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.

“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.

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

 

 

 

 

 

“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.”

_____

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)”

Talking Ashtanga Past and Mindful Strength Future with Kathryn Bruni-Young (Transcript)

Talking Ashtanga Past and Mindful Strength Future with Kathryn Bruni-Young (Transcript)

Kathryn Bruni-Young is a fellow Toronto (post)yoga friend who I’ve known for over ten years. It’s been amazing to watch her change and expand her practice over that time, and very cool to visit with her on her excellent podcast and share some thoughts how my path has swerved alongside her own.

We also got pretty deep into what it was like for both of us — her as a 2nd-gen insider, and me as a reluctant researcher — to come to grips with the shadows of Ashtanga Yoga. We also spent a good deal of time on the “What now?” question. Kathryn’s thoughts provoked a new take on it that I like.

The disillusionment phase that so many folks go through always brings up the “baby and bathwater” metaphor. When institutional abuse and enabling become clear within an organization, leaders often caution: “Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater.” What they generally mean is: “Stay with us. Don’t give up. At least keep a foot in. It’s not all bad.” It makes sense in some ways. It’s an appeal to preserve the relationships of a group, to guard against the pain of sunken costs, and to develop a kind of maturity around extracting the good from the bad.

But it’s always felt to me like there was something off about the advice. After all, it does suggest that feeling disillusioned is like harming a child.  In chatting with Kathryn, I suddenly wondered: “Who’s the baby here?” I think the answer is that we’re the baby, trying to learn and grow. Of course we’re not going to throw ourselves out. We’re realizing the bath is dirty, and we’re looking for new water. We’re going to get out and find it.

 

Resources:

Yoga’s Culture of Sexual Abuse: Nine Women Tell Their Stories –The Walrus

WAWADIA

Karen Rain’s video interview with Matthew

Karen Rain \\   Ashtanga Yoga and Me Too

Norman Blair \\ Essay:  Ashtanga Yoga Stories

Anneke Lucas \\  annekelucas.com

Mark Singleton \\ Modern Yoga Research

Sarai Harvey-Smith \\ Article

Transcript:

Kathryn:

Hi everyone, welcome back to the mindful strength podcast. I’m your host, Kathryn Bruni-Young. Today I have an old friend on the podcast with me, Matthew Remski. I’ve known Matthew since I was a kid. He’s been a friend of my mom’s for quite a while. We were there with him right at the beginning of his What Are We Doing in Asana? project that he started, which has turned into something even bigger now. And that’s what we talk about in this episode. Matthew has done hundreds of interviews with yoga practitioners. He’s put together some really powerful information and he’s been also doing lots of research on cult behavior and cult mentalities. And I’m just so excited to have Matthew here with me today. His work is controversial and we might not all agree on these topics, but I think that it’s an important part of the conversation. Welcome to the podcast, Matthew.

Matthew:

Thank you, Kathryn. It’s good to hear your voice.

Kathryn:

It’s good to talk to you. I have known Matthew for years. I feel like I’ve known you since I was a kid since I was a teenager back when you had a studio. I remember when I did my advanced teacher training program with Downward Dog. They were renting your studio space and I think that those were some of my first memories of you.

Matthew:

That is totally true. I think that that would have been 2006 or so. Does that sound right? And I remember your mom — I think she knew about the space because I had come to town the year before my move back to Toronto and I think I had asked her if she needed any presenting help in her YTT program for subjects like Ayurveda. And so I’d started to do that with her. And yeah, I suppose she needed extra space and I remember the whole group piling in and I remember Soleil being there, and I remember, of course, you know, the intensity of the whole experience and for all of you. And I also remember, I think it’s still in storage somewhere — I have this, this plastic container filled with sewing measuring tapes that your mother was using for something. I’m not sure what it was. It was, I don’t know what she was doing. Spinal measurements, or using it as some sort of strange prop, but I remember they never got back to her and so it’s one of those things that several moves later, you know — I talk with her on the phone once a week or something like that, and it’s sort of in the back of my mind. I know that I still have a piece of her old studio in my house. So yeah, I remember and I, and I, I don’t remember you from that, from I don’t remember. Like I don’t have a visual memory memory of you coming into the space. Um, but I do remember you from Downward Dog and in 20, in 2006. How old would you have been…

Kathryn:

now? I’m 29. I just turned 29, so

Matthew:

… 13 years ago. So 16. Yeah. And I remember I remember you as being like incredibly motivated and adept of course at everything you were learning. Um, and I just had this feeling of Wow, that is really interesting to be Diane Bruni’s daughter, and to be and to be learning, learning in this environment and to become so proficient. And then I know a little bit about your story afterwards, but, but yeah, it’s, it’s an amazing thing to reflect back on because you’ve had such a journey.

Kathryn:

Yeah. I mean when I was 16 I was, I had, I was probably doing the teacher training program at that time and then the next year I had, I had started teaching other teenagers. But I mean, oh my goodness, looking back to that time in my life, I was like super focused on learning yoga and, and hanging out with my mom and it’s just so funny to think back to all those years ago.

Matthew:

And you really mirrored each other as well. And, and, and I think, and it’s what I was amazed by was, was how you kind of came to the same sorts of realizations around, you know, what movement meant to you at the same time. And in fact, you know, that became really important like 10 years later when, when your mom was the first interview that I did for this research project and you were there in the room, in the house in Parkdale. Um, so yeah, we’ve got, we’ve got a couple of intersection points.

Kathryn:

Yeah, I think I remember that first interview that I did with my mom and I remember at that point no one was talking really openly about anything. And I remember like kind of weighing in on some of the things and at the same time feeling like, oh my God, don’t quote me, don’t quote me on any of this. And like I’m not saying anybody’s name and I’m not really giving you any concrete information.

