After Manouso: Questions for Iyengar Yoga Teachers and Leaders
If you haven’t heard: the professional independent and investigation (trigger warning) into decades of allegations of sexual assault by Manouso Manos under the guise of “yoga adjustments” has found enough credible evidence and corroboration to paint a picture of serial criminality, enabled by the propaganda of his genius and the silencing of his survivors.
The report has forced IYNAUS to oust him, and the Iyengar family to withdraw permission to use their trademark. Neither IYNAUS or the Iyengars have offered any public words of apology, support, or restorative justice to the women who gave their testimony. Neither organization has used the appropriate terminology to describe what the investigation substantiated, relying on euphemisms like “inappropriate sexual touching” instead of assault or digital rape.
Perhaps the careful language is meant to shield both organizations against civil suits. But along with the absent apology, the overall impact is the suggestion that Iyengar Yoga and the legacy of BKS Iyengar are the true victims of Manouso Manos — not women like Ann West, whose 2018 assault complaint against Manos was initially dismissed by the IYNAUS Ethics Committee. Ann rights:
The excommunications, however, are having an impact. In the last 24 hours, Manos’s home studio in San Francisco, “The Abobe of Iyengar Yoga”, has removed the “workshops” tab from its site, which had advertised dozens of Manos’s upcoming events in the U.S. and internationally. And sources say pressure is building on IYNAUS and the Iyengar family to make some kind of formal accountability statement at the Iyengar USA National Convention, which begins this Thursday in Dallas, and is being headlined by Abhijata Iyengar, the granddaughter of BKS.
So it looks like Manos is gone. But is that the end of the story? IYNAUS seems to hope so, ending its letter introducing the Manos report with an exhausted-sounding appeal for unity:
All these events are unspeakably sad and tragic. Our sincere hope is that something positive also results from them: that we will assure the highest ethical standards of our CIYTs and the complete safety of Iyengar Yoga students. We hope the wounds in our community can now heal and that we can be reunited in our devotion to the brilliant teachings of BKS Iyengar.
The statement is vague. “Events” makes three decades of alleged abuse sound like a car crash. The statement over-promises: no organization, let alone one so compromised, can promise “complete safety”. The statement is premature: healing trauma isn’t like flicking a switch. And the statement is tone-deaf in relation to what the survivors of assault and institutional betrayal might actually need. Who is this “we” — especially when no survivors are quoted by IYNAUS or the Iyengars? Why does the assumption remain that after all of this, everyone’s on the same page?
Using this statement as a critical springboard, here are some questions that every Iyengar Yoga teacher and community leader might now consider:
- “We can be reunited in our devotion to the brilliant teachings of BKS Iyengar.” Was it not BKS himself who reinstated Manos after the assault scandal in 1991? How many people between then and now complained quietly about Manos and were dismissed with the story that BKS had pardoned him? How did all the other mechanisms of devotion combine to dissuade newcomer students from asking questions to begin with? Did devotion to the brilliant teachings of BKS protect any of the women who testified in the Manos report? Is it not devotion that helped to shield Manos from accountability for more than 30 years? What would a healthier alternative be to devotion?
- What is the function of “brilliance”? Hasn’t Manos been held to be a “brilliant” teacher himself? Hasn’t his “brilliance” been a key way in which his behaviours have been justified? What about now? What is or was he really brilliant at? There’s now independently substantiated evidence of sexual abuse. Where is the independently substantiated evidence of the “brilliance” for which he was praised and protected?
- Is Manos now, or was he ever, a “yoga” teacher? Quoting the report: “Person 12 said that there is a class that Manos teaches where Maha Mudra is the culminating pose. She said that she believes that Manos, consciously or unconsciously, uses that pose when he wants an opportunity to grope or violate someone.” To what extent was yoga teaching a disguise for abuse?
- What about students beyond the world of Iyengar Yoga? IYNAUS can strip his membership and rescind an award. The Iyengar family can revoke his permission to use their trademark. But will they inform his hosts and employers who are not affiliated with Iyengar Yoga? Will Iyengar Yoga students and teachers begin to take an interest in and contribute to industry-wide discussions of standards, ethics codes, and accountability structures? Or will they continue to foster the elitist attitude that organizations like Yoga Alliance aren’t to be taken seriously?
