Here’s something I wasn’t able to fit into the Sivananda Yoga feature, because it veers into commentary/opinion, and because it would have stretched the word count beyond breaking.
There was a guest on Rachel Bernstein’s IndoctriNation podcast (can’t recall the name or find it now) who said something I’ll paraphrase: “The cult takes the best part of a person. It takes their altruism, their youth, their compassion, their discipline and drive to work. It clothes itself in this energy.”
It rang true in my own experience when I heard it. I remember how my own natural skills (and hopes) were mobilized and manipulated by the groups that recruited me. Now I feel like I’m understanding it on a deeper level.
When I report on institutional abuse in yoga and Buddhism I invariably discover that the survivors were stripped of time, attention, money, social capital, earning potential, bodily autonomy and dignity. Those spoils contribute to the total value of the organization. In a previous post I focused on the material assets derived from “karma yoga”, which would include facility maintenance, gardening, hospitality, cooking. To take Sivananda Yoga as the example, this would be everything that makes the possibility of the “yoga vacation” or a training programme a viable commodity.
I’m seeing now that it goes much deeper than that. I think the pictures curated for the article really let it sink in. In one image, we see Julie holding a coconut for Nair to sip. In another, we see her in an old-timey Indian phone centre, speaking on his behalf. (Few others could understand him after his stroke.) Staring at the images, I realized that my first impulse was to identify with her, but in relation to him: to feel the anxious compliance, to share in the hope that the service was adequate. Meditating like this instantly positions Nair as the moral or spiritual authority who we must wonder about, be concerned for, or fear.
But at some point I felt my brain click over into a different track. It’s not Nair who is the special person in these photographs, but Julie. He’s an old, debilitated man. He’s not why people were drawn to the organization, at least at that point. In earlier years he presents a puckish radiance that surely attracted some. But even then he was never alone. He was always surrounded by people who made him important by their presence. I suggest we look at them, first and foremost, to try to answer: was it their attractiveness and altruism that made the organization what it was?
One picture that GEN didn’t print (see the lede, above) features Pamela Kyssa marching in a small group with Nair through the bullet-riddled streets of Belfast, on one of Nair’s “Peace Missions”. It’s the early 1980s. Kyssa is holding a pasteboard sign with a peace message carefully written out in Gaelic. I don’t know whether she knows Gaelic or had to learn it to write it out. But I do know that Nair walking through those streets alone would not have been a story. There’s a strong young woman beside him, holding a sign in the language that makes his message communicable.
It’s not just Julie’s labour, attention, and so on that was exploited. It was her virtue, service, and faith in ideals that Nair couldn’t uphold, and for all we know, never believed in himself. It was her affect, her visible devotion. More than Nair’s face or voice or words, I believe these goodnesses constitute the core social and economic value of Nair’s organization.
This misattribution of value is plainly visible in other cases of institutional abuse. Sarah Baughn’s devotional athleticism was the face of Bikram Yoga for years, during which time Bikram raped her. Karen Rain’s superhuman focus in the famous Ashtanga Primary Series video helped to market the practice — deceptively, because the video showed no “adjustments” — to the global market. Jois assaulted her regularly. Leslie Hays’ “promotion” to “spiritual wife” of Trungpa Rinpoche (one of seven) allowed the organization to consolidate its branding as traditional-yet-edgy, transcendent of “conventional” morality, etc.
When people accuse these women of trying to “destroy” their former organizations by coming forward with their abuse disclosures, they are delusional. They have it backwards.
Julie isn’t destroying Sivananda Yoga. If people still come to those ashrams, it’s because of the energy that people like Julie invested and displayed. If people come, it is despite the institution and its abuse, which all the karma yoga concealed. Julie and others alongside her literally built the organization. They formed its moral and altruistic core. It’s exactly this that elevates those ashrams and retreat centres above the level of rather shabby vacay spots.
At the height of the Ashtanga Yoga crisis, an Ashtanga practitioner named Dimi Currey wrote the following about the centrality of the survivor to organizational “success”. I quoted her in my book on p. 88. .
These women’s suffering is as much a part of why we have Ashtanga today, as David Williams’, or Norman Allen’s contributions. [Williams and Allen are early Jois students.] If these women had filed charges back then (and there were some that wanted to), maybe the system would not have spread as it has? These women suffered through it, in some ways sacrificing themselves for what seemed to be a greater cause. And the system has lived on.
Now those women who were hurt, would like the wrongs done to them to be recognized. It doesn’t seem like any of them are out to publicly shame others regarding the situation. Only that their suffering be recognized, so that steps can be taken to insure that others are not hurt as they were. I think there should be some action—very clear action taken to recognize this. I think it should become part of the history of the lineage. It is the truth. History is supposed to be factual.
So, maybe we should know the faces and names of these women who were hurt by P. Jois, but carried on the lineage? Because, it is in part due to their suffering that we have Ashtanga today. Maybe instead of his picture in studios, on altars, etc. Maybe it is their pictures that belong there.
There is a continuing irony in all this:
In uncovering the facts of institutional abuse, survivors actually continue their selfless service to the organization and its ideals. Their activism actually embodies the stated goals of the group, better than the group ever did. They become leaders. In addition to reparations, they deserve consulting fees.
My sense is that this continuation of labour sometimes seems to show that the good will and zest for life that they brought to the group may not have been entirely erased.
In cult studies there’s this idea that the pre-cult self may not ever be entirely killed off, and that re-acclimating to the outside world — and especially to former relationships — may well resuscitate it from its dissociative sleep. Alongside this, the skills and talents that the group exploited might re-emerge to support that reconnection.
In my case, the groups I was in sought to exploit my writing skill. Both did so so successfully that after six years I couldn’t do my own writing. I no longer had an internal voice. I couldn’t string two sentences together. It took me about a decade to begin to feel like I had a voice again, an internal coherence I could call my own. It’s significant that I knew a major part of that healing was done when I started writing about cults. At that moment, a certain natural flow returned, and the content itself lifted me out of isolation, connecting me with other survivors, but also writing friends who knew me from before, and recognized me again.
But it’s not just about the pre-cult self. There are also positive skills and connections that people make within groups, and which sustain them after leaving.
The big one for me is cooking. Some of the most fun I’ve had in my life was learning how to cook for 300 people with my friend Rupi, who was a cooking genius. To this day that exuberant love gets stirred into every meal I make for my family.
My bet is that the Sivananda karma yogis, who bonded over the ideals of selfless service that their leaders may not have even have believed in, may find that the joy they took in the skills the group exploited can return to them. If they entered with accounting skills that the group used, it’s possible that doing accounts for real clients in the real world will feel immensely satisfying again. If they were the ashram photographer they might now delight in new images.
And if they learned how to garden or do carpentry while in the group, they may yet take great joy in growing vegetables for the family or the neighbourhood, and in building that clubhouse out back for the children.
Somatic Dominance: Climate Collapse & The Spectre Of Cultic Yearnings | convo with Patrick Farnsworth
I had the deep pleasure of speaking with Patrick Farnsworth, whose excellent podcast “Last Born in the Wilderness” has enriched my life over the past year. Here’s the episode. Lightly edited transcript below (minus intro/outro). You can support Patrick’s freelance work here.
So you were making all these connections I hadn’t made. I’m just starting to understand that these types of things that you’re discussing, while they make sense within the context of yoga, but you’re trying to bridge these different subjects together. You’re trying to make it more understandable and approachable for people that are outside of yoga. This isn’t just a phenomenon within yoga itself. But we can learn a lot from what you’ve at least explored in your research and in your particular experiences within this world.
Thank you for that. And it’s heartening to know because I think that is a bridge that I’m starting to try to build. I think that experience in history is showing within modern yoga and Buddhist groups that when we have aspirational communities, especially fronted by charismatic leaders in uncertain discourses or uncertain times, that the potential for cultic dynamics to emerge is really, really strong. And so as I see social power gathering in certain sectors of eco activism I’m concerned, about some of those behaviors began to develop as well. And I think that the last 50 years of spiritual seeking in a globalized modern sense has a lot to offer to eco activism, especially if we view it through a critical lens. So yeah, I’m really happy that you’re glomming onto that connection. And I hope we can unfold it.
Yeah. And I think just to make this note before we delve into your work more specifically in your journey, which I think is really interesting but just to make this connection for people, because for a long time, I just want to say this, is that when people become aware of these crises, the global climate crisis, for instance, it comes originally I think as a very data-driven thing. It’s like this is the data. This is the information, the science that surrounds it. More and more I’m at a point in my work at least where I’m still covering that and talking about that. And it’s important to keep up with that. But the ways in which people on a mass scale — we live within mass societies — and we have to acknowledge the ways in which large scale societies are going to react to these crises in real time. And so it’s really crazy when you really think about how there are people who have this agenda. You know. It’s about creating really unhealthy toxic environments that are really about their own, I guess, their own ego and their own, you know what I mean? Like really toxic behaviors, you can even say toxic masculinity in many cases. It is so strange to me because when we think of yoga, we think of this peaceful, loving, self affirming environment where people are there to better themselves, right? And something quite the opposite to happen in those environments often. And I find that really interesting. And so for me, what I want to say here is when it comes to my work and my end of it, with exploring the edges of this time we’re in, I really want people to be psychologically, emotionally, spiritually prepared for what human beings are going to do in this time. And it’s not something we can be adequately prepared for in any real sense. But when it comes to building communities and forms of resilience, um, we really have to be wary and be on the lookout for these signs of culting behaviors, cult-like environments, more and more. Yeah.
Right. One bridge between global yoga and Buddhist communities, because I also study Buddhist communities and I was part of a Buddhist cult from 96 to about 2000, — part of the premise of that content, that discourse is the notion of waking up to something and as you describe with regard to collapsology, there is a waking up that takes place in the form of education and there’s a waking up that takes place in the form of psychological realization or existential maturity. I think that, you know, the interview that you did with Dahr Jamail and Barbara Cecil expresses that kind of turning point where we have this polymathically skilled journalist and world traveler who is able to say, enough data has been produced and now I’m waking up to something deeper and that turn from living in the sort of rational, descriptive world of the facts that are happening on the ground to what does this mean on an existential level is something that, that particular turn has been the commodity of modern yoga and global Buddhism over the last 50 years.
The same language has been used to describe, you know, waking up from conventionality or waking up from your bourgeois Potemkin village life or waking up from normalcy. And so there’s a real overlap. It’s almost as if you know, new age spirituality, going back to the Human Potential Movement has primed this discourse of waking up to something. And so there’s a lot of lessons to be learned from how communities have, quote unquote, woken up to the nature of reality or to the need for compassion or to the thin veneer of superficiality that neo-liberalism provides, to waking up to, Oh my God, the world is actually dying. There’s a bridge there. There’s a similarity in discourse that we can learn a lot from because as Buddhist and yoga communities have marshaled that language and have talked about waking up and have theorized about what it means or tried to, you know, design societies around its principles… they’ve done some good things and a lot of bad things. And ecological movements can learn a lot from that.
I completely agree with you on that. Yeah it’s interesting cause I think there’s a lot of for me this queasiness or wariness of this language around being woke or being awake, which I know that in yoga and Eastern spiritual traditions and Buddhism, that’s kind of the premise: enlightenment. You know, you can achieve some sort of enlightenment. And I think the way it can be presented to the West is it is a commodifiable thing. It’s something you can go to retreat in Maui and you can attain something like that, you know, by spending six weeks with some guru or whatever. It’s always been a bit perplexing to me because I don’t think, there aren’t the connections made that I think that need to be made when it comes to the fact that you feel like you have to go to this, this Island that was colonized by Americans, you know, and you go there to have this little spiritual retreat. I don’t think those connections are often made by those that are participating in it. It’s like the materiality, the material conditions that we’re a part of are not really addressed. And to me, it kind of reinforces this idea, this false dichotomy between the split between spirit and matter. Maybe you could speak to that a bit, but this idea that what’s happening in the world isn’t really, that’s not gonna, that’s not gonna liberate you. You have to be liberated through your own will to wake up and be enlightened and to detach yourself from everything that’s happening around you to elevate yourself above it and…
Yeah and yet, and yet it will take material, resources and, and those will have consequences. But somehow, I mean the thing about the thing about the last 50 years of global Buddhism and yoga is that it in some ways, it’s provided a way for the neoliberal vision of freedom through consumerism to be spiritualized so that you know, you can convince yourself that you need to go to Costa Rica to find yourself. And if you, and if and if you drink fair trade coffee, but you also soak in the heat and the humidity of the jungle, that there will be some internal transformation that will create a new self that will then radiate back out into your urbanized, global, North environment and will change everything for the better. Like that’s the sort of subtext. I think it was about five years ago that I first had a conversation with this independent researcher named Brian Francis Culkin who researches gentrification in specific locations, especially Boston. We started talking about like, how did the modern yoga studio emerge? Like how did it, how did it come to be? And he pointed out that the yoga studio in the modern urban, global North setting only really comes into existence through the process of gentrification. In fact, it’s often on the leading edge of gentrification.
Naomi Klein in No Logo opens, in the first few pages she talks about one of the first major yoga studios in Toronto actually being established in the beautiful old warehouse space that used to be the home of a garment manufacturer in the garment district in Toronto. That was available for lease because free trade agreements in the mid-nineties sent all of those manufacturing jobs to Vietnam. Suddenly in global North spaces, we have these gorgeous brick buildings with hardwood floors and white walls and they’re empty of all of their machinery and nobody’s making anything in them anymore. And so people moved into them and begin these practices that are about remaking the self, right? And they’re usually wearing the yoga clothes that are made by the people whose labor got outsourced in Vietnam, who couldn’t possibly afford to go to those yoga classes.