Matthew:

And, and, well, we went back and forth too because, because I think I published parts of that interview, but I mean it’s more of it is going to be in this upcoming book. And, and I remember that you, yes, didn’t want to be quoted, but she wanted to say some very specific things. Like I remember you were, you were, you were kind of like a, you’re sitting almost across the room. And I think Diane, your mom said, you know, do you mind if Kathryn’s here and I said, of course not. And you know, she asked you, do you want to hang out? And you were like, yeah, okay, sort of. And then we got into it and then we got into it. And she came to the point, I still have this on the transcript. She came to the point where she’s describing how she’s developing severe knee pain and you know, she’s finally going to go and get an ultrasound and she discovers that there’s a big cyst in the middle of her joint because she’s been doing all of these, you know, knee pressure postures and she says the line, um, “So I thought it was like a meniscus injury and then you break in and you say “Like, everybody in Ashtanga has!” And then I have in the, in the, um, I have in my notes, uh, “Kathryn rolls her eyes.”

And then the other comment was, was you said something really, really special about, the kind of addictive cycle of pain and pleasure in going to end range of motion. You said that, um, you know, when your, when your mother was saying we needed to, we always needed to progress and go deeper in order to nurture the sensations we were chasing. And you said something like, “Oh yeah. And you have to go deeper because those, those, those receptors, uh, get um, what, acclimatized.” I don’t know what kind of language you used, but I was like, oh, you studied, you studied the neurology of this too, right? Like, you know, you’re, you’re looking at your, you actually have an analysis around what it means to be chasing a sensation by going farther into something. Uh, so that was pretty, that was a really cool moment. And, and to see that you kind of been on this journey together and, and yeah, it was cool.

Kathryn:

There’s so much in all of that. I mean, I remember when my mom was going through this situation where she had this cyst and she thought she had the meniscus tear and whatever. Um, I started to really feel like at that point, like I had also been having some knee issues and I started to feel like that was almost normal. Like all of my friends who are all yoga teachers also had these same issues. And I think that was the turning point where I started to think like “Maybe this isn’t totally normal.” Yes. Lots of people have knee issues and lots of those people will never do yoga day in their lives like knee issues come from all kinds of things, but at the same time like the normalization of the injuries that so many of us were having in common. I think that was the turning point where I started to think, hmm, maybe we could be doing things differently.

Matthew:

Right. Well, there was a turning point in that actual interview that was really important for me where, you know, your mom said that with this knee pain and probably moving onto the description of her hip injury when she had gone to her colleagues and said, you know, Well A, what should I do about this? And they really didn’t have any answers except more stretching. And then B, she went to her colleagues and said, well, this is what my sports medicine doctor said about passive stretching and end range of motion and they didn’t want to listen to her. We started talking about the, this explanation that was given in the culture around the necessity of pain and the inevitability of the injury and how injury actually signified that your body was changing into something else or it was going to become more resilient or it was breaking down so that it can be reformed. And, and I said, “Okay, so was that a therapeutic belief or was that a spiritual belief?” And she said, “It was a spiritual belief that we thought was a therapeutic belief.”

And I think that sentence alone set me off on an entire like research jag, because I think that particular confusion is at the heart of, of so many of the things that you’ve gone, you’ve gone on to study and to, and to try to resolve. You know, it’s like there, there are these very entrenched attitudes around discipline and pain and struggle that have to do with some very old notions of what the body is. And you know, whether it should be denied or whether it should be cared for or whether you can use activity and even discomfort to purify yourself in some way. And then, you know, the therapeutic movement in yoga is going the other direction and saying, no, you, we kind of want to be more functional. We would like to use breath and movement and mindfulness to actually enjoy being alive instead of instead of, um, instead of, you know, using our bodies as some sort of like a test, a philosophical test, you know? Um, so yeah, there’s… And you grew up in all of those messages too, right? Like it must have been such a trip for you to start saying, well, wait a minute, wait a minute. What do I actually believe?

Kathryn:

Yeah. I mean, when I really started to, when I start, when I stopped going to yoga classes seven days a week and I started going to the gym and I started learning from different people. I think I at that point started to realize like a lot of the things that I had grown up with, I wasn’t sure if I was really going to believe those things anymore. I mean, I feel like I, I grew up in this bubble of Ashtanga Yoga, but also along with that comes as like, I don’t know, kind of like pseudo spiritual practice thing where we all, I don’t know, maybe I’m not going to speak for everyone in my, in my crew, but I definitely feel like I grew up with the notion that you go to the studio really early in the morning, you don’t eat anything before you go there. You do this practice and everything in your life is going to be good and it’s very spiritual and you’re mindful and it’s all gonna work out. And there was this notion of like, you know, people could have like these opening kinda healing crisis events, which I think is what you’re talking about with these injury states and you know, that that was somewhat normal. And in some cases “just part of the practice” and part of the whole experience. And I also grew up, you know, where people would like go out and do like shamanic drugs in the frickin Don Valley. And that was also kind of normal. Like, my mom had friends who were, you know, going into the forest of Toronto, which is like not really a forest at all and like taking ayauasca and like hearing about that and that also seem to be this like healing crisis of a, you have to go do this thing and like puke your brains out. And I’m sure I’m sure some of the listeners who are listening are like really into that. And so I, I don’t want to speak badly because, you know, I’ve never done that, but it’s not really my thing.

But yeah, it’s like I grew up thinking that all of those things where just like a normal part of whatever yoga evolution and spiritual evolution. And now like looking back on that, it’s a bit crazy. It’s a bit nuts. And when I started to go to the gym and like hang out with people who had not grown up with that, I then I started to realize how weird the whole thing was and how weird a lot of those thoughts were that I had grown up with. And you know, just starting to look at movement practice in a completely different way. And yeah, I mean I think the intersection between like spirituality and movement is really interesting. I’ve interviewed a lot of people on the podcast and a lot of people who I’ve interviewed have said something like, “No, when I go to the gym I’m doing something different than when I’m doing my yoga practice.” But also I’ve interviewed lots of people who say “When I go to the gym and I lift weights, I’m having the same embodied experiences I would have doing yoga.”

Matthew:

You said so much there. And one thing that I want to pick out is you used the word “bubble” and coming into a different community as you start going to the gym presents you with different world views and different attitudes towards the body. But it seems like the primary one or the primary shift would have been away from this notion that human being ssomehow have to go through crises in order to improve themselves. I’m wondering as a 16 year old or even younger and a little bit older, I’m wondering — I know you’re supposed to be interviewing me — but I’m wondering what, what it, it, uh, like what, what you end up having to, to break through about, you know, what you believe about yourself and the body in order to like take this very positive, “I’m going to build strength in these ways and I’m going to become an enjoyer of movement in these ways.” You know, you’re not, it doesn’t sound like you’re chasing crises anymore.

