Ex-Ashtanga Student Calls Out Problematic Adjustment Post, Gets Called “Bully”

Ex-Ashtanga Student Calls Out Problematic Adjustment Post, Gets Called "Bully"

Yesterday, Toronto yoga and movement trainer Cecily Milne (@yogadetour) shared an Instagram post from the account of @ashtangatoronto. The post features a photo of teacher David Robson manipulating @lisaasana in an advanced backbend.

The post is captioned with a quote from meditation instructor Stephen Levine. The quote either compares or conflates the mental or psychological discomfort experienced in meditation with the physical discomfort of an extreme posture. The quote suggests that the best choice a student can make in relation to discomfort is to surrender.

“That surrender,” part of the Levine quote says, “that letting go of wanting anything to be other than it is right in the moment, is what frees us from hell.”

Robson is an Ashtanga yoga teacher, authorized to teach by Sharath Rangaswamy. Rangaswamy is the grandson of Pattabhi Jois, who has recently been outed for sexually assaulting female students over several decades. The revelations, along with the continued activism of survivors like Karen Rain, have prompted soul-searching throughout the Ashtanga world, and some steps towards accountability.

Milne’s commentary focuses on the message communicated by the image paired with the Levine quote. She makes reference to her own training with Robson at Ashtanga Yoga Centre of Toronto, where Robson claims to lead “one of the world’s largest Mysore programs outside of India.”

 

 

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I saw this post last night and when I read the caption my first thought was – “This is fucked. This message is so problematic” (original caption below). ⠀ I used to practice at this studio. I’ve received this adjustment. And while I’m not trying to make a habit of putting others choices down in order to give strength to my own, I believe it’s my responsibility to use my work to spread awareness around the fact that asking people to surrender to discomfort is NOT ok. ⠀ Should we avoid discomfort? No. It’s inevitable. Life is uncomfortable. But let’s confront that discomfort. Let’s understand where it’s coming from and learn to understand it. Let’s use discomfort to grow, not to surrender. ⠀ As @stopchasingpain reminds us: Pain is a request for change. ⠀ Change is here. Finally. ⠀ #Repost @ashtangatoronto with @get_repost ・・・ “When you can accept discomfort, doing so allows a balance of mind. That surrender, that letting go of wanting anything to be other than it is right in the moment, is what frees us from hell. When we see resistance in the mind, stiffness in the mind, boredom, restlessness … that is the meditation.“ – Stephen Levine __ Photo of @lisaasana moving into #kapotasana in Friday’s Mysore with @davidrobsonyoga __ #yogadetour #followthedetour #movementeducation #yogarevolution #bethechange

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The 300+ comments under Milne’s post feature several reports of similar experiences at Ashtanga Yoga Center Toronto.

Ughhh, I used to practice here too…” wrote one commenter. “I remember those adjustments. I remember the breath cues to relax into it…”. Another describes how the value of “surrender” in the environment led her to tears. 

In a separate post, Milne described the “surge of anxiety” that preceded speaking out against the post, knowing that some might retaliate.

 

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I don’t shy away from discomfort because it always has something to teach me. ⠀ Just ask anyone who takes my class what my opinion is of a muscle cramp – uncomfortable, but a sign that progress is being made! ⠀ But there’s a big difference between leaning into discomfort and surrendering to it in potentially damaging ways. ⠀ To all those who have raised their voices in support on my last post – thank you. Thank you for getting it. Thank you for expecting more from this community. ⠀ I’ll be writing more about this in my next email. If you want to receive it, make sure you’re on the list (link in bio). ⠀ ⠀ #movementeducation #yogarevolution #yogadetour #ashtangayoga #yogateachertraining #bethechange

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In response, Robson posted the following to his Facebook page. The statement interprets criticism of the notion that a student should physically surrender as a form of discrimination against the global Ashtanga community.

 

Soon after Robson’s response, his supporters began using the hashtags #bullying, #stopbullying, #troll, and #dontbeabully, referring to Milne.

Labelling criticism of a power imbalance as an attack is part of the DARVO mechanism, described by psychologist Jennifer Freyd. In the DARVO maneuver, a criticism or accusation is denied, the whistleblower attacked, and the roles of victim and aggressor are reversed.

The social media exchange comes as competencies for Ashtanga yoga teaching are being contested by a number of younger Ashtanga-affiliated teachers. This is a developing story.

Interim Shambhala International Board Swears Religious Oath to Leader Accused of Sexual Assault

Interim Shambhala International Board Swears Religious Oath to Leader Accused of Sexual Assault

On October 17th, eight Shambhala students chosen by the Transition Task Force to form an Interim Board of Directors were sworn into service for a twelve month period.

The move comes as the global neo-Buddhist organization navigates allegations of sexual assault committed by its spiritual leader, Ösel Mukpo, also known as Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche.

The allegations against Mukpo were first publicized by Buddhist Project Sunshine in February. BPS is headed up by Andrea Winn, a life-long Shambhala member, along with independent investigator Carol Merchasin. The team’s three reports also contain allegations of intergenerational and institutional abuse within the organization, which was founded by Mukpo’s father, Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, in 1971.

The revelations have shaken Shambhala International to the core, triggering the resignation of its Board and forcing Mukpo to step down from his administrative role. Recent financial reports show that the organization, which posted 18M in North American revenue in 2017, is now in financial crisis. Some local centres, including the one in New York City, will soon be closing.

Winn’s team, along with the women who provided their testimony, also prompted Shambhala to commission its own independent investigation, led by the Halifax firm Wickwire Holm. Some community members have doubted the impartiality of the investigation and its gag order on complainants.

According to its new website, the Interim Board is charged with several tasks, including keeping the crippled organization solvent, coordinating international affairs, and communicating the results of Shambhala’s collaboration with An Olive Branch, an American Zen-based group that consults on ethics policies for Buddhist groups.

The website also states that the Interim Board will “Release to the community as much of the Wickwire Holm report as is legally and ethically possible while respecting confidentiality.”

The report is due out in early January. In early December, the Interim Board will convene in Halifax, where they plan to meet with Mukpo.

Additionally, the Interim Board is to keep Mukpo “apprised” of their work, “even though he is not responding to any administrative aspects of Shambhala or the Interim Board.”

The installation of the Interim Board required that members swear this oath:

Shambhala-Interim-Board-Oath-10.4.18-

While highly unusual for any not-for-profit, this oath is consistent with Shambhala’s culture and mythology, which posits that members are living in, aspiring to live in, or trying to manifest an enlightened world, parallel to this one, governed by supernatural beings.

The “Rigden” to which Interim Board members are bowing is an archetypal ruler of that world, linked to the divine realms described in medieval Tibetan tantric literature. (The lede image for this article is of an incomplete painting of the “Primordial Ridgen”. The image is featured on many Shambhala Centre altars around the world.)

“Dorje Dradül” is an epithet for Chögyam Trungpa, who died of alcoholism in 1987, and was believed to be in telepathic communication with the rigdens.

“Kongma Sakyong, Jampal Trinley Dradül, and the Sakyong Wangmo, Dechen Chöying Sangmo” are epithets for Ösel Mukpo, Trungpa’s son and business heir, and his wife, Semo Tseyang Palmo. The term “dralas” refers to the embodied nature spirits that were a feature of Tibetan indigenous religion, prior to the arrival of Indian Buddhism in the 8th century.

The Interim Board was appointed by the Transition Task Force, led by senior Trungpa devotees, including Pema Chödrön. It is comprised of long-term Shambhala students and leaders, including the Chair of the Shastri (teachers) Council, a former President of Naropa University (founded by Trungpa in 1976), and a feminist anthropologist and psychotherapist who will teach at Naropa beginning in 2019.

Three of the Interim Board members are also practitioners of the “Scorpion Seal”, an initiated ritual meditation said to be divinely received by Chögyam Trungpa, and later revealed by his son. Part of the ritual, which is kept secret, involves visualizing the Mukpos as enlightened beings, as seen in this more introductory practice.

On their website, the Interim Board asserts that “We are especially sensitive to resisting a top-down approach that seeks to polish or smooth over harm that has already occurred.”

However, they did not respond to a request for comment on how they planned to impartially oversee the investigation of Mukpo, given their religious commitments to him as leader.

The Biopolitics of Neoliberalism in Contemporary Yoga: Exploring Questions Posed by Giada Consoli

The Biopolitics of Neoliberalism in Contemporary Yoga: Exploring Questions Posed by Giada Consoli

I was honoured to be contacted by Giada Consoli with the following questions related to her graduate work on contemporary yoga culture. She is an Ashtanga Yoga practitioner and works as yoga teacher, naturopath and Bach Flower therapist in Rome, Italy. She has attended the Master in Yoga Studies at the Ca’ Foscari University in Venice. Some of this discussion will be included in her final thesis, which is titled:

How Yoga Ruins Your Life: Body politics, Dispositif, Counter-Dispositif.

(You can listen to/view a reading of this post here, on my Facebook author’s page.)

_____

 

Giada Consoli:

In my research on contemporary yoga, I’m analyzing the concepts of biopower and biopolitics, how power constructs and defines subjects, and how the body, as a social artifact, incorporates power dynamics but can also be a place of resilience and resistance.

I’m looking at the concept of dispositif, both in Foucault and Agamben, as everything in our life as modern consumers which captures, controls, determines and models our gestures, behavior, opinions, discourses.

My main question is if yoga can still have a countercultural potential, if we can consider it a tool of individual and collective liberation or if, as a consumer culture product, a multimillionaire industry, it is just another way to reinforce the status quo, another type of social control developed by neoliberal governments.

 

Matthew Remski:

This is such a rich area, and I’m so glad you’re diving into it! I believe contemporary yoga can only benefit from more and better discussion about its most painful paradoxes, all sharpened by the fact that its growth arc and the rise of neoliberalism are inseparable. 

As the sign of a globalized product with ever-more tenuous relationships to its wisdom roots, the term “yoga”:

  • promises an equitable space of community gathering, yet too often spiritualizes continued class and racial segregation;
  • promises a renewal of bodily agency, but too often delivers a more sophisticated form of objectification;
  • promises empowerment through exquisite messages of inadequacy;
  • promises authenticity but too often demands you perform it;
  • promises self-inquiry, but too often delivers self-surveillance;
  • can deploy a language of feminism to reinforce gender essentialism;

Etc., etc.

In short, the stretching and twisting too often embody the contortions of co-optation. The deep breathing can become a strategy for acclimatizing to stresses that yoga as a culture too often only pretends to resist.

In reading your fascinating intro, two definitional points come to mind straight out of the gate, which you’ve probably considered, so I hope you forgive me for making them explicit.

First I think we have to speak of “the body” under neoliberalism in the radical plural, lest we replicate its own false premise of equality. There are so many bodies. In neoliberalism we are constantly asked to believe in the even playing field of a fantasized freedom, where some idealized body, unmarked by race or class, gallivants through the duty free.

Lululemon published a blog in 2011, during their Ayn-Rand-and-yoga-pants campaign. They wrote:

Think about it: we are all born with magical machines, aka human bodies, able to think, jump, laugh and run . . . . We are able to control our careers, where we live, how much money we make, and how we spend our days through the choices we make . . . many of us choose mediocrity without even realizing it.

They use the plural, but they’re only talking about one body. The narcissistic body that believes it is everywhere and everything. This homogenization is crucial to be aware of in yoga discourse, which often uses notions of oneness as aspirational fodder.

This is only one of the ways in which the global yoga industry spiritualizes neoliberalism’s greatest lie: that all bodies possess equal potential and therefore are equally liable to self-caused failure and shame.

As white interlocutors, we have to foreground the fact that bodies of PoC, for instance, incorporate power dynamics and express resilience in ways that we aren’t able to imagine. The diversity and intersectionality of trauma loads would be another example.

Secondly, my personal and research background is in cult studies. I can’t help but to view neoliberalism as a macro-cult within which more tightly organized micro-cults flourish under the tyranny of aspirational charisma. All cults run on deception, and the deception of the macro-cult is that its leaders in deregulation tell citizens that they can be free if they gladly accept policies of economic and environmental coercion. As micro-cult leaders, Tony Robbins or John Friend tell students that they are free if they gladly undertake practices of indoctrination, which, paradoxically, can feel euphoric.