This key thing that, that Culkin really helped me understand is that like the modern yoga space is exists because of paradigmatic changes in labor and the meaning of the body, in globalization through the ascendancy of technology and finance, and through the transformation of the urban landscape into the monotone of gentrification. And what’s amazing about that passage in No Logo is that like, I know the people who founded that yoga studio in 1996 in Toronto, like they’re my friends and their lease only lasted for a few years and guess who moved in afterwards? A dot-com company who could afford the latest rent. And so where did the yoga studio go? It went out West on Queen Street, farther out to the leading edge of gentrification at that point, and now it’s running out to the end of its lease. So anyway, yoga studios have like five year leases and then they have to move out to the leading edge of wherever the city is continuing to gentrify.
But the upshot of this is that what yoga practitioners don’t realize is that they’re participating in the kind of embodied neo-liberalization of the actual city and then they’re participating in this practice, and especially if they professionalize into it, they’re kind of participating in a way of making all of the aspects of new liberal economy — the fact that it works on flex time, the fact that it’s gig economy, the fact that it’s all about self motivation and self responsibility — all of these themes are embedded into this practice by which you’re supposed to take care of yourself and seek your own betterment, make yourself healthy, you know, become a better citizen. If you’re a woman, you’re supposed to be wear even more hats and be a feminist at the same time while you’re leaning into your postures and making more green shakes.
And so there’s all of this, all of these demands placed upon the person who basically is creating no product, but the aspirational self. And then yoga discourse and Buddhist discourse gives a kind of spiritual aspect to that. When those themes started to come together together about five years ago, I started to develop this political economy, analysis of the body and modern yoga as being— what is the person actually bowing down in front of? It’s not nature anymore. It’s not tradition particularly. It’s a kind of manufactured sense of individual freedom that is at the heart of the neoliberal project. That’s not all that’s going on. That sounds terribly cynical, but I mean that’s a big part of the story. That’s why the yoga world has exploded at the same time that we’ve seen this proliferation of the effects of globalization.
Well you make this point in the video, I did see of you talking about this subject to some in some depth, but you were saying as we see the neoliberal project really take off globally, that’s when we start seeing global carbon emissions rise. Global climate change is really taking off — that’s exactly when the global yoga popularity phenomenon really started to take off. They’re tied together.
And nobody really thinks about the fact that the global yoga economy booms in relationship to cheapening air travel and deregulated credit. All of the yoga communities that I have known and been involved in, especially those that develop into high demand groups — they’re all, everybody is overspending on their credit cards. Everybody is flying to this retreat and that retreat and accumulating trainings so that they can become even more self-actualized. The tie-ins are pretty, clear. And I think Brian said, you know, yoga is the de-facto spirituality of neoliberalism. It demands that people be flexible and receptive. It demands that people lean in, it demands that people become more self responsible. And I think particularly for an 80% female practice population that has like real grave implications for whether or not yoga is actually feminist.
That’s a great point. I never thought of it that way. I mean, drawing that connection there. Absolutely. So, you know, this is something I’ve also explored with psychedelics because that’s kind of my little foray in my personal life into spirituality or whatnot since leaving my, you know, religion that I grew up with behind as a teenager. But, you know, having my first psychedelic experiences, I just sort of took for granted that — let me just say this, with yoga obviously if done in the right way, the right context, it’s just like any sort of physical activity or spiritual practice if done properly. It’s really beneficial for the individual. And if done in a community context, it’s probably really good for the community as well. Right? And that’s what I think attracts people to it. They sense that, okay, this is obviously they feel better when they do it. It challenges them. There’s a lot of things going on. And the same thing for me with my psychedelic experiences.
So then I just took for granted that everything that was happening within the sort of growing popularity, again with psychedelics, that that was the case. But as I started to delve more deeply into it, the same phenomenon is happening with say, the ayuasca industry where you have people in the global North going down to Peru or other places in South and central America and engaging in this sort of theater that’s put on for them to sort of heal them of their very legitimate concerns about trauma. And obviously I think our population is pretty severely traumatized in general, right? So it makes sense why people are seeking it. But in a way it’s perpetuating things that have been going on for centuries, which is a form of colonialism. And it’s manifesting maybe as neo-liberalism or what have you, but, uh, people need to be conscious of this and have sort of political and social consciousness that I don’t think is often encouraged in these settings. There again it’s focusing so much on the individual self actualization, and is perpetuating this neoliberal ideal, uh, in the society and the people participating in it.
Let me just say that the parallel between the explosion in like ayuasca spirituality or the ayuasca economy and the global yoga economy, I think shares an aspect of the global North’s search for authenticity in the face of its rootless white settler status. And so one thing that I’ve become very aware of, not just through personal experience but through a lot of observation and research, is that the concept of looking for something authentic, close to nature, of-the-earth, from-a-location is like an obsession for people who feel, rootless and kind of erased from their location. People who grew up in subdivisions that look like the next subdivision or people who know that this Whole Foods has exactly the same stock as that Whole Foods. And when you don’t know where you are from and you have some maybe unconscious understanding that being from a place means that you can have some sort of reality or some sort of touchstone for actions that have integrity. Then global South becomes this sort of place where identity and rootedness and plant medicine and tradition can become very attractive to the point of fetishization.
You know, like this became super clear to me when, — I’m here in Montreal actually. I just finished, working in a training program here at a yoga school —and in this same city, maybe three or four years ago a person who has since become a friend of mine named Dexter, who’s Sri Lankan by background and is trying to like reconstitute the Buddhism that has been nurtured by his family lineage. Although, you know, they’re there in the diaspora and, and it’s hard to do that. It’s hard to figure out where that tradition is for the family now. They’re a super active political activist and agitator an ecological activist. And this is somebody I really, really admire, but there’s something about their connection with Indian wisdom culture that for me is kind of abstract still, even though I longed to be closer to it. Anyway, they were in this class three years ago and I’m at the front of the room and I’m supposed to be giving sort of like a learning outline for looking at this particular yoga text. And, they put up their hand and they say, you know, “What I want to understand better is why do you people,,” looking at me and around the room because the rest of the room was mostly white, “Why do people insist on playing with our old stuff? Why are you so interested in like playing with our old things?” And I said, “Oh, can you, can you say a little bit more about that?” Because I could feel myself start to sweat. And they said, well, you know, it’s like, “Don’t you have your own old things? Don’t you have your own culture, your own antiquities? I don’t even have access to my culture’s antiquities. Why do you have such an interest in them? I mean, aren’t they already in your museums?” And I’m like, Oh boy.
I realized at that moment that like having grown up Catholic, that for a large part of my teenage years, I was like fascinated in Catholic esotericism. I wanted to know everything that I could know about Hildegard of Bingen and the herbal blends that she made while she’s singing her heavenly songs and whatever. And like John of the Cross and I was so interested in that stuff. And then it just kind of all fell away because I was generally betrayed. I felt betrayed by the institution of the Catholic church and so it made me understand that when I am with my friend Dexter, like I know that they’re from somewhere, like I know that they have some thing, the culture of the identity is informed and shaped and like forever altered by oppression and colonialism, but they’re from somewhere. And I don’t feel like I’m from anywhere. And my attraction to Buddhism and yoga was in part about this, the emptiness of rootlessness that I think is part of the phenomenon of being white.
That adds another layer of weirdness to traveling down to the jungles of South America to find the shaman who’s going to administer ayauasca or traveling to South India so that I can stay in a Tibetan monastery for six weeks and try to learn something from somebody who comes from a totally, completely different experience of life than I do. But I want the realness of their experience. I want the locale, the connection to the earth. I want all of the things that they have and that paradoxically, my culture has stolen. And so it’s an amazing thing to contemplate, uh, and then to bear witness to its lives. It’s not like I can solve these things, but I can I can certainly stop being a consumer of them and start being a critic of my own participation.
I’m very sympathetic with this. We’re both white and we both are talking about this. And I think white people need to have this conversation in general because whiteness itself is a social construct. There’s a historical dimension to it that needs to be acknowledged and addressed and all of this. I’m sympathetic with because I feel it in myself that rootlessness you’re talking about that lack of… I don’t know where I’m from. I don’t know what traditions do I have to draw upon here? You mentioned people that are practicing whatever they’re practicing, they have at least something to draw on, even if it was, you know, through centuries of colonization and oppression and all the horrible things that come with these things. They, at least it seems to, to us that they have something like tangible that they can draw on. And for us it’s deeply, it’s just, it’s not there.
It’s not there because I think we want it to be everywhere. That’s not just the settler mindset and psychology, but it’s also the sort of casual imperialism that comes along with it. It’s like, Oh, I can go anywhere. How did I travel to India in 1997? Like, how did I do that? Who gave me the credit card? How was I able to be off work for that amount of time to be able to try to find myself in somebody else’s country? Part of privilege is its invisibleness to you, right, is that you don’t know how you got the opportunity to kind of walk around the world as though you owned it. And that comes with a price that you then sort of try to I think outsource onto other people At least in my case.
Yeah. I, I have a lot I could say about that. Maybe I’ll tell you about it after regarding something. But I do want to shift gears a bit just because I like, it’s so funny…
We got to talk about cults, right?
Exactly. Yeah. We got to get into the nitty gritty here. It’s always how it goes though. It’s like once you get into the flow of it, I never want to disrupt that. That’s kind of the magic of doing these podcasts is like, okay, well here we are. This is, I’m not going to try to disrupt this flow at all. But I do really want to get into the culting what you’ve explored within these yoga communities. So there’s a few like terms I’m going to throw out and I really want to delve into them. So you talk about cultic dynamics, trauma bonding, another term that you use is somatic dominance. No, these are all different. They’re all connected of course. But you know, reading your work, I didn’t really get, cause when I think about going to a yoga class, got a group of people, they’re all, to me what just looked like really intense poses and stretches and you have a person there who’s the teacher, the instructor who’s guiding you through that. And it’s always, to me seemed very like very chill. It’s difficult, it’s hard. But nonetheless, people are there to try to better themselves and you sweat it out and that’s it. You, for me at least has revealed a whole world of, I wanted to say crazy, but that diminishes it. But this sense of like there’s a lot going on in yoga that I’m completely oblivious to.
So I want to say this first. This’ll be my first question for you. This maybe will frame it a little better. So we’ve talked about neoliberalism and the way in which yoga has exploded globally and all that ties into all the things that that ties into. But if you could make this really simple comparison. So yoga is a very old practice. I don’t know how old it is, but I assume it’s been around for a very, very long time. And if you could compare, say the way in which yoga is practiced in the modern context in the Western world versus what it may have been like to exist in its original context, the pre modern context and that way we can have a framework to work within and then from there, delve into the abuses and the, the power dynamics and all of that that come up in the modern context.
It’s a great place to start. So first of all, if we’re speaking in pre-modern terms or pre 20th century terms, we have to speak of a plurality of yogas and yoga traditions and streams of practice. In general terms, if people are practicing physical postures and breath work and meditation practices prior to the 20th century they’re doing so not in group class format, but in individually instructed, oral instructions, oral instruction transmission: “Here are six or seven poses for you to do. Go away and do them on your own and tell them, come back and tell me what you’ve learned about yourself.” The primary mechanism of learning within the pre 20th century period would have been interoception or, the practitioner’s internal capacity to feel sensations. The sensation of breath, the sensation of bodily orientation in a strange position or a novel position. The sensation of warmth during a breathing exercise. Internal sensations would have been the primary focus and the practices would have done it and been done primarily in isolation. And they would have been done gently. So one of the things that’s come to light in modern research into medieval Hatha yoga would be that the refrain in most of the texts is that the postures are to be performed sanaih, sanaih, or gently, gently. That’s a refrain in a bunch of key texts. And so this whole notion that yoga postures should be strenuous or people should be sweating really hard, or teachers should be climbing on them to prove the power of mind over body or something like that, that has nothing to do with anything prior to the 20th century.
With regard to adjustments or the notion that the teacher would touch the student that has no history prior to the 1930s, probably at all. Nothing whatsoever. There’s nothing traditional about it. What happens? Uh, it to change. All of that is a series of geopolitical, post-colonial and technological changes, that begin to globalize yoga, but according to a particular modern framework. What begins to happen that Indian innovators and modernizers who generally are anti-colonialists and making plans for a new nationalist culture, a new national, ethos — because independence comes in 1947 — begin to think of physical education and physical culture, especially as influenced by Europe, as a way to reinvigorate the Indian body politic. And what happens then is they don’t want to simply import the gymnastics from Sweden or the bodybuilding from Germany or the things that are quite popular actually at the time. They don’t just want to do what the YMCA is teaching in various Indian cities because weirdly, they’re there. So what they do is they look back into their own medieval history for you physical practices that have some relationship to Indian culture, to indigenous culture. And these postures begin to make their way into group class formats that also end up becoming demonstrative in the sense that many of the early Indian yoga teachers of this period — primarily Krishnamacharya, who ends up teaching Pattabhi Jois and BKS Iyengar, who then go on to globalize the entire industry — he’s paid actually by his patron to promote yoga through demonstrations and performances to school boards, town councils, and city squares and stuff like that.
And at the same time, people begin taking photographs and as they take photographs, photography becomes the primary way in which yoga, the idea of yoga is communicated in a transcultural sense. Then we have this transition from the pre 20th century focus on internal bodily sensations to the 20th century, focus on what does the body look like in the posture. And in order to do that, or as that happens, all of these elaborate notions related to bodybuilding, related to gymnastics begin to evolve, that transform the yoga body into something that must perform a virtue through symmetry, through strength, through balance, through all of those sort of physical practices that are now the bread and butter of the industry.