Kathryn:

Yeah, I mean I think at some point you realize that you don’t have to punish yourself with movement or anything to improve if you want to improve and you know, like you can be enjoying this whole thing. And I think that when I moved from like more of whatever yoga mentality to like going to the gym and doing different types of movements, I realized how much, building strength in the body I think does more than just build strength in the body. I think it develops confidence and gives people their power back as opposed to the other method that I had been involved in, which was like, kind of like breaking people down and taking their power away from them and then they will follow the leader more and more.

Matthew:

Well, you know, it’s, I, I’m so glad that you brought that up because one of the things that I did notice, you know, meeting you when you were 16 and then, you know, probably once a year or every couple of years after that up until up until recently, is that people develop and change and you know, there would have been a natural developmental arc to, to your life regardless of what you did. But you know, you became strong. You became — what I did, remember what I there, I remember there was some turning point where I thought, and I think maybe it was when we did that event at your mom’s house, uh, and you stood up and you said, “Look, yoga people, yoga movement is like this percentage.” You made like a little pinchy gesture with your fingers, “this percentage of the available movement on the spectrum of possible movement, uh, and we, let’s just get straight about that. It’s a very limited vocabulary, and we can do more things and the movement world is actually enormous.” And I remember you standing up and speaking in a voice that I hadn’t heard before and it really wasn’t the voice of “I’m going to do what other people tell me to do. I’m going to do somebody else’s sequence or I’m going to, you know, I’m, I’m going to submit or surrender to a healing crisis.” So when you say, when you say building strength also builds confidence, I could literally see that happen with you in a way. Or at least I had that impression.

Matthew:

And I think it’s a very powerful a story, especially given the gender demographics of Yoga, because, you know, with an 80 percent, women practicing population roughly globally, I think we really have to wonder whether like, repetitive, perhaps deconstructing and maybe, and maybe stress-building movements that exhaust us when we’re doing a low protein diets — I think we have to ask whether or not that contributes to the kind of empowerment that so many people say they want to get from Yoga. So yeah, that’s a fascinating transition. I don’t think that yoga, the Yoga postural vocabulary has been about strength building for the most part.

And going back into medieval history, it certainly wasn’t about becoming more functional. It wasn’t about becoming a better mover or being able to do your daily job better or taking care of your kids. It was about doing weird things, strange things with your body to experience eccentric sensations or perhaps esoteric sensations and, all of the metaphors around the movement we’re about, you know, I think you suggested it really not just breaking the body down, but pulling the body apart as though it contains something that needed to be released and you know, to move towards all of this strength training where we’re talking about pulling things towards the midline and creating, you know, central stability and, you know, being able to squat and do those wild pistol movements that you do, like all of that really shifts the conversation around what the body is for. And it’s super important and really, really interesting. And we’ve got to square it somehow with, with, well, “Are we still interested in yoga if we’re interested in all of these things?”

Kathryn:

So I know that you are a great researcher and I haven’t talked to anyone about this on the podcast yet. So I’m going to ask you, will you tell us a little bit about where this modern postural yoga comes from?

Matthew:

I think the brief story is that around the turn of the century, amongst a certain class of educated Indians who were also, anti colonialists, they were interested in fostering many aspects of culture and nation building that would contribute to an independence movement. And, you know, and some of those activities were outright revolutionary, but others were more about liberalizing education and, you know, modernizing institutions and introducing new public health practices. At a certain point, according to Mark Singleton, whose thesis is controversial, but I don’t think it’s really been challenged in any substantial way, in around the 1920s or 1930s, the influence of what was called physical culture as a practice of personal hygiene citizen empowerment to public health in various European nations began to make profound inroads influentially India, to the point where, you know, there were certain, you know, luminaries like the Rajah of Aundh, who, owned all of the books and the tools and the apparatuses of one of these famous bodybuilders whose name I forget who he was, a German guy. [Eugen Sandow is the name I was forgetting.] He was like one of the first sort of performance bodybuilders. And he would go on tours of India that were wildly successful.

And there was this interest amongst this class of relatively educated and somewhat westernized Indian reformers to find a kind of physical practice that could be said to be, indigenous, but also competitive or at least comparative with the physical culture movements that were coming out of Europe. And they began to turn towards a kind of cultural memory of what medieval Asana had been. Now, this is not to say that there weren’t awesome practitioners who were practicing run right up until the modern period, but they were doing in sadhu were communities that were generally apart from the mainstream population, and their physical practices were generally regarded as being weird or heterodox like — they were not practices for householders. They were about bodily experimentation and often they were associated with alchemy and magic.

And some key figures began to, I’m gonna, use the word “appropriate”, these older physical forms into this program of creating an indigenous and nationalized health practice that began to take shape as the group asana class. And there was a couple, there were a number of key figures in this. There was Sri Yogendra, a Swami Kuvalyananda, who began to research the effectiveness of postures from a biomedical slash public health perspective, but without a lot of, you know, good research tools. And then of course, the figure that is probably most important in all of this is Tirumalai Krishnamacharya who has a kind of mysterious background and biography prior to being hired by the Maharaja of Wodiyar or who of the richest men in the world at that point. His, I think his fortune, his personal fortune in modern terms is estimated at being at about 40 million dollars. He was so wealthy that when he went on tours like a diplomatic tours to Europe, he would take like entire orchestras of, you know, 50 musicians and dancers in order to accompany him. And he would like put his Rolls Royces onto his boats and stuff. He was amazing, a modernizer and philanthropist within Karnataka province. And he did all kinds of public works within Mysore. He did wonderful things like, you know, initiated public school for girls in the region. And he also at his palace, set up a pilot program for physical culture, projects that by which young boys, especially those who were financially disadvantaged or who were orphaned, could come and learn wrestling and weightlifting and gymnastics and also yoga.

