which declined to prosecute.
Howard recalled Smith as a student who didn’t participate as much in the beginning of the program but got more engaged over time.
“She did a stellar job in her student teaching class. ... I was just like, ‘Wow,’” Howard said. But when Howard went to Shroff to advocate for Smith at one point, she said he told her Smith wasn’t “participating in his class at all.”
Shimazaki said Shroff told her about the police investigation in June 2017; the next month, she said, he spoke with her and others about transferring the business to them. In early August 2018, Shimazaki said Shroff would be transferring the business to her and another student, though it wasn’t yet complete; she said he would assist as an adviser. On Friday, she said she wouldn’t be taking over. Shroff didn’t reply to an inquiry last week about who owned the business.
The transfer had nothing to do with Smith’s allegation, Shroff said.
Smith closes her police statement saying: “I do not want this to happen to anyone else. It was as though he was taking advantage of his role as the instructor to engage in the inappropriate massage.”
‘We Cannot Rely on Karma Alone’
To help do that, Roche said Yoga Alliance was recommending studios set up reporting processes. That’s what Kissiah, the lawyer and yoga philosophy teacher, thinks will make an impact -- but right now is “absolutely lacking.”
Studios should have a code of conduct and a hotline or an email address where students can contact an independent ethics committee, he said. “That recommendation is really nothing other than applying what's very common in corporate America to the world of yoga studios.”
“What most studios have done is either nothing or they have referred to the ethical code in the Yoga Sutras,” which is general and doesn't provide “guidance in the modern context,” he said. “Often what happens is one of these situations arises and there's this huge panic because they simply don't have the structure or the means to deal with it.”
Herrington urged studios to post a code of ethics and have a place to report abuse. “We cannot rely on karma alone,” she wrote in a 2017 New York Times op-ed.
For Smith, such a reporting process didn’t exist -- and it’s part of the reason she wanted to share her story: to push for this kind of change. Her alleged assailant also was the head of the studio, complicating her reporting of his behavior.
Shroff said mediation was offered and he would have attended; Smith said she was initially interested but changed her mind due to her experience in college after she was raped. She said she didn't get anything from mediation then and questioned if the teachers would take on the person paying them.
West had the same concerns.
“I felt if I went against Manos I would be going against a big organization ... against the Iyengar family themselves” because of his close ties to B.K.S. Iyengar, the founder of Iyengar, West said. “There will be a sense of betrayal. ... that I'm betraying Iyengar yoga and I'm betraying the Iyengar family.”
‘It Was a Bloodbath’
Camp, owner of Flying Studios in Oakland, has twice fired teachers over sexual harassment allegations, which almost put her out of business -- both times.
“There was a huge backlash and a huge loss of income and a huge loss of community,” she said after the first dismissal. “Open letter on my Facebook about how I needed to hire this person back or these students would never come back. It was a bloodbath. And then it happened again.”
Lisa Maria, a yoga instructor in the Bay Area who has written about sexual misconduct in the community, said studios have removed teachers from the schedule following complaints.
“In my experience, this seems to be getting better,” Maria said. “People are much more willing to talk about it now, and I think people are seeing responses from studios about it.”
SoulPlay Festivals, which organizes events around yoga, dance, personal growth and more, stresses safety, touch and consent at its gatherings: Presenters offer frequent reminders about it, the group has an online form to report misconduct, and staff are on site to handle allegations, said Romi Elan, founder and CEO of SoulPlay Festivals.
“It's that feeling of safety ... is what allows people to open up, open themselves up to having a very profound and deep experience,” he said.
Other studios and groups haven’t adopted such strategies.
Sometimes studio owners won't do anything about teachers accused of sexual misconduct because they’re a popular instructor, said Lasater. Or if they do fire them, “then the teacher just goes down the road and teaches somewhere else,” she said.
“Yoga teachers can reinvent themselves over and over and over again because of the ability to move from place to place,” Lisa Maria said.
Some students have left their studio -- or even given up the practice of yoga -- after misconduct or abuse. The latter was the case for some of the women who responded to KQED’s callout for #MeToo stories.