That leads to what I call the landscape of somatic dominance, where the teacher is telling the student how exactly they must organize their bodies in space in order to be good, in order to be true, in order to be awake or enlightened. And then that domination becomes internalized in practitioners as well to the point where people begin trying very hard to perfect postures when these are, these are completely new ideas that have nothing to do with anything that yoga was about prior to the 20th century. And the somatic dominance also becomes explicit through training protocols that involve corporal punishment if there are children involved. And also other forms of physical discipline, including physical adjustments where teachers are manipulating students’ bodies deeper into postures that they can’t attain themselves. And that leads to injury. But it also provides cover for physical assault. And then in the worst cases it provides cover for sexual assault.
So that’s the book that I just published, about how Pattabhi Jois, who was a student of Krishnamacharya, comes out of this environment and then sexually assaults, his students pretty much every day of his working life for about 30 years. And how that’s enabled, covered over whitewashed. And that happens because of cult dynamics, which is the other thing that emerges in this modern period is that we go from very small groups of practitioners kind of learning about postures together to the entrepreneurial and charismatic model of leadership that we see in the modern yoga world.
Just to break this down a little bit, so I think, I don’t know if I said this at the actual beginning of the recording or before…. This is why I wanted to talk to you. I wanted to get this deeper understanding. So I think it’s become more commonly understood that sexual abuse and assault and just bodily violation or you know the violation of someone’s boundaries is far more common within yoga classes, then maybe people would even even…
It’s actually the norm.
It’s actually the norm. And that’s so upsetting, right? I mean, I can’t express how upsetting that really is and especially if you are a yoga practitioner like yourself. So this my question for you. So you’ve been doing this for a very long time. What I find more, almost more disturbing than the actual abuse that I’m seeing is the ways in which people rationalize gloss over, just completely excuse it. Because I see this in family dynamics where you have an abusive father, abusive whoever, and the family just sort of, well, we don’t want to cause any problems. Let’s just pretend it doesn’t exist. And we see that all kinds of group dynamics.
Or it goes farther than that. It goes, let’s pretend that it doesn’t exist. It can flip into well, actually these are signs of love.
Yeah, that’s incredibly disturbing.
And one of the cult researchers that I cite in my book and that I really appreciate as Janja Lalich who describes that particular flip in terms of… her phrase is “bounded choice” or “bounded reality” where the basic premise is that anything that the charismatic leader does is reinterpreted to be of benefit to them, to the group member or to the student or the client or whatever. So if they physically injure you, they’re teaching you something about your body, about the vulnerability of your body. If they sexually assault you, then they’re freeing your psychological hangups that have to do with sexual trauma. If they financially abuse you, then they are helping you get over the illusion that money is worth something. So there’s a number of ways. The ways of abuse rationalization or well-documented within the cult literature and they’re part of the M.O. of how groups like this end up working. I think I interrupted you.
No, I think I was just sort of pointing to… I think I was just saying something about the documentary that came out recently on Netflix about Bikram yoga. And it was interesting watching that because all the interviews they were doing with, with the women that were assaulted by him, and the other people that were there that knew what was going on, but they just, like you said, they rationalize it. They even see it as, Oh, he’s being loving. And how he is as you say, with the body posture corrections or, or touching the body, you know, when you’re writing, for instance, I read this where I think you mentioned an injury that you had where somebody pushed you into a pose more deeply and actually, you know, you injured your back. And you, I think you maybe even said that you rationalized the injury.
Absolutely. The premises of the implied consent space or those somatic dominance space is that the teacher has ownership over your body, but also mystical insight into what your body needs. And so you ostensibly abdicate agency and autonomy at the door. Like that’s the way it’s been over the last 50 years or so. I do want to make the point though, that that’s changing in the culture through some very powerful new social movements that are gaining some traction. Not enough and not fast enough, I don’t think. But, so I’ve had the personal experience of a senior teacher within the Iyengar world, which is kind of like the, I dunno, Harvard of yoga, without warning and without explaining why he was doing what he was doing, he torqued my spine in a very sort of sharp and acute fashion, to the point where there was a sound of Velcro ripping all the way up my spine. It happens so quickly and it’s so sharp and we can have paradoxical injury or pain responses, that give us mixed messages. So in my interviews with practitioners — as you know, I compiled my book and I’ve done other research projects — It’s not uncommon for the practitioner to say that it felt pleasurable to be assaulted in such a way that they would be flooded with adrenaline ori nternal opiates. What I remember is feeling this rush of warmth throughout me, as I fell to the floor actually. And my first thought was: I actually hope he comes back and does that to me on the other side.
And it was by reflecting on that, that I could really understand the capacity within those spaces for what’s known as trauma bonding, or the capacity of a victim of physical violence to actually feel neurologically that what’s better to do in a given circumstance spontaneously is to seek more care from the abuser, or to fawn in front of them or to immediately believe, because the cognitive dissonance is so radical, that what they’ve done is actually loving instead of dangerous or violating. So yeah, that’s a very clear personal experience for me. And I think it’s replicated in many of the elite environments of yoga practice all over the world, especially amongst those who professionalize into the industry because they have to do like really hard trainings with very charismatic people.
But let me turn to why does this person have power in the room? Because that’s where we get closer to the pervasion of cultic dynamics in yoga and Buddhist communities. And I think it’s super important for people who are doing ecological activism to start looking at this carefully. Because in the yoga and Buddhist worlds, there are no scopes of practice. There are no codes of informed consent for why people teach certain things or why teachers suggest interventions for students. There are no regulatory agencies. There are no tests for competency. And so in unregulated environments, the only thing that has real currency is charisma. The only thing that allows a figure, usually a male figure in the yoga and Buddhist worlds to rise to some kind of prominence is the social phenomenon of charisma. And this is not a personal quality of the individual. Uh, it is a social phenomenon. It’s a way in which people respond to a particular kind of activity within a bound group.
And so what I hope my particular study of charismatic leadership and the cultic dynamics that surrounded in the yoga and Buddhist worlds is helpful for as we move deeper into collapse awareness is that we’ll be able to see that in the field of climate crisis discourse, the same kind of landscape applies. There is no sort of measurement for competency. You can’t get a degree in, in collapsology where, where you have peer-reviewed support. There are no regulatory agencies that give you permission to talk about collapsology in a legitimate or a safe way. And if somebody begins to lead a social movement in eco activism that you know, has ethical issues or becomes abusive of its membership, where’s the accountability going to be? It’s kind of like a wide open field, a wild-West field. And I hope that some understanding of what’s happening in a similar field — which is also about waking up to reality, which is also about self regulation, which is also about apparently trying to form healthy communities — I hope that data from that experience over the last 50 years will be useful here because what I see emerging in the movements that I think you and I are like very interested in and that we’re proximal to is we’re seeing the rise of charismatic figures. I’m not saying they have negative intentions. I’m not saying that I distrust any of them, but I am saying that we’ve got to be aware of the power of the charismatic phenomenon in leadership situations. And we have to be aware of how cultic dynamics function so that we don’t tear each other apart as we try to actually, you know, come closer together in community at the end of the world.
That is absolutely what I wanted to draw on in this discussion with you because I see it happening in small ways, I suppose, or an isolated cases. Like you say, there are charismatic figures. I’m not going to name particular people. It’s not really useful. But the point of that is just to say that it’s a couple of things I can see happening here. Within these doomer communities and groups, there’s a lot of amazing support groups, people that are just trying to help process the unfolding process of accepting and coming to terms with what’s happening and what the implications are for the future and all of that. But it’s become really interesting to me. I’ve been really reflecting on this more and more in my life. I grew up in a religious environment in which the apocalypse was a very real thing that within my lifetime, Jesus Christ will come back, the second coming is happening, the anti antichrist will be coming within my lifetime. All of these things, right? I was from a very young age, told this and then.
I did not know that Patrick, I’m sorry.
No, it’s okay. No, it’s just, it’s fine. It’s something that’s incredibly common and I think in the United States, there’s a lot of that happening in general. But what I thought was interesting is that, you know, that was really deeply imprinted in me. So I wonder how much of my interest in the apocalypse is tied to this religion.
Now you just mentioned that you’re not comfortable naming names, but if you’re comfortable with me talking about a particular figure, I’d like to do so, not in a way that like impugns them, but I think it’s really good to have concrete examples. So I’m going to talk about Roger Hallam for a moment who I’ve never met, but who has risen to a kind of prominence within Extinction Rebellion. And here’s what I’ve noticed: he is incredibly compelling for me to listen to. I could listen to him all day. I mean, I’m not sure about that, now. There was a time where I was like: I want to listen. I want to listen to this guy speak. I want to be inspired by his gritty, existentialist realism. I want to soak up his Welsh-green-thumb-organic-farming wisdom, right? Like, I want all of this. I want all of this stuff. And I know because I’ve been in many different groups, that the power of that capacity for articulation and to inspire people is at the heart of why people gather.
Now, here’s the thing, is that when I step back a little bit and I look at the three demands of XR: Tell the truth: that governments have got to declare climate crises, that we have to commit to net zero carbon by 2025, and that we’re going to put citizen assemblies in place in order to make all decisions and depoliticize, this apolitical issue. Um, so great. At first I go, Oh, they actually have a plan, right? Or they actually have a series of policies. But then when you go and dig a little bit deeper and you look at the first principle of “tell the truth”, and then you start looking at how the group has mobilized the research of Chenoweth in a way that’s inaccurate…. In a way that applies an argument about civil disobedience in the overthrow of oppressive regimes and tries to apply it to liberal democracies, for getting people to vote differently or something like that. And you realize that that doesn’t work. And then you realize that the second premise, that we have to get people, we have to get governments to go net zero by 2025 just ain’t gonna happen. Like it’s just not anywhere close to being reasonable to believe that that’s going to happen. And as an aspirational demand it’s okay.
But here’s the thing: how many young people are super-gluing their hands to train rails or whatever in the belief that the Chenoweth research is validly applied in this discourse, and in the belief that it will be possible for net zero to be achieved by 2025. If young people are stirred by charisma to make unreasonable or uninformed choices, we have the beginnings of cultic dynamics. Because what happens is that people are actually deceived by what’s going on. They may not understand that the demands are aspirational. They may not understand that the decision-making process of XR is not transparent. They may not understand that they’re not actually engaging in a community dialogue in which everybody has their cards on the table.
Whenever I’m in an XR environment, and I have a question about policy that I ask, what invariably happens is that the group leader will say, “I can communicate with you about that privately.” I’ve had that answer over and over and over again. And that’s a red flag for me because, because cultic dynamics emerged in secret. They emerge when the membership doesn’t know what the leadership is doing. Does anybody really understand how “holocracy” works or how the decision-making process of XR is actually being deployed? I haven’t met anybody who’s given me an explanation for that and I’ve asked a lot of questions. And so what we have to understand about cultic dynamics — and I’m not saying XR is a cult, I’m saying that these dynamics can begin to emerge where there’s a lot of social charge around a particular issue and where there’s charismatic leadership — cultic dynamics begin to emerge when people do things because they’re deceived.
Do you really need to tell the 19 year old person to get arrested while chanting “We love the police?” While they’re being kettled or while they’re being deprived of their wheelchairs or while they’re not being allowed to go to the bathroom. To what extent do we have middle-aged charismatic figures telling young people to sacrifice themselves on dubious pretences. Also when the money is not transparent — like everything that XR does is, is crowdfunded, right? — I actually appreciate a lot of this movement, but I just want to communicate to the listeners that when you don’t feel that a group is being transparent with you and when there is charismatic leadership at play, follow your instincts and ask really good questions. And if you don’t get answers, then there’s something fishy going on. And if there’s something fishy going on, there might, there’s probably manipulation. And people are probably ending up committing to things that then produce sunken costs, cognitive dissonance, and then they don’t feel like they can back out of. And the three gateways for cultic analysis or standards for assessing cultic dynamics would be deception as to what the group is doing and what the leaders actually want, dependence that people have upon the group, whether it’s emotional, financial, psychological or whatever, and then a dread of leaving. Like, what would you give up if you left? So I hope that that cult analysis language is destigmatized enough through conversations like this that we can honestly look at the health of our communities as we form them in resistance, in the quest to nurture resilience.
I feel like my comment about my own personal history with this, I just want to clarify something really quickly, which is just this: I really want people to acknowledge something about the climate crisis and the existential despair dread that comes with it, that it actually can produce something like, it sounds very strange, but a religious experience. And that’s something that I wanted to just acknowledge. And so particularly with the climate crisis, it’s absolutely real. I’m not discrediting, I’m saying, you know, I’ve made my opinions and my thoughts on it very clear. But I do want to acknowledge that I do get the sense from people that this is like a truly an apocalyptic in the religious sense subject for many people. Um, whether or not you’re like a God fearing person or whatever. It’s not about that particular side of the religious experience.
But it does say something about our general view of human beings and human nature. And I think that our view of human nature can often be so skewed as to make room for what you mentioned there with Extinction Rebellion or other people and other groups that can make space a certain kind of politics, a certain kind of group dynamics, power dynamics that if not adequately addressed, and like you said, having more of this, normalizing the language around cult dynamics, culting behaviors, then we could actually identify it and we can speak out against it and we can then do what we can as activists as those that are conscious of this to steer people away from very abusive group dynamics that don’t really get us anywhere except to just confuse and I guess maybe lead to some sort of abuse as well within these these contexts. It’s something I’m very much on alert now because I think we are shifting right now. I could say that, you’re aware of the data. I feel like we have crossed very specific tipping points just in the past year or two. So I think we’re heading into a state here in the next several years of accelerating change and we don’t know what that’s going to look like or feel like exactly. But we can certainly make an assessment that it’s probably not going to be good for certain.
I just want to honour the fact that you’re transparent about this tendency, within yourself, but also in the general discourse that climate collapsology proposes a kind of spiritual doorway for people. And that’s super important to understand because, I acknowledge that too, it means that for me as well, like it changes everything about my life yet again. And at the same time, I know that once people walk through that doorway, they are in a sociology that has vulnerabilities attached to it, and we’ve got to be really aware of what kind of discourse we’re moving out of and then into.