But — has anyone developed this stuff, consciously? Is there intentionality here? I don’t think so. I can’t see a conspiracy of governments or leaders to implement yoga or mindfulness practices as a means of social control. When you study cults you quickly realize that groups that want to concentrate power simply do whatever works. There’s a lot of trial and error involved. If yoga both expands and spiritualizes neoliberalism, there may be the cold calculations of a few sociopaths at play, but mainly it’s happening through the unconscious biohacking that comes from doing whatever we must to make ourselves feel good within a high-stress landscape, while disowning shame and responsibility.

The genius of neoliberalism is that it makes self-control and self-monitoring into a virtue because it really does offer — unequally and unpredictably — addictive doses of pleasure. It doesn’t need a puppet master: it teaches us how to pull our own strings.

 

Giada Consoli:

Can we read yoga, in its current commodification, exactly as another kind of dispositif which trains and manages our bodies and minds according to the logic of neoliberalism? Most of all, do we have any counter-dispositif?

 

Matthew Remski:

I’m more familiar with the term habitus, which I think is getting at a similar thing, but narrowed down to the felt sense. I understand it as somatic contagion. As in: what does it feel like, in our diverse bodies, to walk into a room filled with ballet dancers? Poker players? Rappers? MMA fighters?

When I close my eyes and imagine myself walking into a yoga room, I absolutely have an entrained felt sense that overtakes my body. I straighten up, I slow my breath, I soften my eyes into what feels like equanimity but might also be dissociation, with a touch of disdain. I want to feel and appear to feel as though I am self-contained and self-sufficient. I also really want to radiate humility, which isn’t very humble at all.

Beneath all of that poise is the memory of a threat: if you don’t perform well, you will be punished.

Iyengar’s Tadasana has inspired millions of people to stand taller. But it has done so, I believe, by resonating with and spiritualizing the anxiety of impending punishment. Many of us may be of that younger generation in which we do not have the bodily memory of the corporal abuse that deeply impacted his relationship with his teacher. But it’s in the air, nonetheless, sanitized to feel like it’s something we want.

How does it work? There’s a direct line from the self-protective / anal-retentive postural detailing of Iyengar — presented as “awakening every cell”, but carrying a distinct hypervigilance in relation to both home-grown and colonial violence — and the performance of self-worth carried out by someone like John Friend.

When Friend asked his students — many of whom became pyramid scheme members — to “open to grace”, this was to be embodied through spinal extension and a Mona Lisa smile. He was taking the lessons of his teacher, Iyengar, to the next level of performance and commodification. He made Iyengar All-American. He turned postural discipline into an emotional prosperity gospel for those who already had money.

Back to the intersectional piece for a moment: I’m fantasizing about all of these sensations in relation to walking into a white, dominant-culture, gentrified, commercial studio. The design, colour palette, and finishes are all shaping my body into a performance of self-worth.

But this is not the totality of the yoga space. I don’t feel this way when I enter a room of yoga people at the Yoga Service Council. They can slouch a bit and smile more broadly, and make warm (not intrusive) eye contact. I’m not queer or trans but when I am around my queer and trans colleagues I feel a tenderness overtake my body that I believe is emanating from the struggle and exhaustion and persistence that flows through their bodies. That melts my armour a bit. I say this knowing that their struggle has not been for me, but despite me. 

And when I talk to women like Maya Breuer and Jana Long, they tell me about hosting the Black Yoga Teacher’s Alliance convention, and how it sometimes reminds them of gospel church. I haven’t been there, but I’m imagining that that is outside of my familiar, whiter space of sealed-off individualism. I imagine a lot more eye contact and dancing and smiling than I’m comfortable with. Some people smile so broadly and openly it seems to come from knowing that connection rather than power is the only thing we can really store up. 

So yes, I think there are spaces of counter-habitus, if you’ll indulge my substitute term. These spaces are less commercial. They are made by people who needed to make them, and organically made them, as part of their resistance practice. Very clear examples are provided in the spaces that are anti-ableist (which may eliminate most mainstream forms like Ashtanga and its derivatives). Like, when you walk into Jivana Heyman’s room as he teaches Accessible Yoga, you are explicitly plucked out of the dissociation and bodily anxiety of the dominant culture and invited into a place where, as their t-shirts (designed by Amber Karnes) say: Outer ability ≠ Inner peace.

 

Giada Consoli:

How can we challenge — if we can — the logic of neoliberalism from the inside out and experience yoga in a way that is different from the mainstream ‘face’ of the yoga industry?

 

Matthew Remski:

I tell my YTT students to take less pictures, get trauma-sensitive training, and get involved with yoga service organizations. The basic message is that yoga is not something to perform or perfect so much as it is something to share.

“From the inside out” is a crucial phrase. It points us to what neoliberalism and its technologies function to amputate and deaden: interoception. In a world of spectacles and surfaces, we are asked to continually externalize. I think yoga is a charged practice in part because we know we’re supposed to be doing the opposite of what its visual marketing tells us it is.

In yoga as everywhere else, we are often being told we must look a certain way, arrange ourselves in a more orderly or symmetrical or correct fashion, display more flexibility or “openness” or vulnerability. These performances can be meaningful. They can move us. But at the same time we suspect that we should be doing it all with our eyes closed. We know we are performing something that bodies cannot show, but must show nonetheless in order to be believed or to be marketable.

There is tragedy in this conflict, and I think tuning into that tragedy is a real starting point. We’re in a performative culture, and yoga offers a rich vocabulary for either giving that performance gravitas, or tricking us into thinking we’re doing something special. In a way, I believe some of us are trying to gild the lily, to find spirituality in places where it goes to die. Perhaps after enough performance, and all of the stress injuries it causes, we have no choice but to turn inside.

 

Giada Consoli:

Looking at the current yoga landscape, we find a kind of separation: the yoga industry on one side and those who want to distance themselves from it on the other. There is a growing discussion on the blogosphere. Many refer to a lost of authenticity and purity of yoga, others are striving to challenge the dominant power dynamics in the yoga world, making yoga accessible for marginalized and discriminated communities. I’m thinking about the work of non-profit such as Off the Mat, Into the World, Race and Yoga, Decolonizing Yoga, Yoga Activist …How do you read this situation? And what do you think about the connection between yoga and activism, yoga in service of social justice, does it work? Is it a real alternative?

 

Matthew Remski:

Be Scofield, who founded Decolonizing Yoga, has argued convincingly that there are no dependable correlations between any spiritual practice and progressive, anti-oppressive citizenship, and further, that believing there are causes great social harm. I’m with her on that.

Yoga practice, however earnest, will only be earnest according to the practitioner’s pre-existing values and social milieu. Two equally earnest practitioners can easily think of each other as being garbage people. Ethics gleaned from several-times-removed translations of Iron Age meditation texts can never offer a stable morality for late capitalism. Neither pre-modern nor modern yoga explicitly teaches us about rape culture or white supremacy or deep ecology.

Moreover, look how easy it is for alt-right charismatics to infiltrate the yoga space with parodies of self-awareness or self care. Witness the rise of Jordan Peterson as a guru to many yoga bros, or how many yoga people go bananas when Marianne Williamson announces a narcissistic bid for the White House.

People ask: why is Scofield, a trans activist (among other things) interested in yoga at all in a social justice context? She’s a Martin Luther King scholar, and understands religio-spiritual organizations less as moral structures than as power structures. There’s embodied energy and money and privilege in the studio and service network. Yoga isn’t a force for social change because breathing deeply makes you suddenly recognize that Steve Bannon is a liar and the promises of populism are corrupt. It’s a force because it organizes money and time and attention. But administrators who want to mobilize that towards the common good have to stick their necks out by actively politicizing their spaces.

For me the real relationship between yoga and social justice is that the former gives me the resilience to undertake the latter. I was a really good yoga practitioner while still way more of a racist than I am now. Taking care of my internal ecology made it easier for me to learn about and engage with my white privilege. But that learning came from PoC activists, not from Patanjali.

As for the yearning for authenticity and purity, I believe we have to look at two things —

First: late capitalism hollows out anything that we would understand as original, from land use to inherited culture, and sell it back to us. When people long for authenticity and purity in a yoga practice, I believe that they are longing for a stable sense of self, something that can be trusted within, something they didn’t have to buy.

There are no authority or purity claims, no matter how loudly trumpeted, that can truly satisfy this ache. In fact, the louder a claim is performed, I believe, the more it conceals its doubt. It’s not an accident that the Kundalini celebrity who proclaims yoga to be 40,000 years old has to wear a jewelled crown while she’s saying it, ostensibly to feel certain about it.

Second: the yearning for authenticity and purity intersects very easily with nationalism and even fascism. That’s what we can detect with some of the Hindutva claims around the supposedly eternal and unchanging Hindu nature of yoga practice, as if Jains, Buddhist, and Muslims don’t practice. It’s tragic to see white social justice activists jump on board with this, thinking that they are supporting an inclusive or anti-racist politics. I believe their longing for something noble and trustworthy is being manipulated.

 

Giada Consoli:

Looking closely at this relation between yoga and neoliberal ideology, it seems to me clear how yoga is sold as a technique of self-development, a tool of optimization of our capabilities. In this sense it risks reinforcing the neoliberal concept of selfhood: we are constantly pushed to be a better version of ourselves, we are obsessed with the idea that we can do more, that we can be more than who we are. Perfectionism and success are our daily mantra. How can we escape from that? How about if we raise the idea of failure for example?

 

Matthew Remski:

Perhaps you’re not thinking of it this way, but my worry with the concept of “failure” as a restorative is that it can also be mobilized by neoliberalism as a temporary experience of vulnerability through which we are meant to find renewed strength. It’s demanded of us, in fact. So when we’re asked to “lean into” our tenderness or be grateful about things falling apart — as per Pema Chödrön — I sometimes feel as if disappointment and even trauma themselves are being stolen by the machine of self-improvement.

The crude form of neoliberalism says that failure is not an option. The sophisticated form, marketed to us by what sometimes sounds to me like a co-opted feminism, says that failure and tenderness is something through which we can find transcendent strength, not by resisting it, but by fully surrendering to it.

The only pathway out of this that I can feel personally is to relax — when it’s relaxing — into some kind of existential mundaneness. I recognize and accept my suffering, my mental health fluctuations, my trauma. I don’t brush them away, nor do I view them as opportunities to sell myself remedies or encourage others to brighten up. At times it feels like I’m valuing a state of normalized depression, but there’s something more real about this, and therefore more stable and comforting, than the bipolar oscillation of the culture at large. I say this all recognizing that being able to bear “normalized depression” is a mark of privilege that many won’t have.

 

Giada Consoli:

Isn’t this pressure on the individual another way to cover institutional and political mistakes and deficiencies? If you are unemployed, poor, ill, whatever, they let you think that it is your responsibility because you made the wrong choice, and this is such a pervasive message. So even if we appreciate the work that yoga can do in service of social justice, challenging stereotypes and working on inclusivity, how can we address these questions on a political level? What can we do to get a real institutional response?

 

Matthew Remski:

Part of the answer is to de-Americanize the conversation. I don’t know what it’s like in Italy, but I can tell you that the differences between US and Canadian yoga discourses are notable. Not on social media, but in actual classrooms and training venues. It makes sense that American Yoga is far more anxious — and therefore more evangelical — than what we have and feel in a country with universal health care.

The global yoga market and its media is dominated by citizens of a country that has forgotten the last shreds of expectation in relation to the common good. American yoga people literally have to practice harder and with more idealization than almost anyone else, because nobody is taking care of them in a structural sense.

I think this is why American yoga also has to tend towards the anti-intellectual: it lives in a place that makes no sense. And it generates a pressure that neatly overlaps with the survivalist mentality of entrepreneurs like Iyengar and Bikram, whose self-narratives both involve solitary recoveries from illness through their intensive yoga practice.

But the Americans also have some great non-profit yoga organizations that are actively attracting international membership. I mentioned the Yoga Service Council. And a lot of people don’t like the Yoga Alliance, and there’s a lot of history there, and it is not free of its American biases. But at the same time it holds enormous potential for facilitating a global conversation and sharing of resources.