Herrington said she stopped attending classes taught by her favorite teacher after he began sending her sexually explicit messages on social media.
“Often what happens is that the student disappears and goes to another community. You lose your community. Because if somebody is running the show, and they're doing the misuse of power, where are you going to go?” she said.
The only thing that can stop a teacher who is sexually abusing students is if the studio owner takes action or if the victim goes the legal route, said Lasater. “They (the victim) have to be the one that shoulders all the burden,” she said.
And yet there’s not much that law enforcement can do: Most sex assault cases don’t make it into the criminal courts, said Kristen Houser, a spokeswoman at the National Sexual Violence Resource Center.
The challenge for prosecutors in pursuing these cases can be convincing jurors beyond a reasonable doubt that a crime occurred, especially when there aren’t other witnesses -- if it happened one on one, which could trigger a “he said/she said” scenario, said Mary Ashley, an assistant district attorney in San Bernardino County whose work has included sexual battery cases.
“It doesn’t mean it didn’t happen,” she said. Even if “a jury says, ‘Well, I kind of believe her but I don't totally disbelieve him,’ the law at least criminally will say you have to give favor to the defendant.”
‘This Happened to Me, and I’m a Teacher’
It began, she said, with an unwelcome remark.
Ekong, 42, of San Rafael, was taking a class in November 2017 at the studio where she worked. She’d just taken her sweatshirt off when the teacher, Allan Nett looked at her, she recalled, and said: “This is what I get to look at the whole time.” (Nett denied saying that, noting he said, “Now I can see you” -- meaning it would help him give her correct adjustments. He said he had no intention of objectifying her body or being sexual.)
The comment unnerved Ekong, she said, but she continued with the practice -- though later, she said, he adjusted her legs while she was in the lunge pose of Warrior 2.
“He came behind me and put his hands on my legs close to my genitals and he abruptly pulled my legs apart,” she said. “I came out of the pose. I tried to kind of neutralize or equalize because I could feel something was off.” (Nett said given his stature -- 5-foot-3, 120 pounds -- and that at the time he was awaiting an open heart operation, he didn’t have the strength, energy or size to “abruptly” pull her legs apart.)
Something was off: According to medical records, Ekong's doctor found she’d sustained a leg/groin injury, suffering bruising and soft tissue injuries. A week after the alleged assault, her doctor wrote, she had “significant swelling and several very tender areas where the instructor’s hands were placed as well as the surrounding tissues.”
Nett, 72, said he asks permission from students before he touches them, and Ekong said she had given him the OK earlier in the class to make adjustments.
“I put one hand just above the knee on the inner thigh and the other hand above the knee on the outer thigh ... to demonstrate and have the student feel the rotation that the pose requires to bring the hips into alignment,” he said. “So I've got hands above her knee -- one hand on the inside, one hand on the outside -- and I've got a good grip there and I'm starting to roll that thigh backwards.”
He said he “thought that she understood the action that I was asking for in the pose as she came up. There was not any kind of indication that she injured herself or that there was injury going on.”
As of today, Ekong said she still can’t practice yoga. She said she goes weekly to physical and trauma therapies, and sees her doctor every few weeks.
“There are some days my body just hurts,” she said. “And really basic things are not so basic.” Like putting on shoes. Walking. Straightening her legs. It has also been hard to sit, including cross-legged -- one of the most common poses in yoga.
The emotional wounds run deep, too, for Ekong, who began practicing in 1999 and teaching in 2006.
“Every day, my close friends, students and peers, they ask me, how are you healing? I don’t know what to tell them,” she wrote to the national Iyengar yoga association.
“How do I tell them at some moments I’m OK and then I’m in tears. How do I explain that this morning I was so angry that I wanted to scream out loud, that I wonder if I’ll ever be able to practice yoga asana again or feel safe as a student in the yoga studio? That I wonder daily if I still want to be a teacher and part of a larger systemic issue that elevates the teacher and lessens the wisdom of the student,” she continued in the letter.
