Une ex-disciple du swami Vishnudevananda révèle une décennie de mauvais traitements, faisant éclater une crise encore en développement au sein de yoga Sivananda.
Publié pour la première fois sur GEN par Medium.com, le 27 janvier 2020
Traduit par Nahida Alam
Si vous souhaitez soutenir le coût de cette traduction – et éventuellement des traductions dans d’autres langues – veuillez envisager de faire un petit don ici.
La photo ci-dessus est une gracieuseté de Julie Salter. Elle montre Salter dans les années 1980, lorsqu’elle travaillait comme assistante personnelle de Kuttan Nair, également connu sous le nom de Swami Vishnudevananda.
Tôt le 10 décembre 2019, dans son sombre et modeste appartement de briques rouges, Julie Salter, 63 ans, s’est assise à un bureau spartiate devant un écran bleu rayonnant. La boîte de dialogue affichait neuf paragraphes qui ont mijoté plus de deux décennies depuis qu’elle a quitté sa position au sein des centres de yoga Sivananda – un réseau global d’ashrams et de centres de yoga autrefois enraciné dans l’évangélisme yoga hippie, mais maintenant célèbre pour le tourisme du yoga et la formation professionnelle. À 5 h 15 du matin, elle a cliqué « publier » sur un témoignage d’abus sexuel et psychologique commis par le fondateur du groupe reconnu comme un saint.
« Avec toutes les éloges sur la biographie autour de Swami Vishnudevananda et de son héritage », écrit-elle, « avec tous les vœux nostalgiques, les croyances, les projections, et en pensant au “bon” qui a été fait, faisons aussi face, au moins, un peu aux faits restés dans l’ombre… ». Salter affirme que ces 11 années manque de sommeil et de surmenage pendant lesquelles elle a été l’assistante personnelle de Vishnudevananda, jusqu’à sa mort en 1993, et l’ont rendue malade et dépendante. Elle a dévoilé que le guru prétendument célibataire avait «abusée » sexuellement d’elle pendant trois de ces années – et cette honte, ce secret, cette peur et son sens du devoir lorsqu’il est devenu gravement malade l’ont gardée à son service jusqu’à ce qu’elle « soit trop brisée pour même savoir comment partir ».
Alors que la publication de Salter est devenue virale dans les heures qui ont suivi, elle a joint la plus grande vague de l’activisme #MeToo dans le monde du yoga qui a éclaté à l’automne de 2017, lorsque Karen Rain a dévoilé que le défunt fondateur du yoga Ashtanga, Pattabhi Jois, l’a souvent agressée sous le prétexte de faire des « ajustements ». (Rain a raconté son expérience pour Medium l’année suivante, et 16 femmes ont maintenant témoigné à titre de survivantes de Jois). En 2019, Manouso Manos, un enseignant chevronné dans le monde américain de Iyengar, a été sanctionné par l’organisation professionnelle de sa communauté après qu’une enquête ait prouvé qu’il avait agressé sexuellement des étudiantes pendant des décennies. Un mandat d’arrêt pour le pionnier du « hot yoga », Bikram Choudhury, a été lancé il y a plus de deux ans pour ne pas avoir payé un montant 7 millions suite à un jugement contre lui pour harcèlement sexuel et congédiement injustifié de sa directrice d’entreprise.
Les amis et collègues de Salter de partout dans le monde ont rejoint plusieurs discussions Facebook pour rappeler son service infatigable et non rémunéré au sein des centres de yoga Sivananda, et exprimer à la fois leur peine face à son histoire et leur soulagement qu’elle ait finalement été capable de la raconter. Puis, d’autres femmes ont publié des témoignages à propos de Vishnudevananda.
Lucille Campbell, 65 ans, a commenté la discussion en écrivant qu’elle avec eu des « relations sexuelles » avec Vishnudevananda dans les années 1970, et qu’elle connaissait plusieurs autres femmes à qui s’est également arrivé.
Pamela Kyssa, 62 ans, a écrit dans la discussion que le guru l’a violée en 1979 dans une retraite au château de Windsor, en banlieue de Londres. Elle était allongée sur le plancher de la chambre de Vishnudevananda après qu’ils aient pratiqué des positions de yoga ensemble, puis il s’est « placé au-dessus de moi de façon inattendue, a baissé mon pantalons de yoga, » a-t-elle écrit. « Cette sensation d’être hors de votre corps, lorsque vous êtes ramené à la réalité par le son du réveille-matin… c’est ce que j’ai ressenti… hors de mon corps, le réintégrant avec lui au-dessus de moi ».
Né Kuttan Nair dans l’Inde rurale en 1927, Vishnudevananda a été un catalyseur du boom mondial du yoga dans les années 1960s, propulsé par des célébrités. Il a rencontré les Beatles avant qu’ils ne rencontrent le Maharishi. Il a donné des conseils de respiration yogique à Mohammed Ali avant l’un de ses combats contre Frazier. Il a écrit un manuel de yoga best-seller et a parcouru l’Europe et les Amériques, accumulant les disciples et les dons pour la douzaine (et plus) de centres de retraite et de méditation qui ont été établis sur son parcours — de Montréal à Madrid, de Munich à Montevideo. En 1971, il a été surnommé « Le swami volant » après avoir piloté un Piper Apache peint avec des couleurs psychédéliques de Boston à l’Irlande, dans une quête pour résoudre les troubles d’Irlande du Nord. Son plan était de « bombarder » l’hôtel de ville de Belfast avec des pamphlets. Il a cueilli Peter Sellers à Dublin pour l’étape finale. Puis, il a volé pour répandre des pétales de fleurs au-dessus de la ligne de front de la troisième guerre indo-pakistanaise. En 1983, il a volé avec un ultra-léger au-dessus du mur de Berlin. Il a voyagé avec un « Passeport de la planète Terre », fait par lui-même : date de naissance : « immortel », yeux : « intuitifs ».
Altruistes ou non, les coups de publicité de Nair et ses occasions de photos auraient pu être considérés comme grossiers si ce n’était sa célébrité. Retournons en 1949, dans l’ancienne oasis de Rishikesh où Nair a été initié à titre de moine et obtenu son nom religieux du swami Sivananda, un héros charismatique du mouvement moderne du yoga indien. Nair est rapidement devenu le directeur de toutes les classes de postures de yoga de Sivananda et, en 1957, il s’est aventuré vers l’ouest, armé de sa propre version mémorisable des enseignements de son maître : « La santé est la richesse, la paix d’esprit est le bonheur, le yoga montre le chemin ! ».
Le message de bien-être de Nair a attiré des enthousiastes vers quelque chose qui semblait plus holistique et traditionnel que la gymnastique spirituelle qui fusionnera éventuellement avec l’aérobic et la culture de la gymnastique pour dominer le marché du yoga. Il a résumé les énoncés religieux de Sivananda en « Cinq points du yoga » : un ensemble complet d’exercices « appropriés », de respiration, de relaxation, de régime alimentaire (strictement végétarien) et de pensée positive. Nair a aussi renforcé son authenticité en imposant de vieilles règles monastiques dans ses nouveaux centres cosmopolites. Tous les résidents devaient suivre un horaire strict de dévotion et de « karma-yoga », une forme de travail non rémunéré devant mener à un état d’altruisme.
Nair semblait particulièrement fidèle à la célèbre obsession de Sivananda pour la vertu spirituelle de rejet du sexe. « Le célibat complet », insistait son guru dans un livre dédié sur le sujet en 1934, « est la clé maîtresse pour accéder aux royaumes de la béatitude élyséenne ». De la même façon, les débutants dans les ashrams de Nair devaient s’engager à l’abstinence. Ceux qui sont restés ont fait ce sacrifice pour la vie, scellé par une initiation rituelle et un nom spirituel. Nair est même allé jusqu’à purifier l’histoire du yoga, censurant sa traduction d’un célèbre texte médiéval sur le yoga afin que ses pratiques sexuelles ésotériques demeurent secrètes.
Les cercles autour de Salter, Kyssa, et Campbell ont évolué depuis leur époque des lignes de téléphone fixes et du courrier postal. Maintenant, en témoignant sur Facebook, elles sont visibles ensembles instantanément. Elles sont soudainement reconnectées par un média dans la désillusion d’une nouvelle génération.
En quelques heures seulement, leurs publications ont attiré deux autres témoignages de femmes dans leurs trentaines, accusant l’un des étudiants avancés de Nair de harcèlement sexuel et d’agression. Thamatam Reddy, 53 ans, connu dans les centres de yoga Sivananda comme « Prahlad ». Il voyage à travers le monde et dirige la formation des enseignants de l’organisation, qui coûte environ 3 000 $ par personne. En racontant leurs expériences durant des interviews, les deux femmes décrivent Reddy les harcelant pendant qu’elles travaillaient gratuitement dans les ashrams Sivananda.
Un courriel envoyé par Communications Avenue, une firme de relations publiques de Montréal représentant le conseil d’administration de Sivananda (constitué de dévots de Nair, incluant Reddy) a reconnu avoir reçu des témoignages en 2011 et 2017, similaires à ceux publiés à propos de Reddy.
« Nous désirons préciser que nous avons des politiques et des procédures bien établies pour traiter les allégations de mauvaise conduite », dit le courriel, donnant le lien vers une page de politique. Alors que le conseil d’administration de Sivananda a dit dans un nouveau courriel qu’il a commencé à créer un politique d’anti-harcèlement dans les années 2000, une recherche dans les archives Web semble démontrer que le texte relié à la mauvaise conduite sexuelle ne fut publié qu’en 2019.
« En ce qui a trait aux allégations faites par Julie Salter sur Facebook », dit le communiqué, « nous espérons être en mesure de nommer sous peu un enquêteur indépendant ».
Six semaines après la publication de Salter, le conseil d’administration a annoncé avoir engagé l’avocate montréalaise Marianna Plamondon pour « enquêter sur les allégations faites par Julie Salter et deux autres plaignantes ». Contactée par téléphone à Montréal, Plamondon a confirmé avoir reçu des questions par courriel à propos de l’étendue de l’enquête, à savoir si ses conclusions seraient rendues publiques, et pourquoi les membres de Sivananda avec des plaintes contre l’organisation voudraient parler avec une avocate engagée par l’organisation. Plamondon a refusé de répondre durant l’appel. Dans un courriel de suivi, elle a écrit « Je ne ferai aucun commentaire à une tierce partie que ce soit sur le mandat que j’ai reçu ou sur le progrès de l’enquête ». L’enquête, écrit-elle, est limitée aux « allégations qui ont été faites par trois plaignantes à propos de swami Vishnudevananda ».
Le conseil d’administration n’a pas contacté Salter, ni Kyssa, ni Campbell à propos de l’enquête proposée. La dernière fois que Salter fut contactée fut en 2007, lorsqu’elle a reçu une lettre la menaçant d’une poursuite en diffamation.