Beyond that, there’s the regulatory discussion, which is currently also dominated by American yoga libertarianism, but which might come into sharper focus once it’s more widely acknowledged that virtually all yoga communities have unresolved histories of abuse. If yoga teaching becomes a licensed profession in the US or elsewhere, it will automatically begin to distinguish itself from neoliberal personal responsibility and move towards a more collective type of responsibility. This might not lead to overt politicization, but I can imagine that if yoga teachers were part of an American Psychological Association type structure — something with more heft than bling — they would actually feel a little more coherent in relation to social and political issues.

 

Giada Consoli:

How can we rethink the concept of self-care and care for the others in the era of ‘the wellness syndrome’ where yoga is ‘the way’ to feel good and be healthy? Since yoga is a social practice, and as practitioners we reflect and incorporate the value of the environment in which we practice, how important is community and how the concept of care can be lived and experienced today in our community of practitioners?

 

Matthew Remski:

It’s no secret that one of the most pernicious bits of propaganda that the wellness industry promotes is the notion that health is a personal concern and accomplishment. This is not true. There is very little space between herd health and personal health, no matter how much we bubble ourselves in technology or aseptic gentrification. I don’t think that mainstream yoga is a social practice, yet. Or at least it’s something that many people do together but alone. This is where the value of the non-mainstream communities discussed above comes into vibrant relief.

We have to be aware that late capitalism functions by commodifying literally everything. This includes concepts like “community” or “tribe”, which very often these days stand in for “branded market” or “downstream assets”. It doesn’t help when charismatic leaders promote what Kelly Diels calls the “Female Lifestyle Empowerment Brand” to manipulate social isolation as they build pyramid-style sales forces.

For me the antidote to this is to do hard self-inquiry into the question of why you want to be around people who are more like you than not. Can we find the daylight between community as “lifestyle choices our social status lets us make together”, and community as the “place where I actually live with others and our differences”? This comes up for me when I realize that I’m spending more time in yoga studios than in community centres, like the one where I play handball with men who don’t care about yoga. They care about their wages, strike actions, road works, and the schools their children go to.

 

Giada Consoli:

In your work on WAWADIA you pose the essential question of ‘What Are We Actually Doing in Asana?’ Body and movement are key elements of the discussion. How can we live through the yoga practice an embodied idea of subjectivity. I mean, how do we shift from ‘the body that we have’ (the useful body that society require from us) to ‘the body that we are’? Can yoga work against a depersonalization of the body? And how can we experience, in the practice, a movement that is not staged, performative and finalized?

 

Matthew Remski:

To repeat and rephrase a little, I’d say that trauma-sensitive discourse brings us back to interoception, and therefore away from visual epistemology, where being real means being seen. The trauma discourse makes sensation the reality principle.

Yes, yoga can work against depersonalization. But we have to be careful from at least two different angles. Trance states related to the Ganzfeld Effect or repetitive motions or chanting can actually lead to depersonalization or dissociation, especially for people who carry heavy trauma loads. In a way, this can work in favour of the dominant paradigm, as you suggest. Donald Trump is totally cool with yoga people checking out. After all, he depends upon his own people falling into altered states as well.

Secondly, depersonalization can itself be spiritualized as the out-of-body or transcendent gift of practice. In cultic systems, this is easily and often used as a gateway to compliance. Yuval Laor, who studies the evolution of religiosity, argues that when these moments of euphoria lead to sensations of “knowing everything” the practitioner may be gripped with awe, which, if it leads to fervour, can be easily manipulated.

I’m glad you’re talking about the “useful” body — and its discontents. Something to watch out for as the “functional movement” discourse gets more deeply embedded in the yoga world — for good reason, as it will increase physical safety — is that it might reinforce the notion that bodies are worthy or even sacred to the extent that they are productive and efficient.

This could be terrible for women and minorities. There’s a lot of people who don’t need to be more productive. They need to be seen and heard and respected as they are.

This functionality theme is also quietly opening up an entirely new front in the cultural appropriation debate, because the functionality of good citizenship was arguably not the point of the medieval traditions that helped inspire what Mark Singleton calls the “Mysore Asana Revival”.

 

Giada Consoli:

Yoga today is mainly sold a way to ‘fit-in’, an easy self-help tool for spiritual consolation, stress-relief or increasing productivity, a mean to survive in our ‘automatic’ society. So does it still make any sense to talk about moksha, to talk about yoga as a personal and collective transformative practice? Do we have any space of resistance?

 

Matthew Remski:

What I can add to the above comments is that moksha as a term does seem to have completely disappeared from contemporary yoga discourse. I know because I talk to teachers and trainees all the time. Perhaps it’s because taking it seriously presupposes beliefs in samsara and reincarnation. But I also believe that its disappearance is a mark of how the wellness aspect of yoga, and its seamless integration with spa culture, is a very effective way of erasing death and reinforcing the propaganda that life has no costs, or at least that costs can all be externalized, or paid for in goji berries.

However — has the drive towards moksha disappeared entirely? I don’t believe so. I don’t think we’ve changed that much. We may be better at medicating it away with technology and consumerism than previously, but my bet is that many people still crave some kind of ultimate release. And whether the term moksha is uttered or not, yoga spaces have the potential of encouraging contemplation on what it might mean or feel like.

 

Giada Consoli:

Finally, which is your idea about the future of yoga? Where are we going? What do we need to work on both as individuals and as a community of practitioners and human beings?

 

Matthew Remski:

At the risk of repeating myself, and suggesting that I have good answers:

I believe we need to work on trauma awareness, dismantling ableism, moving towards yoga service instead of the hoarding of private religion.

We need to flip “Practice and all is coming” into “Serve and be connected.”

We need to listen to the other, and do this in conjunction with listening to the estranged other within us, silenced by the tyranny of happiness.

We need to platform the voices that celebrity, privilege, and ableism have silenced.

We need to listen to how trauma victims have healed themselves — to the extent they have — and take note of what help they needed, what relationships were restorative to them. They are the canaries in the coal mine of the culture, as Theo Wildcroft says. They can tell us about the deepest patterns of life. They can help us realize, as Anneke Lucas points out, how we ourselves might be traumatized in ways we do not recognize. Of course we want to offer them whatever they need, because we suspect that we will need it too — if not now, than surely some day.

Thank you so much for these wonderful questions.

 

________

 

Resources:

Foucault on dispositif

Agamben on dispositif

Bourdieu’s habitus

Yoga Service Council

Black Yoga Teacher’s Alliance

Accessible Yoga

Amber Karnes’ AY t-shirt

Decolonizing Yoga

Kelly Diels on the Female Lifestyle Empowerment Brand

Yuval Laor (via Rachel Bernstein’s “IndoctriNation” podcast)

 

 

 

“Feminist-Informed” Ashtanga and “Trauma-Informed” Kundalini: How Cultic Deception Can Harm Academics and Therapists

High-demand groups hurt members and their families directly in physical, emotional, and financial ways.

That harm is contagious.

In this post I’ll look at two instances in which the primary tactic of the high-demand group — deception — radiates harm outward, wasting the time, resources, and emotional labour of well-meaning people who come into contact with the group and wind up promoting it, even as it belies their values. One comes from academia, and the other comes from the mental health world.

The 2016 article “Yoga As Embodied Feminist Praxis: Trauma, Healing, and Community Based Responses to Violence” (1) by Beth Catlett and Mary Bunn is built on meticulous fieldwork that assesses the efficacy of yoga programming in communities living with and recovering from violence. Bunn’s contribution comes from her work with Project Air, a non-profit bringing services including yoga instruction to HIV-infected survivors of the Rwandan genocide. Catlett’s focus is on the Urban Yogis programme for marginalized youth in Queens, New York.

Urban Yogis, as Catlett and Bunn report, is co-directed by an anti-violence activist named Erica Ford, and Eddie Stern of Ashtanga New York. Interviews with Stern and time spent in his service classes impressed the scholars with his humility and altruism, and dispelled their reservations about whether the patriarchal structure of Ashtanga Yoga could really serve a pro-social mission.

“Our engagement with the Urban Yogis program,” they conclude,

“has inspired a confidence that a feminist-informed social justice orientation to community engagement emphasizing ethics of care, commitment, shared power, and mutual political vision is indeed possible.”(2)

Had Catlett, Bunn, and their editors known about the active and unresolved abuse history in Ashtanga yoga when they began their research? If they had known, would they have chosen to highlight an Ashtanga yoga community in a book about feminist-oriented social values?

By email, the scholars vigorously confirmed they hadn’t known.

“Our starting point,” they wrote,

is always to listen to, and take seriously, the voices/experiences of those who have experienced violence and abuse — this is the way that we can learn about the ways that power operates in institutions, and these voices are important to inform our work to dismantle unjust systems of power, privilege, and oppression within such institutions.

We knew nothing of these experiences of sexual assault, abuse, and harassment at the writing of our chapter, and therefore, this new information about the abuse of power within the ashtanga community is something with which we will have to grapple as our work moves forward.

But why didn’t they know? Was the research naïve, overcredulous? Perhaps. But it’s also true that certain high-demand nodes of the Ashtanga yoga world hid crucial facts.

Stern himself plays a role in that story through his editorship of the propagandistic book Guruji: A Portrait of Sri K Pattabhi Jois Through the Eyes of His Students, The volume’s co-editor, Guy Donahaye, recently distanced himself from the book, writing:

Since his death, Guruji 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… 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.

How then, does Stern become cited as a facilitator of “feminist-informed social justice” in the yoga world? How does he come to occupy that space to the exclusion of one of the hundreds of people, mostly women, that have been teaching consent-based trauma-sensitive yoga to at-risk populations for years?

Consider the enthusiastic undergrad and Master’s students who will read Catlett and Bunn’s essay and come away with a partial view of the method and community under discussion. Will there be a correction issued? Who will see it?

And how will Jois’s victims feel about reading feminist academic accolades to their former male colleague who has yet to publicly acknowledge the abuse? Months of fieldwork by two feminist scholars are now of questionable value, not because they don’t have productive observations to contribute about yoga service in general, but because their good will was confounded.

Another example:

Trauma and addictions recovery specialist Gabor Maté works closely with a Canadian organization called Beyond Addiction, which offers a yoga-based training programme “for individuals seeking to develop healthy habits and overcome addictive behaviour, for health professionals and yoga teachers who work with addiction.”

The yoga community providing content for the program is 3HO: the “Happy, Healthy, and Holy” organization founded by Yogi Bhajan in 1969. Recent scholarship has shown that Bhajan’s postmodern “Kundalini” blend of Tantric Yoga and Sikhism has few historical roots in any stream of Indian wisdom tradition, despite the community’s lofty claims.

More importantly, anyone who Googles “3HO abuse” will find that the organization settled two lawsuits against Bhajan, including one case of rape and confinement brought by a woman who entered his harem of “secretaries” at age eleven.

Did Maté do a basic background check on the organization he’s promoting to his platform of 100K Facebook followers? Should he be concerned that a person with a trauma load might come to one of his 3HO-related trainings, do that Google search halfway through it, see that the Kundalini instructors he’s collaborating with still quote Yogi Bhajan without reservation? Should he be concerned if that person feels both triggered and betrayed?

“Dr. Maté is well aware of the possibility and actuality of abuse in any spiritual or medical culture,” wrote his assistant in response to an emailed request for comment.

That’s just not good enough.

Bottom line: if you’re going to platform a yoga community, method, or personality — especially with the altruistic intention of using those resources to help vulnerable people — do your research. Prepare to find out that that community, method, or personality has likely failed its vulnerable members and followers — and in the worst cases, traumatized them.

Then: work out how you’re going to relate to that community, method, or personality with transparency, integrity, and justice, in such a way that the patterns of harm, enabling, or bypassing stops with you.

 

_____

References:

(1) In Berila, Beth, et al. Yoga, the Body, and Embodied Social Change: an Intersectional Feminist Analysis. Lexington Books, 2016. 259-275.

(2) Ibid. 267.

Manos Disciple Re: Manos Complainant — “She’s the only one who’s going to be hurt.”

Manos Disciple Re Manos Complainant — “She's the only one who's going to be hurt.”