- What is the real legacy here? Assuming the Manos report is accurate, what is the global Iyengar community going to do about 30 years of students who trained under him, were influenced by him, and had to satisfy his professional standards of an abuser? How many of them have there been? How many have risen to professional prominence? Did Manos’s training set a tone for the regions of the organization over which he had most influence? How many posture assessments did he supervise? Was there a climate of fear and silence in those rooms? Were his colleagues keeping secrets? Were they afraid of him? Were they enablers? And what did his devoted students learn about teaching? What did they learn about power dynamics? What kind of help do they now need? How will their own students be assured that they are not learning yoga in a pattern of intergenerational stress?
- How many Iyengar Yoga trainees left because of Manos, without telling anyone? How many students abandoned certification or professionalization because they were violated, or afraid, or knew something was corrupt? Can they be found, invited back in, have their investment refunded?
- Is there a clear definition for “legitimate adjustment”, that comes from outside the group? In her report, the investigator writes that she had to understand the principle of adjustments in Iyengar Yoga in order to evaluate what Manos was ostensibly doing when accused of assault. She writes that many sources from within Iyengar Yoga helped her with this learning curve. Her competence in this area had to meet the challenge of Manos’s lawyers, who argued that as a non-member of the Iyengar community, she couldn’t possibly know what he was doing. In the report, however, things get sticky: the investigator quotes Person 12 as saying that “Manos incorporates his inappropriate sexual touching into legitimate adjustments or what he pretends are legitimate adjustments.” (Emphasis added.) If a legitimate adjustment can be faked, where does that leave the Iyengar student? How is “legitimate” defined? Through a consent protocol? Through a closely-defined scope of practice? Through informed consent, by which the teacher can tell the student exactly why they are touching them, what the benefits and drawbacks may be? Some older Iyengar students claim that the slaps and kicks of BKS were also “legitimate” adjustments. What would it mean for the Iyengar Yoga community to assess the that adjustments have been given through an analysis of charisma and power dynamics?
I was slapped and kicked by BKS Iyengar. The noise was loud but the touch was feather light. Once it was my solar plexus to stand straighter in Tadasana. If he had hurt me I would have doubled over. I stood tall. Another time he kicked me in the kidney area in a seated forward bend. I exhaled and my forehead hit my shins. I felt relaxed extension and comfort and love. Slaps and kicks my be different in the eye of the beholder. Ignorant observers could not tell because they were distracted by the noise. Some people refused to belt me when I explained MY feelings. He also silently put me on lotus in headstand. I could barely feel his touch—it was like moving into a space which was waiting for me. No one else could do it. I have never done it again but it inspires my practice. You do not know what you are talking about and it is a cheap shot at a great teacher. You have lost your credibility with me. (And I am NOT a student of Manouso.)
Oh Gawd I can’t believe it! Another comment with the magical mythical stories of love and miracles. He slid you into lotus magically and changed you forever, but you can’t do it yourself. The real history isn’t magical mythical. It’s this:
Interesting take on abuse.
My yoga instructor would often tell tales of her (Japanese) Tiger Mom and her Japanese-American family during class. All her stories were shame based. She puts on a good front, but the stories she told about her childhood told a different tale. Perfectionism seems to be an integral part of her family and personality.
She was a Hatha yoga instructor at a local community college when I started taking classes there. Then, she became more and more involved with Iyengar yoga. She started taking time off to go to India and take classes with him. I had only been attending her classes for a year or so when she started doing this. She was very involved with Iyengar by the time I left. This was over a dozen years ago now. By then, I had been taking fitness classes at the local college for about as many years.
I have learned a bit about BKS Iyengar’s childhood also, and it was harsh! No one had empathy for him. He pulled himself up by his boot straps. And became convinced that everyone could do what he did. There was no excuse and no empathy. I’m not saying that he didn’t help people find their internal strength; I’m saying that many people considered to be Sage are narcissistic, and he’s no exception. Neither was my instructor.
By this time, my instructor made the two hour drive to San Francisco to attend Iyengar classes practically every weekend. I don’t read sanscrit, but there must be some mystical rune at the door, not dissimilar to Bilbo’s house, that read’s “All somatic narcissist’s welcome here”. No doubt that’s what drew her in.
