Ethics & Behavior in AcroYoga

AcroYoga with Chris Filkins

A Followup On “Have You Experienced Inappropriate Behavior from Others in AcroYoga?”

November 5, 2014

Several days ago I wrote a short note on the topic of the crossing of sexual boundaries in the practice of AcroYoga. It received quite a response. It seems apparent from the wide range of very emphatic responses that this topic touches a nerve. The crossing of personal boundaries clearly brings to the fore some issues for which others, beyond our little working group here in Santa Monica, share a concern.

I have learned a lot as a result of many confidential conversations as a result of writing this and sharing it publicly. And have had some time to reflect on both what I have learned and the perspectives which have been shared with me. So I wanted to follow up on my original note with further information on what I have learned and some of my own perspectives on it.

This is a vent. First of all I want to stress how much I resent all of this. Seriously. I resent the perpetrators and everything involved in this. I really don’t want to deal with it. I try really hard to stick to my own stuff. I dislike very much getting involved in other folks issues and lives. It’s ridiculous to me that this should be an issue. But clearly it is. My parents taught me, for whatever good it’s done me, that if someone asks for your help you give it. When I was originally asked for help dealing with a difficult situation I had no idea that it would take up so much of my time for many months. In the past week or so since I wrote that piece I have been talking to a whole new bunch of people; both those who have been subjected to this behavior and those who pull this bullshit. I assure you, those that pull this bullshit, that no matter how understanding or cooperative I might seem there is a part of me that resents the crap out of you for bringing this into my life. If you are one of those pulling this crap and you are posting about how much you respect others and want to live in love and peace I see right through you. I have seen all the comments on all the shares of what I wrote and I know about your behavior and I know the hypocrisy you write. End rant.

So here’s a quote I have received in the last few days:

“The evening was winding down and people were engaged in Thai massage, so I thai massaged him. Then he suggested that we go to the [other room] where there was more space. We walked into the deserted [other room] and the next thing I knew he had me up against a wall, his lips locked on mine and his exposed hard-on pressing against me. I was appalled and pulled away. He looked at me and actually requested oral sex. I refused. After that I avoided him, and we never actually did acro together.”

This happened at a jam open to an AcroYoga community. This is an event that most of the community knows about, it’s details are posted on social media, and many from outside the community attend when they are in town. The fellow here is a well respected member of the international yoga and acroyoga communities. I have received several complaints about his behavior. Perhaps this was a case of missed communication cues. Perhaps she simply misconstrued his intentions and actions prior to this. Perhaps he hers. But what is this doing at a jam where the purpose of the gathering is to participate in acrobatics and community building? Seriously, even giving everyone the benefit of the doubt, why is this type of behavior even on the table for a community jam?

Here’s another one: “Even though he know she was with me, he aggressively tried to pursue her there, frequently touching her in inappropriate ways and offering her massages. She was creeped out.”

This is from the friend and partner of a woman who subsequently left the community as a result of this behavior. As I understand it this was her first encounter with the community and she had been very excited to get involved. The male partner who reported this to me had to watch his friend experience this. Subsequently he is now left with a very bad impression of the boundary crossing fellow and now will not attend classes, workshops, or jams where the offender is present.

Here’s another one: “He sits right in front on me and straddle stretches too, and pushes his crotch closer and closer to mine all the while grazing his hands up my legs.”

This was the end result of many overtures from this fellow, another well respected member of the community, who had been turned down repeatedly by this woman. She had been involved in a long term relationship with someone else and all parties involved knew about this. The fellow here brought his inability to keep his hands to himself and his continued inability to be told no by multiple people into a training space where this type of behavior had no place. This woman subsequently removed herself from the community.

Here’s another one: “Not only had his hands on my ass (not hips) but also had a couple of fingers between my legs on my crotch.”

This is from a classroom environment. This woman subsequently removed herself from the community because of this and other behaviors. She and others have complained to me about how often this particular fellow found his fingers and hands on their crotch. Once again this is from a well respected member of the community who has had more than enough training to know that you do not spot from the crotch. If this were reported once then sure perhaps its an accident. Flyers fall and sometimes a spotter will end up being in the way of some intimate part of the body. But this particular spotter has been reported to find his hand into crotch way too many times for this to be an accident.

Okay that’s all I am going to share. Let that sit a bit.

What I know now:

  1. I have talked to 23 flyers who have experienced this type of behavior both in and outside of Los Angeles.
  2. The number of bases who have been accused of this type of behavior is now up to 9 – some of these people are certified teachers.
  3. I have learned of this type of behavior negatively effecting 6 different cities in the United States.
  4. I have helped several of those who have been treated to this type of abuse to connect with other members of their community who have as well because they did not know with whom in their community it was safe to talk.