On October 30th, IYNAUS announced the opening of an independent investigation into allegations of sexual misconduct made against Manouso Manos. “The independent investigation will not be limited to Ann West’s complaint. It will include other allegations covering the time period from January 1, 1992 to the present.” West’s complaint was dismissed in September, but many members felt the investigation was compromised by conflicts of interest.

IYNAUS has not suspended Manos pending the outcome of the investigation of multiple allegations, nor for making what was most likely a deceptive statement to the Ethics Committee that initially cleared him. He continues to teach.

One staunch supporter — a seemingly popular middle-aged male yoga teacher  — went to a Manos event over the past weekend, and then took to Facebook to harass and smear the complainants:

It’s rare to see two paragraphs express the black-and-white psychological splitting traits of Yogaland so acutely.

Paragraph #1 asserts that the charismatic teacher is all-good, using typically grandiose claims. (It’s never enough to say “You know there’s something about him I just like.”)

Cue paragraph #2, which must paint his detractors as contemptible.

Then — out of shame? Conviction? — the pious ejaculation of the Lord’s name seems to sweep everything away with a non-dual Cheshire grin.

It’s a familiar formula:

  1. “[Idealization of strongman.]”
  2. “I hate libtards!”
  3. “In Jesus’ name!”

The sycophantic, victim-blaming misogyny in this post isn’t new either. Iyengar himself and many others going all the back to 1990 suggested that students were accusing Manos of sexual assault because they were jealous of his skill, or didn’t like or understand his teaching brilliance.

What was new to me was DARVO flip of calling critics of Manos “Carrie Nations”.

Being Canadian, I had to look Carrie Nation up. She was a flamboyant temperance activist from Kansas jailed multiple times in the early 1900s for smashing up saloons with a hatchet after singing hymns to drinkers. She accompanied herself on a squeezebox.

The poster is saying that the assault complainants are comically uptight, hyper-religious rubes who want to deny people’s freedom for the purposes of self-promotion.

Projection much?

It’s notable that Nation was a suffragist, and opened a battered women’s shelter.

In the comment thread, the poster doubles down on the misogyny. Accusers are “shriveled biddies” on a “Witch Hunt”. One commenter wonders about comparing Manos to Kavanaugh.

The poster replies: “unlike the Supreme Court thing, the claims made by this new accuser can be shot to pieces and already have been. She’s the only one who’s going to be hurt.”

 

The poster’s vague implication of inside knowledge — going so far as to 1) falsely suggest that there’s already been a determination and to 2) predict the complainant’s downfall — is an intimidation tactic. It also rhymes with the in-group’s currency: supposed insider knowledge of Manos’s true character. Because the poster is certain about Manos, he must be certain about those who register complaints against him.

The complainant (whoever she is) is not going to be hurt. She has been hurt already, not only by whatever happened, but by the process of starting to speak about it. The poster invites followers to participate in his mockery on social media. He’s not tolerating objections. I saw the post because I was tagged by a colleague. When I clicked through, my colleague’s comment had been deleted.

The fact that we don’t know the name of the woman the poster is referring to means that the mockery is generalized to anybody who would bring a complaint. The message of the post is: anyone who complaints will be mocked.

Pay close attention to the sentence “She’s the only one who’s going to be hurt.”

Four things about this:

  1. One can almost hear the bloodlust in it.
  2. It’s false. Manos is under siege, if not by IYNAUS then certainly in the court of people who identify with Iyengar practice.
  3. The poster’s aspirational value is that Manos remains not only an expert in the “innermost workings of the hatha yoga of India”, but also invulnerable, a key feature of the “traumatized narcissist”, as described by Daniel Shaw.(1)
  4. The poster’s own vulnerability to an accusation against the object of his devotion is disowned. Both the poster and Manos must emerge from this unscathed. The complaints must therefore be erased, and the complainants punished.

About #4: the identification of the poster with Manos points to a structural dynamic at play that’s well-described in the cult literature. Researchers Lalich and Landau write that “Leaders and members alike are locked into what I call a ‘bounded reality’— that is, a self-sealing social system in which every aspect and every activity reconfirms the validity of the system. There is no place for disconfirming information or other ways of thinking or being.”(2)

Thus: the brilliance of Manos’s workshop performance confirms the humiliation of his complainants. It erases the fact-checked feature article that broke the story — and almost the community — in 1991.

The workshop didn’t deepen the paradox of a man who may have two different faces. It was proof, to the poster, that only one face — the face that smiles on him — can exist.

I don’t know the poster. His social media persona shows pride in rebellious Boomerhood, a surfer, a political cynic, a free spirit. Using cult analysis here to describe a set of behaviours does is not intended to, and cannot, label him as a cult member. This isn’t about him.

What matters is how common these dynamics can be, how they can constellate in one if not other areas of individual lives. One can be an independent free thinker in countless ways, but an abusive shill where it really counts: where one’s private devotion intersects with one’s professional legitimacy.

 

_____

 

(1) “This narcissist in real life, a myth in his own mind, is so well defended against his developmental trauma, so skillful a disavower of the dependency and inadequacy that is so shameful to him, that he creates a delusional world in which he is a superior being in need of nothing he cannot provide for himself. To remain persuaded of his own perfection, he uses significant others whom he can subjugate. These spouses, siblings, children, or followers of the inflated narcissist strive anxiously to be what the narcissist wants them to be, for fear of being banished from his exalted presence. He is compelled to use those who depend on him to serve as hosts for his own disavowed and projected dependency, which for him signifies profound inadequacy and is laden with shame and humiliation. To the extent that he succeeds in keeping inadequacy and dependency external, he can sustain in his internal world his delusions of shame-free, self-sufficient superiority.” — Shaw, Daniel. Traumatic Narcissism: Relational systems of subjugation. New York: Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group, 2014. loc. 565

(2) Lalich, Janja, and Madeleine Landau. Tobias. Take Back Your Life: Recovering from Cults and Abusive Relationships. Bay Tree Pub. 2006.Loc. 651-689.

 

Why Manouso Manos Was Suspended: Meeting Notes and Internal Yoga Journal Communications from 1989/90

Why Manouso Manos Was Suspended: Meeting Notes and a Letter from 1989/90

Recently recovered notes from a 1989 faculty meeting of the Iyengar Yoga Institute in San Francisco show that Manouso Manos publicly admitted to sexual misconduct and that fellow faculty members recommended he be suspended. Further minutes from a subsequent meeting show that the recommendation was accepted. And a letter written by Donna Farhi in 1990, addressed to Yoga Journal on behalf of the California Yoga Teacher’s Association, corroborates a 1991 article by Bob Frost in the San Jose Mercury News “West” Magazine. The letter describes more extreme misconduct previously reported.

These three documents contradict recent statements made by Manos’s spokesman to KQED:

A spokesman for Manos said the [San Jose Mercury News] West article was inaccurate, saying Manos wasn’t suspended but voluntarily left (he said he didn’t know the reason for his departure) and didn’t seek reinstatement but was invited to return. He also said Manos denied past and current allegations of sexual misconduct. He didn’t know why Manos hadn’t sought a correction to Frost’s article if he believed there were inaccuracies.

The faculty meeting notes show that a motion was tabled to suspend Manos indefinitely from all teaching responsibilities at the Institute. It passed. It was also recommended that Manos be removed from “Assessments”, “India selection”, and from his advisory role to the 1990 San Diego convention. Manos attended the first part of the faculty meeting and admitted to having a sexual relationship with a student over four and a half years. The notes record that Manos said he was seeking psychiatric help.

The faculty meeting notes line up with a May 7th, 1990 letter sent by the chairperson of the upcoming San Diego convention to a woman who had brought a complaint against Manos, alleging that he’d groped her breasts while she was in corpse pose at the end of a class in 1986. Bonnie Anthony, the conference chairperson, acknowledged that Manos had “a problem, much like alcoholism”, and was in therapy.

(Hover over to find the scroll tools at the bottom of the frame.)

IYI August 1989 Manos

 

_____

 

The faculty meeting notes are here on pages 1 and 4. Pages 2 and 3 appear to be minutes from a separate meeting held an unknown number of days afterwards. The minutes record a community-wide meeting on August 8th at which the Board’s decision to suspend Manos was announced.

According to the minutes on pages 2 and 3, a number of Manouso’s students were present at the community meeting. “Some people expressed strong disagreement with the resolution passed by the Board,” the minutes say.

Almost one month ago, the Ethics Committee of IYNAUS dismissed a sexual assault complaint brought against Manos by Ann West. In their ruling, the committee sidelined these prior allegations against Manos because they believed West’s claim was unsupported, even though she offered corroborating witnesses.

They wrote:

Although there are no official records, the newspaper article and recent statement from IYNAUS shows that Mr. MM was sanctioned in 1992 for sexual misconduct i.e., “sleeping with his students” and the case was closed after he fulfilled the required sanctions including a public apology and Guruji forgave him.

In 2014, an ethics complaint was filed by a CIYT for using inappropriate language with sexual connotations during a class. Ethics Committee reviewed it and Guruji asked MM to apologize for using the inappropriate and offensive language.

The Ethics Committee noted this past history and weighed it within the context of the current issues. The past history would have significantly impacted the nature of sanctions if there were a determination of an ethical violation beyond reasonable doubt in the present case.

The first paragraph above contains several inaccuracies. The suspension was not in 1992, as stated in this letter from IYNAUS President David Carpenter. As reported by Bob Frost (in a feature, fact-checked investigation, not merely an article) the suspension began in 1989 for incidents that went far beyond “sleeping with students”.

It appears that the current Ethics Committee accepted Manos’s version of past events. “The complaint on me from the 80s,” Manos wrote on September 9th in response to the KQED article, “was for sleeping with my students. I am not and never have been a groper or molester.”

But a letter sent by Donna Farhi in 1990 foreshadowed Frost’s 1991 report that Manos was alleged to have repeatedly sexually assaulted women in class. It features detail not included in the Frost article.

The letter is addressed to Michael Glicksohn, the then-editor of Yoga Journal. Farhi, using her former married name of Schuster, wrote it in her capacity as board member for the California Yoga Teacher’s Association. In 1995 CYTA went on to publish the industry’s first comprehensive Code of Conduct for yoga teachers. This effort was spearheaded by CYTA Board member Judith Lasater, to whom Farhi refers in the letter. Yoga Journal was the publishing arm of CYTA until it was sold and rebranded in 1998.

By email, Farhi explains that Yoga Journal had decided to refuse to publish advertisements for Manos’s courses and workshops, not only because of the IYI suspension, but because CYTA members had received three separate letters from women in different cities who described being assaulted by Manos in class.

“My best recollection,” writes Farhi, “is that the Colorado Yoga Center was not happy with this edict and had complained to YJ, and this was our response to the complaint.”

It is not the full response, but an addendum that lists allegations made against Manos, including digital rape. It also raises questions about the legal standing of touch and sexual contact in yoga learning situations in relation to California state licensing requirements of manual therapies.

Farhi’s handwritten note at the bottom of the letter refers to Manos: “When asked in August ’89, ‘I deny nothing’.”

(Hover over to find the scroll tools at the bottom of the frame.)

May 8, 1990 YJ Manos

 

 

 

 

 

Notes From the Iyengar Ethics Committee Ruling Dismissing A Recent Allegation Against Manouso Manos

How The Iyengar Ethics Committee Handled the Manos Allegation: Meeting Notes

On September 10th, the all-volunteer IYNAUS Ethics Committee met to consider an allegation of in-class sexual assault brought by Iyengar teacher Ann West against Advanced Senior Iyengar teacher Manouso Manos. They ruled to dismiss the allegation for lack of evidence.

Manos currently holds a seat on the Senior Council of IYNAUS. At least one of the Ethics Committee members is a long term student of Manos, enrolled in his three year Iyengar Yoga Therapeutics course.

The ruling, along with notes from that meeting, show that the committee glossed over past allegations against Manos. They questioned West’s perceptions of the incident, but found Manos’s explanation of his intentions plausible. One member suggested the committee punt the file to the Iyengar family in Pune.

The most recent allegation against Manos was first made public by KQED:

Ann West was performing an advanced backbend at a yoga workshop when her teacher came over and stroked her breasts and nipples, she said. He did it, she said, in a way “that could only be described as a caress.”