Lucille Campbell a rejoint la communauté en 1971, à l’âge de 17 ans, trois ans après la mort de son père, durant une période où elle se sentait « toute seule dans sa vie », comme elle l’a déclaré dans une entretien. En 1974, elle était devenue la directrice du centre Sivananda de Vancouver. Cet été-là, le centre a organisé une retraite dans la campagne. Un jour, dit Campbell, elle a ouvert la porte du chalet de Nair et l’a vu en train d’avoir une relation sexuelle avec une personne membre du personnel.
« J’ai fermé la porte », dit-elle. « J’étais totalement figée. J’avais 21 ans. J’étais encore très jeune. Puis, durant la méditation il m’a dit combien j’étais douée et tout. Je me suis figée, je n’ai jamais parlé de cela à personne ».
Peu après, Campbell a prononcé le vœu de renonciation et de célibat pour devenir un swami. Elle méditait et pratiquait le yoga deux fois par jour, faisant des exercices de respirations profondes, et travaillait gratuitement.
« Ma méditation était très centrée sur Swamiji parce qu’il est le guru et que les écritures disent que le guru est Dieu. Mais j’ai alors eu une étrange expérience de lumière que je ne comprenais pas. Et Swamiji a réalisé que je l’avais eue aussi, parce qu’après la classe il m’a dit que j’étais une étudiante avancée ». Campbell a dit que le compliment l’a encouragée à attribuer la lumière brillante à Nair. « J’ai pensé qu’elle avait été transférée depuis le guru ».
« Alors, j’ai naïvement été lui donner un massage. Je n’ai jamais été forcée, mais tout à coup, c’est devenu du sexe oral. Le fait qu’il n’ait pas éjaculé m’a déroutée. J’ai pensé qu’il ne le faisait que pour faire monter sa kundalini (un terme de yoga désignant une forme d’énergie spirituelle mystique). C’était peut-être un type de yoga tantrique ou quelque chose ».
Rien de cela ne fut discuté ouvertement, dit Campbell, mais ses lectures de l’époque l’avaient exposée à une vieille idée d’alchimie : que le yogi mâle qui était impliqué dans une activité sexuelle, mais « demeurait abstinent » pouvait d’une certaine façon sublimer la puissance de reproduction en une extase spirituelle, menant à sa « renaissance ».
La deuxième fois que Nair lui a demandé des faveurs sexuelles, la réponse de Campbell portait l’écho de ses méditations antérieures. Elle a quitté la chambre enveloppée d’une grande aura. « J’avais l’impression de marcher dans la lumière ».
Puis, Nair a demandé du sexe pour une troisième fois. Campbell savait que c’était mal et elle a refusé. En 1975, dit Campbell, trois femmes l’ont approché pour mentionner des incidents sexuels avec Nair. Deux des femmes, dit-elle, avaient prononcé des vœux de célibat. Elle dit qu’une de ces deux femmes a décrit son implication dans des activités sexuelles de groupe avec Nair, disant que c’était « amusant ». La troisième femme était alors mariée et elle a quitté l’organisation immédiatement après que le guru lui ait fait des avances. Campbell se rappelle le nom spirituel des deux femmes, mais ne voulait pas dévoiler leurs noms ou identités pour respecter leur vie privée.
« Il y a un point où il y a un dégoût extrême, » dit Campbell, « cela m’a pris un certain temps avant de partir, mais je suis partie ».
Campbell enseigne toujours le yoga à Montréal, mais est allergique à la mystification qui a donné à Nair autant de pouvoir. « Les hormones et les neurotransmetteurs », dit-elle, lorsqu’on lui a demandé comment elle comprenait maintenant l’aura et la lumière qu’elle a ressentie en sa présence. « On ne comprend pas tous les effets des émotions sur le cerveau ».
Avec des histoires comme celles de Salter et de Campbell dissimulées dans l’ombre, l’organisation de Nair a projeté pendant des décennies l’image d’une marque fantastique par son réseau de centres de méditation et d’ashrams qui offrent des vacances de yoga. À la Yoga Farm de Grass Valley, Californie, les visiteurs peuvent marcher dans le « Labyrinthe du miracle de la paix » ou passer la journée au spa, badigeonnés d’huile pour un massage ayurvédique. Le complexe des Bahamas sur l’île Paradise est un centre pour les vedettes en tournée et les ashrams d’Inde produisent cohorte après cohorte de diplômés avec le très lucratif cours de formation des professeurs de yoga (plus de 45 000 diplômés depuis 1969). Le portrait béatique de Nair, souvent plus large que nature, a toujours dominé l’espace des temples partout dans le monde, et les brochures distribuées au personnel, aux invités et aux étudiants citent des prières invoquant son nom.
Mais cela n’a pas toujours été facile pour l’image publique de Nair. Dès le début de sa mission, des fissures ont commencé à être publiquement visibles dans la sainteté, le collectivisme et la renonciation aux plaisirs matériels. En 1971, des adeptes ont emmené Nair en justice contestant ses plans d’hypothéquer le centre de l’organisation au cœur de Manhattan pour payer des améliorations à son avion privé. Une lettre mise en preuve dans le cas de la Cour suprême de New York montre que ses adeptes l’ont accusé d’abus sexuel sur une étudiante nommée Irene. La cour a rejeté la plainte.
« Cette sensation d’être hors de votre corps, lorsque vous êtes ramené à la réalité par le son du réveille-matin… c’est ce que j’ai ressenti… hors de mon corps, le réintégrant avec lui au-dessus de moi. »
En 1974, la journaliste canadienne Marci McDonald a visité le quartier général de Nair dans les Laurentides pour rédiger un profil. Son titre cinglant faisait écho à la phrase célèbre de F. Scott Fitzgerald à propos des riches — « Swami Vishnudevananda Is Not Like You and Me » (« Swami Vishnudevananda n’est pas comme vous et moi ») — et son texte a détaillé une scène d’hypocrisie spirituelle et d’obéissance psychologique. On voit Nair essayant de grandiosement montrer une posture d’équilibre précaire sur un bras, pour simplement tomber, n’étant évidemment pas en assez bonne condition physique. Nous admirons les voitures de luxe à sa disposition, nous l’entendons déclarer qu’il est trop éclairé pour être attaché aux richesses et nous rencontrons Gopi et Shyamala, deux jeunes assistantes, méfiantes et épuisées, accourant pour essuyer le lait renversé de son gobelet.
McDonald termine son article avec une scène de sa dernière soirée à l’ashram. Sur le chemin de retour vers le dortoir, elle rencontre une femme, trébuchant, pieds-nus sous la pluie. Dans ses pleurs, elle a crié « Swamiji, comment avez-vous pu ? » McDonald réalise qu’il s’agit de Gopi. « Découverte, elle devient soudainement silencieuse, je prends ma couverture pour la protéger. », dit McDonald, « Elle reste là, blottie sous un arbre, seule sous la pluie ».
Jointe par téléphone le mois dernier, McDonald s’est rappelée ce moment effrayant. « Tout dans mon esprit suggérait un abus sexuel », dit-elle. En se rappelant Gopi, qui est morte depuis, elle nota, « j’ai tout fait sauf dire à voix haute que je suspectais qu’il avait abusé de cette jeune femme ».
Mais ce n’était pas l’époque du #MeToo. « Je n’étais pas surprise que Gopi ne se confie pas à nous », dit McDonald, « J’aurais même été surprise si elle avait dit “Oh, il m’a fait une chose terrible. Nous devons aller à la police.” J’y serais allée, mais cela aurait été exceptionnel à cette époque si c’était arrivé ».
« Je suppose que ma façon de me lever contre l’injustice était d’énoncer ce que j’avais vu et de laisser les gens se faire leur propre idée ».
Julie Salter est arrivée aux quartiers généraux de Val-Morin, au Québec, pour la première fois en 1978, un an après avoir joint sa communauté à Tel-Aviv et quatre ans après la publication de l’article de McDonald. Elle est arrivée durant une sorte de grande époque, avec l’ashram plein de swamis et de programmes. Mais en 1982, Salter dit que le personnel avait été grandement réduit, poussé à l’épuisement, et certains adeptes semblaient aux prises avec des problèmes mentaux. Nair lui-même semblait négligé et sujet à des épisodes de dépression. Un végétarien toute sa vie, avec peu de gens autour de lui pour préparer la nourriture du sud de l’Inde qu’il aime tant, il était souvent réduit à manger des sandwiches au fromage, du riz au lait et des boîtes de pois pour survivre. Il était atteint de diabète et souffrait beaucoup. Salter ressentit un grand instinct maternel envers lui.
Cette année-là, Nair lui a demandé d’être sa secrétaire personnelle. Il l’a installée dans sa petite maison avec un ordinateur pour dicter des lettres pour ses lieutenants à travers le monde et un livre, qu’il ne publiera jamais. Les heures étaient interminables. Salter dit que Nair n’avait « absolument aucun biorythme ». Il restait debout toute la nuit, demandant du thé ou de la soupe, faisant une sieste d’une heure ou deux, puis se levait à nouveau pour passer un appel international. Ajoutés à cela, Salter voyageait fréquemment à l’étranger à ses côtés pour prendre des notes.
En 1983, Nair a commencé à demander à Salter de le masser et, à un moment donné, il lui a demandé de s’étendre à ses côtés sur le plancher après le massage. « Mais je ne comprends pas, Swamiji. », lui a-t-elle dit. « Yoga tantrique », a-t-il répondu.
« La ligne était franchie », a écrit Salter en 2005, dans des notes personnelles revues par GEN. La ligne demeura franchie pendant trois ans. « L’absence de limites… non-fondement… obéissance comme je l’avais entendu enseigner dans cette tradition “spirituelle”… les limbes qui pourraient être les miennes si je rompais avec le professeur… J’avais entendu les enseignements disant que de désobéir ou rompre avec le guru était l’équivalent d’un suicide spirituel ».
Salter a vu son rôle d’assistante de Nair s’étendre malgré le fait d’être dégoûtée, descendant en spirale vers la honte et la culpabilité. Elle a décrit « des rôles profondément confus — comme étudiante, comme secrétaire, souvent comme mère, certains diraient fille, et “partenaire” sexuelle — bien que “partenaire” ne représentait pas vraiment ce qui se passait ».
Son sommeil était réduit à quelques heures par nuit. Elle survivait avec du jus de fruit et des biscuits lorsqu’elle travaillait ou qu’elle était au téléphone. Elle a développé des problèmes digestifs et d’autres problèmes. Une fois, Nair lui a crié dessus pendant des heures après qu’elle eu mentionné qu’elle était fatiguée. Une autre fois, dit-elle, Nair l’a giflé après l’avoir faussement accusée d’avoir une relation avec un autre employé. L’agression a laissé des marques. Elle se rappelle avoir dit à une collègue que les marques étaient dues à un accident.