So one example that is really interesting for me in terms of this transition from a data-driven discussion to a psychologically drip driven discussion is watching what’s happening with Positive Deep Adaptation, and the group inspired by the work of Jem Bendell. So he releases this paper. It’s been downloaded half a million times. I’ve never met him, but that is a charismatic event. He becomes a charismatic figure now suddenly, or at least very quickly. The implications of that paper provoke intense… that’s what the paper is about too. It’s like: I’m familiar with data and I’m an academic and I think that we’ve got to make a transition as data crunchers to this emotional reality that our rational appraisal of things has almost suppressed. And so that’s embedded in the paper. And then people have those responses to the paper as well. And then suddenly he’s catapulted into this position in which it’s almost expected that he’s supposed to provide some sort of psychological wisdom for people. And then he starts doing interviews where like he’s talking to Joanna Macy and they’re talking about feelings and spirituality and how to cope.
And what I’m seeing is that certain climate figures are becoming spiritual leaders. And that might be appropriate. There might be no other way for it to happen. But what I want to say from my experience in the yoga and Buddhism worlds is that when you move into a kind of spiritual leadership, there’s all kinds of things that you want to be aware of because it’s a really vulnerable environment. And the first thing to be aware of is like, what’s your scope of practice? Like what’s your actual expertise? You know, if you’re going to start talking about psychology or psychotherapy or Buddhism in an online format that’s very performative because there’s 50,000 people watching you, what kind of training do you need to do that in a safe way? How are you going to manage aspects of your charisma?
Like, this is something that I want to talk more to Dahr Jamail about because as soon as he starts getting into what he got into with the interview that you did with him, I’m like: people are gonna flock to you, dude. As a kind of sage and I think you’ve earned it. Like, that’s my impression so far. I think you’ve earned it, but I don’t know if there’s anything in your background or your education that’s gonna provide you with, that’s going to prepare you for the amount of bullshit that gets sent your way and the amount of transference and the feelings that that’s going to produce. And whether or not that’s going to be gratifying to you in ways you’re unconscious to.
It’s like: there’s nothing I love more than listening to how he has oriented his life and how his story is going. I’ve never met him in person, but I love this guy and I can imagine that so many other people do as well. And that’s something that I hope he really gets support with because when a lot of people start loving you, weird shit happens. And so, I hope that all of these people, I hope that all of these people get reach out and get support from psychotherapists and people who know, understand group and cultic dynamics and start educating themselves on how do you diffuse that stuff because it’s going to be super important.
You know, the rules would be: Don’t ever speak out of your expertise, ever. Do not speculate. Never ever come close to doing anything that’s deceptive. Make sure your money is completely transparent. If you’re going to sell something, you know, be very clear about why you’re selling something. If you’re going to start leading group classes in something or hosting, talking circles or something like that. Be aware that people train in doing group therapy for years before they’re allowed to do it legally. This stuff isn’t a joke. And then there’s a whole bunch of like really earnest people who are moving into this kind of spiritual territory. And I’m here to tell you that fucking landscape is a mess. And it has been, and it has been over the last 50 years, so I don’t think it needs to continue that way, but, but we can certainly learn a lot, that’s for sure.
I was just smiling and laughing about Dahr in particular. I know him pretty well at this point. So I will say, he’s the one, for instance, I mentioned my interview with Milton Bennett. He’s the one that hooked me up with that guy about culting in particular because Dahr is very conscious of this. And doing his own work in journalism for as long as he has and seeing just this whole spectrum of human nature, the human condition — I’ll speak confidently as his friend that he’s very much in tune with what you’re saying. I hope he listens to this episode and appreciates what we’re saying right now because he and I have had numerous conversations about this very thing.
He is such a great example of the power of integrity becoming potentially becoming a charismatic phenomenon. It’s just like, here’s a guy, he speaks in full paragraphs, right? Broad, beautiful, you know, late-Texan accent that’s been like burnished by all his world travels. And so there’s something super compelling about listening to the guy and that is power, and power makes for responsibility. And so, I’m really happy to hear that he’s tuned into that and not surprised too cause like, you know, he’s super smart.
That’s the thing, right? And that’s the real challenge that I would pose on an individual level to those in these positions that they kind of get thrust into. It’s of course a combination of personal decisions they make to get there, but it’s also thrust upon them and it’s absolutely imperative that it’s your sacred responsibility to not fuck over people in their vulnerabilities, in their most vulnerable space. Like nothing is more reprehensible to me and more disgusting, then when I hear about these yoga practitioners you mentioned taking advantage of women in particular, but human beings in a very general sense in their most vulnerable spaces, literally the most vulnerable physical position they could be in.
Understanding trauma on a certain level, it really deeply, it’s repulsive and even makes me feel almost violent in my reaction to it because it’s really the worst thing a person can do. It’s one thing to be able to work with somebody and be abusive on almost a level playing field, if that makes sense. Like you’re you and I’m me and I’m going to be abusive. It’s another thing when you take advantage of people in these very vulnerable spaces, which is what these people do. And so I think, just to tie this into the climate crisis and the very vulnerable spaces that people are entering into, if you are a person that is engaging with this material on a spiritual level, on a scientific level, however you’re doing it I or anybody in my work that I respect, if we sense that you’re a snake oil salesman or that you’re trying to take advantage of people’s vulnerability, I promise you that we’ll call you out publicly. Like it has to be done.
Matthew, you’re so good at that. I read this article that you published about going to, I think it was back in 2017 I wish I could remember the name of it. You went to a yoga class, in the capacity of writing your book and being a journalist, you were like, you experienced trauma-bonding and you witnessed it in a group dynamic and that person, that yoga practitioner was calling you out and abusing you in front of everybody. And like I have no patience for that shit anymore or ever. I mean, I guess I’ve come to a place personally where I’m like, I have no patience for that. So I think specifically in the work that I’m doing with this podcast, in my own capacities with it there has to be a point where you have to call people out in a good way. I mean, there’s a way to do it where it’s appropriate, but there’s a way to do it where you’re able to articulate and point to this very specific reasons why these people are taking advantage of others in their most vulnerable states. That is not your responsibility. That is not what you’re supposed to be doing right now. And so I just want to say that clearly now that we’re talking about this particular subject, that that’s my, that’s my end of it.
And the vulnerability of the yoga posture that the person is in and then is assaulted… I think there’s a real analogy there. It’s a microcosm of the sort of catatonic, sometimes paralyzed and fetal position of grief and despair that many people feel themselves to be is all the time in relation to climate collapse. People are, people are super vulnerable and the leaders that they reached to have to be like, exemplary and their ethics and in their standard of care. And one thing that I want to… I don’t know how much more time you have, but I wanted to make sure too that I highlighted the, the potential vulnerability of how Buddhist and yoga discourse might start to enter — I think it’s already started to enter —eco-activism. I mean, there’s some good parts to that. So I think the work of Joanna Macy is really effective and it’s been helpful for so many people. Catherine Ingram is also well-learned in Buddhism, and I think she uses that in a really good way.
But I want people to know that Buddhist communities over the last 30 or 40 years have been racked by scandal and abuse. And most of that is unacknowledged or unresolved. And so when Buddhist teachers start showing up in ecoactivist spaces, providing wisdom or knowledge or what have you, some of that might be really useful, but I want people to be aware and vigilant to the fact that if organizing principles begin to grow around these figures, you want to look carefully at where they’re coming from. Because when Buddhist communities fall apart because of abuse crises, those teachers have to go somewhere. They’ve got to work somewhere else.
And what I’m starting to see is some of those folks showing up in eco-activism circles because that’s where they can sell their books or their programs or their meditations or whatever. And so just take things with a grain of salt, right? Like, I don’t wanna, you know, make people freaked out about everybody else because there’s enough horizontal hostility. But, you know, if somebody is claiming to have answers with regard to community health and critical thinking, take a look at where they’re coming from because, you know, if they belong to the Shambhala community or the Rigpa Buddhist community or something like that, then you know, you will want to know what kind of work they did to recover from the compromise of that institutional abuse.
I would ask this of you actually, if you could maybe provide something. So this could fit really easily within these Buddhist communities, yoga communities, and in these eco activist circles as well… When it comes to these dynamics, you mentioned, if there are things that maybe very specific signs of things that people can look out for. Because we’re talking about it in pretty general sense. We have some specific examples that are may very particular to yoga practitioners specifically with body and consent and boundaries and all of this, but maybe within a more general sense. So if people can have a takeaway, I guess you could say from this discussion of like what to look out for, both in positive ways. I think you mentioned something about Extinction Rebellion in a general sense: transparency is extremely important in these group settings and in these organizations. I completely agree. Look out for that, have respect for that. Try to embody that. If you are in fact leading a group, be very transparent in what you do know and what you don’t know. Don’t pretend to be something you’re not. Don’t pretend to be an expert in something you’re not. But as far as like abusive, potentially abusive, um, group dynamics, I mean, what can you point people towards?
A very simple model for looking at a group dynamics from a cultic studies perspective would be Steve Hassan’s BITE model where he describes the elements of behavioral, informational, thought, and emotion control. There are lists of examples that he provides where you can pretty easily sort of assess whether or not the group that you’re involved with is asking you to behave, asking you to control any of those aspects of your experience. Cathleen Mann has a model called the MIND model where, uh, she describes the group dynamics of manipulation, negation and deception. And then the “I” I’m forgetting, that’s embarrassing, but you can look up Cathleen Mann and the MIND model.
Probably the most breakthrough text that I’ve come across in terms of de-stigmatizing normalizing and making more accessible, the whole cult studies genre is Love Terror and Brainwashing by Alexandra Stein where she uses the principles of attachment theory to describe how cultic organizations rewire members for a disorganized attachment, which in the simplest terms is really the confusion between love and terror.And this speaks a lot to the capacity for cultic groups to nurture trauma bonding where members are actually always feel compelled to move towards the abuser because they also believe that the abuser is providing love or an answer or a safe Haven. So there are resources that people can look for.
You’ve really skillfully summed up the need for looking at transparency. The transparency also should be about where the leader is coming from, what their background is and what they actually have competency in speaking about. In the yoga and Buddhist worlds, it’s really hard to suss out who knows what because often people are quoting from Sanskrit or Pali or Tibetan and it’s hard for most people to know whether they’re competent or not. So I think that that climate science can actually be manipulable in the same way. People who have research positions where they have a certain level of education can be automatically endowed with a kind of authority that lay people can’t really assess. So that’s something to look at too.
If people become more aware of the processes of idealization and transference and countertransference — that’s very helpful that if you get involved in a group where the leadership or the ideology is framed as being total or all-good or unquestionable. That’s really difficult if you can’t ask questions openly, if you can’t offer critique in a way that’s received with openness. These are red flags.
I wrote this article about how Buddhist organizations and yoga organizations over the last 50 years have been plagued by abuse histories. I think it was the title was like, if you’re an eco-activist looking to Buddhism for answers, here’s some things to be aware of. And it wasn’t about Buddhism, it was about Buddhist organizations and about how many of them have failed their members in terms of safety and protection. I posted that article to Positive Deep Adaptation and there was nothing but, “Hey, thanks. That’s really good information. Wow. That really opened my eyes to something. I’m really grateful for that. That’s really cool.”
Then I posted it to Extinction Rebellion Buddhists page and there was a discussion about whether or not they were going to delete it — a long discussion about like whether my article was disrespecting the Dharma or something like that. That’s not a good sign. Like, you’re kind of proving my point guys.
And so if there’s resistance to critique or if people want to privatize difficult discussions, move them offline, or situations where they’re out of the public eye, that’s a red flag. If there seems to be a concentration of social power that’s gathering around an ideology, you know, start asking questions, right? Like: Did you want to belong to a human community or did you want to belong to an activist community? You know, does it make sense to really pour money into somebody’s online platform who’s located in England when you don’t even know who your neighbours are? You know what I mean? So yeah: think locally, be aware of the impact of charisma, demand transparency, make sure that you can ask questions, and then you’re probably going to be more confident that you’re in a power-sharing environment, instead of a manipulative environment.
My little thing I would say is: Be an anarchist question authority. You know, just question everything. I mean, obviously there’s a point where that’s obnoxious and not really helpful, but just be aware that we live in a very peculiar time. This is very peculiar time that we’re in. Just have your wits about you. I know it’s difficult. This is a very difficult time to be alive, I would say for its own very specific reasons, but have your wits about you and there’s plenty of people like I think you and probably many others that you’ve cited as well that provide the tools and the frameworks to understand these things. And so I just asked people to.
Hopefully, hopefully a little bit, yes.
Well I think your, your writing is beautiful and that you come from a deeply compassionate place. And I imagine for you it was as much a personal journey as anything else to come to terms with these things. So I do admire you for that. That does take strength and courage. You are calling out people very specifically for their abuses and abusive people act abusively. So when you start to really talk openly about it, it creates all kinds of blowback. So I do want to say I admire you for that courage that you have demonstrated in that.
Thank you Patrick and just returning the compliment. I think you’re doing great work. It’s a great podcast, amazing series of people. And it’s changed my life for the better. So thank you for that.
2019 Yoga/Buddhism Accountability Roundup | Like Waiting for Government Action on Climate Catastrophe
In the aftermath of Julie Salter’s viral testimony that Swami Vishnudevananda (b. Kuttan Nair 1927, d. 1993) sexually used and abused her for three years while she was his personal assistant, the Sivananda Yoga administration has released a number of statements, one of which asks other complainants to email a Montreal PR firm.
Here’s Salter’s testimony:
The International Sivananda Yoga and Vedanta Centres homepages now feature a pop-up statement, dated December 16th, committing to “honesty and transparency” and promising the appointment of an independent investigator within “a few days”. This hasn’t happened yet.