In the KQED report, yoga teacher Charlotte Bell makes a similar allegation, previously unreported, about an interaction with Manos in 1988. The allegations from West and Bell are similar to several others made in a 1991 investigative report by the San Jose Mercury News.

The meeting notes also document a previously unreported 2014 ethics complaint against Manos, “for using inappropriate language with sexual connotations during a class.” According to the notes, the Committee reviewed the incident and reported it to B.K.S. Iyengar, who asked Manos to apologize. Iyengar died later that year.

In 1990, Iyengar had pardoned Manos for actions later reported, or similar to those reported, in the San Jose Mercury News. This pardon reinstalled Manos at the Iyengar Yoga Institute of San Franscisco, prompting the resignation of several senior teachers, including Judith Lasater.

The four-member Ethics Committee dismissed West’s allegation primarily for lack of eyewitnesses. This was the standard of evidence despite the fact that the assault allegedly occurred in a posture in which class participants were all upside down, rolling back and forth on the crowns of their heads.

Committee members considered three pieces of corroborating evidence provided by West, but determined they were insufficient. (As in the case of the allegation brought by Dr. Ford against Brett Kavanaugh, the corroboration came from individuals West told about the alleged assault prior to taking formal action.)

The meeting notes show that committee members first decided that West’s allegation was unsupported, then reasoned that the reports of Manos’s misconduct from 1991 and 2014 were irrelevant.

“The past history,” they wrote, “would have significantly impacted the nature of sanctions if there were a determination of an ethical violation beyond reasonable doubt in the present case.”

It seems, however, that committee members weren’t clear on that history. They either didn’t read the 1991 report, or they accepted Manos’s denial of its findings.

The notes record that when asked about the 1991 report, Manos told the committee “The complaint on me from the 80s was for sleeping with my students. I am not and never have been a groper or molester.”

“Although there are no official records,” the notes echo, “the newspaper article and recent statement from IYNAUS shows that Mr. MM was sanctioned in 1992 for sexual misconduct i.e., “sleeping with his students.”

The committee is referring to a statement from IYNAUS president David Carpenter. The San Jose Mercury News article dates to 1991; Carpenter does not mention 1992. Carpenter also acknowledges that the earlier allegations included that Manos had “inappropriately touched students in class.”

The Mercury News report is more specific:

According to three separate sources familiar with the case, all of whom insisted on anonymity, Manos allegedly rubbed his pelvis against women students in a sexually provocative way as the women were doing yoga poses, touched them in private places during classes under the guise of pose adjustments, and asked certain women students individually into an institute classroom after group classes, where, behind closed doors, he performed sexually charged physical manipulations, and had intercourse.

The meeting notes show that although West’s allegation was dismissed, committee members tried to account for her experience. They appealed to a framework for sexual assault that relies upon speculating about the perceptions of the accuser and the intentions of the accused.

Committee chair Manju Vachher wrote in her ruling letter that “although there was insufficient data to prove that there was an ethical violation, we understand that while there was no intention of harm, actions can unknowingly cause pain.” To underscore the point she quoted an aphorism from Prashant Iyengar, son of B.K.S.: “What was taught (intended) and what was learned (received) are often two different things”.

The meeting notes refer to West’s “perception” ten times, and Manos’s “intention” seven times. According to the meeting notes, the subjective quality of the former made West’s allegation discountable to committee members, while the uncertain quality of the latter exonerated Manos in their eyes. “We do not have a direct or verifiable proof of his intention,” they write.

Experts define sexual assault as unwanted sexual contact with a person’s body. Many emphasize that the power differential between the two people is a key factor in assault. There are no standard definitions that rely on perceptions or intentions.

Having defined sexual assault through the framework of perception and intentionality, the committee then speculated on why West’s perceptions might be confused, and Mano’s intentions might be misperceived.

The notes speculate that West’s fear of Manos coloured her allegation, rather than being the result of the alleged incident.

One member noted that Manos “has ways of expression that can be offensive to some. [Manos] is a strong personality and students who don’t know him may take issue with some of his mannerisms, his way of expressing himself.”

“MM does have a strong teaching presence,” noted another member, “demanding the student’s attention to the practice. To [Ann West], this is interpreted as bullying and abusive and she states set her in a state of fear. This attitude would color how she interpreted his teachings and particularly any physical adjustments he made.”

Vachher’s ruling letter said that West’s allegation of sexual assault “highlights the complexities of a student-teacher relationship.”

One committee member suggested that to sort out this complexity, the committee should recuse itself, implying that Manos may hold it in low esteem.

“I think this needs to go to the Iyengars,” one member said. “My feeling is that [Manos] would benefit from council of those he holds in high regard.”

West says that she’s considering an appeal.

Manos Disciple To Manos Accuser: “If You Felt Assaulted, Please Try to Figure Out Why.”

Manos Disciple To Manos Accuser: "If You Felt Assaulted, Please Try to Figure Out Why."

An abuse crisis will often force a high-demand group to show outsiders what they inflict on insiders every day: loaded language, self-sealed reasoning, leader idealization, grandiose claims and image management techniques. If the group must admit abuse, it will show its unique harm calculus, and every emotional bargaining trick in the book.

Nowhere is it all more visible than in the abuse crisis statement. Though offered as evidence for the wholesomeness of the group, it often provides key confirmation to insiders that they are, in fact, embedded or complicit in toxic dynamics.

The abuse crisis statement I’ll examine below was posted on Facebook in response to allegations of in-class sexual grooming and assault brought by Certified Iyengar teacher Ann West against Senior Iyengar Yoga teacher Manouso Manos. The allegations were made public in a September 8th article published by KQED and echo similar allegations made in a 1991 investigative report published in the San Jose Mercury News.

None of the allegations have been proven in court. Manos did not deny the allegations when asked by investigative journalist Bob Frost in 1991, but through a spokesman he is now denying all past and present allegations, according to the KQED report.

The statement below doesn’t come from an official Iyengar Yoga representative, but from a long-time Manos disciple.

On September 12th David Carpenter, president of the Iyengar Yoga National Association of the U. S. (IYNAUS), issued an official statement. Carpenter noted that Manos was at the time being investigated by the IYNAUS Ethics Committee. He omitted mention of the fact that at least one of the committee members is a long-term student of Manos, and that Manos remains a member of the IYNAUS Senior Council. Manos is headlining an IYNAUS event on September 28th.

In a September 19th letter, the Ethics Committee informed West that they had unanimously cleared Manos of the allegations. Their ruling cited a lack of eyewitnesses to the alleged assault, which West described as having occurred while everyone in the class was upside down.

The name of the disciple has been redacted, along with some details that might be identifying.

It is important to note, however, that the disciple is a tenure-track humanities professor. High-demand groups strongly benefit when members with high social capital and credibility in the outside world can be mobilized to defend it. In this case the group benefits additionally from the use of feminist positionality to exonerate an accused assaulter.

That the disciple is a seemingly left-leaning academic shows two things:

  1. The power of group propaganda to overwhelm seemingly any level of educational training and critical thinking.
  2. The power of group dynamics to weaponize seemingly any type of discourse against victims. Typically yoga and Buddhist groups weaponize spiritual concepts against abuse victims. Here the concepts of social justice are weaponized to shame and silence. The weaponization can form a painful double bind. The victim may not only be silenced by the concept but by their own desire to endorse it.

The statement appeared in at least two places on Facebook on September 19th, the same day IYNAUS cleared Manos. The following text is copied from one of those appearances . It is presented with analysis in red.

NOTE: The analysis addresses the statement and its implications, not the writer and her intentions, or her present views. The purpose is to explore communication strategies at critical junctures in the life of a group.

Crisis abuse statements are often later regretted, as the writer gathers more information from outside of the group and the “bounded choice” (cf. Lalich) of the group loses it hold on them.

NOTE 2: Using the tools of analysis that are applied to high-demand groups does NOT label either “Iyengar Yoga” or IYNAUS as a high-demand group, but rather can help identify places where high-demand mechanisms may be at work.

The analysis includes a personal anecdote from a class I attended with Manos in February of 2017.

 

9/19/2018

To Ms. West and all in this community who are paying attention. Ms. West, Imagining what you have gone through with this weighing on your mind, I am sorry. I am sorry for what I have done as a community member to create an environment where this sort of stress could ever accumulate on you for any period of time.

This is a promising opening that suggests the disciple is familiar with listening and accountability practices such as those suggested by psychologist Jennifer Freyd in her research on “institutional courage”. 

The inviting and progressive tone positions the writer as an ally. It also, however, sets the stage for a betraying obfuscation of the power dynamics at play.

I have been a serious student of yoga since [over a decade]. I started taking classes with Manouso in [over a decade]. I have taken at least [many] of his tri-yearly intensives in San Francisco since [almost a decade ago]. As a woman, I have experienced sexism and forms of sexual assault throughout my life. I know what rape culture is, I know what institutionalized party rape is and I know what a rape apologist sounds like. As a woman, I question when and how much to #metoo. Especially in a climate where reporting comes with significant backlash.

Here the writer bravely discloses her position as an survivor of past sexual assault, expressing allyship with West. 

Ms. West, firstly, I care about your mental health. I do not wish to psychologically impact you in an unsafe way. Number two, white woman, learn how to be humble.

This incoherent paragraph, which betrays the proposed allyship, is key for understanding both the manipulative thrust of the statement and a common mechanism of high-demand group interactions.

Two sentences of presumed care — undercut by concern-trolling of West’s sanity — are followed immediately by an unexpected and improbable attack. As suggested in the anecdote below, this seems to mirror aspects of Manos’s own teaching style — and that of Iyengar’s before him — which can oscillate quickly between wrath and supposed care.

The juxtaposition and confusion of care and attack drive the formation of “disorganized attachment” bonds common within high-demand groups, through which members are caught up in a cycle of running towards the very person who harms them, in an anxious search for love. For more detail on this pioneering analysis from Alexandra Stein, see this recent article on Shambhala abuse crisis communications.

The attack sentence asks an alleged assault victim to be “humble”. Presented as advocacy for people of colour, it introduces the idea that by reporting the alleged assault to IYNAUS, West is using white privilege to grandiosely centre herself and minimize sexual assaults on women who are more marginalized. Is this what Christine Blasey Ford is doing?

West’s complaint to IYNAUS makes use of the stated purpose of the Ethics Committee. It is a paid member benefit, and does not inhibit anyone else from registering a complaint against Manos. Arguably, West might be using her privilege in such a way that inspires other IYNAUS members, of varying degrees of privilege, to also come forward. Whether this actually happens may have more to do with IYNAUS’s own inclusion policies and its valuation of whistleblowers (see Freyd, above) than whether individual women voluntarily refrain from reporting sexual assault because they are told they don’t have it that bad.

From my perspective, your position as a white American woman empowered you to construe a narrative that risks my health and wellbeing. I rely on Manouso for my life. He is my most steadfast and worthy anchor in human form. He holds a powerful lineage of healing and he has served as an honest and clear conduit for that information for thousands of students. As his student, you and I have been granted access to a very privileged space.

West is not American. She is from Britain and identifies as Roma, a marginalized ethnic minority in Europe. By email she says she “suffered from racial abuse from early childhood.”

Beyond this false assumption about West’s identity, the disciple deploys the first of many versions of Freyd’s DARVO (deny-attack-reverse-victim-and-offender). West’s allegation against Manos is positioned as an attack upon the health of the disciple.

However hyperbolic (no one relies on Manos for their life except perhaps his financial dependents) the disciple’s personal beliefs about the value of Manos’s teaching for her are a private matter.

Here however the beliefs cross over the private boundary to propagandize on behalf of the group, by repeating grandiose and deceptive claims about the method.

“Lineage” is a loaded-language term used throughout contemporary yoga marketing that implies an ancient heritage. This is a stretch in relation to the Iyengar method, which is at most only fifty years old and two generations deep. Usage of “lineage”, especially qualified by the phrase “honest and clear conduit” appropriates the South Asian concept of “paramparā” as a marker of legitimacy.

