Accountability Or Apologia? Reading Between the Lines When Yoga and Buddhism Leaders Issue Crisis Statements
Many of today’s leaders in yoga and Buddhism built themselves through online marketing. This means that when abuse in their communities is revealed, they must be prepared to make online responses. It’s good to be able to see where the responses are continuous with the marketing: this may give clues as to how earnest, considered and educated those responses are.
The speed at which it all happens is both terrible and revealing. Terrible insofar as it suppresses sober second thought. Revealing because it lays bare microdynamics of cultic control that in the pre-digital age were invisible outside of the group. Today we can watch cults get penetrated by reporting and instantly try to circle the wagons. It’s easy to see the crude damage control of the attempt to discredit victims or reporters. What’s harder to see is how the reporting can be deflected by selective acknowledgement or yes-but statements. Whatever the responses are, they play out in the open field, like some kind of cult-exit obstacle course reality show.
We have to learn the difference between structural change and rebranding. Especially as people are getting better at co-opting and monetizing discourses around trauma-awareness and justice. There’s a lot of leaders in the Shambhala org right now who will be ramping up the trauma awareness language and dusting off their Naropa psychology chops. But if they don’t simultaneously call for the Sakyong to be removed and the org to be investigated independently, they are abusing that language and those tools. This may not at all be their fault. They may be under the illusion that those values actually came from the Trungpa legacy, instead of having been co-opted by it.
I’ve learned a lot about this through discussing the responses to the Jois revelations with Karen Rain. She’s really good at sniffing out when sober accountability pivots into self-inflation, what-about-me-ism, and wagon circling. She had to learn that in order to determine whether a space or encounter was safe. Here are some tips that have evolved from our conversations:
1. Look at the narrative arc of an acknowledgement statement. If it starts out expressing empathy for victims but then shifts to reaffirm the value of the abuser’s legacy, ask yourself “Why are those two things together?”
2. Look for self-aggrandizement in the statement, distinguishing how the speaker is so much more careful than the disgraced leader. This misses the point.
3. Look for the gambit of psychologically distancing oneself from what happened with statements like “I never saw him as a Guru.” If the person has materially profited by association, internal semantics aren’t that important.
4. Suss out the knee-jerk reasoning around “separating the teacher from the teaching”. It’s not so simple. It’s probably impossible. And chances are good the speaker is economically or socially dependent on the teaching structures, so the reasoning is highly motivated.
5. If the org lied about the teacher, ask if it also lied about the teachings. There’s usually pretty strong overlap.
6. Tune in to minimization and false equivalencies. “We’re all human.” Yes, but not all of us run or enable cults and break harassment, assault, and labour laws in the service of “crazy wisdom”.
7. If the speaker has family connections within the organization, imagine that for as much as they’re speaking about the org they are also negotiating a family crisis, with all of its compromises, in public.
8. Relatedly, if the speaker has logged many years in the org, their statement will always be a complex tight-rope walk between public discourse and in-group messaging. Be aware that with the latter task the speaker has to position themselves within a quickly-devolving social and economic landscape, often re-negotiating long-term relationships or finding out that old friends weren’t actually friends at all. They’re under a lot of stress. They might be looking for new jobs, or tuition costs of going back to grad school without health insurance. Don’t expect clarity.
9. Look for how the boundary blur between private and public selves drives the speaker into an unconscious narcissism. Mainstream yoga and Buddhism runs on the en masse commodification of the confessional voice, on the marketing of vulnerability and openness. This is at the heart of personal branding – it’s *personal*. When there are structural or institutional responsibilities at hand, however, your personal journey isn’t the thing to centre. This is hard to learn if you’ve been paid for the performance of personal transparency. Bottom line: if you make money from a wealthy yoga or Buddhism brand, you don’t get to have JUST a personal take on the issue. This is because your personal take is automatically becomes social guidance for your closest followers. “These are my personal views only” doesn’t cut it. If you are successful as a spiritual teacher it is because a lot of people want to have your personal views as their own.
10. Tune in to how a group will change the channel. Fundraisers are always a good idea. Who can argue with raising money for a great cause? Members can be enthusiastic about a cause and not recognize that it can be a subtle form of brand-washing, if internal problems remain unaddressed. It’s a lot harder to raise money for outside consulting and independent ethics review.
11. If the speaker references the wisdom of the in-group as a tool for restorative justice, read up on what Jennifer Freyd describes as “Institutional Betrayal”. Victims of Catholic priest abuse don’t need sermons delivered by people wearing the same robes as the abuser. They need victim’s services.