We as a community need to do something about this. It seems apparent to me that there are a number of things which can be done easily. There are some other things which can be done which will take time and effort.

First of all I want to touch on jams. There are circumstances which create a dangerous setting for boundary crossing at jams. It seems very clear from all the interviews I have done that 2 simple things enable predators in a way which is not healthy to individuals involved nor to the community as a whole.

One is the lighting. If the lighting in a space where a jam is being held is dim it creates an environment where predators feel enabled to stick their hands where they aren’t welcome because they have little fear of anyone seeing them. It seems clear from all that I have learned that jams held where the light is bright and everyone involved can see everyone else then predators are very unlikely to expose themselves to being caught trying to force their hands under clothing or into intimate spaces.

Two is sound. If the sound in a space where a jam is being held is too loud it creates an environment where predators feel enabled to prey on their partners. If the music is so loud that you can’t speak clearly at a regular volume then anyone who speaks up will be unheard by those around them. I have been told repeatedly by flyers about situations where they did speak up and even raised their voice to say NO to the groping of a base but noone around them could hear their voice and the predator ignored them. If a predator feels its clear that his/her actions won’t be seen or that a victims calling out of NO won’t be heard then abuse is far more likely to occur.

So to those who hold jams let me say this: IF YOU ARE DIMMING THE LIGHTS AND/OR PLAYING LOUD MUSIC YOU ARE DOING IT WRONG! Not only do you enable predators by this but you also make it appear that either you are a predator or that you condone that behavior. Stop it.

You are of course free to rationalize this and/or argue these basic points. I am suggesting what I see is true.

In my previous note I wrote the following: “[A]ccording to my understanding, none of the leading organizations in AcroYoga seem to have a coherent, systematic, or adhered to method for educating its teachers and practitioners on the subject of sexual boundaries and personal safety. Nor do they seem to have a system in place for dealing with such complaints about teachers or practitioners.”

This was met with quite a big response from quite a few certified teachers from several different schools. Some of these responses were made in public on social media and some were private notes sent to me personally and some were sent to our common email address given to seek feedback for the entire project here in Los Angeles. The basic themes in these responses came down to either of these two:

In my classes, workshops, and offerings I always make clear boundaries are to be respected, personal responsibility, etc.
Our teacher training at, (insert your particular AcroYoga organization), includes very clear discussions on this topic. You must be mistaken or talking about those other guys.

On the first one I have to say bravo, good for you! I think if information about definitions, boundaries, and permission given to say no were given in more circumstances this issue wouldn’t be such a big one that seems to effect so many communities. One teacher wrote me to share:

“I taught an acro class yesterday, and based largely on this conversation, right after opening circle, gave a brief 411 on acro touch, intimate touch, sexual touch, and meta, and what we were going to be doing there. I also asked how many people were body workers and thus were familiar with touching people compassionately in intimate or sensitive locations; half were, so that helped too as a touchpoint.

I must say, it qualitatively changed the class for the better, and also changed my relation to the students in a very good way. There were still the jokes from time to time as faces slammed into crotches or boobs almost flew out of upsidedown sports bras, but it was all in a very good-humored and playful energy.”

So if nothing else this conversation can produce good results such as that. And here’s another great one from Ryan Earls & Nosa Edebor in Houston

“A Letter to the Houston AcroYoga Community –

Hey Everyone! I know this isn’t a super fun issue to talk about but I think it’s important that it be addressed. Those of us who are AcroYoga teachers in Houston work really hard to provide awesome experience and fun learning environments for all of our students. However, unfortunately sometimes people accidentally cross boundaries or take advantage of situations. Luckily, in Houston, we have a pretty great community and we want to take preemptive steps to keep it that way.

Nosa Edebor and myself have talked about the issue. As bases, AcroYoga teachers, and therefore ambassadors of AcroYoga the community, we want to take an assertive stance on the issue. If anyone, male or female, ever has a problem with any inappropriate behavior in classes, jams, or otherwise – immediately bring it to either Nosa’s or my attention. You can find us here on Facebook or our contact details on I promise we will take the issue very seriously, use the upmost discretion, protect your privacy and advocate to rectify any problems. AcroYoga is an awesome practice and no one should ever have to feel uncomfortable in this way.”

This stuff is incredibly valuable. Just knowing that there are people in the community who care about this stuff can do enormous good for those new to the practice.