« À plusieurs occasions, j’ai songé à partir, mais je ne l’ai pas fait », écrit Salter. « Mon niveau d’épuisement était très élevé pendant plusieurs années, avec de longues heures de travail et de l’insomnie, combinées au le poids du secret ». Un jour, elle a dit par téléphone, « Je sentais la peur émanant très fortement de moi ». À une autre occasion, elle dit « J’ai entendu mon cerveau “se briser” ».
Au fur et à mesure que la condition de Salter empirait, la dépendance de Nair envers elle augmentait. Elle s’affairait pour garder son insuline sous contrôle, pour lui administrer sa dialyse lorsqu’ils voyageaient entre l’Inde et le Québec, pour traduire ses discours brouillons après qu’il ait eu un accident vasculaire, pour le traiter après qu’un accident de voiture lui ait perforé un poumon et brisé le cou.
« Je me rappelle qu’il disait constamment “Mon cou me fait mal, ne me quitte pas. Mon cou me fait mal, ne me quitte pas. Mon cou me fait mal, ne me quitte pas”. Comme un petit enfant dit à sa mère ».
Le premier événement des centres de yoga Sivananda auquel a participé Pamela Kyssa fut une fin de semaine de jeûne, dans sa ville natale de Londres, en 1979. Elle avait 20 ans à l’époque. Elle a décrit avoir été « bombardée d’amour » par des membres du groupe — un terme utilisé dans les études de sectes pour la tactique de recrutement consistant à couvrir les nouveaux venus d’attention et d’affection pour créer des sentiments d’endettement et d’attachement instantanés. En moins de quelques semaines, Kyssa avait abandonné ses nuits dans les clubs pour déménager dans le centre de l’organisation situé à Londres. Nair est venu en ville pour donner leurs mantras aux nouveaux venus — une prière personnelle à être récitée constamment, pour purifier l’esprit de toute autre pensée. Il lui a aussi donné le nom de « Padma », ce qui signifie lotus. Kyssa a abandonné tous ses vêtements à la mode de Kensington Market pour adopter la tenue jaune d’une novice.
Lors d’une retraite de groupe au château de Windsor, Nair l’a appelée pour lui demander de le masser, ce qu’elle a fait pendant deux heures, après quoi ils ont fait des postures de yoga ensemble, terminant dans une posture de relaxation.
Lorsqu’elle a réalisé que Nair était au-dessus d’elle et commençait à la pénétrer, Kyssa se rappelle avoir dit « Swamiji, je ne veux pas être enceinte ! »
« C’était au lieu de dire “Lâchez-moi” », a dit Kyssa dans une entretien. « Ce qui m’a déconcertée fut que ce viol ne fut pas violent – pas comme m’épingler sur le sol, me frapper ou quelque chose du genre puis déchirer mes pantalons pour s’imposer en moi ou quelque chose du genre. Je suis un peu gênée d’avoir 62 ans et de réaliser maintenant que c’était un viol ».
En 1981, Kyssa travaillait au Sivananda Yoga Ranch dans l’état de New York. Un membre du personnel supérieur l’a convoquée pour qu’elle lave Nair, disant qu’il était malade et avait besoin d’aide. Alors qu’elle séchait ses pieds après le bain, dit-elle, il a tiré sa tête vers son pénis. Elle a tiré sa tête pour se libérer de son emprise. « Je l’ai regardé intensément avec rage », dit-elle par téléphone. « Je suis sortie. Je réalise maintenant que c’était un acte de pouvoir. Qu’est-ce qu’il pouvait bien vouloir ? »
L’année avant la mort de Nair, Kyssa est allée à Val-Morin pour le Nouvel An, déterminée à parler au guru. Elle se rappelle que Salter était debout aux côtés du guru pour traduire ses paroles (Salter ne se rappelle pas de la rencontre). Kyssa fut frappée par la condition de Salter. Elle semblait être « une petite rate épuisée et noyée, que Dieu bénisse son cœur », dit Kyssa.
Kyssa a demandé à être seule avec le guru et se souvient que Nair a chassé Salter d’un geste de la main. La première impulsion de Kyssa à le voir aussi diminué fut de s’excuser pour avoir entretenu de la haine à son égard pendant tant d’années. Mais elle l’a également confronté.
« Cela fut très difficile pour moi de vivre avec ce qui est arrivé et je n’avais personne à qui parler. Ce ne fut pas correct que vos ayez agi sexuellement avec moi ».
« Il m’a interrompu et a dit “Je ne me souviens pas ! Je ne me souviens pas !” Il a continué de le dire avec assez de force ».
Rapiécer son histoire après toutes ces années est une bataille, mais Kyssa croit que c’est essentiel. « Je suis totalement pour la cohérence et le fait d’avoir de l’incohérence en moi est un immense compromis », dit-elle.
« C’est vraiment important de se maintenir dans la vérité. C’est la seule façon dont vous allez guérir ».
Lorsqu’on lui demande par téléphone si Nair l’a déjà remerciée pour ses années de service, Salter marque une longue pause.
« La seule chose dont je me souvienne », dit-elle en douceur, « c’est quand, à la fin de sa vie, il a dit : “Parce que tu as pris si bien soin de moi, tu seras prise en charge.” »
En 2004, Salter a commencé à communiquer avec ses anciens collègues du conseil d’administration. Elle en avait de grosses difficultés financières et une santé fragile, et a tenté de demander une forme de pension ou une compensation de l’organisation.
La personne-ressource au sein du conseil pour cette correspondance fut Mark Ashley, 57 ans, connu dans l’organisation comme Srinivasan, et directeur du Yoga Ranch. Sur plusieurs échanges, Ashley a aidé à arranger une rencontre entre Salter et des membres du conseil et a exprimé l’espoir que les « malentendus » puissent être réglés. Cela ne s’est pas produit.
Salter a retenu les services d’une société d’avocats de Toronto pour défendre ses intérêts. En juillet 2007, Danny Kastner, un stagiaire de la firme, a écrit une lettre au conseil d’administration de Sivananda en son nom. Kastner a grandi dans la communauté, participant à un camp d’été pour enfants à Val-Morin au début des années 1990.
Kastner se rappelle la lettre détaillant les 22 années de travail non rémunéré de Salter et aussi mentionné que le swami Vishnu l’avait fréquemment agressée sexuellement et qu’un certain nombre de membres du personnel supérieurs le savaient.
Un brouillon de la lettre obtenu par GEN disait aussi qu’après avoir quitté l’organisation Sivananda en 1999, sans l’approbation du conseil, Salter fut diagnostiquée d’épuisement, de palpitations cardiaques, d’insomnie et de dépression. Et elle rappelait que deux ans auparavant des négociations avaient mené à une offre brute de 300 $ par mois pour Salter, jusqu’à l’âge de 65 ans. La lettre proposait un montant forfaitaire de 600 000 $, pour éviter une poursuite publique.
« Il m’a interrompu et a dit “Je ne me souviens pas ! Je ne me souviens pas !” Il a continué de le dire avec assez de force. »
Par téléphone, Kastner a expliqué que le montant forfaitaire proposé fut calculé pour fournir à Salter une maison et des fonds pour le son maintien. « Je m’attendais pleinement », a dit Kastner, « que l’explication de la détérioration de la santé de Julie, après avoir rappelé ses sacrifices pour l’organisation — qui fut bien au-delà des sacrifices attendus des adeptes — j’étais certain qu’ils viendraient aux discussions dans un esprit de compassion selon les principes enseignés par l’organisation ».
Mais le 27 août 2007, Salter a reçu une lettre de la part du conseil d’administration du bureau montréalais de Stikeman Elliot LLP, une firme d’avocats reconnue pour ses poursuites agressives. La lettre rejetait les demandes de Salter et déclarait que son travail pour l’organisation Sivananda fut volontaire et « motivé par ses croyances et sa foi personnelles ». Elle dénonçait les plaintes de Salter comme étant « frivoles » et « inappropriées, agressives et injustes », mentionnant qu’il semblait douteux que Mme Salter soulève la question 14 ans après la mort de swami Vishnudevananda.
La lettre se terminait par une menace : « Nous nous réservons le droit de prendre tout recours approprié en diffamation contre toute personne que nous considérons appropriée afin de protéger les droits et la réputation de Sivananda et de swami Vishnudevananda ».
Ce court échange légal fut suffisant pour faire taire Salter et protéger le conseil d’administration de l’organisation Sivananda de la colère de sa congrégation pendant 12 ans. Mais maintenant, avec l’appui du mouvement #MeToo derrière elles, les réponses en lignes à la publication de Salter révèlent une communauté mondiale soudée comme une famille prête à soutenir les siennes. En quelques jours seulement, un groupe public et deux autres privés furent créés sur Facebook comme canaux d’évacuation des frustrations et des plans de réforme. Des membres de longue date ont rapidement commencé à parler de la possibilité d’une action collective contre l’organisation pour fausse représentation de l’image de Nair et de son héritage.
Le sentiment était immédiatement révolutionnaire et démontrait que plusieurs étudiants avaient pris à cœur les enseignements d’abandon de soi et d’altruisme. L’activisme semblait aussi être renforcé par les forts liens formés par le bénévolat et par les programmes de formation notoirement austères de l’organisation Sivananda.
Au cœur l’unité de Sivananda était l’expérience du camp d’entraînement quasi militaire du cours de formation des professeurs de yoga de l’organisation. Sa structure de 200 heures a fourni la feuille de route pour les formations de yoga à travers toute l’industrie. Son intensité est un milieu fertile pour l’endoctrinement, l’attachement à vie, voire les deux. Pendant quatre semaines, les participants sont réveillés à 5 h 30 du matin, se pointent à 6 heures avec leurs devoirs avant les chants du matin et le sermon, puis sont menés vers des séances de yoga à 8 heures, travaillent à la cuisine ou font du ménage jusqu’à midi, puis assistent à des cours — dont certaines sont des documentaires sur Nair. Il y a encore du yoga dans l’après-midi et la journée se conclut avec un sermon de soirée. Deux repas végétariens sont fournis.
Pour Lara Marjerrison, 49 ans, qui fait du yoga au centre Sivananda de Toronto depuis 17 ans, l’horaire brutal du cours demandait que les étudiants se supportent entre eux, résolvent leurs conflits et apprécient l’idéalisme de chacun. « Nous n’avions pas la possibilité de nous en aller », a-t-elle dit par téléphone, « Je me rappelle clairement regarder la grande salle de yoga et voir cent postures sur la tête parfaitement alignés, magnifiques, et l’harmonie qui émanait de cette vision et de chaque personne dans la salle et combien nous avions changé. C’est quelque chose que je n’oublierai jamais. Pour moi, c’était un microcosme de ce qui est possible dans le plus grand monde. Si nous voulons rester les uns et les autres. Cette paix est possible si nous pouvons juste nous asseoir dans l’inconfort de nos différences et communiquer entre nous avec respect et dignité, reconnaître ce qui fait mal, reconnaître ce qui nous effraie ».