12. If a speaker is not reaching for independent resources to understand what has happened and how it can be rectified, there’s little chance that either will occur. This is because a primary mechanism of cult dynamics is information control. The speaker got into the mess they’re in by having shut out independent resources to begin with.
13. If the speaker can’t seem to avoid “yes but” pivots, you have to question whether they really are “finding comfort in uncertainty”, or “owning their vulnerability.”
14. #13 becomes extra complicated if “finding comfort in uncertainty” has actually been mobilized to encourage members to do nothing at all. We have to ask when and if meditations on “No Mud, No Lotus”, on “Full Catastrophe Living” or on “When Things Fall Apart” are being used to pacify and reabsorb the member on the edge of leaving by saying: yes we’re all flawed, all flaws are the same, let’s work on these flaws together. Again, Freyd is excellent on this.
15. Look at how the commenters respond. Try to feel into statements like “Oh _____, I’m so glad you’ve come out with such as wise and compassionate statement and view. It really puts my mind at ease in this difficult time.” This might be an entirely earnest reflection, but it is also a sign that the regrouping part of the original statement has done its work. Order cannot simply be re-established. It has to be changed.
I’ve taken a lot of criticism for pointing out stuff like this. Usually I’m told that it’s not good to shame people who are trying to make accountability statements. I get that, which is why I try to identify trends instead of naming names. It’s not easy to negotiate a personal crisis in public. But that’s part of the problem. The whole yoga/Buddhism industry has to recognize the difference between private revelation and public care. This is a challenge for any privatized religion. Holding a public statement up to critical analysis is not incompatible with nurturing personal empathy for its speaker. Ideally, these positions should nurture each other.
Your list is right on, Matthew. Once I realized where you were going with it, as an Ashtanga teacher, I consciously hoped that I wasn’t guilty of any of the cover-up responses to Pattabhi Jois’ criminality. At the same time, I thought my concern was more about you than me. I’ve done a lot of soul searching when it comes to my connection to P.J. I think you still have a lot of work to do regarding Michael Roach. Like Agent Starling in Silence of the Lambs, I sometimes wonder if you ever really “turn that high-powered perception on yourself.” Maybe you do. But even if you don’t, today, I’m grateful for your list, and I’m especially grateful for point number 3. I read it, and very quickly realized you were right. Even when I was studying with P.J. I never thought of him as a guru, much less my guru, and though I began declaring that fact publicly in the late 90s–way before the scandal–it doesn’t matter. In context of me continuing to teach Ashtanga, the declaration is politically manipulative. So I will stop using it as a way to distance myself from a disgraced teacher. In turn, I hope you will be a bit more discerning in respect to whether or not it’s possible to “separate the teacher from the teaching.” You state that it’s “probably impossible.” Really? So Michael Roach can’t be separated from Buddhism? Come on, Matthew, you know better than that. You know that a claim like that only further aggrandizes him. Obviously, Buddhism goes merrily along without him. And every day, whether or not Karen recognizes it, more and more Ashtanga practitioners are leaving P.J., his teachings, and his social structuring behind. There are troubling exceptions, but the actual practice of Ashtanga is really designed to help us let go of “the poisons of conditioned existence,” and so some of us who practice Ashtanga in a new enough way are having a relatively easy time erasing P.J. It’s been particularly easy for me, and though you are right that me not recognizing him as my guru doesn’t matter when it comes to the politics of teaching something popularized by a rapist, it does matter when it comes to separating P.J. from Ashtanga. I don’t think Iyengar people have that advantage. Clearly, there is no separating B.K.S. Iyengar from Iyengar Yoga. So they have a real problem, and I think maybe you and Karen are conflating the need for Iyengar teachers to maintain the reputation of their teacher with what faces Ashtanga teachers. Are some Ashtanga teachers screwing up? Definitely. Karen rightfully called out Kino for doing practically everything in your list. But Kino will recover and in ten years I think she won’t be referencing P.J. at all. Then there will be people calling her out for cultural appropriation, and for colonizing yoga, but I will save my disagreements with you on that subject for another time. Here, I’m asking you to consider the possibility that you have conflated what you and Karen think you know about the Iyengar and Ashtanga communities. Though both lineages connect to Krishnamacharya, Iyengar Yoga is Iyengar’s. Pattabhi Jois didn’t make up the six Ashtanga sequences. Vikram made up his and there is no separating