So Krishnamacharya was hired to run the yoga room, but it was alongside these other disciplines, almost everybody that is responsible for why you and I are having a conversation right now, why your mother got into Yoga, why I got into Yoga, why there are yoga studios, almost everybody who is of any importance came through Krishnamacharya’s classroom from about 1934 through the early Forties. There is a little bit of controversy about when he actually ended. But, you know, these wouldn’t be Pattabhi Jois, BKS Iyengar, and a number of other lesser knowns. And then, and then he also taught Indra Devi, and I think that was in 1936 or so, and she went off from there after about three months of education and started yoga schools all over the world. Finally ending up in Hollywood would teaching people like Marilyn Monroe how to do shoulder stand.

The question that arises is, where did Krishnamacharya’s material come from? And the big debate is how much is old? How much is new? What was developed for the group class process? How much therapeutic knowledge did he have? You know, how much did he really connect his, practice of Asana with older and more well known philosophical traditions and practices within Indian wisdom culture? Those things are all sort of part of a raging debate now when people are looking back to the roots of the modern yoga movement to decide whether or not it has some bearing on the prior history of Yoga in India or some relationship to it. What I have focused on in my study is not about where the postures come from or their connection to the medieval period, but, I’d rather focused on the pedagogical methods that come to us from the Mysore Palace.

We know, unfortunately, from the accounts of Iyengar and Pattabhi Jois, that Krishnmacharya was, you know, not unlike or untypically of teachers of his generation, he was quite a disciplinarian and that he, like other teachers of his generation, liberally used corporal punishment while he was teaching the boys under his charge. And, you know, many historians have noted this, but nobody has really followed through on the implications of that, you know, BKS Iyengar and Pattabhi Jois , for example, learned how to do yoga, which we associate with openness and receptivity and softness and therapeutic value and, you know, becoming more loving and all of that — they learned their art within a very brutal environment, of both corporal punishment and an emotional abuse.

So my research pathway has been trained to try to trace how that particular dynamic becomes intergenerational. And is then correlated with some of the attitudes towards the body that show up when Diane asks her colleagues, you know, “What’s going on with my knee?” And they tell her, “You know, knee injury is just the way it goes. It’s not only for your spiritual benefit, but it’s also just part of the discipline. And if you’re going to be dedicated to this, then that’s what you’re going to go through.” So, that’s the arc that I’m tracing.

And then further beyond that, the next part of the story is how do people like your mom and you and, and Donna Farhi and Theo Wildcroft and Angela Farmer and you know, too many to name — Judith Lasater — how do they inherit tradition of authoritarianism and, you know, the glorification of bodily pain, and how do they overturn it? How do they turn it into something else? How do they inject it with their own values? How do they turn this thing that really used to be about mastering the body into, you know… what’s the primary value now in modern postural yoga? Trauma awareness, really. I would say strength building is one primary value. And then trauma awareness is the other. And these two values, you know, you’re a representative of one of them, if not the other, if not both. And these two values have emerged in response to this darker history. So that was a little bit long winded, but, but, that I hope that gives you your listeners a little bit of a doorway.

Kathryn:

Yeah. So I remember when you had your first, What Are We Doing in Asana things at the house. It was very much about injuries and I felt that when you interviewed us that’s what we’re really focusing on and now it seems like you’re focusing on like the bigger picture and the cult like behavior and the, you know, years of abuse that are finally coming out and like, why does that happen? Why were these people put on these pedestals? Why did nobody say anything? I’m so curious like how that natural progression started to happen.

Matthew:

Well, it wasn’t natural in the sense that people like your mom had to like, really give me a yank to swing me around. You know, you probably remember from that meeting — I just, I just told this story to J Brown as well — but, you know, we, at the gathering, there were 60 people there and our plan was to, you know, speak about injury in yoga practice and your mom opened was an account of, what a senior, Ashtanga teacher had told her about Pattabhi Jois assaulting students for years on end. And you know, you might remember that the room was absolutely silent. You could hear a pin drop. I was gripping the corners of my cushion, listening to her, because it wasn’t in the plan. And my thought was “This is really a rabbit hole that we’re going down here.”

And I think the discussion around safety with regard to Asana, is a relatively easy one to have, but this is a lot deeper. What I came to understand was that was that, you know, the injury question within modern yoga practice is really not as important as the power imbalance and the abuse question. People get injured doing all kinds of physical activities. They get injured because they’re unaware, they get injured because they’re addicted to sensation. They’re injured because they drive themselves forward out of a sense of inadequacy. That’s just across the board. It happens in an asana class and it happens in spinning class. But, but you know, when your mom tells me about this injury to her hip and she tells me about the betrayal she feels, with regard to the lack of advice that she got from her peers, you know, how she just didn’t feel supported and she wanted to try to change the practices in her business. But you know, the business actually wouldn’t let her. She was… there was such an anger driving this story and it really wasn’t the anger of, “Oh, I got injured while I was training.” It was an anger about something else. It was an anger, it felt like it was an anger about how she had been treated.

And that was a real big clue to me, is that, you know, in the online discussion that has surrounded the, the injury problem in Yoga, I think a lot of people would notice or resonate with the fact that it’s incredibly contentious and, and passionate. I mean, have you seen this? It’s like people are really, really like, charged about, about how their hamstring was injured in a particular class and, and they’re really upset about being told to do headstand, and then winding up with neck pain. And while these things are… Certainly they shouldn’t happen and, they feel unjust and our education should be improved, I started to understand that the feelings that were underneath the data were really about betrayal. They weren’t about, you know, normal and expectable injuries. They were about “Somebody was supposed to be taking care of me here and they weren’t.”

And the most obvious and loudest expression of that becomes clear when we encounter revelations around Pattabhi Jois, who is regarded as a Guru and yet he is sexually assaulting women in class on a regular basis. And because that story can’t be told because of silencing and rape culture and all of that, I started to understand that the passion that was driving the injury conversation was actually a way of expressing a deeper pain, a deeper pain that couldn’t yet been named. It couldn’t be out in the open. And the fact that it couldn’t be out in the open is just borne out by the fact that, that, you know, it took three years for me to find enough on-record testimonies and get consent from all of those people, all of those women to publish them. It was really, really hard.