« Jaya » ne veut pas que son vrai nom soit utilisé par peur de possibles répercussions. Elle a pratiqué au centre Sivananda pendant 20 ans, et elle croit que la hiérarchie du groupe est maintenant son talon d’Achille. « La structure d’autoritarisme vous fait sentir comme un mauvais enfant à l’école, », dit-elle au téléphone, « et parce qu’il y a plein d’autres mauvais enfants avec qui vous vous entendez, vous êtes retourné vers cette forme de folle transgression infantile et euphorique. Nous rions comme des fous à propos d’un swami en particulier. Nous l’appelions Darth Vader, avec sa coupe de cheveux et ces lunettes, à cause de sa rigidité ».
Les tours pendables faisaient partie de ce qui ramenait toujours Jaya. « Mais maintenant, », dit-elle, référant à la crise Salter, « ce sont vraiment de mauvais traitements. Nous le savions, car nous voyions comment ils traitaient certaines personnes du personnel permanent. Leur autoritarisme nous unissait et nous les tenons responsables en tant que groupe ».
La publication de Salter est apparue un mardi. Le vendredi suivant, le conseil d’administration de Sivananda publiait un communiqué prenant acte du témoignage, faisant allusion à leurs politiques et procédures et demandant à toute personne avec des allégations de les envoyer par courriel à Communications Avenue. Pendant la fin de semaine, les fêtes de Noël prévues dans de nombreux centres dans le monde ont été annulées et remplacées par des « satsangs » ou conférences qui aborderaient la nouvelle et permettraient des questions. À Toronto, les personnel aux réunions portaient apparemment des t-shirts disant « Unis nous vivons ; divisés nous mourons ». Un membre a reporté sur Facebook que le nom et le portrait de Nair fut retiré des chants matinaux aux locaux de Val Morin.
À New York, Ashley (qui a aidé à négocier les débuts des griefs de Salter en 2005) a ouvert la réunion de soirée avec un récit hagiographique des vertus de Nair, allant jusqu’à citer Nair lui-même à propos des dangers du pouvoir, de la corruption et de suivre un guru.
« Il y a maintenant plusieurs accusations qui sont sorties. », a dit Ashley, selon un enregistrement audio de la rencontre qui fut publié en ligne. « Je n’ai aucune idée si ces accusations sont vraies ou non. Ce n’est pas à moi de le dire. Je crois que si swami Vishnu était ici, il dirait “Ceci est vrai, cela n’est pas vrai” et il serait le premier à s’excuser, et je ne peux m’excuser pour quelqu’un…. »
« Il n’y a absolument aucun moyen que je sache cela, et je ne connais personne d’autre qui le sache à part peut-être les personnes qui étaient là. Et même pour les personnes qui étaient là : après 35, 40 ans, le discours change. »
Le reste des 90 minutes de la rencontre a consisté en un groupe de membres — principalement des femmes qui ont mentionné des décennies d’expérience dans le groupe — bombardant Ashley de questions sur ce que le conseil d’administration savait de l’expérience de Salter et sur les processus de responsabilisation que l’organisation allait suivre.
« Je crois que c’est tout simplement trop facile de publier quelque chose sur Facebook » a relancé Ashley. « Les gens partagent certaines de leurs expériences et cela devient un procès, un juge, un jury et c’est de la folie ».
Il a tenté de conclure le rassemblement sur une note de conciliation. « En ce qui concerne votre traitement », dit-il, « cela est très douloureux pour nous tous. Si vous avez des blessures personnelles qui sont survenues en relation avec l’organisation, je ressens beaucoup de peine pour vous pour cela et le fait que les choses se sont produites et si elles n’ont pas été résolues, nous aimerions tout résoudre ».
« Le conseil d’administration n’a pas du tout permis la corruption. Tout ce que le conseil d’administration sait, nous agissons. Lorsque nous ne savons pas ce qui se passe, alors nous n’agissons pas. »
Ashley a terminé la réunion en dirigeant le groupe dans un chant de om. Il n’a pas répondu à une demande directe de commentaire.
Les deux femmes qui ont publié sur Facebook que Reddy les a harcelées sexuellement ont réitéré leurs histoires dans des entretiens. Elles ont toutes deux demandé à ce que leur nom demeure secret, l’une citant des craintes de confidentialité alors que l’autre craignait des représailles de l’organisation. Les deux ont décrit que Reddy les a harcelées pendant qu’elles faisaient du karma yoga, pendant les formations qu’il dirigeait dans des ashrams de deux pays différents.
Une femme a décrit comment le harcèlement a mené à des accolades et attouchements à répétition alors qu’elle était seule, à nettoyer le temple. « Il ne n’a pas demandé “Est-ce que tu me veux ? Est-ce que tu m’aimes ?” Non, il venait simplement et le faisait simplement ». Elle dit l’avoir fermement repoussé lorsqu’il a explicitement demandé pour du sexe.
« Je ne veux pas que ceci se continue », a dit l’autre femme. Elle a décrit comment le Reddy camouflait son harcèlement sexuel en apparence d’offre de conseils spirituels ou de physiothérapie dans les rencontres privées avec les étudiants, qui sont principalement des femmes « Mon intention en rendant cela public est de changer ce type de comportement », a dit l’une. « Cela signifierait que cette personne démissionne et obtienne de l’aide appropriée ».
« Ce sont vraiment de mauvais traitements. Nous le savions, car nous voyions comment ils traitaient certaines personnes du personnel permanent. Leur autoritarisme nous unissait et nous les tenons responsables en tant que groupe. »
Les deux femmes ont dit avoir transmis leurs plaintes aux responsables de Sivananda, elles ont été référées à une avocate de New York nommée Lanny Alexander comme un genre de médiatrice pour l’organisation. Une femme a dit que Alexander l’appelait à des heures bizarres, lui demandant de prouver ses allégations et, éventuellement, disant que si la femme ne comptait pas intenter une poursuite il n’y avait rien à discuter. L’autre femme a refusé de contacter Alexander. Aucun des témoignages n’a apparemment été pleinement enquêté par une organisation ou une compagnie associée avec le conseil d’administration de Sivananda.
Ashley a identifié Alexander durant sa présentation de New York comme une étudiante dédiée de l’organisation qui a géré des plaintes pour « les 15 dernières années environ », mais qu’elle ne jouerait plus ce rôle, car elle était « trop proche de l’organisation ».
Communications Avenue, la firme de relation publique a confirmé dans un courriel qu’Alexander travaille avec l’organisation pour développer et promouvoir des politiques de harcèlement sexuel et « a aidé dans des enquêtes d’allégations de mauvaise conduite sexuelle » pour les centres de yoga Sivananda. Dans un courriel de suivi qui demandait si Alexander avait une formation spécifique en matière de sensibilisation aux traumatismes, Communications Avenue a répondu que l’organisation « se fie à d’autres professionnels externes en relation avec l’aide psychologique et traumatique ». Lorsque a été demandé qui étaient ces professionnels, un porte-parole a répondu « Je ne crois pas que ce soit approprié que je vous fournisse cette information ».
Alexander n’a pas répondu aux questions à propos de sa relation avec les centres de yoga Sivananda, de sa formation professionnelle ou sur comment fonctionne le processus de griefs.
Les semaines qui ont suivi depuis le 10 décembre n’ont pas été faciles pour Salter. Dans les retombées de sa publication, « Mon corps est entré en mode de réponse de stress intense », a-t-elle dit. Elle a décrit être fiévreuse, incapable de dormir, ni de manger, perdre ses cheveux. Lentement, par contre, elle gagne de la force, soutenue par son partenaire, allant faire de longues marches hivernales et se tournant vers des activités réconfortantes et manuelles comme le tricot et le crochet.
« Je veux un endroit sûr où les gens sont écoutés, pas rejetés, ou traités comme jetables. », a-t-elle dit. « À un autre niveau, c’est comme “Fais avec cette histoire !” Je ne suis plus vraiment intéressée par ce groupe spécifique de yoga ».
Pour Kyssa, l’ouragan d’activité en ligne a été épuisant. Mais elle décrit aussi le processus de reprise de contact avec d’autres survivantes et de parler clairement à propos de son passé comme une sensation d’un « film qui commence en noir et blanc, puis la couleur arrive soudainement. »
« C’est tout un effet de retrouver ton énergie familière », a-t-elle dit. « Je pensais que j’étais simplement vieille. Je veux dire — je suis vieille. Mais ce qui arrive c’est cette forme de vitalité familière qui parcourt à nouveau mon corps. De moi. C’est fantastique. C’est fantastique ce qui arrive ».
Matthew Remski est un professeur de yoga et un écrivain vivant à Toronto. Si vous avez des informations que vous voudriez partager à propos de votre expérience avec les centres de yoga Sivananda, vous pouvez le contacter à [email protected].
Matthew Remski est un professeur de yoga et un écrivain vivant à Toronto. Si vous avez des informations que vous voudriez partager à propos de votre expérience avec yoga Sivananda, vous pouvez le contacter à [email protected].
Si vous souhaitez soutenir le coût de cette traduction – et éventuellement des traductions dans d’autres langues – veuillez envisager de faire un petit don ici.
Here’s something I wasn’t able to fit into the Sivananda Yoga feature, because it veers into commentary/opinion, and because it would have stretched the word count beyond breaking.
There was a guest on Rachel Bernstein’s IndoctriNation podcast (can’t recall the name or find it now) who said something I’ll paraphrase: “The cult takes the best part of a person. It takes their altruism, their youth, their compassion, their discipline and drive to work. It clothes itself in this energy.”
It rang true in my own experience when I heard it. I remember how my own natural skills (and hopes) were mobilized and manipulated by the groups that recruited me. Now I feel like I’m understanding it on a deeper level.
When I report on institutional abuse in yoga and Buddhism I invariably discover that the survivors were stripped of time, attention, money, social capital, earning potential, bodily autonomy and dignity. Those spoils contribute to the total value of the organization. In a previous post I focused on the material assets derived from “karma yoga”, which would include facility maintenance, gardening, hospitality, cooking. To take Sivananda Yoga as the example, this would be everything that makes the possibility of the “yoga vacation” or a training programme a viable commodity.
I’m seeing now that it goes much deeper than that. I think the pictures curated for the article really let it sink in. In one image, we see Julie holding a coconut for Nair to sip. In another, we see her in an old-timey Indian phone centre, speaking on his behalf. (Few others could understand him after his stroke.) Staring at the images, I realized that my first impulse was to identify with her, but in relation to him: to feel the anxious compliance, to share in the hope that the service was adequate. Meditating like this instantly positions Nair as the moral or spiritual authority who we must wonder about, be concerned for, or fear.
But at some point I felt my brain click over into a different track. It’s not Nair who is the special person in these photographs, but Julie. He’s an old, debilitated man. He’s not why people were drawn to the organization, at least at that point. In earlier years he presents a puckish radiance that surely attracted some. But even then he was never alone. He was always surrounded by people who made him important by their presence. I suggest we look at them, first and foremost, to try to answer: was it their attractiveness and altruism that made the organization what it was?