“I don’t know if it involves teaching, but yoga will always be a part of my life. But I can’t say what that looks like,” she said. “There’s some part of me that has been taken away that I’m still trying to find again.”
Nett, an instructor of more than 25 years who hasn’t been teaching recently due to his surgery, said he was let go from the studio, which KQED isn’t naming due to Ekong’s concern that it’s her place of employment. The studio said it could not comment on specific employee matters.
“All I can say is, 'Gee whiz, I'm sorry that you got injured in my class.’ But I think there's more to this story than anybody's ever going to know,” he said in an hour-long phone call with KQED, adding that he felt there were enough “little inconsistencies” in Ekong’s description of the injuries that “I really question the truth of it all."
“As she has described it, I find it difficult to accept that she was injured. It was possibly a pre-existing weakness, combined with the strong posture of Warrior II that strained,” he said. But he also noted: “There's certainly some truth in it and I'm not saying that she was not injured.”
About five years ago, Nett said one of his students complained about inappropriate touch (not of a sexual nature; she just didn’t want to be touched) to a studio owner in Oakland: “I took it to heart,” he said, and modified his behavior.
Touch is an important part of learning, Nett said: “By moving a muscle manually the body understands it, and you don't have to think about it." But he has decided to stop offering adjustments.
“This has been traumatic. And I'm sure it's traumatic for her,” he said.
Immediately after the incident, Ekong withdrew from her friends and yoga community. She said she felt like she was wearing a scarlet letter “A,” was somehow to blame for what happened, and that her studio was no longer her home.
Then, she knew she had to speak out. She contacted the studio, Central Marin police and the national Iyengar yoga association.
“I think it’s important that you know this is happening, because if this happened to me and I’m a teacher, imagine what’s really happening and people aren’t saying anything,” she recalled telling the studio.
She and Nett said IYNAUS is reviewing her complaint (the group declined to comment about the case, citing confidentiality).
The Central Marin police said in an email that there was no mention of sexual assault when Ekong’s report was made, and since it “was not criminal in nature,” it did not meet the criteria for referral to the DA. The matter, police said, was left to the studio to handle; Ekong said she intends to file a supplemental report to police.
‘Most Victims Don’t Report’
“I was completely uncomfortable and I was still dealing with the fact that he did not vaginally insert me. He 'just touched me,'” Smith said.
A number of the women who contacted KQED with their stories didn’t report right away to law enforcement or others what happened -- or only partially reported it.
Such behavior isn’t unusual: When sexual misconduct is reported, partial or delayed reporting -- or inconsistencies in such reports -- are “the norm and it should be expected,” said Houser.
“Through our eyes, that bolsters the validity of complaints,” she added. Few people make prompt complaints, include all of the details, and consistently tell it the same way. “That's not how traumatic events are processed and stored in our bodies and in our brains.”
While 81 percent of women and 43 percent of men in the U.S. reported experiencing some form of sexual harassment and/or assault in their lifetime, only one in 10 women -- and one in 20 men -- filed an official complaint or report to an authority figure, including a police report, according to a January 2018 Stop Street Harassment online survey of 2,000 people.
Most victims don't report, or hold off doing so, for a variety of reasons. But they “all fall under the large umbrella of: They don’t trust the rest of us to respond appropriately,” said Houser.
Those reasons, she said, include fear of being disbelieved, blamed or having their privacy violated through gossip. Some people fear repercussions in their home life or their social circles, which often include the assailant.
“People often keep it to themselves, not to mention it's a very confusing thing when somebody that you know and trust violates that trust,” Houser said.
When asked what was holding people back from reporting abuse in yoga, Brathen said: “I think the biggest piece is fear of being alienated from this community that means so much to us.” That community built through yoga, she said, is “sacred” and such an “important part of the practice.”
‘I Trusted Yoga So I Trusted Him’
She was then 17, in the summer before her first year in college; he was twice her age. She said she had a crush on him and thought he liked her, too.