But, and I want to stress this, some of this can be self serving. I have heard from teachers whom I know and/or whom I have trained with that this is something they do. Yet these same teachers are people whom I have heard these same accusations against. Or I have checked their public record on both their websites and much of their social media footprint and do not find anything related to this topic. It’s as though they are speaking because my note last week put them on the spot but in reality this hasn’t been an issue to address for them up until now. That’s ok. But walk the walk. Don’t just talk the talk.

Now on to the second larger point. This is very disheartening in so many ways. First of all what I have learned about each school is that there is no consistency. I have been told the following by a large number of teachers who attended trainings from all the major orgs:

Our teacher training –

  1. Did not include any discussion of intimacy, boundaries, & sexual behavior. Nothing about this was touched on in any way.
  2. Did include some general discussion of intimacy, boundaries, & sexual behavior. It was a small portion of what we covered and basically we were told if someone is accused of something and its warranted get the police involved and or make sure the offender is not welcome to participate in my events.
  3. Did include a wide ranging discussion of intimacy, boundaries, & sexual behavior. It was a small portion of what we covered, the conversation was interesting, but no concrete guidelines were given.
  4. Did include a discussion of sexual intimacy, boundaries, & sexual behavior. This was shared by the entire group of teachers then we were split into male and female groups and given another discussion on the topic. The messages relayed to us in the gender differentiated groups was different.
  5. Did include a discussion of sexual intimacy, boundaries, & sexual behavior in gender differentiated groups. These groups did not know the other group had a meeting to discuss this.
  6. Did include a discussion of sexual intimacy, boundaries, & sexual behavior in gender differentiated groups. These groups did know the other group had a meeting to discuss this.
  7. Did include a discussion of sexual intimacy, boundaries, & sexual behavior in a whole grouping. Subsequently the men were involved in a completely different talk but there was no matching female group.

The topics covered in these talks range from:

  1. Discussions of the word DOWN & NO, power relationships between teacher and student, power relationships between bases and flyers, practicing consent & boundaries. to…….
  2. Crowing of male teachers in men only environments about the flyers they have bagged. Discussions about the power wielded as a teacher and base and how to follow your heart and be careful.

In short some of these messages are probably very healthy for a teacher training. Others I would suggest are not.

It seems very clear to me that if teachers are being taught:

  1. By example that sex with students, fellow teachers, and teacher trainees is ok but they should be careful.
  2. That if this physical practice is marketed as being “loved up” & part of the practice is “desert”.
  3. That if jams and community events are being held in unsafe situations where potential partners can be hidden away or silenced through darkness and noise.

That it is a recipe for disaster.

What seems clear though is that all of this is inconsistent. If the leaders of an organization are proclaiming they have guidelines for teaching this topic to their students they should be able to point to public documents which lay out these guidelines and teachings so the entire community understands that they mean what they say. If these topics were consistently taught as part of teacher training then I shouldn’t have found that every teacher I interviewed gave me a different answer about what training they received on the topic. It seems pretty clear to me that they may have not all shared it exactly the same but they certainly would have agreed on a lot more than what I found.

I don’t know what the answer is and I am not here to accuse anyone. But I do know that from what I gather the existing AcroYoga organizations could do a much better job of approaching these issues if they so desired. That they don’t seems, in my opinion, to contribute to an environment where the stuff I quoted above can take place.

It seems clear to me that we are approaching a tipping point where the practice I love will begin spilling over into the culture at large. I am seeing a very large number of noobs coming into the practice. Most of these people are wonderful and amazing people. But some are coming in because they see this practice as a way to get their hands on some booty. Between those already in the practice modeling bad behavior and those coming in seeing this as a honeypot for sexual partners we are at a crossroads where we stand to have a John Friend moment in acro if community agreements and definitions about safety are not promulgated to the best of our ability.

I know that I am not alone in saying that I want my flyers and friends and students and teachers to have a great time and to be free to play and touch each other in whatever way they see fit. I also want to feel safe and secure in my body and have all those I work with to feel the same. I see all the stuff I have outlined above to be a part of the problems which are starting to pop up with increasing frequency in my community and others. The leaders of this community and all of us involved have an obligation and responsibility to tackle these issues head on and to not let others be abused and victimized to such an extent they must leave the community to stay safe.

I am calling on you to do something about this in your community. Thanks for your time.

Chris Filkins

Here’s the link to the previous note:

Please note that the comments here are provided stripped of any context. Every effort has been made to ensure the privacy of all involved. The intent behind this is not to create an us versus them situation. It is to engender a wide ranging conversation which will, I hope, produce some improvements across the board for our various communities.

Also please note that these quotes are not attributable to the same person or do they all speak to the behavior of one person. I tried to give a representative sample of what I have encountered.