One picture that GEN didn’t print (see the lede, above) features Pamela Kyssa marching in a small group with Nair through the bullet-riddled streets of Belfast, on one of Nair’s “Peace Missions”. It’s the early 1980s. Kyssa is holding a pasteboard sign with a peace message carefully written out in Gaelic. I don’t know whether she knows Gaelic or had to learn it to write it out. But I do know that Nair walking through those streets alone would not have been a story. There’s a strong young woman beside him, holding a sign in the language that makes his message communicable.
It’s not just Julie’s labour, attention, and so on that was exploited. It was her virtue, service, and faith in ideals that Nair couldn’t uphold, and for all we know, never believed in himself. It was her affect, her visible devotion. More than Nair’s face or voice or words, I believe these goodnesses constitute the core social and economic value of Nair’s organization.
This misattribution of value is plainly visible in other cases of institutional abuse. Sarah Baughn’s devotional athleticism was the face of Bikram Yoga for years, during which time Bikram raped her. Karen Rain’s superhuman focus in the famous Ashtanga Primary Series video helped to market the practice — deceptively, because the video showed no “adjustments” — to the global market. Jois assaulted her regularly. Leslie Hays’ “promotion” to “spiritual wife” of Trungpa Rinpoche (one of seven) allowed the organization to consolidate its branding as traditional-yet-edgy, transcendent of “conventional” morality, etc.
When people accuse these women of trying to “destroy” their former organizations by coming forward with their abuse disclosures, they are delusional. They have it backwards.
Julie isn’t destroying Sivananda Yoga. If people still come to those ashrams, it’s because of the energy that people like Julie invested and displayed. If people come, it is despite the institution and its abuse, which all the karma yoga concealed. Julie and others alongside her literally built the organization. They formed its moral and altruistic core. It’s exactly this that elevates those ashrams and retreat centres above the level of rather shabby vacay spots.
At the height of the Ashtanga Yoga crisis, an Ashtanga practitioner named Dimi Currey wrote the following about the centrality of the survivor to organizational “success”. I quoted her in my book on p. 88. .
These women’s suffering is as much a part of why we have Ashtanga today, as David Williams’, or Norman Allen’s contributions. [Williams and Allen are early Jois students.] If these women had filed charges back then (and there were some that wanted to), maybe the system would not have spread as it has? These women suffered through it, in some ways sacrificing themselves for what seemed to be a greater cause. And the system has lived on.
Now those women who were hurt, would like the wrongs done to them to be recognized. It doesn’t seem like any of them are out to publicly shame others regarding the situation. Only that their suffering be recognized, so that steps can be taken to insure that others are not hurt as they were. I think there should be some action—very clear action taken to recognize this. I think it should become part of the history of the lineage. It is the truth. History is supposed to be factual.
So, maybe we should know the faces and names of these women who were hurt by P. Jois, but carried on the lineage? Because, it is in part due to their suffering that we have Ashtanga today. Maybe instead of his picture in studios, on altars, etc. Maybe it is their pictures that belong there.
There is a continuing irony in all this:
In uncovering the facts of institutional abuse, survivors actually continue their selfless service to the organization and its ideals. Their activism actually embodies the stated goals of the group, better than the group ever did. They become leaders. In addition to reparations, they deserve consulting fees.
My sense is that this continuation of labour sometimes seems to show that the good will and zest for life that they brought to the group may not have been entirely erased.
In cult studies there’s this idea that the pre-cult self may not ever be entirely killed off, and that re-acclimating to the outside world — and especially to former relationships — may well resuscitate it from its dissociative sleep. Alongside this, the skills and talents that the group exploited might re-emerge to support that reconnection.
In my case, the groups I was in sought to exploit my writing skill. Both did so so successfully that after six years I couldn’t do my own writing. I no longer had an internal voice. I couldn’t string two sentences together. It took me about a decade to begin to feel like I had a voice again, an internal coherence I could call my own. It’s significant that I knew a major part of that healing was done when I started writing about cults. At that moment, a certain natural flow returned, and the content itself lifted me out of isolation, connecting me with other survivors, but also writing friends who knew me from before, and recognized me again.
But it’s not just about the pre-cult self. There are also positive skills and connections that people make within groups, and which sustain them after leaving.
The big one for me is cooking. Some of the most fun I’ve had in my life was learning how to cook for 300 people with my friend Rupi, who was a cooking genius. To this day that exuberant love gets stirred into every meal I make for my family.
My bet is that the Sivananda karma yogis, who bonded over the ideals of selfless service that their leaders may not have even have believed in, may find that the joy they took in the skills the group exploited can return to them. If they entered with accounting skills that the group used, it’s possible that doing accounts for real clients in the real world will feel immensely satisfying again. If they were the ashram photographer they might now delight in new images.
And if they learned how to garden or do carpentry while in the group, they may yet take great joy in growing vegetables for the family or the neighbourhood, and in building that clubhouse out back for the children.
Somatic Dominance: Climate Collapse & The Spectre Of Cultic Yearnings | convo with Patrick Farnsworth
I had the deep pleasure of speaking with Patrick Farnsworth, whose excellent podcast “Last Born in the Wilderness” has enriched my life over the past year. Here’s the episode. Lightly edited transcript below (minus intro/outro). You can support Patrick’s freelance work here.
So you were making all these connections I hadn’t made. I’m just starting to understand that these types of things that you’re discussing, while they make sense within the context of yoga, but you’re trying to bridge these different subjects together. You’re trying to make it more understandable and approachable for people that are outside of yoga. This isn’t just a phenomenon within yoga itself. But we can learn a lot from what you’ve at least explored in your research and in your particular experiences within this world.
Thank you for that. And it’s heartening to know because I think that is a bridge that I’m starting to try to build. I think that experience in history is showing within modern yoga and Buddhist groups that when we have aspirational communities, especially fronted by charismatic leaders in uncertain discourses or uncertain times, that the potential for cultic dynamics to emerge is really, really strong. And so as I see social power gathering in certain sectors of eco activism I’m concerned, about some of those behaviors began to develop as well. And I think that the last 50 years of spiritual seeking in a globalized modern sense has a lot to offer to eco activism, especially if we view it through a critical lens. So yeah, I’m really happy that you’re glomming onto that connection. And I hope we can unfold it.
Yeah. And I think just to make this note before we delve into your work more specifically in your journey, which I think is really interesting but just to make this connection for people, because for a long time, I just want to say this, is that when people become aware of these crises, the global climate crisis, for instance, it comes originally I think as a very data-driven thing. It’s like this is the data. This is the information, the science that surrounds it. More and more I’m at a point in my work at least where I’m still covering that and talking about that. And it’s important to keep up with that. But the ways in which people on a mass scale — we live within mass societies — and we have to acknowledge the ways in which large scale societies are going to react to these crises in real time. And so it’s really crazy when you really think about how there are people who have this agenda. You know. It’s about creating really unhealthy toxic environments that are really about their own, I guess, their own ego and their own, you know what I mean? Like really toxic behaviors, you can even say toxic masculinity in many cases. It is so strange to me because when we think of yoga, we think of this peaceful, loving, self affirming environment where people are there to better themselves, right? And something quite the opposite to happen in those environments often. And I find that really interesting. And so for me, what I want to say here is when it comes to my work and my end of it, with exploring the edges of this time we’re in, I really want people to be psychologically, emotionally, spiritually prepared for what human beings are going to do in this time. And it’s not something we can be adequately prepared for in any real sense. But when it comes to building communities and forms of resilience, um, we really have to be wary and be on the lookout for these signs of culting behaviors, cult-like environments, more and more. Yeah.
Right. One bridge between global yoga and Buddhist communities, because I also study Buddhist communities and I was part of a Buddhist cult from 96 to about 2000, — part of the premise of that content, that discourse is the notion of waking up to something and as you describe with regard to collapsology, there is a waking up that takes place in the form of education and there’s a waking up that takes place in the form of psychological realization or existential maturity. I think that, you know, the interview that you did with Dahr Jamail and Barbara Cecil expresses that kind of turning point where we have this polymathically skilled journalist and world traveler who is able to say, enough data has been produced and now I’m waking up to something deeper and that turn from living in the sort of rational, descriptive world of the facts that are happening on the ground to what does this mean on an existential level is something that, that particular turn has been the commodity of modern yoga and global Buddhism over the last 50 years.
The same language has been used to describe, you know, waking up from conventionality or waking up from your bourgeois Potemkin village life or waking up from normalcy. And so there’s a real overlap. It’s almost as if you know, new age spirituality, going back to the Human Potential Movement has primed this discourse of waking up to something. And so there’s a lot of lessons to be learned from how communities have, quote unquote, woken up to the nature of reality or to the need for compassion or to the thin veneer of superficiality that neo-liberalism provides, to waking up to, Oh my God, the world is actually dying. There’s a bridge there. There’s a similarity in discourse that we can learn a lot from because as Buddhist and yoga communities have marshaled that language and have talked about waking up and have theorized about what it means or tried to, you know, design societies around its principles… they’ve done some good things and a lot of bad things. And ecological movements can learn a lot from that.
I completely agree with you on that. Yeah it’s interesting cause I think there’s a lot of for me this queasiness or wariness of this language around being woke or being awake, which I know that in yoga and Eastern spiritual traditions and Buddhism, that’s kind of the premise: enlightenment. You know, you can achieve some sort of enlightenment. And I think the way it can be presented to the West is it is a commodifiable thing. It’s something you can go to retreat in Maui and you can attain something like that, you know, by spending six weeks with some guru or whatever. It’s always been a bit perplexing to me because I don’t think, there aren’t the connections made that I think that need to be made when it comes to the fact that you feel like you have to go to this, this Island that was colonized by Americans, you know, and you go there to have this little spiritual retreat. I don’t think those connections are often made by those that are participating in it. It’s like the materiality, the material conditions that we’re a part of are not really addressed. And to me, it kind of reinforces this idea, this false dichotomy between the split between spirit and matter. Maybe you could speak to that a bit, but this idea that what’s happening in the world isn’t really, that’s not gonna, that’s not gonna liberate you. You have to be liberated through your own will to wake up and be enlightened and to detach yourself from everything that’s happening around you to elevate yourself above it and…
Yeah and yet, and yet it will take material, resources and, and those will have consequences. But somehow, I mean the thing about the thing about the last 50 years of global Buddhism and yoga is that it in some ways, it’s provided a way for the neoliberal vision of freedom through consumerism to be spiritualized so that you know, you can convince yourself that you need to go to Costa Rica to find yourself. And if you, and if and if you drink fair trade coffee, but you also soak in the heat and the humidity of the jungle, that there will be some internal transformation that will create a new self that will then radiate back out into your urbanized, global, North environment and will change everything for the better. Like that’s the sort of subtext. I think it was about five years ago that I first had a conversation with this independent researcher named Brian Francis Culkin who researches gentrification in specific locations, especially Boston. We started talking about like, how did the modern yoga studio emerge? Like how did it, how did it come to be? And he pointed out that the yoga studio in the modern urban, global North setting only really comes into existence through the process of gentrification. In fact, it’s often on the leading edge of gentrification.