And so I think the injury discussion is, masking something else. And transitioning over to looking at that directly, it was really difficult. Because I just didn’t want to, you know, I thought that I wasn’t, I wasn’t…

Okay, so in my history, I have been in two yoga-related cults and I really wanted to believe that the mainstream yoga culture that I was involved with, through people like your mom and, and, my teachers who were influenced by Iyengar, I wanted to believe that those mainstream yoga cultures were free of those influences and mechanisms and dynamics. And so I just didn’t. I was like, “I’ve been here twice before. I refuse to believe this is going on here.” That was one of my attitudes, the other attitude was, I just didn’t want to… I didn’t want to open such a mainstream can of worms. Like, you know, Ashtanga Yoga is so incredibly influential, worldwide.

I wanted to start the Walrus article with, the sentence, the first sentence was actually, you know, over 30 million people or approximately 30 million people in the United States alone practice a style of yoga that is inspired by Pattabhi Jois…. They changed it to millions of people because we couldn’t quite verify or they, they, they didn’t feel that my extrapolation of the numbers was accurate or could be substantiated. But the point is, it’s a hell of a lot of people.

Everybody who’s practicing Vinyasa, Flow, Power: this all goes back to that little room in Mysore. The clothes that are worn. It all goes back to that little room in Mysore. The notion that you are sweating intensely in contorted postures and, and, and having a blissful experience maybe or a painful experience that you can frame is blissful — all of that goes back to that little room in Mysore. And so when I started to really contemplate, “Oh, is this what you’re saying about this little room in Mysore? Is this what these people are describing? Is that really true?” I thought, “Oh, it’s too much to bear.” And so yeah, I just resisted going there for a long time. It did not come naturally.

Kathryn:

Yeah, I mean it definitely feels like a much bigger thing. It seems like to say that a style of movement is physically injuring people like is unfortunate, but it doesn’t seem like that big of a deal. But to say that, you know, the person who was responsible for this style of movement has actually been highly abusive to a number of his students, you know, that definitely casts a different light on the whole organization and I think that to tackle that, you know, you’re going to have a lot, a lot more people who are potentially going to support you and then potentially going to fight against you.

Matthew:

Oh totally. Yeah. And, and this is where on the most reactive pole of the response spectrum, there’s a claim: “Oh, that guy is out to destroy Ashtanga Yoga. And it’s a very interesting claim because on one hand it’s completely absurd. Like I, I have good friends who practice, I remember practicing with your mom and I know what people got out of it… I don’t personally choose to do movement practices that are injurious to me, but I don’t have a problem with people choosing to do that. People’s bodies are their bodies and if they really want to, you know, pursue this edge between between pleasure and pain and test themselves and explore extreme sensations, all the more power to them. Literally I am an advocate for freedom.

But on the other hand, on the other hand, if suddenly the method and the community that communicates that method is implicated in a cycle of abuse, and some very basic principles within that method, like the principle of an adjustment itself has now become muddied by the question of

“Why was he doing that? Was he doing that to help people or was he doing that to gain access to them? Was he doing that to abuse them? Was it a mixture of both? How can we tell that apart? Did he teach his students to adjust in the same way that he did? Have some of them gone on to become assaulters themselves? Is there a correlation between that?”

That opens a huge, huge problem and it becomes very, very difficult. I think for some devotees is to really ask this deeper question of: does Ashtanga yoga exist without the influence of this man?

And so when they say “You’re trying to destroy Ashtanga Yoga,” on one hand it’s like, “No, you do whatever you want. That’s absurd. Don’t give me that power. That’s totally grandiose as well. I couldn’t do that.” I’m trying to, I’m trying to question abuse.

But if you think that there’s something abusive wrapped up foundationally in your practice or method or community, yes, that’s a problem you’re going to have to face I think. And, I also… but I don’t say that flippantly. Like I also want to hear from people and platform people who are talking about how to do that. You know, how to take those elements out of the practice culture that they found really valuable and really, really elevate them in contexts of explicit consent and bodily empowerment. Um, and so yeah, it’s definitely charged and, and I think I could sense how problematic and inflammatory this would become a in those early moments listening to your mother speak that night. Uh, and I just wasn’t ready. So I edited that part of her talk out to my shame and, and you know as she might’ve told you, we’ve patched that up. I’ve apologized for that and you know, we’re good friends and you know, I hope I can be as supportive of her work as she has been with mine. But um, yeah, it’s opened up a huge set of questions.

Kathryn:

I think another thing that’s so interesting is I have told, obviously I’ve told many people over the course of my life that I’m a yoga teacher. I teach yoga and oftentimes, especially with people who like don’t know very much about yoga at all, I always get this question that follows, which is, well, “Did you train in India?” Almost to mean like, well you’re not really like the real deal yoga teacher unless you’ve trained in India. And I mean my mom had known about this abuse that was happening in Mysore like my entire life. And so as I was growing up as a young person, it never even occurred to me to go there. I was just like, ugh, “Why would I go do that after like what my mom has told me?”

And I think that, you know, obviously that information is not in the mainstream and maybe even if it was, I don’t really know what people would think, but it’s almost like as a yoga teacher, if you. And especially like as someone who was practicing Ashtanga Yoga and like teaching it a little bit. Like if you weren’t going to Mysore you weren’t really the real deal. But at the same time no one really understands why you’re choosing not to go to Mysore. And even if they, I mean, I’m sure lots of people knew about what was happening and still send their students there and, and still recommended that people go, you know, it seems like a little bit problematic.

Matthew:

I would say yeah, this is where we get into, I think, whether or not the language of cult analysis begins to apply because, you know, the senior students who are sending their students to Mysore, if they have knowledge of the abuse, then they are implicated in furthering it and enabling it. But then also, you know, we have to look at really carefully what was the social benefit of them doing that? Did that help them in their own, in their own communities? Did it further their connection to the Jois family? Did it mean that they were more apt to host the family when they came on tour? That sort of thing.