him from Bikram Yoga. Ashtanga is a whole different thing. The sophistication of its sequencing clearly far outdistances any teacher’s understanding of it, including Richard Freeman. And that’s saying a lot. Even the self-aggrandisement of Leslie Kaminoff shrinks in the face of Richard’s knowledge, so the fact that Richard is humbled before the scope of Ashtanga Yoga screams out the importance of it. Sharath Jois totally doesn’t get it. So outside of his community, the practitioners of new Ashtanga are having no trouble separating P.J. from what they practice. It’s easy because, despite his reputation, P.J. didn’t really teach much. What he did most was adjust. He gave very strong adjustments. I know that from personal experience. I let him injure me. I wouldn’t call what I let him do abuse, but I definitely let him do something I regret. I’m definitely not alone, and from what I’ve heard, the way P.J. adjusted students has lost favor even amongst his disciples. Even his grandson doesn’t adjust like him anymore. So imagine how differently those of us who didn’t consider him our guru have moved away from Pattabhi Jois Yoga. We never sought his certification because we didn’t see any real merit in the process. We could see it had too much to do with him exerting control over people. Even Iyengar let go of the reigns more than P.J. ever did, and even so–despite the relative lack of patriarchal insidiousness–I would not teach Iyengar Yoga because Iyengar Yoga is inseparable from teachings that establish an abusive culture. Personally, I always much preferred Richard Freeman Yoga. I like to believe the way Richard teaches Ashtanga connects back to how Krishnamacharya’s teacher instructed yoga. Krishnamacharya was a problem. Maybe his teacher wasn’t. I know I wouldn’t want to be judged by the way some of my students teach. Would you? And if I screw up as a teacher, I hope people will always be able to separate me from Ashtanga. No concern there. Ashtanga Yoga is bigger than me. Ayurveda is bigger than you. Both things are evolving. I know Jois’ structuring was abusively purposeful. I know Sharath mistakenly continues to carry on his teachings. That should die. I think it will. Like Michael Roach, P.J. structured the behavior of an entire community around his desire to abuse people. But just as Buddhism is not Michael Roach’s, Ashtanga isn’t P.J.’s. It’s not even Krishnamacharya’s. He was taught the practice by his teacher. I agree with you that the way Pattabhi Jois taught Ashtanga is inseparable from the way he abused his students. As teachers, some of them continue to establish the same conditions that made it so easy for their guru to rape some of his students. That’s a serious problem. Still, I believe what he taught can be substantially enough erased as to free Ashtanga from his teachings. Iyengar taught too much for that to be possible. P.J. taught little enough to make it easy. What he did most is structure a community. That structuring needs to be erased. I have suggestions for that part, but presenting them is not the point of my reply here. The point is to push back against the idea that Ashtanga is inseparable from P.J.’s teachings. Again, that part’s pretty easy. The hard part is separating from his social structuring. I don’t blame Karen for not practicing Ashtanga. I don’t blame you for not practicing Buddhism. I don’t expect you two to be advocates for either practice. I would expect you to at least acknowledge the possibility of P.J. and Michael Roach being separated from Ashtanga and Buddhism.
Thank you. Its been hard to wittness, report and be a support to key people who have been major conduits for Yoga and Buddhism to come to the west here in Australia. For myself it was the dissolving of my family as a unit. It also commenced the begining of 40 years of supporting people who genuinely wished to bring Yoga and Buddhsim to the west as a practice and a way of life. Many deeply traumatised abused, used and some becoming abusers and users for the sake of the Gurus vision. Here in Australia, some Guru’s have misused their power, some have been brought to task, others have retreated back to India, distancing themselves from Australia. Some wise ( individuals ) closed Centers and disconnected with teachers. Thes individuals suffered complete break down of friendships and extended connections with Sanghas due to their considered actions. From myself. There is gratitude for the teachings, for the many teachers who maintain their vows, and for the many prayers that have been offered. There is also a recognition it hasn’t been easy bringing Yoga or Buddhism to the West. Fraught with cultural and fuedal systematic implications that only the astute can navigate and master. Thank you for your points of accountability and for the frank insights. “Down Under” still loving the Four Noble Truths and daily chanting as a refuge and a guide. Best
After reading your more resent article regarding the Shambala scandal and Pema Chodron’s complicity, it occurred to me that you could add one more tip to this list about the way we excuse abuse in context of time, as in “Oh, well, it was the Sixties, that was just what people did back then.”