Naomi Klein in No Logo opens, in the first few pages she talks about one of the first major yoga studios in Toronto actually being established in the beautiful old warehouse space that used to be the home of a garment manufacturer in the garment district in Toronto. That was available for lease because free trade agreements in the mid-nineties sent all of those manufacturing jobs to Vietnam. Suddenly in global North spaces, we have these gorgeous brick buildings with hardwood floors and white walls and they’re empty of all of their machinery and nobody’s making anything in them anymore. And so people moved into them and begin these practices that are about remaking the self, right? And they’re usually wearing the yoga clothes that are made by the people whose labor got outsourced in Vietnam, who couldn’t possibly afford to go to those yoga classes.
This key thing that, that Culkin really helped me understand is that like the modern yoga space is exists because of paradigmatic changes in labor and the meaning of the body, in globalization through the ascendancy of technology and finance, and through the transformation of the urban landscape into the monotone of gentrification. And what’s amazing about that passage in No Logo is that like, I know the people who founded that yoga studio in 1996 in Toronto, like they’re my friends and their lease only lasted for a few years and guess who moved in afterwards? A dot-com company who could afford the latest rent. And so where did the yoga studio go? It went out West on Queen Street, farther out to the leading edge of gentrification at that point, and now it’s running out to the end of its lease. So anyway, yoga studios have like five year leases and then they have to move out to the leading edge of wherever the city is continuing to gentrify.
But the upshot of this is that what yoga practitioners don’t realize is that they’re participating in the kind of embodied neo-liberalization of the actual city and then they’re participating in this practice, and especially if they professionalize into it, they’re kind of participating in a way of making all of the aspects of new liberal economy — the fact that it works on flex time, the fact that it’s gig economy, the fact that it’s all about self motivation and self responsibility — all of these themes are embedded into this practice by which you’re supposed to take care of yourself and seek your own betterment, make yourself healthy, you know, become a better citizen. If you’re a woman, you’re supposed to be wear even more hats and be a feminist at the same time while you’re leaning into your postures and making more green shakes.
And so there’s all of this, all of these demands placed upon the person who basically is creating no product, but the aspirational self. And then yoga discourse and Buddhist discourse gives a kind of spiritual aspect to that. When those themes started to come together together about five years ago, I started to develop this political economy, analysis of the body and modern yoga as being— what is the person actually bowing down in front of? It’s not nature anymore. It’s not tradition particularly. It’s a kind of manufactured sense of individual freedom that is at the heart of the neoliberal project. That’s not all that’s going on. That sounds terribly cynical, but I mean that’s a big part of the story. That’s why the yoga world has exploded at the same time that we’ve seen this proliferation of the effects of globalization.
Well you make this point in the video, I did see of you talking about this subject to some in some depth, but you were saying as we see the neoliberal project really take off globally, that’s when we start seeing global carbon emissions rise. Global climate change is really taking off — that’s exactly when the global yoga popularity phenomenon really started to take off. They’re tied together.
And nobody really thinks about the fact that the global yoga economy booms in relationship to cheapening air travel and deregulated credit. All of the yoga communities that I have known and been involved in, especially those that develop into high demand groups — they’re all, everybody is overspending on their credit cards. Everybody is flying to this retreat and that retreat and accumulating trainings so that they can become even more self-actualized. The tie-ins are pretty, clear. And I think Brian said, you know, yoga is the de-facto spirituality of neoliberalism. It demands that people be flexible and receptive. It demands that people lean in, it demands that people become more self responsible. And I think particularly for an 80% female practice population that has like real grave implications for whether or not yoga is actually feminist.
That’s a great point. I never thought of it that way. I mean, drawing that connection there. Absolutely. So, you know, this is something I’ve also explored with psychedelics because that’s kind of my little foray in my personal life into spirituality or whatnot since leaving my, you know, religion that I grew up with behind as a teenager. But, you know, having my first psychedelic experiences, I just sort of took for granted that — let me just say this, with yoga obviously if done in the right way, the right context, it’s just like any sort of physical activity or spiritual practice if done properly. It’s really beneficial for the individual. And if done in a community context, it’s probably really good for the community as well. Right? And that’s what I think attracts people to it. They sense that, okay, this is obviously they feel better when they do it. It challenges them. There’s a lot of things going on. And the same thing for me with my psychedelic experiences.
So then I just took for granted that everything that was happening within the sort of growing popularity, again with psychedelics, that that was the case. But as I started to delve more deeply into it, the same phenomenon is happening with say, the ayuasca industry where you have people in the global North going down to Peru or other places in South and central America and engaging in this sort of theater that’s put on for them to sort of heal them of their very legitimate concerns about trauma. And obviously I think our population is pretty severely traumatized in general, right? So it makes sense why people are seeking it. But in a way it’s perpetuating things that have been going on for centuries, which is a form of colonialism. And it’s manifesting maybe as neo-liberalism or what have you, but, uh, people need to be conscious of this and have sort of political and social consciousness that I don’t think is often encouraged in these settings. There again it’s focusing so much on the individual self actualization, and is perpetuating this neoliberal ideal, uh, in the society and the people participating in it.
Let me just say that the parallel between the explosion in like ayuasca spirituality or the ayuasca economy and the global yoga economy, I think shares an aspect of the global North’s search for authenticity in the face of its rootless white settler status. And so one thing that I’ve become very aware of, not just through personal experience but through a lot of observation and research, is that the concept of looking for something authentic, close to nature, of-the-earth, from-a-location is like an obsession for people who feel, rootless and kind of erased from their location. People who grew up in subdivisions that look like the next subdivision or people who know that this Whole Foods has exactly the same stock as that Whole Foods. And when you don’t know where you are from and you have some maybe unconscious understanding that being from a place means that you can have some sort of reality or some sort of touchstone for actions that have integrity. Then global South becomes this sort of place where identity and rootedness and plant medicine and tradition can become very attractive to the point of fetishization.
You know, like this became super clear to me when, — I’m here in Montreal actually. I just finished, working in a training program here at a yoga school —and in this same city, maybe three or four years ago a person who has since become a friend of mine named Dexter, who’s Sri Lankan by background and is trying to like reconstitute the Buddhism that has been nurtured by his family lineage. Although, you know, they’re there in the diaspora and, and it’s hard to do that. It’s hard to figure out where that tradition is for the family now. They’re a super active political activist and agitator an ecological activist. And this is somebody I really, really admire, but there’s something about their connection with Indian wisdom culture that for me is kind of abstract still, even though I longed to be closer to it. Anyway, they were in this class three years ago and I’m at the front of the room and I’m supposed to be giving sort of like a learning outline for looking at this particular yoga text. And, they put up their hand and they say, you know, “What I want to understand better is why do you people,,” looking at me and around the room because the rest of the room was mostly white, “Why do people insist on playing with our old stuff? Why are you so interested in like playing with our old things?” And I said, “Oh, can you, can you say a little bit more about that?” Because I could feel myself start to sweat. And they said, well, you know, it’s like, “Don’t you have your own old things? Don’t you have your own culture, your own antiquities? I don’t even have access to my culture’s antiquities. Why do you have such an interest in them? I mean, aren’t they already in your museums?” And I’m like, Oh boy.
I realized at that moment that like having grown up Catholic, that for a large part of my teenage years, I was like fascinated in Catholic esotericism. I wanted to know everything that I could know about Hildegard of Bingen and the herbal blends that she made while she’s singing her heavenly songs and whatever. And like John of the Cross and I was so interested in that stuff. And then it just kind of all fell away because I was generally betrayed. I felt betrayed by the institution of the Catholic church and so it made me understand that when I am with my friend Dexter, like I know that they’re from somewhere, like I know that they have some thing, the culture of the identity is informed and shaped and like forever altered by oppression and colonialism, but they’re from somewhere. And I don’t feel like I’m from anywhere. And my attraction to Buddhism and yoga was in part about this, the emptiness of rootlessness that I think is part of the phenomenon of being white.
That adds another layer of weirdness to traveling down to the jungles of South America to find the shaman who’s going to administer ayauasca or traveling to South India so that I can stay in a Tibetan monastery for six weeks and try to learn something from somebody who comes from a totally, completely different experience of life than I do. But I want the realness of their experience. I want the locale, the connection to the earth. I want all of the things that they have and that paradoxically, my culture has stolen. And so it’s an amazing thing to contemplate, uh, and then to bear witness to its lives. It’s not like I can solve these things, but I can I can certainly stop being a consumer of them and start being a critic of my own participation.
I’m very sympathetic with this. We’re both white and we both are talking about this. And I think white people need to have this conversation in general because whiteness itself is a social construct. There’s a historical dimension to it that needs to be acknowledged and addressed and all of this. I’m sympathetic with because I feel it in myself that rootlessness you’re talking about that lack of… I don’t know where I’m from. I don’t know what traditions do I have to draw upon here? You mentioned people that are practicing whatever they’re practicing, they have at least something to draw on, even if it was, you know, through centuries of colonization and oppression and all the horrible things that come with these things. They, at least it seems to, to us that they have something like tangible that they can draw on. And for us it’s deeply, it’s just, it’s not there.
It’s not there because I think we want it to be everywhere. That’s not just the settler mindset and psychology, but it’s also the sort of casual imperialism that comes along with it. It’s like, Oh, I can go anywhere. How did I travel to India in 1997? Like, how did I do that? Who gave me the credit card? How was I able to be off work for that amount of time to be able to try to find myself in somebody else’s country? Part of privilege is its invisibleness to you, right, is that you don’t know how you got the opportunity to kind of walk around the world as though you owned it. And that comes with a price that you then sort of try to I think outsource onto other people At least in my case.
Yeah. I, I have a lot I could say about that. Maybe I’ll tell you about it after regarding something. But I do want to shift gears a bit just because I like, it’s so funny…
We got to talk about cults, right?
Exactly. Yeah. We got to get into the nitty gritty here. It’s always how it goes though. It’s like once you get into the flow of it, I never want to disrupt that. That’s kind of the magic of doing these podcasts is like, okay, well here we are. This is, I’m not going to try to disrupt this flow at all. But I do really want to get into the culting what you’ve explored within these yoga communities. So there’s a few like terms I’m going to throw out and I really want to delve into them. So you talk about cultic dynamics, trauma bonding, another term that you use is somatic dominance. No, these are all different. They’re all connected of course. But you know, reading your work, I didn’t really get, cause when I think about going to a yoga class, got a group of people, they’re all, to me what just looked like really intense poses and stretches and you have a person there who’s the teacher, the instructor who’s guiding you through that. And it’s always, to me seemed very like very chill. It’s difficult, it’s hard. But nonetheless, people are there to try to better themselves and you sweat it out and that’s it. You, for me at least has revealed a whole world of, I wanted to say crazy, but that diminishes it. But this sense of like there’s a lot going on in yoga that I’m completely oblivious to.