There’s a whole sort of network of potential social values in allowing that abuse to be silenced or to be kept silent. Um, so yeah, that, that becomes really complex, but you bring up this really interesting point of, well, you know, I didn’t want to go because it was obvious that wasn’t something that I wanted, But uh, I also couldn’t and say, well, Hey, I didn’t want to go. That’s a real mess. It’s a difficult position to be in.

Kathryn:

And I mean I felt like on the one hand, so my mom had known a couple people who had gone and had this really negative experience and come back and told her and then she told me. And to some extent you almost feel like if it didn’t happen to you or it didn’t happen to someone really close to you, like you heard it from them, then it’s like, “Well, is this really happening? But I’m pretty sure it is.” But at the same time there is this feeling of like, you don’t want to be the one to say something in the event that is not true. It’s, it’s just this like, I mean, it’s further perpetuating the whole thing and further protecting the whole organization where like, something is wrong. You have this gut feeling that something is wrong and still you don’t want to say anything.

Matthew:

Right? So, so here’s where the statistics on false reporting become really, I think important and there’s a little bit of data around it, but, you know, the best numbers I think that are accepted right now or somewhere between only four and eight percent of claims of sexual assault and rape are false. So you know, the gut feeling is, is usually right, especially if there is news, especially if there is stuff coming through the whisper network.

But this problem of “I didn’t hear it directly” is something that I heard from senior students all the way through this research, all the way through preparing this article. You know: “I did hear about that, but I didn’t have direct knowledge of it. I didn’t see it directly. I didn’t…” And I think there’s a lot of things going on there. There’s the person who is saying that is appealing to a kind of sense of epistemological honesty. Like, “Because I didn’t see it directly, I can’t say that it’s true, so I’m not gonna say anything,”

But they would do that in relation to the video of adjustments, right? They’ll see it, they’ll see it happen and then they’ll say, “Well, I don’t know what those practitioners would say about it.” Or “I don’t know what, you know, they’re obviously advanced students and they probably have, you know, a good longterm understanding with Guruji about how they’re going to be touched and so on. And you know, it looks like he’s touching men and women in the same way. And so I really can’t. I’m really not in a position to judge.”

Well that, that unwillingness to be in a position to judge, as you say, it reinforces or encourages, it continues to enable the behavior and it’s based upon one primary unwillingness, which is: Why does nobody reached out to the victims to ask them what happened? Like how long does that video have to be out in the world before somebody tries to track down one of the women in it? How long does Anneke Lucas’s blog posts have to be up about being assaulted by Jois in New York City in 2000 before somebody reaches out and asks her, “Can you tell me a little bit more about that?”

How many, you know — you actually have to go out and do the work in order to really say that you have investigated it. It’s not good enough to sit back and say, “Well, I heard this thing but I can’t verify it.” You know, if false reporting is between four and eight percent, the real, the, the ethical response is: “Well, I heard this thing and I went out to try to find out if it was true.” That second part takes a lot of guts. It takes a lot of resolve because what it ends up doing is it ends up automatically isolating you from the group because nobody else is doing that, for one.

But also as soon as you go out and you start looking for the victim’s voice, and you start listening to it, you’re going to get a completely different picture of the community that you belong to. And that might be very fearful. It might overturn a whole bunch of things that you have, you know, thought about it or you’ve assumed about it. You may not want to find out. And this is where my friend, Theo Wildcroft’s notion of contagion is really important, I think is that, is that the closer you get to listening to somebody like Karen Rain, the more questions you have to ask about what you were involved with, the more you will feel that her experience will almost infect your own and cause you to ask questions about what you’re actually doing. So yeah, it’s, it’s hard to make that leap from “Ah! I can’t really tell,” to: “Yeah, I’m going to find out. ”

Kathryn:

And I think that it’s just, it’s also showing us how kind of backwards we have been about assault in general. Like even as a teenager hearing those stories. My first response was like, “Well, I’m not sure if it actually happened.” As opposed to like, “Why don’t we just believe the people who say it happened?” Like that needs to turn over because if you say that false reporting is between four and eight percent, like that’s a huge percentage of accurate reporting. And why are we not just jumping to the conclusion that of course this person is telling the truth. And of course this, this is actually happening.

Matthew:

Can I ask you a question about this though because I think your listeners and everybody would really benefit from hearing more about that moment when you hear it from your mom, and she’s telling you who I assume because you know, there’s many, there’s many things that she’s telling you…

She is being protective. She is telling you about, the less radiant and positive nature, the industry that she has brought you into and, and that you’re part of. But when you have the response that “I’m not really sure if it happened.” I’m wondering what was at stake for you in that? Because I imagine if you, if you had just believed her, wouldn’t you have had to have had a whole different conversation with her about how you were going to proceed in relation to Ashtanga?

Kathryn:

Yeah. So I think there’s a couple of things. I think that on the one hand I did believe her because I then always had this idea of like, “Oh, why would I go there if this thing is happening?” Like even just the potential that this is what the environment is like there. I’m not going to go. I think on the one hand I did believe her. And then on the other hand, I mean, oh my goodness, I think now it feels like, “Well if you knew that this was happening, like why are we all still toeing the party line? Why on the website does it say that we’re practicing this thing that was taught by this guy who’s like doing things that are, that are not really cool?”

But at the same time it’s like, I don’t know, I’m not really much of a historian or a researcher, but I feel like to some extent most of our civilization and culture is built upon mass systems of oppression and abuse. And so are we going to abandon the whole thing? Like it widened so much further. I’m like, “Okay, so this thing is happening with a stronger yoga. Are we going to abandon it because this has been happening. And then if we abandon that then it’s like everything…”

Matthew:

Right? I think you’re saying something so like really concise and, and precious about the moment of disillusionment where… and I get, I encounter this response a lot like you know, “Let’s make sure that we don’t throw out the baby with the bathwater. What would we have left? Are you trying to destroy Ashtanga Yoga?” And, and I would say that I would say that like as an emotional response, that is like a really necessary, a healthy and normal response to the problem, the problem being: “Oh, I have been involved with something that has caused harm to others and possibly to myself but I’m also deeply enmeshed in it and it’s part of my livelihood and my entire social life revolves around it. How am I going to extract myself from it without feeling totally amputated or without dying in a way?”