A subtext of paramparā is that “that information” it carries is presumed to be as stable and unchanging as Manos’s own devotion to Iyengar. Many senior students, however, acknowledge that the method is constantly changing. It may not be information that has been transmitted through Manos so much as the branded affect of charismatic authority, which can function by concealing as much or more information behind the veil of genius as it dispenses. The title of Manos’s current teaching tour implies that the guidance of a master is essential in this mysterious realm: “The Truth Is A Moving Target” (see poster below).

Claims of “healing” in Iyengar yoga are usually substantiated not by data but by the power of miracle or faith healing stories, such as the one Manos tells here (cue 24:00, video below) about the first time he saw Iyengar teach. Manos describes watching Iyengar treat the frozen shoulder of a woman by wrenching it repeatedly, causing her to scream. Because the woman gained shoulder mobility by the end of the class, he claims Iyengar healed her. He does not report on how she felt the next day, or six months later. 

That you felt compelled to risk my relationship with my teacher because you received confusing pressure on your form that was not to your liking and that you couldn’t figure out how to not come back to the studio is upsetting to me and the community. Manouso makes very clear that if you cannot handle the climate of the room you should leave. If you felt sexually assaulted by Manouso, please try to figure out why. You sexualized several experiences that were not intended to be sexualized and you are now centered in a conversation on “The Open Secret of Sexual Abuse.” My question to you is can you understand how your need for justice impacts my need for justice?

The construction of “you felt compelled to risk my relationship with my teacher” (emphasis added) deepens the DARVO pattern by suggesting that West’s intention in bringing the accusation was to harm the disciple, rather than to allege a sexual assault. 

The disciple then rephrases the report of the alleged assault to minimize it. The KQED article states: “Ann West was performing an advanced backbend at a yoga workshop when her teacher came over and stroked her breasts and nipples, she said. He did it, she said, in a way ‘that could only be described as a caress.'”

In the disciple’s statement, this becomes “confusing pressure on your form that was not to your liking.” 

“Confusing” infantilizes West as someone not capable of correctly interpreting the chaste genius of Manos. “Form” is a loaded-language substitute for “body” or “breasts and nipples” that vaguely appeals to yoga philosophy, suggesting something illusory or of only relative importance. If West were mature, the sentence implies, she would understand not only the mastery of Manos’s touch, but that her body was insignificant. 

Conflating the “climate of the room” with an allegation of sexual assault unwittingly sheds light upon the premises of coercion that have been normalized. Historically, the “climate” of such rooms has been one of vertical authority ascribed to the teacher, and implied consent ascribed to the student.

Despite the disciple’s opening claim of familiarity with rape culture, accusing West of not being able to figure out how not to come back to Manos’s class fails to account for  the power differential at play in the professional implications of severing ties with Manos, a Senior Council member of IYNAUS. It also fails to account for the possibility of the well-known phenomenon of trauma bonding.

Other victim-blaming statements are clear. West is accused of feeling assaulted, instead of being assaulted and reporting it. West is told to sort out that feeling. She is told she “sexualized” Manos’s actions. The disciple also claims to know Manos’s intentions.

Sexual assault is not defined by the assaulter’s intentions, nor even by the interpretation of the victim. It is, rather, defined by what actually occurs between two people: non-consensual sexual contact with or penetration of a victim’s body. Many experts emphasize that the power differential between the two people is a key factor in assault.

Similar arguments were used to deflect and minimize approximately 30 years of in-class assaults committed by Pattabhi Jois. 

Manouso is a very serious yoga student and teacher. Thank God, because he is often in charge of scores of people who have or have had serious physical injuries. Manouso guides entire classes to perform micro surgeries on their deepest injuries. In [more than a decade ago], I was told by my physical therapist that I should own to the fact that I might not ever do a backbend again. I met Manouso and have been doing backbends ever since. In 2011, my doctor said that he would not recommend a physical therapist to me since my spinal condition necessitated surgery. I did backbends this week…all because of Manouso. This is not purely a physical achievement. Manouso’s yogic technology is extensive. He manages emotional fields. Internationally, people in pain tell Manouso about their problems. Manouso consistently shows up to emotionally and physically manage more students than most people will ever consider managing. He is a dedicated and fearless leader and servant of yoga.

Again, the disciple’s personal reports of healing are matters of private belief. But the propaganda continues here with inflated generalizations and a conflation of personal anecdote with universal value.

“Manouso guides entire classes to perform micro surgeries on their deepest injuries.” Iyengar discourse is particularly fond of appropriating medical terminology. This goes back directly to Iyengar himself, whose Light on Yoga is filled with unsupported medical claims and who in later years taught “Medical Yoga” classes

Praising the value a member received from a group in order to invalidate the suffering another member experienced in the same group has been called “I Got Mine-ism“. 

“Manages emotional fields”. Anecdote: the one class I attended by Manos, and the only time I met him, was at his “Abode of Iyengar Yoga” in San Francisco. He personally invited me after I requested an interview. I was upfront about my interests, writing that I wanted to ask him his thoughts on how Iyengar and Jois reported suffering physical and emotional abuse at the hands of T. Krishnamacharya, and on the fact that Iyengar went on to verbally and physically assault many of his own students. I also said that I wanted to follow up on whether he had anything to say about the 1991 article about him.

Manos opened the class by introducing me and then verbally assaulting me for about five minutes in a loud shouting voice. His complaint centred on my exploration of somatic dominance in Iyengar’s teaching.

There were about fifty students in the room. Those I could see (I was near the back) sat bolt upright and absolutely silent. When he finished shouting, I began to respond. He cut me off and commanded the class to chant OM. Everyone complied. Then he put the class into savasana and led us through breathing techniques.

I had just been verbally assaulted and felt hyperaroused and paralyzed, but I wondered about the “emotional fields” of everyone else in that room, which Manos was willing to impact by venting personal vitriol on a stranger. It was afterwards, through the work of Stein, that I recognized the juxtaposition of fear and supposed care in the room, and its correlation with trauma bonding.

As I left the room at the end of class, a woman touched me on the arm. “I hope you had a great class,” she said, beaming and hopeful.

“Well, with a welcome like that…”. I started out sardonic, but trailed off as her face darkened. 

“It’s just that he is a hero to so many of us,” she said, moved. “And we want you to love him as much as we do.”

I understand you feel victimized and I hate that for you. I hope that you can try and understand that as a woman in America, you are surely victimized in many ways by a sexist system. However, I also need you to try to understand that as a white woman in America, your privilege allowed you not only to ruminate for years on the location and pressure of an incredibly wise and seasoned yoga instructor’s adjustments, but also to center your story without adequately assessing the impact it has on others. Manouso students all over the world are dealing with way bigger problems than those you have alleged against Manouso. Do you understand that your allegation of inappropriate groping risks my relationship with my teacher? He may now be less inclined to adjust me, a petite woman with large breasts. He may also decide the stress of teaching his American classes is more than he cares to handle. Do you understand the gravity of ramifications you have potentially set in motion by your inability to cope with your PTSD? You and I are now linked in ways we were not before. Any absence on his part as as a teacher that occurs because of you will land on me and other students who may be worse off than you. Can you acknowledge that? And the power you have here?

“Manouso students all over the world are dealing with way bigger problems than those you have alleged against Manouso” is meant to dismiss an allegation of sexual assault through harm calculus. 

The balance of the comment furthers the DARVO groove. West’s reporting of harm is framed as privileged, harmful, endangering to other students, potentially depriving them of health. West is made out as selfish for reporting her experience. In what might be the cruellest comment of all, West is castigated for not being able to “cope” with PTSD.

The open secret of sexual abuse happened to young men in the Catholic Church and men of color in prisons and women on college campuses across the nation. Women and women all over the world are being severely raped and beaten right now. Sexual abuse has also happened in the yoga community. However, there is not an “open secret of sexual abuse” in Manouso’s classroom. Rather, there is a caring and conscious community of healers and yoga nerds who are human. If what you found looked different than this to you, I invite you to explore that further by asking what in your history led to your current comfort with victimhood.

The fact that many Iyengar students have been unaware of the 1991 article means that there is by definition an “open secret of sexual abuse”.

Obviously her fellow disciples are human. The odd use of the word implies that the discussion concerns everyday foibles. High-demand groups have many caring and conscious members. This has nothing to do with how they constellate around power, or how they can be indoctrinated to normalize abuse.

The paragraph ends with a psychologization of “victimhood” as an attitude. This erases the legal meaning of “victim”, which in this case would apply to a person who had been assaulted.

I congratulate my community for having a platform for women to come forward and to discuss all the messiness that comes with a sexist society. I am upset how quickly people are to take sides on a topic where they do not have intimate knowledge one way or the other. I am honored to be a yogi among you and I am so glad that we can hold that the dynamics of power and sexism are very complex. Indeed we all need skillful action moving forward.

The statement ends as it began, with a veneer of openness, but this time larded with self-congratulation that extends to the group. It’s unclear what “platform” she’s referring to, as West was asked to keep her communications with the Ethics Committee confidential. 

After completely ignoring West’s side, labelling the allegation as “messiness”, and describing Manos in near-divine terms, she criticizes “taking sides”.

After completely shutting down West, she claims to be holding complexity along with the group, allowing her to identify as a “yogi”.

_____

 

“Betrayal of Trust”: 1991 Mercury News Investigation of Sexual Assault Allegations Against Manouso Manos — by Bob Frost

"Betrayal of Trust": 1991 Mercury News Investigation of Sexual Assault Allegations Against Manouso Manos -- by Bob Frost

This article from 1991 has been parked on my website in PDF form for almost two years, after one of the anonymous sources for it sent it to me. It article was recently featured in Miranda Leitsinger’s investigative report for KQED, which presents two new allegations: one from 1983, and the other from 2015. The journalist, Bob Frost, stands by every detail. The San Jose Mercury News West Magazine is no more; the PDF has been the only version available. I’ve had it transcribed for ease of reading. You can contact the Ethics Committee at IYNAUS at ethics@iynaus.org, and support survivors of sexual abuse by donating to RAINN.

Notes:

The importance of the Frost article may increase in relation to the response of IYNAUS to the new allegation. In a letter responding to the KQED article, IYNAUS President David Carpenter suggests that Iyengar’s pardon of Manos at the time was an appropriate organizational response. But it fails to cite the findings of the 1991 article in his summary of how the community dealt with allegations against Manos at that time.

Carpenter writes:

There were then two sets of allegations against Manouso Manos.  The first was that he had sexual relationships with female students outside of class.  The second was that he inappropriately touched students in class. These allegations were made before the establishment of IYNAUS, but a committee was formed to investigate the allegations. Manouso Manos admitted to sexual relationships with his students, but denied the allegations of inappropriate and non-consensual touching in his classes and workshops.

The committee presented the evidence and its conclusions to Guruji, and many teachers communicated with Guruji about the appropriate response.  Guruji decided to give Manouso Manos a second chance.  He did not expel him from the system.  But he stated that Manouso Manos would not get another chance if he engaged in sexually abusive conduct in the future.  Other remedial measures were also adopted.  Mr. Manos publicly confessed his misconduct and apologized to his students, fellow teachers, and to his wife at the 1990 U.S. Iyengar Yoga convention. Restrictions were imposed on his teaching for a period of time.

This statement contradicts Manos’s statements to KQED, made through a spokesman. Leitsinger writes:

A spokesman for Manos said the West article was inaccurate, saying Manos wasn’t suspended but voluntarily left (he said he didn’t know the reason for his departure) and didn’t seek reinstatement but was invited to return. He also said Manos denied past and current allegations of sexual misconduct. He didn’t know why Manos hadn’t sought a correction to Frost’s articles if he believed there were inaccuracies.

Frost gives more detail about the events to which Carpenter refers:

Allegations of sexual improprieties caused the institute to suspend him as a teacher in October 1989. Sources say that “many” allegations against Manos have been reported in letters and phone calls to the institute in the last two years. The charges have been reviewed by at least a dozen people at the institute. The misconduct is said to have occurred both at the institute and in yoga workshops Manos has given around the country. No police charges or lawsuits have been filed against Manos.

According to three separate sources familiar with the case, all of whom insisted on anonymity, Manos allegedly rubbed his pelvis against women students in a sexually provocative way as the women were doing yoga poses, touched them in private places during classes under the guise of pose adjustments, and asked certain women students individually into an institute classroom after group classes, where, behind closed doors, he performed sexually charged physical manipulations, and had intercourse.