So I want to say this first. This’ll be my first question for you. This maybe will frame it a little better. So we’ve talked about neoliberalism and the way in which yoga has exploded globally and all that ties into all the things that that ties into. But if you could make this really simple comparison. So yoga is a very old practice. I don’t know how old it is, but I assume it’s been around for a very, very long time. And if you could compare, say the way in which yoga is practiced in the modern context in the Western world versus what it may have been like to exist in its original context, the pre modern context and that way we can have a framework to work within and then from there, delve into the abuses and the, the power dynamics and all of that that come up in the modern context.
It’s a great place to start. So first of all, if we’re speaking in pre-modern terms or pre 20th century terms, we have to speak of a plurality of yogas and yoga traditions and streams of practice. In general terms, if people are practicing physical postures and breath work and meditation practices prior to the 20th century they’re doing so not in group class format, but in individually instructed, oral instructions, oral instruction transmission: “Here are six or seven poses for you to do. Go away and do them on your own and tell them, come back and tell me what you’ve learned about yourself.” The primary mechanism of learning within the pre 20th century period would have been interoception or, the practitioner’s internal capacity to feel sensations. The sensation of breath, the sensation of bodily orientation in a strange position or a novel position. The sensation of warmth during a breathing exercise. Internal sensations would have been the primary focus and the practices would have done it and been done primarily in isolation. And they would have been done gently. So one of the things that’s come to light in modern research into medieval Hatha yoga would be that the refrain in most of the texts is that the postures are to be performed sanaih, sanaih, or gently, gently. That’s a refrain in a bunch of key texts. And so this whole notion that yoga postures should be strenuous or people should be sweating really hard, or teachers should be climbing on them to prove the power of mind over body or something like that, that has nothing to do with anything prior to the 20th century.
With regard to adjustments or the notion that the teacher would touch the student that has no history prior to the 1930s, probably at all. Nothing whatsoever. There’s nothing traditional about it. What happens? Uh, it to change. All of that is a series of geopolitical, post-colonial and technological changes, that begin to globalize yoga, but according to a particular modern framework. What begins to happen that Indian innovators and modernizers who generally are anti-colonialists and making plans for a new nationalist culture, a new national, ethos — because independence comes in 1947 — begin to think of physical education and physical culture, especially as influenced by Europe, as a way to reinvigorate the Indian body politic. And what happens then is they don’t want to simply import the gymnastics from Sweden or the bodybuilding from Germany or the things that are quite popular actually at the time. They don’t just want to do what the YMCA is teaching in various Indian cities because weirdly, they’re there. So what they do is they look back into their own medieval history for you physical practices that have some relationship to Indian culture, to indigenous culture. And these postures begin to make their way into group class formats that also end up becoming demonstrative in the sense that many of the early Indian yoga teachers of this period — primarily Krishnamacharya, who ends up teaching Pattabhi Jois and BKS Iyengar, who then go on to globalize the entire industry — he’s paid actually by his patron to promote yoga through demonstrations and performances to school boards, town councils, and city squares and stuff like that.
And at the same time, people begin taking photographs and as they take photographs, photography becomes the primary way in which yoga, the idea of yoga is communicated in a transcultural sense. Then we have this transition from the pre 20th century focus on internal bodily sensations to the 20th century, focus on what does the body look like in the posture. And in order to do that, or as that happens, all of these elaborate notions related to bodybuilding, related to gymnastics begin to evolve, that transform the yoga body into something that must perform a virtue through symmetry, through strength, through balance, through all of those sort of physical practices that are now the bread and butter of the industry.
That leads to what I call the landscape of somatic dominance, where the teacher is telling the student how exactly they must organize their bodies in space in order to be good, in order to be true, in order to be awake or enlightened. And then that domination becomes internalized in practitioners as well to the point where people begin trying very hard to perfect postures when these are, these are completely new ideas that have nothing to do with anything that yoga was about prior to the 20th century. And the somatic dominance also becomes explicit through training protocols that involve corporal punishment if there are children involved. And also other forms of physical discipline, including physical adjustments where teachers are manipulating students’ bodies deeper into postures that they can’t attain themselves. And that leads to injury. But it also provides cover for physical assault. And then in the worst cases it provides cover for sexual assault.
So that’s the book that I just published, about how Pattabhi Jois, who was a student of Krishnamacharya, comes out of this environment and then sexually assaults, his students pretty much every day of his working life for about 30 years. And how that’s enabled, covered over whitewashed. And that happens because of cult dynamics, which is the other thing that emerges in this modern period is that we go from very small groups of practitioners kind of learning about postures together to the entrepreneurial and charismatic model of leadership that we see in the modern yoga world.
Just to break this down a little bit, so I think, I don’t know if I said this at the actual beginning of the recording or before…. This is why I wanted to talk to you. I wanted to get this deeper understanding. So I think it’s become more commonly understood that sexual abuse and assault and just bodily violation or you know the violation of someone’s boundaries is far more common within yoga classes, then maybe people would even even…
It’s actually the norm.
It’s actually the norm. And that’s so upsetting, right? I mean, I can’t express how upsetting that really is and especially if you are a yoga practitioner like yourself. So this my question for you. So you’ve been doing this for a very long time. What I find more, almost more disturbing than the actual abuse that I’m seeing is the ways in which people rationalize gloss over, just completely excuse it. Because I see this in family dynamics where you have an abusive father, abusive whoever, and the family just sort of, well, we don’t want to cause any problems. Let’s just pretend it doesn’t exist. And we see that all kinds of group dynamics.
Or it goes farther than that. It goes, let’s pretend that it doesn’t exist. It can flip into well, actually these are signs of love.
Yeah, that’s incredibly disturbing.
And one of the cult researchers that I cite in my book and that I really appreciate as Janja Lalich who describes that particular flip in terms of… her phrase is “bounded choice” or “bounded reality” where the basic premise is that anything that the charismatic leader does is reinterpreted to be of benefit to them, to the group member or to the student or the client or whatever. So if they physically injure you, they’re teaching you something about your body, about the vulnerability of your body. If they sexually assault you, then they’re freeing your psychological hangups that have to do with sexual trauma. If they financially abuse you, then they are helping you get over the illusion that money is worth something. So there’s a number of ways. The ways of abuse rationalization or well-documented within the cult literature and they’re part of the M.O. of how groups like this end up working. I think I interrupted you.
No, I think I was just sort of pointing to… I think I was just saying something about the documentary that came out recently on Netflix about Bikram yoga. And it was interesting watching that because all the interviews they were doing with, with the women that were assaulted by him, and the other people that were there that knew what was going on, but they just, like you said, they rationalize it. They even see it as, Oh, he’s being loving. And how he is as you say, with the body posture corrections or, or touching the body, you know, when you’re writing, for instance, I read this where I think you mentioned an injury that you had where somebody pushed you into a pose more deeply and actually, you know, you injured your back. And you, I think you maybe even said that you rationalized the injury.
Absolutely. The premises of the implied consent space or those somatic dominance space is that the teacher has ownership over your body, but also mystical insight into what your body needs. And so you ostensibly abdicate agency and autonomy at the door. Like that’s the way it’s been over the last 50 years or so. I do want to make the point though, that that’s changing in the culture through some very powerful new social movements that are gaining some traction. Not enough and not fast enough, I don’t think. But, so I’ve had the personal experience of a senior teacher within the Iyengar world, which is kind of like the, I dunno, Harvard of yoga, without warning and without explaining why he was doing what he was doing, he torqued my spine in a very sort of sharp and acute fashion, to the point where there was a sound of Velcro ripping all the way up my spine. It happens so quickly and it’s so sharp and we can have paradoxical injury or pain responses, that give us mixed messages. So in my interviews with practitioners — as you know, I compiled my book and I’ve done other research projects — It’s not uncommon for the practitioner to say that it felt pleasurable to be assaulted in such a way that they would be flooded with adrenaline ori nternal opiates. What I remember is feeling this rush of warmth throughout me, as I fell to the floor actually. And my first thought was: I actually hope he comes back and does that to me on the other side.
And it was by reflecting on that, that I could really understand the capacity within those spaces for what’s known as trauma bonding, or the capacity of a victim of physical violence to actually feel neurologically that what’s better to do in a given circumstance spontaneously is to seek more care from the abuser, or to fawn in front of them or to immediately believe, because the cognitive dissonance is so radical, that what they’ve done is actually loving instead of dangerous or violating. So yeah, that’s a very clear personal experience for me. And I think it’s replicated in many of the elite environments of yoga practice all over the world, especially amongst those who professionalize into the industry because they have to do like really hard trainings with very charismatic people.
But let me turn to why does this person have power in the room? Because that’s where we get closer to the pervasion of cultic dynamics in yoga and Buddhist communities. And I think it’s super important for people who are doing ecological activism to start looking at this carefully. Because in the yoga and Buddhist worlds, there are no scopes of practice. There are no codes of informed consent for why people teach certain things or why teachers suggest interventions for students. There are no regulatory agencies. There are no tests for competency. And so in unregulated environments, the only thing that has real currency is charisma. The only thing that allows a figure, usually a male figure in the yoga and Buddhist worlds to rise to some kind of prominence is the social phenomenon of charisma. And this is not a personal quality of the individual. Uh, it is a social phenomenon. It’s a way in which people respond to a particular kind of activity within a bound group.
And so what I hope my particular study of charismatic leadership and the cultic dynamics that surrounded in the yoga and Buddhist worlds is helpful for as we move deeper into collapse awareness is that we’ll be able to see that in the field of climate crisis discourse, the same kind of landscape applies. There is no sort of measurement for competency. You can’t get a degree in, in collapsology where, where you have peer-reviewed support. There are no regulatory agencies that give you permission to talk about collapsology in a legitimate or a safe way. And if somebody begins to lead a social movement in eco activism that you know, has ethical issues or becomes abusive of its membership, where’s the accountability going to be? It’s kind of like a wide open field, a wild-West field. And I hope that some understanding of what’s happening in a similar field — which is also about waking up to reality, which is also about self regulation, which is also about apparently trying to form healthy communities — I hope that data from that experience over the last 50 years will be useful here because what I see emerging in the movements that I think you and I are like very interested in and that we’re proximal to is we’re seeing the rise of charismatic figures. I’m not saying they have negative intentions. I’m not saying that I distrust any of them, but I am saying that we’ve got to be aware of the power of the charismatic phenomenon in leadership situations. And we have to be aware of how cultic dynamics function so that we don’t tear each other apart as we try to actually, you know, come closer together in community at the end of the world.