On December 25th, 3H0 recording artist Snatam Kaur gave a concert of devotional music at the Sivananda Yoga Bahamas ashram with senior Sivananda dignitaries in attendance. She sat in front of a larger-than-life portrait of Nair, and opened by quoting her guru Yogi Bhajan, also accused of sexually abusing his secretaries who worked for years for little or no pay. In a 2017 interview, Kaur lauded Bhajan as “very devout Sikh”.
Here’s the latest communication from the Sivananda administration:
Sivananda students around the world — including the reported 45K graduates from the organization’s signature Teacher Training Course — who are wondering how the accountability process may unfold might benefit from a brief review of institutional abuse crises in the yoga and Buddhism worlds from this past year alone, and how the organizations have responded.
The publication of my book this past March brought together the testimonies of sixteen women who describe Ashtanga Yoga founder Pattabhi Jois sexually assaulting them under the guise of “yoga adjustments” between 1982 and 2002. Prior to the book, Jois survivors Anneke Lucas, Karen Rain, and Jubilee Cooke had all published their testimonies independently. Rain and Cooke went on to publish what is now the white paper on how yoga institutions should respond to abuse.
While some individual Ashtanga leaders have published statements of accountability and allyship with the Jois survivors, no official statement has been made to date by the Jois family or by any entity that would represent Ashtanga Yoga worldwide. Sharath Rangaswamy, Jois’s grandson and inheritor of the family business, issued a rambling personal statement on Instagram that’s now deleted. (Reprinted here. More commentary here.)
No-one in the Ashtanga world has taken steps to commission an independent investigation, or to raise reparations funds for survivors. Meanwhile, senior Ashtanga figures like Eddie Stern continue to obfuscate what they knew and when.
IYNAUS and RIMYI (two influential arms of the Iyengar Yoga global body) gather together considerably more administrative power than anything found in the Ashtanga world. After their botched attempt to internally investigate testimony against Manouso Manos was exposed, they hired an independent investigator who found the testimony credible.
IYNAUS and RIMYI delisted Manos, and barred him from using the name “Iyengar” in association with his continued teaching. He’s doing it anyway in Russia. Recently, he gave a workshop at a secret location in Los Angeles, attended mainly by other Iyengar teachers:
No concrete efforts have yet been made by the organization to raise reparations funds for survivors.
Ten months after an independent investigation found that Shambhala leader Mipham Mukpo had committed sexual misconduct (even though many people refused to participate in the investigation), the Shambhala Interim Board has announced that it supports the return of Mukpo from “retreat” in Nepal to bestow Tantric initiations on devotees this coming summer. The initiated practices involve participants visualizing Mukpo as a divine being.
The announcement also comes after a group of Mukpo’s former aides released a scathing description of his assaultive behaviour over the years.
In Mukpo’s own statement of intentions regarding the upcoming retreat, he makes no mention of the testimony against him, nor of any steps he has taken to mitigate further harm. Survivors and disillusioned members mocked Mukpo’s statement on reddit.
While Shambhala entities continue to fundraise for various projects, no concrete efforts have yet been made by the organization to raise reparations funds for survivors.
There’s a warrant out for Choudhury for failure to pay the first of what will likely be many judgments against him.
No concrete efforts have yet been made by the organization to raise reparations funds for survivors.
Sogyal Lakar died in exile in August. The year before, an independent investigation found that Lakar had sexually, physically, and psychologically abused many students over decades. The report came one year after eight former devotees described their experiences.
No concrete efforts have yet been made by the organization to raise reparations funds for survivors.
Even when organizations do a seemingly good job at investigating and confirming abuse testimony, we’re not seeing mitigation and reparations. For members of the Shambhala, Iyengar, and Rigpa communities, this might feel especially demoralizing — that the organizations to which many have committed the best years of their lives have mounted transparency campaigns that ultimately allow for the return to business-as-usual.
Opinion: It’s really like waiting for world leaders in the Global North to take decisive action on the climate crisis. They have the science, yet they are powerless, feckless, or nihilistic in response to the momentum of the culture. Whatever initiatives are taken are ineffectual or performative.
I don’t have answers here, but the stalemate does make me think of two things: how cultic organizations are designed to self-perpetuate in part by restricting outside input and avoiding outside scrutiny. Secondly, it makes me think of the distinction that activists like Aric McBay make between those who believe that corrupt systems can change, and those who don’t. I’ll end therefore with two grafs from McBay’s Full Spectrum Resistance.
Many of our [organizing] obstacles have been part of the culture(s) of the left. So I should clarify some of the terms I’ve been using, especially liberal and radical. Some people use radical as a synonym for “extreme,” but that’s misleading. The word radical originates in Latin, where it means “of the roots”—as in, from the grassroots, or root problems. Radicals see the dominant culture as having deep-seated problems that require fundamental changes to fix. They want to uproot entrenched power structures like apartheid, or patriarchy, or capitalism. As such, they tend to advocate (or at least support) political action that falls outside of what the political establishment considers acceptable. (Phil Berrigan’s argument that “if voting changed anything it would be illegal” is something radicals understand well.)
Liberals, in contrast, see the problems in society as comparatively superficial. They accept most of the established power structures of society—say, corporations or the parliamentary state—and they seek to work within those structures to make change. Liberals try to use “representative” systems of political power, either by electing someone sympathetic to them or by persuading someone already in power to grant concessions. Radicals may do this, at times, but radicals also like to build up their own community power and create movements that can exert political force more directly.
— Loc. 803.
So: here’s to a radical 2020 for our spiritual communities, and life on earth.
That Time Manouso Manos Started a Yoga Class with a Verbal Attack And Showed How Trauma Bonding Works
Special thanks to Cassie Jackson, who was there that day and helped confirm many details. Her testimony of Manos assaulting her is included in the IYNAUS investigative report on pages 15-17.
In January of 2017 I emailed Manouso Manos to request an interview. At that time, my research for the book that eventually focused on Jois and Ashtanga Yoga was casting a wider net. The working title back then was Shadow Pose: Trauma and Healing in the Cult of Modern Yoga.
I was upfront and honest about the project. I told him I was investigating intergenerational trauma in the yoga world, and would be citing the 1991 report on allegations of sexual assault against him. I wrote that I wanted to ask him if or how he had changed over the years, and how he understood his teaching within the legacy of BKS Iyengar.
This was about ten months before I heard about the sexual assault claim Ann Tapsell West was preparing to file against Manos, which was first dismissed by the IYNAUS Ethics Committee, and then substantiated by an independent investigator.
When I wrote to Manos I did not know that there were or would be contemporary allegations against him. I also didn’t consider or research sexual offender recidivism. In this light, my initial query was naive.
Manos’s curt responses included a threat to take me to court for writing about him from the public record. Then, paradoxically, he invited me me to come to one of his classes for free.
So I made plan to go. I didn’t expect a warm welcome. But I didn’t expect to be ambushed. Continue reading “That Time Manouso Manos Started a Yoga Class with a Verbal Attack And Showed How Trauma Bonding Works”
Here are brief excerpts from an interview I did with the late Maty Ezraty on July 5, 2016. The stories she told provided valuable background information for my research into the crimes of Pattabhi Jois.
Maty had requested some of the following details remain off-record, which is why they didn’t make it into my book. But now, statements from Eddie Stern reported in the New York Times that suggest he didn’t see Jois abusing students warrant publishing these minutes out of a ninety-minute discussion.
Ezraty had important insights to contribute about the misogynistic culture surrounding Jois. Her premature death precluded her from being able to share them widely. But, as you can see, she felt very passionately about this story. In our email correspondence she was supportive of my investigation.
Below the clips, I’ll fill out some context and provide transcription.
The first clip opens with Ezraty talking about how she and Stern disagreed about Jois’s crimes. In the second, she describes a series of assaults that “we all saw.”
After years of zealous lauding, promoting, and hosting his yoga guru, Pattabhi Jois, Eddie Stern recently removed all mention of Jois from his bio. To date, he has said nothing in print to acknowledge Jois’s crimes.
But Katie Rosman of the NYT did manage to interview him. Here’s the copy:
Eddie Stern is considered the ambassador of the New York Ashtanga community and is an author of a hagiographic biography of Mr. Jois. He too has been disinclined to take part in a public discussion. After three months of background conversations, however, he agreed in late October to an interview.
“I was in Mysore when Karen was there. I didn’t see Guruji” — their preferred title for Mr. Jois — “doing the things she described, but I believe her when she says that was her experience.”
He said he traveled to India annually from 1991 to 2009 to study with Mr. Jois and sometimes spent three months at a time practicing with him there. He said he never saw Mr. Jois treat any student differently from another.
Mr. Stern wants to help the community move forward. “I’m trying to get educated about these things myself,” he said.
When pressed to discuss photographs posted online that show Mr. Jois touching students in ways that many consider inappropriate, Mr. Stern said he regretted agreeing to speak and ended the phone call. “I don’t trust you, and I don’t trust The New York Times,” he said.
The data from Stern here does not line up with what Ezraty says. Here’s the transcript of the above clips:
I’ve had arguments with Eddie about this, you know, in India, Eddie has definitely rationalized all this and there’s no rationalizing to it. It, it so happened. Yeah. It was so blatantly obvious and as a community it’s really pathetic that we all put up with it. I mean, we, we stopped having him [Jois] at Yogaworks in 1993 or 94 due this issue. Yeah. We decided consciously that we could not have him at our school for this reason.
Had you had students complain about him?
Not me, but, you know, off the record, I can’t speak for Chuck. But Chuck had a woman, a very, very, very dear student to him, come to him and tell him the same thing. This was probably in 1991 or 90, something like that and Chuck did similar what Eddie did.
[Note: previously in the interview I had shared reports about Stern’s response to Anneke Lucas when she discussed with Stern that Jois assaulted her at a NYC event in 2001. Lucas told me that Stern’s responses were a mixture of acknowledgement and rationalization.]
And at that time it was more low key. Yeah, it was really low, it really was low key then. I mean, nothing like in the later years. And she stopped coming and um, mind you, this was a student he really liked, like she was a really good student. She stopped coming. And then in 1993 I think our last trip to India, I think that was our last trip. It had gotten worse, or 94, I can’t remember. Chuck would know the years much better than me. I’m not so good with years. It was so blatantly obvious in India. I mean it was just like, it wasn’t no more like “kind of happening, but no one saw it.” It was so… it had gone to another level, like you could not ignore it anymore. And I remember we had a meeting, me and Chuck and Eddie and Nikki and Eddie was there and we were all, and I’m like, we were all like, what is going on here?
And they were, they deflected it and, Chuck and I couldn’t, and it was at that point we made a real decision that we were no longer we just couldn’t. You know, we love the system and we still had a lot of room in our heart for him, but it had gone to a level that we just, we couldn’t deal with.
Pattabhi Jois was humping, humping one particular girl in class every single day. Humping!
In Mysore, the room was small. It was in Lakshmipuram. We were 12 people in the room. It was impossible to miss it. We’re talking in supta padagushthasana, being on top of her and hump-ing her. You had to be blind. Blind to not see. In downward dog. He would just go like this to her. There was no misunderstanding of what the heck was going on. There was no misunderstanding. There was nothing to misunderstand. It was happening. We all saw it. It was very disturbing.
UPDATE: 11.13.2019 05:30 ET
In response to criticism on my Facebook author’s page that it was unethical for me to publish these statements, Jois survivor Jubilee Cooke (also interviewed for the NYT article) has written the following:
In my view, it is far more unethical for Maty to ask Matthew to conspire in the secrecy of Jois’s crimes and their cover-up by senior AY teachers. Matthew and Maty did not have the same kind of formal, confidential, and binding privilege as an attorney and client would have. The value of this recording is not that it provides further proof that Jois is guilty. Rather, it is valuable in that, for the first time, we hear recorded testimony that Eddie, Maty, Chuck and Nicki gathered and made a conscious decision as to how they would handle Jois’s sexual abuse — some decided to continue their studies with him and to host him in the U.S. without warning students away; some did not. Many chose to lie publicly about their knowledge, and none of them reported Jois to the authorities in India or the United States (as far as I know), nor did they stop him by other means.
I would love for someone with expertise in United States law, preferably in sex crimes, to weigh in on this. Sure the statute of limitations has run out, at least in terms of criminal law, and probably for civil as well, but I’m still keen to know: Could Eddie, Maty, Chuck and other senior AY teachers have been charged as accessories or accomplices before or after the fact when they hosted Jois locally in the United States? Even after they stopped hosting Jois, were Maty and Chuck duty bound to report Jois to (let’s say) the FBI given that they had prior knowledge of Jois’s crimes (based on this recording) and probably knew that he would likely offend in multiple states while on tour in the United States? (Even back in the 1990s, it was pretty common knowledge that the rehabilitation of sex offenders had a high failure rate. There’s a reason why sex offenders must register even after they’ve completed their sentence.)
I can’t help but wonder if people would be as offended if this recording had revealed the intention to cover up murder or a child prostitution ring — would people would feel differently about Matthew going public in these instances?
I know there are lots of people out there who, like me, never really bought into Buddhism and yoga as wellness products. Though locked into consumerism, we wanted out of buying and selling. We could tell the difference between commodity and nourishment. For whatever reason, from whatever background, we came to this space for transformation, salvation, or whatever peak outcome we could articulate. For us it was never just about self-regulation, or self-care. Whether our jam was immanence or transcendence, we wanted something totalizing, for ourselves and for others and we dove in head-first.
I suspect that we, the head-first divers, are over-represented in the demographic of those who went on to professionalize in these industries. We invested everything, or at least a lot, because we believed the stakes were high. In my case, I couldn’t think of more meaningful work, and I had the privilege to pursue it. Obsessed with meaning, I and many others then became super-invested in anxious questions over the authenticity of practice, the nature of spiritual authority, the scourge of spiritual abuse, the problem of the body in self-perception, and cultural appropriation.