Over the next few months, she said her teacher groomed her to have sex with him: In a number of text messages, he said he had something to tell her, but to do that, they had to meet in person and in private. (The teenager, who didn’t want to be identified out of concerns for her privacy and safety, shared the Facebook and text messages with KQED).
“He wanted to meet me alone so he could explain why everything had to be so secretive and he would always say it will all make sense once we get to chat in person,” she said. “I am a kid but I'm not dumb. And I knew the obvious reasons, which were that you don't want people to think that you fuck your students and I'm really young.”
One of his text messages read: “I know I sound like some kind of criminal or something but it would be great if we could hang out in a place that is not so public.” Another one read: “Any place that is low key so we aren’t seen.”
Early on, she expressed reservations about connecting outside the classroom. She’d blossomed in yoga: It helped ease her anxiety and made her feel safe, capable and independent. “I was convinced that I wanted to be a yoga teacher. It was my whole thing,” she said. “I considered it a big defining part of who I was.”
But he assured her, in text messages, that she could keep coming to classes.
Eventually, they did meet outside the studio -- a week before her 18th birthday.
She said he invited her to a bar in a quiet Bay Area community, where he bought her several drinks (she had a fake ID), and then he took her to a hotel, where they smoked hashish. She recalled being “very intoxicated and a little woozy” before they had sex.
In a nearly two-hour interview with KQED, the teacher said he didn’t have sex with her and that he left her with two of his friends in the hotel room whom he declined to identify; the police report said it was clear from the text messages that the pair did have a sexual relationship, “however brief,” and no mention was made of his friends. The teen said he didn’t have friends with him.
The teacher also said the teenager told him she was 18; she said her birthday -- including year -- was listed on Facebook, and though she at one point told him in a SMS that she was 18, she said she thought he knew her real age and they were both “going to pretend” she was 18. The police also noted that she had not told him her real age but said she was 18.
After their encounter, she said he left the hotel a short time later but it took months for her to realize what had happened: “I was basically sexually abused and manipulated.”
“I felt dumb for thinking that because he was my yoga teacher and because he was so much older than me -- because he was my spiritual counselor in some ways -- that he wouldn't take advantage of me,” she said.
“I trusted yoga so I trusted him,” she said. “I shouldn't have made that connection.”
When she came back home from college to the Bay Area, she planned to tell her mom -- only to find out she had gone through her phone and seen the messages.
The teen’s mom said she called some studios where he taught to report the teacher; he said one let him go and he assumed it was because of the mother’s calls. Another studio owner said they let him go because of the allegations.
The teacher said it had been “one really long hard struggle” after the teen -- who he called “just a fuckin’ girl” -- went to the police.
“I’ll just say that her mom tried really hard to make my life extremely hard and she succeeded,” he said. “I’ve lost a lot of sleep over this and been hurt ... I’ve had to ask some people for support.”
The teenager decided to come forward with her story after learning that a second student, Leah Tumerman, 36, had accused the teacher of threatening earlier this year that he and his partner should “Bill Cosby her.” Tumerman told police she understood this to mean “he would drug and rape me.”
Tumerman, a longtime student of the teacher, said she became scared of him and his change in personality. The pair had gotten into a conversation about food over text message, and the discussion somehow took a turn, she said. The teacher denied making the comment but said they did argue about food. Tumerman, an artist from Richmond, filed a police report for documentation purposes only.
The teen’s case was forwarded to the DA’s office, which declined to prosecute.
‘You Have to Face the Shame of Your Complicity’
In December, Yoga Alliance issued a statement on sexual misconduct in the yoga community. In January, it released Roche’s video and a podcast on the topic, and weeks later published sexual misconduct disciplinary procedures and a policy on its website. In early September, the group said it could “confirm that we have suspended and revoked credentials under our new policy.”
“In this #MeToo moment, we too must act,” Roche, of Yoga Alliance, said in the video. “There’s a deeply troubling pattern of misconduct within our community, a pattern that touches almost every tradition in modern yoga. To definitively turn the page on that history, we must openly acknowledge the issue of sexual misconduct in yoga.”