Classes at the community college start in January and end in June. One of the last classes I attended, she had just gotten back from a conference in Las Vegas. Iyengar’s daughter was there too. Our instructor told us that they were on top of one of the Casinos, forced to pose without moving a muscle for 45 minutes at a time, during a heat wave. Yes, that’s right, no water, no scratching an itch, just frozen for almost an hour in 100 degree weather.
And that, Sally, is a cult. It’s abuse, plain and simple. What happened to the 60’s??? Peace, love, and yogurt??
Her story drifted on to talk about an argument with her boyfriend and being berated. But I digress.
When I started telling her in early February that I had a pain in my buttox before classes (and had for a couple of weeks) I was completely ignored. This went on for months. I didn’t have health insurance, but without sound advice, I continued to take classes. My bad. I took step classes twice a week (MW) front and center, using two risers and yoga twice a week, (TTh) followed by a circuit training class, front and center. I did not tell my other instructors (who all knew each other) about my pain, but patiently waited for some loving guidance from my (theoretically empathetic) yoga instructor, who, BTW, was also the anatomy instructor and worked in a hospital!
My instructor packed her schedule. There wasn’t much time to converse with her before or after classes. People lined up to wish her well before they staked out a claim on the floor or managed a quick thank you afterward as another flood of students drew her attention.
My pain came and went. It was hard for me to identify. Before classes I was in pain, however, by the end of class I was flooded with endorphins and felt nothing for several hours. But the pain would come back. It was getting worse.
I wasn’t getting anywhere trying to approach her before or after classes so I made the point of dropping by during her office hours. Understand that I was not enrolled in college per se, but took fitness classes late afternoons for credit/no credit as an affordable way to exercise.
It was early May when I knocked on her office door. I told her that I was in pain, still there, in my buttox. She started arguing with me to finish out the semester. I tried to tell her that I come from a tough family, with a Hitler Youth mom and a dad who died of a heart attack on the job. I don’t need any of that “you can do it” crap! I am trying to take care of myself.
Her tone was downright hostile!!! She sent me off to the college sports doctor (who I had never met) for an evaluation. I walked into his office during his lunch break. He only had a few minutes to see me before his lunch companion arrived, but told me to hop onto the bench. He manipulated me and asked where it hurt.
“It’s your back.” “What??? It’s not my piriformis??? “No, it’s your back.”
I went back to my instructors office. “Well???”
“It’s my piriformis.” I walked out of her office and shut her out of my life. Sadly, I can’t go back in time and do it sooner. But no regrets.
I just figured out what my back problem is…it’s called cauda equina. It requires immediate emergency surgery. Oh well…
Since I am in the mood to share…back in 1999, I sat on a local beach on Winter Solstice. I was a beautiful day. It was at a particularly low point in my life. Instead of staring out the window while feeling an icy gloom I decided to drag myself off the couch and do my best to enjoy life.
I plunked myself in the sand. I was overweight and out of shape. And I had never done a yoga pose in my life. As I sat there, watching all the cars go by in a hurry to purchase last minute Christmas gifts or run to the store for Holiday supplies, I thought about how I could be a part of that rat race, stressed out and running on fumes. Instead, I was sitting in the sand, looking out at the beautiful Pacific, feeling the sun beat down on my shoulders.
I felt gratitude.
And so, I decided to reach out into the universe and say, “Thank you.” I let the thought soar through space and time.
I thought about crossing my legs over while sitting upright but I couldn’t do it.
A voice in my head (not my own!) quietly said, “That’s alright. Do what you can. It doesn’t have to be perfect.” So, I put my legs together and sat upright in the sand. And listened to the sounds of the ocean, the sounds of life.
And I was grateful.
My eyes closed, I felt this energy come up from the sand, through my spine, all the way to the top of my head and leave my body. My heart swelled! I started to laugh with tears running down my eyes.
I ran down the beach, still laughing tears and feeling more alive than ever. I saw an animal corpse, which made me sober and sad. I stopped and said a prayer and thanked the spirit for sharing life and beauty with us here on earth, sending the spirit well wishes on it’s journey. Then, I moved on.
I later told my boyfriend (husband) about my experience. He said it’s called Kundalini and people practice their whole lives trying to accomplish that.
And I felt gratitude.