It’s a great tragedy that people who fall into competing camps on these issues often fail to recognize what they share: a steadfast faith that yoga and Buddhism are not merely wellness products, but pathways that (should) matter in ways that address ultimate human concerns. We don’t seem to understand that conflict in these worlds is actually a sign of a shared faith that might be too intimate to disclose: we want reality, we want truth, we want to heal trauma, we want to integrate or purify or even erase the venal parts of ourselves. We see an opportunity in these wisdom traditions to step off the wheel of empty promises and into a fuller expression of being alive. We argue with each other like Talmudic scholars — minus the courtesy — about our future selves.
What of the stakes? I get the feeling that many of us believe that if we don’t work this hard, if we stay asleep, then we miss our lives. We’ll turn over and over in unconscious loops of consumption and dissatisfaction, eating to get hungry again and loving to be lonely again. When the old books describe samsara, it resonates with the drone of consumer capitalism, ever in our ears, and the loathsome veneer of optimism that occludes the heart, the Stepford wife who sticks a dummy in your mouth and tells you everything is fine. No wonder we’re most outraged when we see yoga and Buddhism themselves appropriated by global capitalism, aka the Big Dream, that erases all urgency except for the need to create sleepier and sleepier drugs, because all drugs wear off.
Here’s the thing.
If you’re paying attention to the climate data — the fact that Arctic sea ice is barely forming this year, that correcting a geomapping error now shows Mumbai completely underwater by 2050 (and we know it’ll be sooner), that crops have largely failed across the Midwest, that Australia is roasting, that millions are on the brink of starvation in Africa, and civil unrest is erupted around the globe as fast as brushfires spread in California — samsara is no longer theoretical, psychological, or even descriptive of a pattern.
The suffering of the world is no longer just a turning wheel. It is a turning wheel rolling towards a cliff of annihilation and oblivion. And it’s not about individuals. My first Buddhist teacher’s existential challenge to me — “You’re dying, what are you going to do about it?” — carried a necessary urgency, but is now obsolete. “We’re all dying,” is the appropriate frame now: “What are we going to do about it?”
Part of me is angry and embarrassed at having spent more than two decades engaged in global Buddhism and yoga while so many people, most with way less privilege, have been on the front lines of ecological activism. I remember the moment I literally chose to meditate instead of join a resistance cell, and that moment feels like a stain I cannot clean.
But part of me forgives myself: at least I didn’t go into the oil business, or social media development, or hedge funds, or selling weight loss products or porn. I could have done a lot more damage to the world in those gigs. Most of us could have done way worse.
Yet another part of me realizes that Global Buddhism and yoga were passively used by capitalism to lull huge numbers of us into hyperindividualistic concern and contemplation, and that’s so gross.
But a fourth part of me knows that so many of us carried trauma that self-care seemed to antidote, and that makes sense.
And a fifth part knows that the promises make to the aspirational self are inextricable from the promises made to the neoliberal citizen: that everything can always grow and improve, regardless of structural oppression, that our hope for increased goodness should be audacious or grandiose instead of lateral and humble, that Global Buddhism and yoga became the spirituality of neoliberalism without us knowing it.
There are so many parts speaking! A last one for now says that:
None of it matters, because we had reproduced and baked ourselves into catastrophic climate change decades before Iyengar published Light on Yoga in 1966. So in many ways, we’ve always been practicing in a kind of civilizational afterlife. Yes, it sucks that Boomers just carried on with their business and now rub their savings and equity in our faces, but did they know any better?
We studied and practiced Ayurveda as though there still was a stable and resilient world. We saluted the sun as though we weren’t simultaneously turning it into a dehydrating lamp. Maybe this was a good way to spend what would have otherwise been a hopeless time?
So here’s my thought.
What if Global Buddhism and yoga gave us a model for waking up that we can now apply not to the suffering modern narcissistic self, but to empirical reality?
What if it really did effectively educate us about sleeping and dreaming, illusion and interdependence, but most of all, the urgent need to do something?
What if these pathways really were practice for what has now arrived?
What if they really were boats that brought us into presence, and that we should now step out onto the shore?
These days I find myself saying:
“Thank you Patanjali, not because you were right about the nature of consciousness. You’re just as confused as everyone else. But you took the problem of existence seriously and urgently, and maybe you also saw the ticking time bomb of human reproduction combined with human avarice and wanted to warn us all. I don’t buy into your answer of shrivelling up and disappearing into meditation, but we all have our ways of dealing, and yours is as good as any.”
“Thank you, Gita-writers, not for providing spiritual justifications for war, nor for hazing the hero with divine terror, but for your examination of the need to act in uncertainty at what feels like the end of time.”
“Thank you, Siddhartha, not because the churches inspired by your teaching were any better than the Christian ones in terms of ethics and political grift, but because you modeled a radical rejection of consensus values, and you pursued your goal until there was nothing left to pursue.”
Clearly, the ancients intuited the crisis of life at its root.
But globalization domesticated and commodified their ideas, repurposing them for the glory of the aspirational self.
It did so while riding an enormous burning wave of oil that is now consuming the very ground that Siddhartha touched, saying, “As earth is my witness.”
Globalization brought the world Buddhism, yoga, and the destruction of the living world itself. It’s the paradox that keeps on giving.
At worst, our practices have kept us asleep to the animals and other people, thinking that inner peace was the most worthy goal.
At best, they have sensitized us to what is now scientifically absolute: that there is nothing to depend on but each other, and love.
Short answer: there’s a lot you can do if after all this you still love yoga and Buddhism the way you did in the beginning and you still want to share it with others. Scroll down if you don’t need the primer on the problem.
In January of 2018, Shannon Roche, current CEO of Yoga Alliance said the following in a video announcement of YA’s updated sexual misconduct policy:
There’s a deeply troubling pattern of sexual misconduct within our community, a pattern that touches almost every tradition in modern yoga.
Every human being deserves to practice yoga free from abuse, harassment and manipulation.
In honour of those who have spoken up, and in honour of those who have been too hurt to speak, we have to start somewhere, and we have to start now.
“Almost every tradition.” Did she really say that? Yes she did. Is that accurate? Yes it is.
You can scroll to the very bottom for an incomplete List of abuse documentation. Roche is speaking for the yoga industry here, but her statement might equally apply to Buddhist organizations, so The List is in two parts.
Please note I’m not talking about “Yoga” and “Buddhism” in some general sense, and as you’ll see from the list below, I’m not referring to organizations that are strictly indigenous to India or South Asia. The focus here is on modern businesses conducted mostly in English and responsible for the global commodification of yoga and Buddhism as wellness and spirituality products.
When I present The List publicly to groups of teachers and teacher trainees, I can feel the air get sucked out of the room.
Because virtually everyone who has professionalized into yoga or Buddhism over the last thirty years has done so in relation to one or more of these groups.
The List makes clear just how terrible the yoga and Buddhism industries have been at fostering the communities of competence, safety, dignity, and even love that their marketing has promised. The List lays bear the toxic outcomes of (mainly) male charismatic leadership over brands that vie for commercial legitimacy within an unregulated field. The List shows that the main thing that facilitates practice — a safe social space — is actually a very rare commodity. On the broadest scale, the sensitive observer will look at the list and wonder “What was this industry about, really?”
So what now? What do all of those trainings and certifications mean? What baggage do they carry with them? What do we do with this past?
I remember writing about Anusara Yoga in 2012. I was amazed at many things, but two stood out: how quickly the organization imploded, and then, how equally quickly so many people moved on. Some of the higher-ups simply switched gears and replicated abusive patterns in unregulated coaching or MLM schemes. But the lower-downs with more integrity tried to pivot to independent teaching status where they could still share what they really loved and valued. As they did so, many scrubbed their resumes, as if it had all been a bad trip they’d rather forget. I remember talking to many friends at the time. They now had a secret, and didn’t know what to do with it, and wondered how they would recover their sense of confidence.
There are fewer and fewer secrets now. That said, some of the articles listed below are from the early 1990s, so the secrets have been open for ages, and of course the survivors of these organizations have known the truth all along.
#metoo sweeping through the yoga and Buddhism worlds has turned the open secret into a do-not-pass-go reality test, and shown that abuse ignored is abuse perpetuated. One of the clearest recent examples has come from Dharma Ocean, where brave former students of Reggie Ray have disclosed a system of charismatic coercion that mimics the Trungpa/Shambhala community Ray famously broke away from. (Pro-tip: charismatic men splitting off from charismatic groups to form their own groups are waving red flags right in your face.)
The shame-scented grace period within which people have been able to quietly rebrand and move on is now over. We’re in a golden age of cult journalism. Skepticism is at an all-time high. And the yoga labour market is simply too saturated to skip town and just hang out another shingle. There’s no room left for blank slates. But there is room for honest growth and resilience.
Four Groups of Stakeholders
What do we do with the knowledge that our education is compromised by the unaddressed abuse histories of our schools? Let’s first get clear on who wants to do something.
In my experience so far, people relate to their abusive groups in four modes of descending intensity. I’ll briefly describe them here to narrow down who my real audience is here (spoiler alert: it’s group 3), because that audience has the burden of being surrounded by people (groups 1+2) who used to be friends and associates, but have now revealed insupportable values.
- Doubled-down Devotees. Take a look (trigger warning) at this petition organized by Russian Ashtanga students. And this one, organized by a Bulgarian student of Manouso Manos. Here are folks who show the classic hard-cultic habits of absolute denial, DARVO, black-and-white thinking, and bounded choice. For these folks, revelations of abuse by Jois and Manos cannot be true, but must be evil, must be motivated by hate and jealousy for sincere practitioners like them who have found the truth. These folks are the life-support system for the high-demand group before it implodes fully, or runs out of recruitment possibilities. That these two petitions target non-English speakers shows that the most recalcitrant elements of a cult will always evade responsibility in their home lands and languages to go for broke abroad.
- Reformer-Apologists. These respectable bystanders are often able to admit that their guru was a flawed man. Oddly, this can automatically increase their own social capital, because they are said to be showing wisdom and forgiveness. “Jois was only human,” they say, never naming the behaviour as criminal. They are even less likely to acknowledge that the criminality was enabled by the organization. Their statements and actions consistently ignore or minimize survivor testimony, and seem guided primarily by the need to limit liability and preserve the idea that the practice of the organization itself (as continued on through their virtue) will be enough to solve all problems. They typically argue that the practice can be separated from the abuser at the centre of the organization, even when they themselves enabled the abuser, and owe him a chunk of their social status. Most of these folks have financial positions to defend in relation to the organization. I’ve talked with many survivors who say that these folks are far more harmful in their behaviours than those in group 1, because reformer apologists pretend to care, but then go about business as usual. In the worst cases, they go so far as to take on reformer roles within the organization, even while shutting down survivor voices.
- The Disillusioned-Sincere. This is the group of people who are worth talking to about how to move forward with integrity. These are folks who professionalized through an abusive school. They may or may not have known about the abuse at the time they were on the inside. If they didn’t, they may have felt something. If they did, they might have frozen in response to it and haven’t known what to do since. They generally finished their educations and then struck out on their own, but were always low enough on the totem pole that it would have been a risk to clearly differentiate from the group. They’ve had good learning experiences, and they value the shreds of community they have left, but they also question what unspoken things they picked up. They can feel lingering weirdnesses, silences, and secrets. Most of all, they want to reclaim whatever it was that drew them to practice in the beginning, and to extract that from the mud. They know it’s worth keeping and sharing with others.
- The Long-Time-Gone Independents. People like Angela Farmer, Donna Farhi, and Diane Bruni are far enough away from their abusive learning communities that they’ve had time to feel and model the empowerment of personal creativity. They’re in a good place in relation to the systems that booted them out or that they had to leave, but it wasn’t always easy.
The iron laws of cultic allegiance mean that for the most part, people in groups 1+2 will only ever be able to serve their own diminishing markets. They’re either too indoctrinated or conflicted to care about or have the ability to move beyond their groups to show the general public that they’ve learned something beyond what their leader taught and his enablers rationalized.
Folks in Group #2 might move at some point to #3, but only if they get pushed off the island by fellow Group #2ers. I think there’s too much at stake in terms of identity formation for them to go on their own.
But if you’re in Group #3, there are three categories of action I believe you can take to reparatively and positively move forward.
I. Personal Inventory and Therapy:
As a Disillusioned-Sincere person, it’s tough to realize that your educational affiliation is compromised, or worse — that it has value to the extent that the group’s leaders suppressed abuse histories. But here we are.
My sense is that personal reckoning in most cases has to come first in order to get over the guilt and shame responses that impede being able to truly listen to and centre survivor voices, and let them carry reform forward, or conceptualize a new way of doing things altogether. So here are some thoughts I hope are helpful:
- It’s an unregulated profession in which male charisma — not competence, not kindness — has been the primary currency of value. It’s not surprising that the power dynamics are bad. You didn’t make the system up, and you wouldn’t have chosen it if offered a choice. But you can take responsibility for your part.
- If the group you were part of was indeed cultic, there is no shame in having been recruited. You know you didn’t sign up for abuse. The group hid that part from you.
- Educating yourself on how high-demand groups work can be really liberating. Here’s a great reading list from Janja Lalich.
- Don’t get caught up in the meaningless shame spiral of thinking that, for instance, the victims of Jois judge you harshly because you love Ashtanga. They don’t care what you love to do with your body, as long as you’re not hurting anybody else. That shame is a black-and-white defence against moving forward.
- You may have been a bystander to harm. Or you may have perpetuated harm. You can go to therapy to explore how that might have happened, and how you feel about it. But keep in mind that the group may have taught you to do exactly that, and that there were strong mechanisms in place to egg you on and shut you up.
- You don’t have to totally forgive yourself for having been there in order to do a good job with the next two categories, and the main point is not to make yourself feel better. But if you are gentle with yourself you’ll have less of your own stuff in the way moving forward.