 

— MR

 

Betrayal of Trust: Spiritual force encounters human passions as a sex scandal erupts in yet another New Age community.

By Bob Frost

San Jose Mercury News
West Magazine
May 26,1991

Reprinted with permission.

[Original source.]

YOGA is the most powerful force in the universe, according to the most prominent yoga teacher in the world, B.K.S. Iyengar of Pune, India.

On the purely physical plane, its devotees say, yoga can enhance personal energy, reduce stress and ease such problems as lower back pain. A deeper yoga practice can be profound therapy, as serious an investigation of one’s life as Freudian or Jungian analysis.

Here’s how the therapeutic process might unfold. A prospective student, watching a yoga program on Channel 9, decides to get out of the chair and learn a few yoga poses, known as “asanas.” There are about 200 asanas in hatha yoga. The point of doing them is to relax and balance the body.

They range in difficulty from the apparently simple triangle pose, which involves spreading the feet and twisting the trunk; to the more intricate headstand; to postures that take years even to attempt, where the arms point north, the torso twists south and the legs fly off toward Bombay.

After a few weeks of watching classes, the student heeds the advice of the TV teacher and attends a local class or takes a private lesson. A live teacher is vital to yoga.

Teachers are trained to help each individual body adapt to the rigors of a pose. Often, a feeling of trust develops between teacher and student; this contributes significantly to the learning process.

The first months of yoga can be a wonderful time; after years of stiffness, students begin to feel what it is to have a relaxed, balanced, flexible body. It’s exciting. It’s also scary, because the psychic armor of a lifetime is being softened. The personal guidance of a teacher can help focus the excitement and allay the fear.

Progress usually slows after the first few months. The process of softening and unfolding becomes more subtle and gradual. Some students get discouraged and quit; any others level off their practice and are content with feeling better. But some students stick with the discipline, and for them, the teacher becomes indispensable — keeping their spirits up over the difficult years of daily practice, teaching the seemingly infinite subtleties of relaxing and opening, demonstrating a belief that one’s true self, one’s core self is OK. Demonstrating, in short, the value of trust.

SOMETIMES things go wrong. Occasionally, the relationship between teacher and student is betrayed.

A leading teacher at the Bay Area’s foremost yoga school has admitted publicly that he engaged in sexual misconduct with female students. Among several allegations against the teacher, Manouso Manos, 39, are charges that he fondled female students during classes. Manos said at a yoga convention last June that he had “disgraced” himself.

The case has been kept under wraps by the yoga community; this article is the first disclosure of it to the general public. Some yoga teachers and students are outraged not only by the sexual misconduct, but also by the subsequent unwillingness of the yoga world to disclose the case to the general public. They question the decision made last October by the school, the Iyengar Yoga Institute of San Francisco, to allow Manos back to teach classes open to members of the public who have no knowledge of his alleged misbehaviour.

“I was sexually abused by my father as a small child,” says Stephanie Lawrence, 46, an artist and yoga student living in Mill Valley. “I came to the San Francisco Iyengar institute six years ago to heal those wounds. Fortunately, I did not study with Manouso when I first came to the institute; had I been molested in a yoga class, it could have easily re-enacted the molestation I suffered as a child, and the result could have been psychically disastrous.”

Some observers believe this case also points up fundamental flaws in the Iyengar style of teaching yoga. That style, following the ideas of B.K.S. Iyengar, is the leading instructional method for yoga in the United States today, with about 500 teachers. There are some 100 Iyengar schools around the country.

The allegations against Manos are also a reminder that a series of sex scandals has plagued the spiritual/New Age community in the United States in recent years. They raise again the question of what constitutes appropriate behavior between men in positions of power or influence, such as teachers, therapists and gurus, and women who are their students, patients and followers.

SINCE October, at least five teachers at the Iyengar Yoga Institute of San Francisco have resigned to protest the school’s handling of the Manos case.

The school, located on 27th Avenue in the city’s Sunset District, is the Harvard University of yoga, home base for many of America’s leading instructors and a mecca for students from around the world. The school’s showpiece is its respected teacher-training program. The non-profit institute is licensed by the state of California as a vocational school.

Manos has for years taught well-attended classes at the school, and conducted workshops around the country.

Allegations of sexual improprieties caused the institute to suspend him as a teacher in October 1989. Sources say that “many” allegations against Manos have been reported in letters and phone calls to the institute in the last two years. The charges have been reviewed by at least a dozen people at the institute. The misconduct is said to have occurred both at the institute and in yoga workshops Manos has given around the country. No police charges or lawsuits have been filed against Manos.

According to three separate sources familiar with the case, all of whom insisted on anonymity, Manos allegedly rubbed his pelvis against women students in a sexually provocative way as the women were doing yoga poses, touched them in private places during classes under the guise of pose adjustments, and asked certain women students individually into an institute classroom after group classes, where, behind closed doors, he performed sexually charged physical manipulations, and had intercourse.

When he was informed that the specific allegations made against him would be cited in this article, Manos declined comment other than this written statement: “Though there are inaccuracies in the statements made in this article I do recognize the gravity of the subject matter. I urge anyone who is involved in a relationship that may be inappropriate (incest,employer-employee, minister/rabbi-parishioner, therapist-patient, teacher-student) to seek outside help and guidance.”

The director of the institute, Mary Peirce, did not respond to repeated requests for comments.

Accusations of sexual contact between Manos and students first surfaced in 1987. Confronted with them, Manos promised an institute representative he would not repeat the offense. In the late summer and fall of 1989, instances of sexual contact were again reported, and he was suspended as a teacher that October.

In the course of meetings and interviews about the case, Manos apparently never declared that he was innocent of charges of sexual misconduct. The master and mentor of the San Francisco Iyengar school, B.K.S. Iyengar, reviewed the allegations last year and discussed them with Manos. Iyengar, who had the authority to lift Manos’ teacher certification or impose other restrictions, decided action was not warranted and asked the yoga community to forgive Manos. The school’s board voted to reinstate him in October 1990.

One of the leading yoga teachers in the United States, Judith Lasater, then resigned from the institute’s board of directors because, she says, “I did not want to be associated professionally with such behaviour.” At least four other teachers – Jennie Arndt, Toni Montez, Donald Moyer and Mary Lou Weprin – resigned in protest from the school’s teacher training faculty.

A STUDENT who made an allegation against Manos agreed to describe her experience on the condition that she remain anonymous. The incident, she says, took place in 1986 in a city where Manos had gone to give a workshop.

“He had been very flirtatious with women in the class — touching women he didn’t know well, putting his arm around their waist and so on. This bothered me a little; it set a strange tone for the class.

“At the end of the class we all lay down in Savasana.” (This is the traditional last pose of Iyengar sessions. Students lie on their backs, close their eyes, breathe in a measured way, and deeply relax for about 10 minutes.) “He came by and put a block under my shoulders.” (A standard yoga procedure to elevate and open the chest.) After about three minutes he came by and put his hand inside my leotard and, basically, gave me a breast massage.

“It made me feel horrible. I didn’t know what to do. It scared me. I didn’t know if I had done something to bring this on; all the victim’s guilt and shame, ‘Am I responsible? Am I at fault?’

These thoughts went on for two minutes. I then said, ‘That’s enough.’ He said, ‘Oh, sorry’ and walked away. I didn’t talk about it to him afterwards. I felt ashamed and embarrassed – mortified, actually.

“I carried guilt around for along time, and the feeling that I should have stopped it immediately, and maybe I had done something to cause it–but I hadn’t.

“One of the reasons it was so hard to accept was that it had been done in the context of yoga. Yoga is a thing we turn to in order to begin opening our bodies; there needs to be that element of trust there because it can be a very vulnerable experience.

“It went on for two minutes because I was in shock, basically. It took me that long to realize what was happening and to realize it was wrong – I had crazy thoughts like, ‘Oh, this is the way they do yoga in California, where he’s from, and if I react he’ll think I’m uptight about my body.’ He was the teacher, after all; students really abdicate a lot of power to teachers. I’ve had many thoughts since then about what I should have done – instantly get up and say, ‘Get your hands off me, you pig!’

“I didn’t report it right away because I was ashamed and embarrassed, and felt guilty, thinking I would be judged and not believed. It was easier to go on and forget about it and it wasn’t as if I had been raped.

“I felt like I was the only one it had happened to; when I heard that it had happened to others I thought I could come forward and be believed.”

MANOUSO Manos, who lives in San Francisco, is a native of the United States. He became prominent as a yoga teacher in 1984 after successfully organizing and managing the first national Iyengar convention, in San Francisco. He is perceived as B.K.S. Iyengar’s “right-hand man” in America and as one of the master’s “star teachers.”

As a forceful advocate for Iyengar’s yoga and organizational ideas, Manos came into serious conflict with others in the Iyengar circle who were more inclined to a flexible approach. The conflict also colored the institute’s handling of the allegations against Manos, according to one teacher. “When we spoke out against the school’s handling of the sexual misconduct matter, we were accused by some people of waging a personal vendetta against Manouso,” the teacher says. “Our objections to his conduct were discounted on the grounds that we had personal grudges.”

Iyengar, 72, is “widely regarded as the world’s leading exponent of hatha yoga,” according to Yoga Journal. (There are several branches of yoga; hatha yoga is the branch concerned with physical poses. In addition, hatha yoga students learn meditation and various breathing exercises.) Iyengar’s Light on Yoga, published in the mid-1960s, is considered a modern classic in the field. Iyengar’s regal demeanour, vigorous air and fervent teaching style have earned him the nickname “Lion of Pune” (pronounced poo-nah). After becoming known in India as a yoga master, he attracted attention in the West in the mid-1950s as a yoga tutor of violinist Yehudi Menuhin, who grew up in San Francisco. (Menuhin’s mother, Marutha, lives in Los Gatos.) A grateful Menuhin gave Iyengar a wristwatch inscribed “To my best violin teacher B.K.S. Iyengar. Yehudo Menuhin, Gstaad, Sept. 1954.”

Reached by phone in India and asked if he believed the allegations against Manos by the woman quoted above, Iyengar replied, “No. That is an old, old story. I doubt its truth. I do not believe past things when they are kept quiet for so long.”

Asked if he thought perhaps the woman had been too embarrassed or ashamed to report the incident, he said, “I do not believe that.”

Did he question Manos about whether the woman’s charge was true? “He did not say,” Iyengar replied. “Why should I ask him? I don’t want to listen to hearsay. When a report is fresh, immediate, then it is more likely to be true. When reported later it is all dexterous words.”

The fact that no charges or lawsuits have been filed against Manos has helped keep the case contained within the yoga community. But there are other reasons for the community’s silence on the matter. Yoga teachers don’t know how Iyengar will react to presentation of the case to a broader public. Teachers do not take lightly the prospect of displeasing Iyengar. The Iyengar institute may also be concerned about losing students, especially because it has experienced financial problems in the past year.

Iyengar said he does not believe some of the the charges against Manos, but insisted that Manos has become a “changed man” who will not repeat his previous actions. Manos is “not the same person” today as a year or two ago; he is “transformed,” Iyengar said.

Asked how he was able to judge this, Iyengar replied, “I trust him. I trust his words. I have taken an oath from him. He told me he had lost so many others but he did not want to lose me. I told him that I can forgive once but not twice.”

But is he not in fact forgiving Manos twice, because of allegations that were reported in 1987, followed by the surfacing of allegations in ’89?

“No,” Iyengar said. “I never knew about 1987. Nobody told me in 1987. I was only informed later.”

Iyengar said he views the Manos case as an opportunity to “teach one and all” the importance of high ethical conduct in yoga: “This is a stepping stone for others to follow. I see it from this angle, as a learning experience.” Ethical conduct, he continued, is a paramount concern of his.

When he was asked if, as some sources claim, he believes Manos was seduced by some of the women, Iyengar said, “Yes, naturally. Unless a woman shows willingness, the man will not act.”

Does even strong temptation excuse such behaviour on the part of a yoga teacher? “Man is weak; forgiveness is what is important. Did not Christ forgive many people?”

When she was told of Iyengar’s doubts about her veracity, the student whose allegations are quoted above said, “Well… I’m sitting here trying not to scream or cry. It makes me want to forget about ever doing Iyengar yoga again.”

