This post might mark a shift of this blog into firmly opinion-column/commentary territory, as a lot of what I’m working on now beyond book projects is mostly higher-stakes investigative journalism, and when I publish on a corporation like Jivamukti, for example, it needs to be on a U.S. site with a U.S. server, because libel laws in Canada are pretty stiff. Here I can be sued on the premise that I’ve harmed a company’s reputation, even if the reporting is accurate. Because the major paying publications in the U.S. yoga world have turned down these articles and I have no independent liability insurance I’m grateful to Be Scofield at Decolonizing Yoga for taking them on.
I’ve published four articles on the now-settled sexual harassment case against the Jivamukti Yoga School. One about what the plaintiff actually had to say after the school essentially called her a liar, one on how JYS and other yoga groups use silencing tactics when complaints emerge (including the failure of the Ashtanga world to address the open secret of their guru’s sexual harassment), one on how the case has provoked a powerful discussion about the need for trauma-sensitivity training in yoga culture generally, and a fourth on how JYS and Michael Roach, the charismatic and controversial American Buddhist leader, exchanged both form and content from 2003 to 2012.
This post is about a side-issue that’s emerged in the online dialogue surrounding these articles.
On paper, the Jois and Roach stories and communities are unrelated. But there’s a strange connection between how some Jois devotees deny, minimize, or equivocate about the video evidence of their teacher sexually harassing students (that this happened to some students is not up for debate: I now have 4 direct sources on record using those terms), and how devotees of Michael Roach rationalize his lying about whether he was celibate during the years prior to 2003, when he wore robes and told everyone he was following monk’s vows.
The resonance rings through a tangle of phallocentrism and rape culture, in which devotee defenders — often men — dominate and confound the narrative. Firstly they announce that if yoga students are in a yoga room, they’re consenting to anything the teacher does to them, so long as the teacher is associating it with the yoga. This dinosaur view as much attention as these commenters generally pay to the student. Secondly they enthusiastically speculate on not only the internal psychology of the teacher but also, believe it or not, on what he’s really doing with his genitals.
This all happens in lieu of — or to prevent — discussing more obvious and material issues like patriarchy and consent. It shifts the focus away from the students, as per the pattern of darshana: being transfixed by the gaze of the teacher, or while gazing at the teacher.
In the discourse around the video (now uploaded to a private server after devotees had it deleted from Youtube and Vimeo) the most reasonable-sounding deflections appeal to that old chestnut, non-judgement: “We really don’t know what’s happening between them.” But I’ve also seen many comments like “but he’s not aroused”, “you can see he doesn’t have an erection”, and “he wasn’t a sexual person”, and the more general: “it’s not a sexual practice”. These are all versions of: “because I believe the teacher is too pure to have a sexual intent, everything’s cool.”
None of these responses show concern for the actual student or the somatic implications of harassment in the broader environment and culture, i.e., what happens to the bodies of everyone when the teacher enters the room. The student is positioned as the object through which the teacher can display his purity and test his devotee’s credulity with something that only looks like an intrusion.
The Roach story is stranger and more explicit. In 2003, many devotees were outraged when he revealed he’d been living conjugally with a student 20-odd years his junior. The arrangement went back at least as far as 1998, when they’d married in secret. In the interim, he had been telling his followers that he was a monk committed to vows of celibacy, which he said included not even being alone in a room with a woman. Based on that presentation, thousands of followers contributed millions of dollars towards financing his retreat and purchasing land for a proposed monastic university. The university never materialized.
The upshot is that Roach lied for years about being celibate, and collected students and funding that would be unavailable to him if donors knew that things weren’t as he said they were.
It seems like a pretty open and shut case of deception — the organizing principle of cult behaviour — until you listen to hard core devotees, who will say black is white, as gaslighters must. This, no joking, is their argument:
Certain monks might, according to their level of enlightenment (and Roach claimed to be up there, so there’s that) have intercourse (not sex!) with consorts (it’s never quite clear who they are) and that’s still considered “celibate” if they don’t ejaculate.
What the monk’s partner is doing or feeling or consenting to or not is not discussed. The main focus is whether or not the monk ejaculates. The partner is there as a sexual prop to both provoke and prove the monk’s purity. Ergo, some Roach devotees hold the possibility that this is what he was doing as probable given how much they love him, that it qualifies him as celibate, and that everybody who was confused by this sexy celibacy was just a bad devotee who should have studied and surrendered more. Further — they accuse “Westerners” of naive prudery and obsession with sex (pinning it on Freud is a favourite tactic), as if sex in general were the issue, instead of lying to people for money and failing massively in the areas of power and consent.