The baseline, ground-zero instructions for how to listen to and support those your organization abused are in this white paper by Karen Rain and Jubilee Cooke: “How to Respond to Sexual Abuse Within a Yoga or Spiritual Community With Competency and Accountability.” Please read it, digest it, and share it with everyone you can. Follow up, to the best of your ability, on its distinct suggestions (I’ve added some terms in brackets to broaden the scope):
- Seek education from experts outside of the community [on all aspects of equality and justice, for no yoga or Buddhist organizations have this as a focus].
- Learn about sexual [physical, emotional] violence.
- Talk in a way that supports survivors and does not cause further trauma or perpetuate rape culture.
- Be accountable.
- Understand and address the shortcomings of the organization.
- Design policies and practices that help prevent further sexual [physical, emotional, financial] abuse.
- Utilize resources.
Here’s yet another tool that Karen Rain has offered for Jois-identified teachers who want to do the right thing. They can take this pledge,which commits to stepping back from any leadership in reform.
If you know that you have some bystanderism or enabling in your past, it might make sense to personally apologize to those you impacted. However, it’s anyone’s guess whether they want to hear from you, and there’s no telling how it will go if you do reach out.
In considering repair, let’s think about money as well. As an example, check out this still from this famous video released in 1991:
Jois stands in the centre. From the right we see Maty Ezraty, Eddie Stern, Chuck Miller, Tim Miller, Richard Freeman, and Karen Haberman (now Rain). Jois died a wealthy man, and five of these students went on to have very lucrative careers. There are reports that Ezraty’s net worth at the time of her recent death was 15M USD. Karen Rain, by contrast, had to leave the Ashtanga world, and her career, because she was able to discern that Jois was assaulting her and other students. Most of her colleagues on that stage alongside her knew what Jois was doing to women. Rain had to leave what she loved behind and start over.
Maybe at some point someone will be able to collect data on the amounts of money that survivors of abuse in yoga and Buddhist communities have had to spend on therapy and lost wages. In some cases, groups of survivors might find themselves in class action territory.
Until then, do what you can to support and platform survivors of your organization. And you can go farther than that by refusing to participate in yoga financial structures that suck profits up to the top. As with any vertical system, wealth accumulates because it gets stolen from others. You can re-orient yourself in relation to this by moving towards yoga service in public health spaces. See the Yoga Service Council for more details.
III. Moving towards Protection, Mitigation, and Freedom
This is where I pitch my book, because the last section is called “Better Practices and Safer Spaces: Conclusion and Workbook”, and it goes into detail about how to recognize cultic dynamics and how to think critically about group-based spiritual practice. It contains several frameworks meant to foster protection and safety. One such framework is the PRISM method, which I use in consulting. Another calls for a “Scope of Practice for the Yoga Humanities”, in which I argue that it’s not enough for yoga teachers to adhere to a physical SOP that would govern things like touch and unlicensed dietary advice, but for teachers to abide by standards of humility and self-restraint in the areas where they can most easily manipulate the emotions and intellects of students.
At this point I also believe that the staunchly anti-regulatory attitude of the (especially American-dominated) yoga industry has to be called out for enabling abuse. This is a very contentious topic, but I’ll just give one example to prove my point:
It was not only internally reported, but publicly reported, in 1991, that Manouso Manos was committing sexual assault and misconduct on a regular basis. Had yoga teaching in California at that time been a licensed profession, he would have been barred for life. It wasn’t and he wasn’t, so he was free to go about his business after being “forgiven” by Iyengar.
I don’t know how licensing could or should work, but I do know that a blanket rejection of the very idea regulatory oversight is an ongoing slap in the face to abuse victims in the industry. What that attitude basically says is “The consequences of everyone being unaccountable to a college or licensing board are not as important as my freedom.” That’s immoral.
One of the most powerful assertions and recommendations that Rain and Cooke make in their article is this:
Accreditation through an organization lacking transparency, accountability, or reparations for abuse is inadequate for establishing safety. Upgrade accreditation through an uncompromised yoga organization or other educational avenue.
Let that sink in for a moment. What it’s saying is that those certificates from Pune and Mysore that people have been waving around for years are now liabilities. They thought they were showing their competency, but now they show corruption.
What Rain and Cooke are saying here is that a flawed certification can and must be upgraded. You have be able to show yourself, your community, and the public what you have done to mitigate your prior education. This is obviously the best thing to do. In a world of workshops, why not pursue the knowledge that will show real leaning? Even without the need to mitigate your resume, taking a trauma-sensitive certification would be an excellent thing to do.
Eddie Stern is a central figure in the Jois tragedy. He knew that Jois was assaulting women at least as early as 2001, when his student Anneke Lucas disclosed to him that Jois assaulted her (PAAIC p. 319-20). Yet, he went on to host Jois on many tours, and in 2012 released the book Guruji, in which close to 40 devotees of Jois give their hagiographical accounts of his mystic power, and no-one breathes a word of his criminality. Stern’s co-editor Guy Donahaye has disclaimed the book and promoted an accountability gesture for Ashtanga teachers to sign. Here’s Donahaye’s statement on the book:
Since his death, KPJ has been elevated to a position of sainthood. Part of this promotion has been due to the book of interviews I collected and published with Eddie Stern as “Guruji: A Portrait of Sri K Pattabhi Jois” which paints a positive picture of his life and avoids exploring the issues of injury and sexual assault. In emphasizing only positive stories it has done more to cement the idea that he was a perfect yogi, which he clearly was not.
By burnishing his image, we make it unassailable – it makes us doubt the testimony of those he abused. This causes further harm to those whose testimony we deny and to ourselves.
I would like to offer my sincere apologies to all victims who were harmed by KPJ or by his teachings as passed through his students for my part in cultivating this image of perfection that denies the suffering and healing of many. I would also like to apologize for taking so long to write this – it was not easy to do.
Aside from a poorly-presented series of quotes in the New Yorker, Stern has remained publicly silent on the issue of institutional abuse in Ashtanga. And his new bio note scrubs all reference to Jois.
Here’s a thought experiment: without his connections to Jois, would Stern have been able to build the networking power that enables him to now release a book with a forward by Deepak Chopra, or be the fly-in asana guy for the Walton family’s upcoming conference? (This brings us back to money, see above.) What does it mean that Jois has now vanished from his history?
Whenever someone asks me what they should do about their prior affiliation with the Jois family, Manos, Satyananda, or Choudhury, I can basically say: “Don’t do what Stern does.”
Here’s what transparency, which I believe leads to freedom, looks like:
- Fully own your educational past, and your relationships.
- Show how you’ve updated your education.
- If you feel that you were in a high-demand group, this is not a point of shame if you can show what you’ve learned from it. If you have to make amends to anyone before spilling it, do it: it’s the right thing to do anyway.
- Within the bounds of legal risk, be frank about both what you learned to do and what you learned not to do. If you can refer to mainstream articles to make your point about your former school, that should be safe. I am not giving legal advice here, but I can say in general that the test for defamation is that what you say about your past needs to be untrue for you to be in legal jeopardy. That said, people with money can sue over anything.
- If it’s not your style or it wouldn’t be appropriate or would be legally dangerous to share about your past in a confrontational way, you could instead write a manifesto of values that clearly names dynamics that you have suffered and will continue to work against and reverse.
Owning your past, flaws and all, can give a new sense of creative and educational opportunity. Erasing trauma and history does not lead to freedom, but working with both may.
Note: The organizations on this incomplete list are all different. What they share is social power that has survived unresolved abuse histories of different varieties. Often this involves the lieutenants of abusive leaders assuming routinized leadership positions by burying the truth about the organization’s origins and how they have benefited from the silence of the organization’s victims.
Rinzai Zen (Joshu Sasaki Roshi)
Diamond Mountain / Asian Classics Institute https://michaelroachfiles.wordpress.com/
New Kadampa Tradition
It could be that you’re already familiar with modern global Buddhism, be it of the Tibetan, Burmese, Thai, Vietnamese, “mindfulness”, “insight”, or other variety. Your practice might predate your decision to join an eco-activist group or ecological support network. If this describes you, you may have already navigated what I’m about to say.
I’m addressing this in particular to those activists and concerned citizens who have been introduced to global Buddhist practices and communities through eco-activism networks that are understandably reaching out to seek sources of support and nurturance in a critical time.
I’m writing because I’m seeing a lot of interest in Buddhism as both a philosophy and as a series of self-and-co-regulation techniques within groups like Extinction Rebellion and Positive Deep Adaptation. I don’t want to discourage this interest in any way, but I do believe there are some things to bear in mind for those on the verge of going deeper into practice. These are facts I’ve gathered as a survivor and researcher of cults.
Here’s the main point, which I’ll break down below:
Yes: use the techniques and be comforted by the philosophy. But: be very wary of taking advice from or handing leadership over to “career” Buddhist teachers in the following areas: ethics, communications, group behaviour, political tactics, regeneration culture, or community building.
Why? Here are a few reasons:
1. Virtually every large modern Anglophone global Buddhist community is awash with unaddressed abuse. The abuse has been physical, emotional, sexual, financial, and spiritual. The pattern is broad and the damage is deep. Links at the bottom.
2. It is rare that a modern global Buddhist community trains its members in anti-oppression, ecological awareness, or the history of social movements. It’s just not on the curriculum. Despite this, there is a tendency amongst long-term practitioners to assume that Buddhist practice magically confers insight in one or all of these areas. Many labour under the illusion that being Buddhist magically makes them anti-racist, for example. Or they believe that a Buddhist perspective gives insight into how best we confront the state, as in the recent viral post that suggested that (without using this language) XR rebels view the police with metta, because “we’re all on the same side.” The poster has a point, though not the one intended: for fifty years, global Buddhism has for the most part sanctified, rather than resisted, the neoliberal police and surveillance state. Bottom line: competency in Buddhism does not predict competency in any other area, and may in fact impede it. There’s no shame in this: one can’t be good at everything.
3. Recent implosions of prominent Buddhist organizations have exposed decades of widespread abuse and enablement. This has scattered many senior staff, many of whom are now looking for new communities, new angles, and new work. In many cases, these are folks who have been deeply embedded — as enablers and victims — in cultic dynamics. It takes a long time to get sorted out after being embedded. Healing and accountability can happen, but I can say anecdotally as a journalist and researcher in this area that it is rare.
4. Most Buddhist teachers that attained social power in these groups did so not through the strength of their training nor any measurement of their attainment in the techniques of meditation (for there is none), but through their skill at serving the leadership, or through the power of their charisma, and the group transferences that feed it. Leadership in these organizations is often gained through socially toxic means.
5. The post-implosion histories of many Buddhist organizations feature a pattern of charismatic lieutenants breaking away from the original group to found their own communities, often with predictable results. I guarantee that there will be Buddhist teachers whose organizations have recently failed who out of narcissistic or financial necessity — or just pure habit — will now try to lead or monetize their brands within eco-activist organizations.
6. Part of what we’re seeing in the highly-flawed internal reform movements of organizations like Shambhala is the adoption of woketivist language as a form of brandwashing, even while the needs of the organization’s survivors remain unaddressed. Arguably, any attention placed on social justice issues has some social benefit, but the activist newcomer to Buddhism should consider that the newly-minted eco-Buddhist teacher might be far more interested in promoting their own ideology than in the actual cause. They may be using XR or PDA as a delivery device for their real commitment.
7. While the self-and-co-regulation techniques of meditation, mindfulness, metta, warrior-compassion, right speech, etc. can all valuable in and of themselves, activists who are unfamiliar with global Buddhism should know that each and every one of these techniques and attitudes has been used in various group contexts to suppress critical thinking, member agency, and enable abuse.
8. Abuse in Buddhist organizations often plays out along gender lines. Every organization listed below was founded and/or was led by a charismatic male teacher. The majority of sexual assault victims to come forward in recent abuse revelations are women. It is also true that the majority of unpaid administrative and emotional labour in these groups is performed by women. Further, women’s administrative visibility and labour can be used to extend the pretence that an organization’s values are feminist, trauma-aware, or justice-oriented — all values that aid in recruitment, especially of younger women. But in reality, many of these organizations are deeply patriarchal and misogynist. Eco-movements do not want to import yet more forms of misogyny and unexamined rape culture, whether explicit or internalized.
None of this is to say that Buddhists are bad people or that there aren’t some Buddhist teachers doing great social justice or activism work. In my experience, these are the folks who have been independent from branded communities for years, have spoken out against abuses they witnessed, and have adopted an interdisciplinary approach to how they continue to learn and practice. Many hold qualifications as psychotherapists, social workers, or scholars of religion, and this can afford some critical distance. (However, in the case of Shambhala International, many earned their degrees at the group’s own university, Naropa, and so can’t really be said to be qualified outside of the group.)
Bottom line: Buddhism can be great, but the organizations and leadership structures that have emerged in its globalization period are often myopic, bourgeois, self-serving, and at times abusive to their members. People who professionalized in those spaces have a lot of work to do to show how they’re not going to repeat what they’ve been through or been complicit in.
I predict that the era of ecological collapse will be a boom-time for cults — political, religious, or both. This is because nobody knows exactly what’s going to happen, but we do know it’s going to be apocalyptically bad, and we’re going to be even more desperate for community than we are now. This means that conditions are ripe for inspired and charismatic leadership, which we already see in the figureheads of XR, for example. Charismatic leadership is one of Lalich’s four factors in defining the cultic. (Another is totalizing ideology. XR is at least 2 for 4. A third thing to look at would be information control. Hm.)
Many of us may be starting to feel like strong communities are the only reliable refuge we’ll have as collapse continues to spread. So far, branded global Buddhisms have not provided good models for strong community.
Messianic movements are dangerous, and so is the modern police and surveillance state. I hope we can all be careful that global Buddhism doesn’t get used to meditate those dangers away.