I think everybody goes through that. I think everybody goes through that. And that’s why I think, I think the language of cult analysis is really crucial too, because everybody who’s part of a high demand group, if they are heading towards the door, if they are beginning to exit it, they’re going to feel groundless. They’re going to feel like they have nothing left to them. Um, and this is why I really liked the work of Alexandra Stein who says that the most successful transition from within a high demand group to outside of it is really facilitated by other relationships. So, you know, you kind of hinted at it a little bit in your story about how you went from practicing yoga six days a week to starting to hang out at the gym and talking to other people who had different ideas about the body.

And so it’s not like the baby went out with the bathwater. The baby started swimming in a new bath, right? Like you were finding value in a Ashtanga Yoga. And then there were these, you know, dysfunctional or toxic elements to it and you moved into a different set of relationships and self perceptions and maybe you took some of the yoga with you and maybe you left something behind. But, but that, that immediate, “Oh my God, what’s going to happen now?” is just going to be. It’s going to be a moment in time that people just go through and hopefully they will be able to see that with transparency, with self study, with outside sources of support, with different tools. They will… their lives will continue. They will probably reorient themselves towards Ashtanga yoga in some way. If they want to create a really safe environment, they’ll get really specific about that if they also want to keep an association with a Ashtanga Yoga.

So there’s a lot of teachers right now like Sarai Harvey-Smith and, and Greg Nardi and Jean Byrne who are kind of revisioning Ashtanga Yoga with consent cards and with, you know, switching up the sequences and with all kinds of ideas of student empowerment. But they have retained something. It’s like, it’s like they have taken the, the whatever they found most valuable from the practice, the intensity, the breath, the notion of sequencing, the silence, the drishti, all of those things that they loved and which — I understand that love — and they have, and they have lifted them up out of this other context in which all of those things actually functioned as grooming mechanisms for abuse.

You know, because the bodily intensity, um, you know, can break down people’s resistance to critical thinking. The drishti can make people not look around and the rest of the room and see what the guru is doing to other people. The Ujjayi breathing can be, can put you into a trance state in which you don’t really register the pain that you’re experiencing in a reasonable way. And so all of those are really precious aspects of Ashtanga Yoga can be reframed towards empowerment.

But it takes transparency. It takes you, you know, I don’t think you get there without looking directly at, “Oh, you know, there was a real problem here.” And, and, and then really negotiating what you loved about it anyway. And maybe having a little bit of faith that those things can be lifted up and out and, and shared with others without the abuse.

Kathryn:

And so where do you see the Ashtanga culture moving from here? So I, you know, I never went to Mysore. I was practicing with Ashtanga teachers in Canada and the United States and those teachers I was working with like were exceptional. And to my knowledge there was no abuse going on and it was always very positive learning experience. And so I think that just because someone is an Ashtanga teacher doesn’t necessarily mean they’re, you know, practicing in community in a negative way. And where do you think it’s going from here?

Matthew:

Yeah. So, so this where in the book that’s emerging out of this article, I want to finish with, I want to platform the voices of leaders within the community who have responded to these revelations in the most progressive and productive way. But I can see I’m going to miss some of course, but, uh, you know, I’ve named a few already. Um, I really think that….

Okay. One problem with using the language of cult analysis is that a people hear it and then they believe that, somehow there’s a hard line between being in and out it’s not really like that. It’s more like there’s a, there’s a very vibrant and magnetic and radiant center to the organization and then there are layers of association that move outwards in kind of like you know, an onion-type fashion and the people who were on the outermost layers — and I would say that that’s where you were actually, you know, it’s like your association was not to the center. It wasn’t too, you know, you didn’t look to the Jois family for your validation. You probably got maybe one or two layers closer to the center when you go to, you know, Richard Freeman and study with him or he comes to Toronto and whoever else that you studied with. You might’ve encountered other practitioners that were closer in towards the center. But you probably stayed on the outside of it.

And on that outside, we really have, you know, the probably the highest amount of benefit that the culture and the teaching offers to people, you know. People don’t necessarily have to engage with the toxic social dynamics that are pulling people in towards the center.

But the thing is, is that in a way, even Downward Dog as a yoga studio functioned as what, you know, a number of theorists would call a front organization for the center, in the sense that people would learn the method, they would hear about Pattabhi Jois. They might get fascinated by learning more, and they might be motivated to go to Mysore.

There’s a way in which being on that outside layer is not entirely benign, but it’s also where people can either plunge further in or they can just stay where they are. And I would say that, the really positive future of Ashtanga Yoga will be comprised of people who were on the outer layer and who learned the techniques and didn’t really have to engage in the toxic social dynamics. And also there will be leadership from people who are close to the center who made their way out and who say, “No, this is not what was valuable about the practice, the devotional aspect, the, the hierarchy, the dominance — that was not what I was actually wanting for my life. But I really do love the postures and the sensations of the breath work. AndI’m going to try to make something creative out of that.”

And I think that’s already happening. The Ashtanga world is decentralized enough that there are people who are already doing that work. You know, I just spoke with Matthew Sweeney, and, you know, he’s kind of been on that outer layer for the last 15 years and he’s cast a critical eye towards the center. And when I asked him, you know, “So what, what are the essential things that you value about this method that have nothing to do with these toxic dynamics that are being revealed right now?” He talks about those, those somatic tools, breath and movement together as some sort of modulation between intensity and ease, some sort of connection towards the Yamas and Niyamas, developing a focal point, the value of, of regular concentration practice, I mean, pretty basic stuff that really does not rely upon a kind of fealty to a set of commitments to the center of the organization.

And so in a way, you know, you asked where do you think it’s going to go? I think it’s already, it’s already gone. It’s already gone. And I think they will, the voices that express independence, and, but also love for the techniques, I think they will continue to develop the future of the community. I think a good reference here would be the work of my friend Norman Blair in London who published a wonderful essay that maybe we can maybe we can link for your readers.

Kathryn:

What’s the essay called?

Matthew:

Oh, it’s called “Ashtanga Yoga Stories.” Cool. Yeah. Uh, the subtitle is “delights, insights and difficulties.”