In both cases there is clear evidence that contradicts the followers’ narratives. One teacher sexually gropes women on video, and another is revealed to be living a married life while claiming to be celibate. (If deception is the first mechanism of cults, we have to understand it forces devotees into self-deception as well — into a blindness to what is obvious.) Rationalizing these behaviours revolves around making claims about what’s going on inside these teachers’ heads and shorts. The focus is mainly on their penises, as if the mechanics of erection or ejaculation clarifies power and consent more than the voices of women.
There’s no doubt that this is all complicated by the very real history of Tantric sexual practice, to which some followers refer as proof of their teacher’s intentions — as if any of them knows what that history really is; as if anyone knows whether the gender dynamics of medieval India had anything close to the understanding of consent we are now called to embody; as if referring to a golden age of spirituality erases present power differentials. The stories also gesture to the oldest general problematic of sex in yoga and ayurveda — that reproductive tissue is simultaneously powerful and a liability, that the yogi’s ancient choice is to reproduce bodies in the orgasmic exhaustion of samsara, or rebirth an enlightened self through sublimation.
But given the fact that it’s mostly men that I’ve seen litigate these rationalizations, I think something else is going on.
Through these behaviours, Jois and Roach both perform and enable a fantasy: that one can be sexual with many mostly younger women and still be innocent, that one can get away with something without being called dirty, that one can gratify oneself without really wondering about the other’s needs, that one can have one’s sex cake and eat it too.
I’m not sure, but I think many psychoanalysts would say that it’s an arrested development state indicating a failure to move past one’s sense of innocent possession over the mother’s body. Perhaps when the devotees are challenged, they are being asked to give up an extraordinarily powerful and protective fantasy of infantile control and wake up to the world of other people. They’re being asked to consider that they’ve been in service to narcissistic toddlers whose developmental wounds mingle abandonment with entitlement in such a way that they can’t stop reaching out to grab something that feels like life.
But speculating on the wounds of gurus and the wishes of devotees is not far removed from speculating on their intentions, which again misses the point. If we stick to testimony, we know for sure that women felt harassed in Mysore and other places, and nobody did anything for decades. In Roach’s case we also know that students around the world were grifted by someone pretending to be what he wasn’t.
Talking about erections, ejaculations, doctrines, the rules of monks or the traditions of Brahmins simply repeats the old cycle of redirecting attention back to men and more specifically the penis as the reality principle. It’s time to stop doing that.
Last thought for now:
Several folks have gone the route of eye-rolling dismissal with comments like “Oh yeah, well everyone loves a good yoga scandal.” They say the stories are sensationalized, and remind us in a patronizing, sorrynotsorry tone that abuses occur everywhere. These aren’t really yoga stories, they say, but stories about general human foibles and power problems.
Beneath the creepy insinuation that yoga people are interested in abuse cases in their own community for their gratification, these commenters trot out a truism that serves to deflect from something really uncomfortable.
Of course abuse occurs everywhere. But the yoga world is the cultural site where many people who consider themselves progressive come to pursue self-inquiry, express embodied freedom, heal from trauma, and develop empathy. Some surely accomplish these aims (although whether the practices simply enhanced their pre-existing values and capacities is another question).
It’s also the cultural site where you can believe you’re pursuing these aims while unconsciously doing the opposite, by reproducing the very patterns that drove you from your family, your natal religion, your cut-throat business career. It’s a place where you can livefeed a statement about equality and accessibility from a tony yoga resort, where you can say you’re a feminist while evangelizing for a patriarchal lineage, where you can express interest in Eastern cultures while failing to acknowledge white privilege. Where you can idealize a new father figure by ignoring how he’s abusing other people. Where you can continue the same old sex and power patterns under the flag of spiritual — not just cultural — liberation.
Yoga scandals are sensationalist to the extent they show, sensationally, what a thin veneer the progressive self-image can be. Dismissing the stories as lascivious mutes the nauseous encounter with what may be the most difficult problem of practice:
It’s really hard to know whether yoga is changing our patterns or sanctifying them.