Remski, the yoga teacher and culture critic, said Roche’s message to the yoga community heralded a “sea change moment.”
“It puts the entire culture on notice that this is a thing. It's not dirty laundry anymore. It's totally out in the open,” he said. “With one sentence, she implicated the entire culture as having enabled this and that's what hasn't been done yet. ... Nobody has looked at it as a systemic problem -- because when you look at it as a systemic problem, you have to face the shame of your complicity.”
Lasater said she was very supportive of Yoga Alliance’s efforts but felt the community still has a long way to go.
“If teachers don't have true consequences, what is going to cause them to change their behavior?” she said. “Nothing.”
Brathen, or Yoga Girl, said she was “torn” over Yoga Alliance’s initial solutions.
“I am still very unclear as to what action will be taken at the end of the day,” she said. “If the worst thing that can happen to you as a perpetrator is that your name gets taken off the website, I don't think that that's going to do a whole lot.”
In early August, Brathen published her second series of #MeToo stories. She wrote how tough it was to expel the alleged sexual harassers and abusers from the community.
A Stone, a Token: The New Conversation on Touch Consent
Students would place such an object on top or below their mat to signal if a teacher could touch them, said Remski.
“The yoga room has been a space of implied consent. And that is no longer the case. The politics, the techniques, the methods of consent are now fully part of yoga discourse,” Remski said. “It undoes something profound in the last 100 years of yoga pedagogy, which is the notion that the teachers should decide what the student needs or what they should do.”
The growing use of the tokens has broader implications, too.
“The #MeToo movement also signifies a solidification of the change in leadership in modern yoga from men to women because those tokens ... are the latest generation of what women started using about 10 or 12 years ago in small studios,” he said. “It's a grass-roots idea that has worked its way up.”
Teachers now typically ask students at the beginning of class to let them know if they want adjustments or not, and some instructors are holding workshops on touch and consent.
Bayley Blackney hosted such a gathering at a studio in Capitola in late March.
“Touch is something that I’m so passionate about. It’s love language and I am very, very passionate about creating a safe touch,” she said. “Now is the time to really offer this.”
‘I Lost a Large Chunk of My Life’
The women that KQED interviewed experienced all of this and more as they grappled with what they said their teachers did to them.
“Sometimes I'm really angry because I feel like I lost a large chunk of my life living in a cloud that I didn't realize I was in until I got out of it,” Smith said.
She has experienced panic attacks, anxiety and days where she couldn’t get out of bed. Thirty-one percent of women and 20 percent of men felt anxiety or depression after experiencing sexual harassment and assault, according to Stop Street Harassment.
Smith still doesn’t have her teacher certificate, although Shroff said in a July 17 email that she’d met the requirements. Smith said she has an outstanding payment that she can’t bring herself to pay because she'd regret "paying to be abused."
As for the teen, she said it’s been a hard reckoning for her.
“I was fresh out of high school and I slept with someone literally twice my age -- like halfway between me and my parents,” she said. “It took my innocence away.”
Tumerman, who alleged the same teacher involved in the teen’s case had threatened to “Bill Cosby” her, hasn’t returned to yoga. Her last time was in his class, after the threat.
“I was still processing the change, my new understanding of my teacher,” she said in explaining why she attended the class. “I practiced with my eyes closed the entire time. ... I couldn't look at him. The sound of his voice was making me shake.
“I did my practice and I rolled up my mat and left the room. And I haven't seen him since,” she added.
Ekong said: “My life is forever changed.” She has decided to leave the Bay Area.
“It’s not home. I can’t heal here,” she said. "I don't want to worry about running into him or students asking when are you going to come back to teach."
As for West, she said she has removed herself to the “outskirts” of the Iyengar yoga community and attends classes only with the one teacher she can trust.
“Yoga isn't a safe space for me anymore. And it used to be,” she said. “I would take workshops and go to conventions and travel to India. And none of that is happening anymore. I have no interest in it.
“What had been my life is now no longer my life.”
Edited by David Weir and Patricia Yollin