Kathryn:

Great. We will link to that in the show notes for sure along with all of the other resources and people who you mentioned. This has been such a pleasure. Matthew. Thank you so much for doing this with me.

Kathryn:

Yeah, thank you Kathryn and I’m so happy to talk to you. It feels like some kind of circle is being completed. I mean we, you know, we met what, 12 years ago and, and, and, and there’s, there’s so much that we’ve shared on sort of parallel tracks. It’s really good to meet this way.

Kathryn:

So for anyone who wants to get in touch with you or see some of the work that you’ve done, how can they do that?

Kathryn:

Just my web site is my name, Matthew Remski .com. And people can also find me on Facebook and I’m, I’m happy to take any questions and, and respond to any emails I try to get back to everybody.

Kathryn:

Awesome. All right everyone. Thanks again for tuning in and as usual, if you want to get in touch with me, you can do that on my website, which is Kathryn Bruni, Young .com, or on social media. Under my name. Thanks for listening. Everyone.

 

Shambhala Investigator Tells Sakyong Accusers Not to Talk to Anyone

The outgoing “Kalapa Council” — the Board of Directors for Shambhala International — sent out a newsletter on Saturday. The newsletter was meant to clarify the role played by the Halifax legal firm, Wickwire Holm, in an internal investigation of possible sexual misconduct within Shambhala’s leadership, including the allegations against the spiritual leader of the organization, Ösel Mukpo.

The Shambhala investigation doubles up on the third-party investigative work of The Buddhist Project Sunshine, which has ignited a firestorm of controversy throughout the organization. Shambhala International has not denied any of the findings of the BPS, although a key leader has tried to discredit the motivations of the investigators, claiming they are staging an “attack upon the Mukpo family”. Continue reading “Shambhala Investigator Tells Sakyong Accusers Not to Talk to Anyone”

Judith Simmer-Brown to Distraught Shambhala Members: “Practice More.” (Notes and Transcript)

Judith Simmer-Brown to Distraught Shambhala Members: "Practice More." (Notes and Transcript)

On Saturday, August 4th, senior Shambhala International teacher Judith Simmer-Brown gave a talk in Boulder as part of a series called “Conversations That Matter”. The title was “Caring for Community,” and it was structured around a set of slogans called “The Four Reliances”, which are meant to help Buddhist practitioners separate out mundane and spiritual concerns.

In this context, the slogans were offered to help Shambhala practitioners in particular renew their commitment to the group’s ideas and practices, in the midst of continuing revelations of abuse within the group itself. They advise the practitioner to see immediate and obvious circumstances — and their interpretation of those circumstances — as ephemeral (or at best instrumental to a higher purpose) and to develop a depersonalized, non-judgmental, and non-verbal devotion to the group’s content.

The “Four Reliances”, featured in several Buddhist texts dating back to the first century CE, are:

  1. Do not rely on the personality or individuality of the teacher. Rely on the Dharma teachings themselves.
  2. Do not rely on the literal words. Rely on the meaning of the teachings.
  3. Do not rely on merely provisional teachings. Rely on the definitive or ultimate teachings.
  4. Do not rely on conceptual mind. Rely on the nondual wisdom of experience.

The presentation series is hosted by the group’s flagship Center, founded in 1970 by Chögyam Trungpa. Simmer-Brown’s talk was livestreamed for members of the public who registered via the Zoom platform. I registered under my own name, and recorded the event. No copyright notice or privacy request was posted.

Appropriating a popular concept from trauma-recovery discourse, Simmer-Brown explained that her talk would offer “foundational things that we need to know in order to be resilient practitioners.” In the Q&A that followed, she suggested that such resilience could be nurtured by the activities of the very group that had caused the trauma. “Our confusion and pain,” she told one questioner,” might drive us more deeply into practice.”

The appeal from group leaders to double down on group practice in the face of group abuse is a common theme in the crisis responses of yoga and dharma organizations. When the news of Pattabhi Jois’s decades of sexual assaults on his women students began to go mainstream, a common insider response was to repeat Jois’s most famous aphorism: “Practice, and all is coming.”

As the Shambhala foundations shake, many devotees are likewise relying on beloved sayings of Trungpa, such as: “The essence of warriorship, or the essence of human bravery, is refusing to give up on anyone or anything.” (Shambhala: The Sacred Path of the Warrior, 2009, p. 17). A similar theme grounds the recent remarks of Susan Piver, as well as Pema Chödron’s 1993 and 2011 responses to Trungpa’s own abuses. Continue reading “Judith Simmer-Brown to Distraught Shambhala Members: “Practice More.” (Notes and Transcript)”

Shrine of Devotion, Betrayal, or Indoctrination? An Internal Shambhala Email, Annotated

A source forwarded the following email, sent by a Shambhala leader to volunteers and residents at Vermont’s Karmê Chöling, the Buddhist retreat centre founded by the organization’s “root teacher”, Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, in 1970.

The email follows up on a group meeting of volunteers and residents to discuss whether the portrait of Ösel Mukpo, now accused of forced confinement and sexual assault, should be covered or taken down from the altar in the staff shrine room. The letter indicates the same questions are being asked about the photographs of Trungpa.

Core teaching content is delivered in Shambhala shrine rooms, as well as group liturgies, ceremonies, and empowerments. These events often involve generating deep feelings of love and devotion towards group leaders, and the teaching content. At this moment, shrine rooms throughout the organization are surely fraught spaces for many members, who may suddenly feel they are sites of personal and institutional betrayal.

What is at stake in this discussion is whether those who have been sexually assaulted (statistically one in four women who enter that room), along with those who bear other traumas, will be asked to meditate in a space presided over by the image of a credibly accused assaulter. Because the staff shrine room altar is the focus, this is also a workplace issue.

I’m posting it below with a few brief notes in red because I think it might be useful for members to track in real time how cognitive dissonance emerges and is managed by power structures at crisis moments in yoga and Buddhist communities. I believe if members can be supported in seeing this clearly, recovery time will be hastened. Continue reading “Shrine of Devotion, Betrayal, or Indoctrination? An Internal Shambhala Email, Annotated”