Some online responses to this article have suggested, without offering evidence, that the institutions listed below have made strides towards rectifying abuse. For those who wish to research this assertion, I propose the following test:
Try to find published survivor testimonies that speak to these improvements.
Such testimony might read as follows:
“I was abused in [organization name] and the organization has been very responsive to my needs. When I approached the community with my story, I knew who to go to, and no one ignored, deflected, or snubbed me. No one tried to tell me the abuse was my fault or that I should use the spiritual techniques of the group to reframe the abuse as love. I found several people in the organization who became allies and helped me to come forward. They took risks with their own social capital to defend me against enablers. The leadership did not stall or try to limit the PR damage. They investigated and sanctioned those who abused me. They offered me direct care in my recovery, and paid for my related expenses. They really showed that they were able to offer the values of their spirituality in difficult circumstances. This has restored my hope in [Buddhism/yoga/etc], because it has helped to heal the very deep level of trauma that comes from spiritual abuse.”
Problematic global Buddhist Organizations (an incomplete list):
Stories of abuse and betrayal tremble beneath the veneer of spiritual groups. Silently. For decades.
The veneer functions like money does in the Epstein world to write the laws, conceal the truth, and dispose of the evidence. Spiritual groups don’t have Epstein-level money, but they have other shiny objects to distract and confuse. They have stories of extraordinary men, spiritual transformations, and a coming enlightened age.
One type of question I often field is “what makes the Jois story a yoga story?” or: “What makes the Rigpa story a story about Buddhism?” I counter the deflection of this question by saying “It’s true: these are rape culture and high-demand group stories.”
Then I add: “But it’s important that we see how they play out in environments in which they are explicitly not meant to happen: places where vulnerable people come to be protected from abuse.”
But there’s another reason I believe stories of spiritual abuse are important to investigate and understand. In some cases, the group has an outsize impact upon the broader culture, usually through having found a way to conceal its origins, manage its image, and secularize and popularize its techniques.
I’m not talking about groups like Scientology, which unduly influence celebrities who carry a lot of social power, but which also have a hard time commodifying their core content. (One test here is that Dianetics has always been published in-house, while much of the “advanced” literature is hidden altogether.) With Shambhala, for example, the core content is sanitized, legitimized, and monetized through institutions like Naropa and a number of spiritual/self-help books that became touchstones in the 1990s neoliberalism that believed it was progressive.
That core content is a group effort. More importantly: the group effort conceals itself through the presentation of individual genius. Nowhere is this more efficient than in the spiritual book industry.
Spiritual books are marketed on the basis of the awakened personality and the intimacy of the author’s written “voice”. The public ends up thinking they’re encountering the realized presence of Pema Chödrön on the page, for example. That page, and the buzz around it, gets her onto Oprah.
But Chödrön’s ascent to Oprah isn’t driven by her personal wisdom or virtue. She gets that gig because she has risen to the top of a high-demand group as a spokesperson.
I started writing about cults in 2012 when a group I’d been recruited into more than a decade before began to implode, after the partner of one of the group’s leaders died of exposure in the Arizona desert.
In the ensuing nine years, I’ve weathered a broad spectrum of blowback from loyalists to the groups I’ve written about critically. The responses unfold over a spectrum of defences: from primitive-enraged to sophisticated-subtle. I believe most of the responses share the features and impulses listed below.
This is not a complete list, nor is it scientific. It’s based primarily on personal observation. Some researchers might disagree with some premises here, and I welcome feedback and objections. I’m including a bibliography of diverse resources below.
I’m not presenting this list to imply that people whose cult ties lead them to gaslight or abuse others are somehow more deserving of empathy than anyone else. None of the impulses described here excuse the behaviour. People who act out like this have work to do, but it may be hard for them to even develop the impulse to do it.
I’m presenting the list for informational purposes, so that if you wind up trying to speak reasonably to or call out the harms of a person enmeshed in a cult, it might be helpful to identify some of the baffling responses as they come.
If you have the spoons for it, you can help a friend or relative in a high-demand group simply by engaging with them as if they are a full and rich person with their own ideas and autonomy. The work of Alexandra Stein suggests that modelling secure attachment is key to healing. Steve Hassan’s work suggests that appealing to a person’s “pre-cult” self can be very effective. A friend did that for me once with a letter. He helped free a part of me that had been locked up.
1. All group members are abuse victims, to varying degrees.
Dominance hierarchies exist within high-demand groups just as they do outside of them, so not everyone suffers the same. However, everyone recruited into a high-demand group has been deceived in one way or another. They have had their time, energy, and emotional faculties hijacked for a purpose that is not their own, and which is rarely clear to them.
Those who bear the brunt of the abuse in a high-demand group — women, children the poor, the super-earnest and altruistic — emerge with clear disabilities, up to and including CPTSD. But — absent real sociopathy — even those who enjoyed a certain amount of power within the group will carry with them guilt, moral injury, and the sensation of sunken costs. Criticism or resistance to the group may make these wounds sting and provoke intense defensive responses related to any sense of responsibility for the abuse they may carry.
They are caught in a bind: they are not responsible for having been deceived, and yet they are responsible for the power that deception allowed them to have over others. It is far easier to dismiss critical engagement or vilify whistleblowers than it is to engage in this deep moral complexity.
2. The voices of survivors are psychologically threatening to those who have not yet owned their survivorhood.
Intuitively, we know that if we really listen to them, we might succumb to a kind of sickness marked by feelings of doubt, shame, and guilt. We know we’ll have to start asking questions about how the big picture is organized. We’ll have to bear out the possibility that everything we value is infected by everything we fear.So what we do to trauma survivors—even, sometimes, if we are survivors ourselves—is that we shut those voices down and quarantine them in an attempt to keep ourselves sterile and safe.
This begins to account for the reactions that go beyond silence and dismissal. Often survivors who speak up and whistleblowers are not just refuted. They are depicted with contempt, revulsion, and loathing.
The most basic form that this takes is through false psychiatric diagnoses. I’ve seen survivors labelled as mentally ill. It can get even more crude: I’ve had my physical appearance mocked, my face described as “creepy”, my intentions as predatory. This shocked me at first, until I understood through this contagion principle that whistleblowing quite literally reveals hidden cancer and rot, and disgust is a reasonable response.
There might be something else going on. Some of the survivors I know radiate a kind of awareness of the world and of their own vulnerability that is somatized through hypervigilant affect. They wear no masks in the world. I believe that sometimes the raw honesty of their presence shows the person who has not yet come to terms with their own survivorship what it would feel like to live without armour, and this is terrifying.
3. They love the group leader in a complex, intense, and painful way.
Many group members have been entrained to love the leader with a passion designed to overcome the fear they provoke, or to rationalize or erase the harm they commit. They might feel dependent on the leader’s gaze or attention, and desperate to stay in their good graces. Somewhere they are aware of the emotional and material capital they’ve given up to their commitment, and their ardour must measure up to that loss. In some cases their love mirrors what happens in the trauma-bonding of intimate partner abuse.
Rachel Bernstein recently provided a very accessible run-down of the trauma bond. I’ll post it at the bottom.
If you engage with someone who is enmeshed in a high-demand group and has developed insecure attachments to the leader(s), it will be very hard to avoid implying that they are trauma-bonded, and this can be incredibly shameful.
In the process, you’ll also be shedding light on the unconscious but persistent sense of betrayal that they feel in relation to the “good” leader who is actually hurting them and others. By pointing out betrayal, you will be cast as the betrayer. (See the resources from Freyd below.)
Also: be aware of the vicious calculus at play. Karen Rain has pointed out that the lengths to which some Ashtanga people have gone to vilify me mirrors the love they have expressed for Jois.
4. They believe their community loves and protects them, but they also doubt it. You are externalizing those doubts.
Everything the person feels about the leader they may feel about their fellow members. However, the web is intricate and the textures are subtle. If they’ve been in the group for years they have spent a long time finding the right niche of safety-that-isn’t-quite-safety. They have friends who are not primarily friends and family members who are not primarily family members: in both cases allegiance to the group trumps all.
As an outsider to that group, you are making an intervention in the voice of someone the group already vilifies. Of course you cannot understand them, of course you are out to destroy their vision. The number of people who have accused me to trying or wanting to destroy their communities is astonishing, until I realized that that defence is proof of the fragile insularity of the group.
The paradox of being in a group like this is that you are isolated within it. Alexandra Stein says it this way:
Contrary to the stereotype of cult life, followers are isolated not only from the outside world, but in this airless pressing together they are also isolated from each other within the group. They cannot share doubts, complaints about the group or any attempt to attribute their distress to the actions of the group. At the same time as this isolation from other people – either within or outside of the group – is occurring, there is also a deep loneliness and isolation from the self. The time pressures, sleep deprivation and the erasure of the individual mean there is never any opportunity for solitude – that creative and restful state where contemplation, thinking and the space in which changes of mind might occur can take place. As there is no space between people, neither is there any internal space allowed within each person, for their own autonomous thought and feeling. Thus there is a triple isolation: from the outside world, from others in the group and from one’s own self.
— Terror, Love and Brainwashing: Attachment in Cults and Totalitarian Systems (loc 1835)
The cult member is also aware at some level that they will be punished for leaving. This accounts for the “dread” famously articulated by Langone and others. As the person who stands outside of the cult and seems to offer you a pathway to leaving, you may become the very embodiment of that dread.
5. They might have cognitive injuries.
If the group’s practices have involved repetitive actions or rituals that have contributed to what we could call a dissociative reflex, it can be really hard for a group member to stay on point and think clearly. The suppression of discursive (let alone critical) thinking is actually a feature of many group ritual instructions. I’ve heard many reports of people leaving high-demand groups with substantial cognitive deficits. In my own case I couldn’t concentrate for long enough to write a coherent sentence, on account of the meditation and mantra practices I had been given.
So if you’re communicating with a group member and it seems that they can’t think straight, follow an argument through, or hold a stable definition of a term — hold space for the possibility that they simply can’t.
If the repetitive ritual involves physical labour or pain, this can be another obstruction to cognition. The person in chronic pain or who is dependent upon daily endorphin-release rhythms to feel not-miserable may simply not have the stamina for complex cognitive or psychological consideration.
6. They may feel existentially dependent upon the group ideology.
If the group’s belief system is totalizing and transcendent, and if it has been ritually embedded for long enough, it can begin to feel like the member’s own voice or sense of self. Everything leads back to the message, which is repeated over and over again.
Questions are disruptions of that message, but more importantly, questions disrupt the self-soothing rhythm of how that message is internally recited. Many group members report a feeling of deep anxiety when the internalized message is opened up to questioning. It can feel as though the basis of the person’s life is being attacked. So don’t underestimate the power and danger of saying something as simple as: “Do you really believe that?”
Another aspect: if they were recruited through totalizing promises, it might feel as though deconstruction of those promises feels totalizing. This accounts for how often cult analysts are called “bullies” by group members. It’s upside down. The analysis is calling out bullying.
7. The financial benefits of group membership may be as invisible as other forms of privilege.
The group member whose social and financial status is the product of the group’s hierarchy of harm will resist seeing that just as strongly as any consumer will resist seeing the harm of consumerism. If you point out that their relative comfort or safety in the group is dependent on any kind of “I-Got-Mine-ism“, you’ll face the same blowback that POC activists face when calling out white privilege, or women face when calling out male privilege. At the root here may be some deep strain of fragility that simply cannot turn the guilt of having benefited from the suffering of others into an active justice plan.
8. Because the criticism of the group feels like it is attacking the group member’s self and sense of authenticity, they will call you a fraud.
Classic projection. People engage in ad hominem all the time in this world. But in this discourse the flip to ad-hom is so instantaneous it should raise big red flags. Key things to notice: as soon as the response has migrated into ad hominem, you won’t be talking about the data anymore. You won’t be quoted directly. You’ll be defending irrelevant things like your religious commitments or daily habits. One person said that they could tell I was a carnivore from my writing and therefore I was mistaken about everything.
A particular sore spot in this theme is around educational attainments. Almost every single charismatic leader I’ve written about has falsified his educational background or source of lineage authority. The follower of someone like that is in a precarious position with regard to legitimacy. Legitimacy therefore becomes a fixation. Ad hominem arguments begin to merge with arguments from authority.
9. Please add your own observations in the comments.
Rachel Bernstein on the “trauma bond”:
[In the trauma bond] you become connected to the person who is abusing you or traumatizing you, or stressing you out in a way that people outside the relationship might not understand necessarily. Usually it goes like this: that you’re with someone who was abusive, let’s say, who is selfish or narcissistic. And they need to take this power away from you and make you feel small and make you feel afraid of disappointing them and not getting things done perfectly. And they get very punitive towards you. But then they are intermittently kind and giving funny, forgiving, emotionally generous and soft, and it’s like intermittent gratification. It draws you in into something that is called a trauma bond, where you want that sweetness and that break from the mistreatment to continue as long as it can.
So you learn that you can control it by shifting your behavior a bit and pleasing that person as best you can. So the sweetness and the break lasts for a longer time. But that really in the back of your mind, you know, it’s not gonna last forever and that the abuse is probably gonna come back and then there’ll be a break from it again. And you’ll know what you need to do in order to try to keep that good feeling going and continue getting that break that you need. But the cycle just continues. And then if the abuse comes back, you might feel you deserve it because you just had the recent experience of this person being kind to you. And if a kind person is angry with you, you can more easily feel like it’s your fault. Children learn to appease someone who puts them under overwhelming stress or abuse because they have to. If that person or those people are their only caretakers and they don’t have anywhere else to go or any other adults in their lives who they really know yet and can rely on, they are stuck.
— from “One More Thing” at the end of Betrayal and Power w/ Nitai Joseph, former Hare Krishna – S4E5.
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