“I BEAR MANOUSO no ill will,” says Linda Cogozzo, managing editor of Yoga Journal magazine and an 11-year student of Iyengar yoga. “But thus far there has been no attention paid by the yoga community to what I believe are the key issues in this situation: the misuse of power and the betrayal of a student’s trust by a teacher.

“The emphasis in the community, from Iyengar on down, has been on forgiving Manouso. No one has talked at all about the women involved. And this makes me wonder what representation and value I, as a woman, have in the Iyengar community. I’m thinking not much.”

Others in the yoga community feel the case has been dealt with properly. Lolly Font, owner/director of the California Yoga Center in Palo Alto, says the situation “has been a very good thing for Manouso. I think he’s learned an awful lot from having to come clear and admit to what he’s done.” Font said she takes classes regularly from Manos and considers his teaching on par with the best she has experienced.

Betty Eiler, owner of Yoga Fitness in San Jose, considers the Manos case “water over the dam.” She adds, “Nobody, really, has a completely clean slate in their lives. Manouso has suffered greatly over this: he’s paid his dues.”

But many agree with the teacher who says, “I’m disgusted and disillusioned. This even is like a festering wound that has never been cleaned out. It’s still dividing the yoga community in the Bay Area, and since this area is the center of yoga for the United States, it’s dividing the community nationally, and in fact internationally.”

Although many teachers say Iyengar should not be blamed for Manos’ alleged misconduct, others, probably a minority, believe he must share in the responsibility. An experienced teacher said, “Mr. Iyengar can be physically abusive when teaching. He sometimes slaps students, or hits them in the head or kicks them, as a way of ‘creating awareness,’ of saying, ‘Hey, wake up!’ And he can be verbally abusive, calling people ‘stupid.’ Not all people, and not all the time. I have come to view Iyengar’s physical abuse as related to Manos’ sexual abuse. If Iyengar doesn’t respect people’s physical integrity, if he crosses physical boundaries, it creates a climate where sexual abuse can occur.”

Larry Hatlett, co-director of the Yoga Center of Palo Alto, disagrees. He does not see how Iyengar’s style could have led to Manos’ alleged misbehaviour. “I think it’s Manouso, period,” Hatlett says.

For his part, Iyengar denies that he is aggressive. “I do not think that word is accurate. I am intense. I am intense because it is important, the work that we do. Why waste time?”

THE WORD “GURU” has roots in Hinduism. In the strictest sense of the word, a guru is someone “enlightened,” profoundly spiritual and close to God; today, the word is often used by various disciplines to describe any revered teacher/leader/guide.

The very first Indian guru to get widespread attention in the Western mainstream press, the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, got caught up in charges of taking advantage of the guru-devotees relationship.

Several Beatles biographies say the group got fed up with the Maharishi in 1968 because they felt he was conducting an illicit romance with one of his female disciples. The Maharishi has apparently never commented on the matter. The Beatles did make a comment–their bitter song “Sexy Sadie” was originally titled “Maharishi.”

Sexual misbehaviour is an extremely delicate topic in the U.S. spiritual/New Age community – in part because it seems to occur so often, especially among American devotees of Eastern religions. In the November/December 1990 issue of Yoga Journal, Katharine Webster writes, “Sexual contact between gurus and their American disciples is not a new or rare phenomenon. Over the past 15 or 20 years, numerous spiritual teachers have admitted to, or been charged with, having sexually exploitative relationships with their female students.”

In the 1980s, the Zen Center of San Francisco was hit hard by a sex scandal involving its leader, Richard Baker. The centre has rectified its problems. Also in the ’80s, revelations about the sexual conduct of Swami Muktananda and Eknath Easwaran, among others, generated controversy.

One of the latest cases involves Swami Rama, guru of the Himalayan Institute of Yoga Science and Philosophy. The institute, a huge enterprise based in Pennsylvania, is a hub for East Coast spiritual seekers, with a publishing company, scientific lab, yoga teacher-training program and health clinic. Writing in Yoga Journal, Katharine Webster describes allegations of numerous instances of sexual misconduct by Swami Rama. The Himalayan Institute has not publicly responded to the charges.

Dr. Peter Rutter, a prominent San Francisco psychiatrist and Jungian analyst, said, when interviewed for this article, that he knows personally and “conservatively” of about 250 victims of sexual misbehaviour in U.S. and British communities that study and practice Eastern religions. These 250 include his patients, people who have attended his workshops and people who have writ- ten to him.

In his well-regarded book Sex in the Forbidden Zone, Rutter discusses the issue of sex between men in positions of power or influence and women who come to them seeking guidance.

“The forbidden zone,” he writes, “is a condition of relationship in which sexual behaviour is prohibited because a man holds in trust the intimate, wounded, vulnerable or undeveloped parts of a woman. The trust derives from the professional role of the man as doctor, therapist, lawyer, clergy, teacher or mentor, and it creates an expectation that whatever parts of herself the woman entrusts to him (her property, body, mind or spirit) must be used solely to advance her interests and will not be used to his advantage, sexual or otherwise.

“Under these conditions,” Rutter continues, “sexual behavior is always wrong no matter who initiates it, no matter how willing the participants say they are. In the forbidden zone the factors of power, trust and dependency remove the possibility of a woman freely giving consent to sexual contact. Put another way,the dynamics of the forbidden zone can render a woman unable to withhold consent, and because the man has the greater power, the responsibility is his to guard the forbidden boundary against sexual contact no matter how provocative the woman.”

The four major “talking” therapy groups – psychiatrists; psychologists; marriage, family and child counselors; licensed clinical social workers–all forbid relationships between therapist and patient/client. And in January 1990, California enacted a law making it illegal for a psychological therapist to have sex with a patient. Seven states currently have such laws. Yoga teaching, while considered by many a therapy, does not fall into the framework of the laws.

As noted, no charges or lawsuits have been filed in the Manos case. “It’s difficult for women to come out with these charges publicly,”Rutter says. “It’s a terrible ordeal, requiring them to make public the most personal, intimate aspects of their lives, which they would not have to undergo had there not been a violation of the relationship in the first place.

“There’s tremendous risk for them. If they speak out they’re often punished within a community, or blamed. People in the community might say initially that a charismatic man ‘couldn’t possibly have done such a thing.’ The next step in the denial process is ‘Well, he may have done it, but he was seduced.'”

As Katharine Webster writes in Yoga Journal, ‘The followers of ‘enlightened’ men are usually reluctant to find fault with them, since to do so could invalidate the students’ own years of study and devotion. Instead they deny the experience of the ‘unenlightened’ women who are the guru’s victims.”

“Personally,” Rutter says, “I am in favor of women going public with such charges. I think they have more to gain than lose if they do.”

Rutter adds that today, within some professions, such as therapy, there is “universal” condemnation of sexual contact. In other professions, such as teaching, there is only “a gradually growing awareness of the problem.” A number of universities have passed internal rules making teacher-student sexual contact illegal. The model rule in the academic world, Rutter says, is a University of Iowa edict that states in part, “Voluntary consent by the student in such a relationship is suspect, given the fundamentally asymmetrical nature of the relationship.”

WHY do sex scandals keep happening in the spiritual/New Age community?

There is, of course, sexual misbehaviour in corporations, volunteer organizations mainstream religious groups, professional and collegiate athletics. And many spiritual/New Age gurus and teachers conduct themselves impeccably, without a breath of impropriety.

But in this community–especially among Western followers of classical Eastern religions–there are unique and potentially volatile dynamics at work. These have to do with the exalted status of the guru/spiritual teacher, and the spiritual hunger of many people in the West.

Followers sometimes initiate, or welcome sex with gurus and teachers because they believe that sex under such circumstances is an especially life-enhancing thing to do, a way to be permeated with the guru’s enlightened essence.

“A woman might try to see it as a positive experience,” Peter Rutter says, “but in 99 percent of cases, that veil of illusion sooner or later falls away and the woman realizes she has been terribly abused and exploited. This might happen five minutes later or 20 years later.”

A central reason the woman eventually feels exploited, Rutter believes, is that the experience is a reinforcement of one of the most degrading things she’s heard (directly or indirectly) about herself. “Sex is all you’re good for.” When such message comes from a trusted guru or spiritual teacher in the form of a sexual episode, Rutter says, it is especially painful and damaging–”it strikes at the heart of her psyche and soul.”

Ganga White, president of the White Lotus Yoga Foundation in Santa Barbara, identifies “an amazing spiritual gullibility among those of us in the West.” Westerners may have a hard time differentiating authentic spiritual leaders from those prone to exploitation, he says, because we have a different way of judging things – a way of judgment based on materialism. “Maybe we see spirituality as an accumulation of things – accumulation of merit, knowledge, power – rather than what it really is: a subtle process of inner opening and understanding.

“The question,” he continues, “is not why so many spiritual leaders have fallen; the question is, who says they had risen to a state of true enlightenment in the first place? Somebody can be the head of a big organization and write books and have a lot of centers, but they may not be any more evolved than you or I. We’re duped or mesmerized by a person’s possessions – possessions of knowledge, charisma and so forth. These are not necessarily indications of a higher awareness.”

There doesn’t appear to be an easy, sure-fire way to find authentic spiritual guides not prone to sexual, financial or philosophical exploitation. Indicators of authenticity, says White, are “love and compassion, and an absence of the ‘Me’ – an absence of ego and self-centeredness. What I suggest to people is, accept teachers who start setting you free right beginning, not one who ask you to sit at their feet. There’s a difference.”

Donald Moyer, one of the teachers who resigned from the San Francisco Iyengar institute, says, “The question is, how do we take a practice like yoga, from a culture, India, accustomed to hierarchy and dealing with power in a different way, and bring it to the West, and avoid lapsing into some sort of patriarchal throwback? Westerners, when they first are attracted to Eastern though, sometimes tend to put down all Western attitudes. We need to be able to see the value of our own contributions – democratic values, psychological understandings,and developing a sense of personal responsibility for our actions.”

“The problem is not yoga,” says yoga teacher Arthur Kilmurray. “Yoga is a process of purification that stirs things up within a person. How those stirred-up issues are dealt with is a function of such things as the culture, the times we live in and how an individual is able to deal with the issues.”

Stephanie Lawrence of Mill Valley says that she is doing yoga exclusively at home these days. She quit going to classes because of what she terms a “humbling attitude” exhibited by some male yoga teachers. “The cumulative effect of many years of studying yoga led me to feel that I had handled some integral part of myself over to some of the teachers, that I had allowed myself to be humbled by them, and forgotten that I was my own best teacher.

“I think that climate may be due to a kind of passivity among women that’s confused with surrendering, a word that is often used in yoga. When women can’t stand up for themselves, are passive in that particular way, then that passivity is almost handing the power to the teacher to do what he wants with them.”

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BOB FROST is a contributing writer for West.

Talking with Carmen Spagnola about Attachment, High-Demand Groups, Responsibilism, and Grief (Transcript)

Carmen Spagnola asked me some awesome questions for her fascinating podcast series on community in the shadow of collapse.

We talked about the intersection of aspirational and high-demand groups, getting over the guilt and shame of privilege-recognition, the somatic affect of charisma and how it leads to weird group habitus and the paradox of having to “market” things like community.

Carmen totally cracked me up when she described some of the well-intentioned jargon taking root in the deep ecology / revillaging circles she runs in. We talked about how highly evocative but undefinable terms like “grief-soaked” can brand a newly-commodified activism while also shutting down real-world convos. No, people probably don’t really talk like that. And when they do, there’s probably a little bit of trying-to-sell-shit-to-each-other going on. And loaded language is always a red flag for high-demand dynamics.

My favourite bits were when she asked me about how I stay connected to yoga practice while studying high-demand yoga groups, and how I manage rage and grief. This made me think about how I don’t actually know how well I’m taking care of myself — I mean, how would I? — even after all these years of yoga and meditation. Also it allowed me to describe how I have to split my brain in several ways in order to quarantine off certain things to get on with it.

I found the process of stumbling through answers to those two difficult questions was quite healing. Continue reading “Talking with Carmen Spagnola about Attachment, High-Demand Groups, Responsibilism, and Grief (Transcript)”