That is absolutely what I wanted to draw on in this discussion with you because I see it happening in small ways, I suppose, or an isolated cases. Like you say, there are charismatic figures. I’m not going to name particular people. It’s not really useful. But the point of that is just to say that it’s a couple of things I can see happening here. Within these doomer communities and groups, there’s a lot of amazing support groups, people that are just trying to help process the unfolding process of accepting and coming to terms with what’s happening and what the implications are for the future and all of that. But it’s become really interesting to me. I’ve been really reflecting on this more and more in my life. I grew up in a religious environment in which the apocalypse was a very real thing that within my lifetime, Jesus Christ will come back, the second coming is happening, the anti antichrist will be coming within my lifetime. All of these things, right? I was from a very young age, told this and then.
I did not know that Patrick, I’m sorry.
No, it’s okay. No, it’s just, it’s fine. It’s something that’s incredibly common and I think in the United States, there’s a lot of that happening in general. But what I thought was interesting is that, you know, that was really deeply imprinted in me. So I wonder how much of my interest in the apocalypse is tied to this religion.
Now you just mentioned that you’re not comfortable naming names, but if you’re comfortable with me talking about a particular figure, I’d like to do so, not in a way that like impugns them, but I think it’s really good to have concrete examples. So I’m going to talk about Roger Hallam for a moment who I’ve never met, but who has risen to a kind of prominence within Extinction Rebellion. And here’s what I’ve noticed: he is incredibly compelling for me to listen to. I could listen to him all day. I mean, I’m not sure about that, now. There was a time where I was like: I want to listen. I want to listen to this guy speak. I want to be inspired by his gritty, existentialist realism. I want to soak up his Welsh-green-thumb-organic-farming wisdom, right? Like, I want all of this. I want all of this stuff. And I know because I’ve been in many different groups, that the power of that capacity for articulation and to inspire people is at the heart of why people gather.
Now, here’s the thing, is that when I step back a little bit and I look at the three demands of XR: Tell the truth: that governments have got to declare climate crises, that we have to commit to net zero carbon by 2025, and that we’re going to put citizen assemblies in place in order to make all decisions and depoliticize, this apolitical issue. Um, so great. At first I go, Oh, they actually have a plan, right? Or they actually have a series of policies. But then when you go and dig a little bit deeper and you look at the first principle of “tell the truth”, and then you start looking at how the group has mobilized the research of Chenoweth in a way that’s inaccurate…. In a way that applies an argument about civil disobedience in the overthrow of oppressive regimes and tries to apply it to liberal democracies, for getting people to vote differently or something like that. And you realize that that doesn’t work. And then you realize that the second premise, that we have to get people, we have to get governments to go net zero by 2025 just ain’t gonna happen. Like it’s just not anywhere close to being reasonable to believe that that’s going to happen. And as an aspirational demand it’s okay.
But here’s the thing: how many young people are super-gluing their hands to train rails or whatever in the belief that the Chenoweth research is validly applied in this discourse, and in the belief that it will be possible for net zero to be achieved by 2025. If young people are stirred by charisma to make unreasonable or uninformed choices, we have the beginnings of cultic dynamics. Because what happens is that people are actually deceived by what’s going on. They may not understand that the demands are aspirational. They may not understand that the decision-making process of XR is not transparent. They may not understand that they’re not actually engaging in a community dialogue in which everybody has their cards on the table.
Whenever I’m in an XR environment, and I have a question about policy that I ask, what invariably happens is that the group leader will say, “I can communicate with you about that privately.” I’ve had that answer over and over and over again. And that’s a red flag for me because, because cultic dynamics emerged in secret. They emerge when the membership doesn’t know what the leadership is doing. Does anybody really understand how “holocracy” works or how the decision-making process of XR is actually being deployed? I haven’t met anybody who’s given me an explanation for that and I’ve asked a lot of questions. And so what we have to understand about cultic dynamics — and I’m not saying XR is a cult, I’m saying that these dynamics can begin to emerge where there’s a lot of social charge around a particular issue and where there’s charismatic leadership — cultic dynamics begin to emerge when people do things because they’re deceived.
Do you really need to tell the 19 year old person to get arrested while chanting “We love the police?” While they’re being kettled or while they’re being deprived of their wheelchairs or while they’re not being allowed to go to the bathroom. To what extent do we have middle-aged charismatic figures telling young people to sacrifice themselves on dubious pretences. Also when the money is not transparent — like everything that XR does is, is crowdfunded, right? — I actually appreciate a lot of this movement, but I just want to communicate to the listeners that when you don’t feel that a group is being transparent with you and when there is charismatic leadership at play, follow your instincts and ask really good questions. And if you don’t get answers, then there’s something fishy going on. And if there’s something fishy going on, there might, there’s probably manipulation. And people are probably ending up committing to things that then produce sunken costs, cognitive dissonance, and then they don’t feel like they can back out of. And the three gateways for cultic analysis or standards for assessing cultic dynamics would be deception as to what the group is doing and what the leaders actually want, dependence that people have upon the group, whether it’s emotional, financial, psychological or whatever, and then a dread of leaving. Like, what would you give up if you left? So I hope that that cult analysis language is destigmatized enough through conversations like this that we can honestly look at the health of our communities as we form them in resistance, in the quest to nurture resilience.
I feel like my comment about my own personal history with this, I just want to clarify something really quickly, which is just this: I really want people to acknowledge something about the climate crisis and the existential despair dread that comes with it, that it actually can produce something like, it sounds very strange, but a religious experience. And that’s something that I wanted to just acknowledge. And so particularly with the climate crisis, it’s absolutely real. I’m not discrediting, I’m saying, you know, I’ve made my opinions and my thoughts on it very clear. But I do want to acknowledge that I do get the sense from people that this is like a truly an apocalyptic in the religious sense subject for many people. Um, whether or not you’re like a God fearing person or whatever. It’s not about that particular side of the religious experience.
But it does say something about our general view of human beings and human nature. And I think that our view of human nature can often be so skewed as to make room for what you mentioned there with Extinction Rebellion or other people and other groups that can make space a certain kind of politics, a certain kind of group dynamics, power dynamics that if not adequately addressed, and like you said, having more of this, normalizing the language around cult dynamics, culting behaviors, then we could actually identify it and we can speak out against it and we can then do what we can as activists as those that are conscious of this to steer people away from very abusive group dynamics that don’t really get us anywhere except to just confuse and I guess maybe lead to some sort of abuse as well within these these contexts. It’s something I’m very much on alert now because I think we are shifting right now. I could say that, you’re aware of the data. I feel like we have crossed very specific tipping points just in the past year or two. So I think we’re heading into a state here in the next several years of accelerating change and we don’t know what that’s going to look like or feel like exactly. But we can certainly make an assessment that it’s probably not going to be good for certain.
I just want to honour the fact that you’re transparent about this tendency, within yourself, but also in the general discourse that climate collapsology proposes a kind of spiritual doorway for people. And that’s super important to understand because, I acknowledge that too, it means that for me as well, like it changes everything about my life yet again. And at the same time, I know that once people walk through that doorway, they are in a sociology that has vulnerabilities attached to it, and we’ve got to be really aware of what kind of discourse we’re moving out of and then into.
So one example that is really interesting for me in terms of this transition from a data-driven discussion to a psychologically drip driven discussion is watching what’s happening with Positive Deep Adaptation, and the group inspired by the work of Jem Bendell. So he releases this paper. It’s been downloaded half a million times. I’ve never met him, but that is a charismatic event. He becomes a charismatic figure now suddenly, or at least very quickly. The implications of that paper provoke intense… that’s what the paper is about too. It’s like: I’m familiar with data and I’m an academic and I think that we’ve got to make a transition as data crunchers to this emotional reality that our rational appraisal of things has almost suppressed. And so that’s embedded in the paper. And then people have those responses to the paper as well. And then suddenly he’s catapulted into this position in which it’s almost expected that he’s supposed to provide some sort of psychological wisdom for people. And then he starts doing interviews where like he’s talking to Joanna Macy and they’re talking about feelings and spirituality and how to cope.
And what I’m seeing is that certain climate figures are becoming spiritual leaders. And that might be appropriate. There might be no other way for it to happen. But what I want to say from my experience in the yoga and Buddhism worlds is that when you move into a kind of spiritual leadership, there’s all kinds of things that you want to be aware of because it’s a really vulnerable environment. And the first thing to be aware of is like, what’s your scope of practice? Like what’s your actual expertise? You know, if you’re going to start talking about psychology or psychotherapy or Buddhism in an online format that’s very performative because there’s 50,000 people watching you, what kind of training do you need to do that in a safe way? How are you going to manage aspects of your charisma?
Like, this is something that I want to talk more to Dahr Jamail about because as soon as he starts getting into what he got into with the interview that you did with him, I’m like: people are gonna flock to you, dude. As a kind of sage and I think you’ve earned it. Like, that’s my impression so far. I think you’ve earned it, but I don’t know if there’s anything in your background or your education that’s gonna provide you with, that’s going to prepare you for the amount of bullshit that gets sent your way and the amount of transference and the feelings that that’s going to produce. And whether or not that’s going to be gratifying to you in ways you’re unconscious to.
It’s like: there’s nothing I love more than listening to how he has oriented his life and how his story is going. I’ve never met him in person, but I love this guy and I can imagine that so many other people do as well. And that’s something that I hope he really gets support with because when a lot of people start loving you, weird shit happens. And so, I hope that all of these people, I hope that all of these people get reach out and get support from psychotherapists and people who know, understand group and cultic dynamics and start educating themselves on how do you diffuse that stuff because it’s going to be super important.
You know, the rules would be: Don’t ever speak out of your expertise, ever. Do not speculate. Never ever come close to doing anything that’s deceptive. Make sure your money is completely transparent. If you’re going to sell something, you know, be very clear about why you’re selling something. If you’re going to start leading group classes in something or hosting, talking circles or something like that. Be aware that people train in doing group therapy for years before they’re allowed to do it legally. This stuff isn’t a joke. And then there’s a whole bunch of like really earnest people who are moving into this kind of spiritual territory. And I’m here to tell you that fucking landscape is a mess. And it has been, and it has been over the last 50 years, so I don’t think it needs to continue that way, but, but we can certainly learn a lot, that’s for sure.
I was just smiling and laughing about Dahr in particular. I know him pretty well at this point. So I will say, he’s the one, for instance, I mentioned my interview with Milton Bennett. He’s the one that hooked me up with that guy about culting in particular because Dahr is very conscious of this. And doing his own work in journalism for as long as he has and seeing just this whole spectrum of human nature, the human condition — I’ll speak confidently as his friend that he’s very much in tune with what you’re saying. I hope he listens to this episode and appreciates what we’re saying right now because he and I have had numerous conversations about this very thing.
He is such a great example of the power of integrity becoming potentially becoming a charismatic phenomenon. It’s just like, here’s a guy, he speaks in full paragraphs, right? Broad, beautiful, you know, late-Texan accent that’s been like burnished by all his world travels. And so there’s something super compelling about listening to the guy and that is power, and power makes for responsibility. And so, I’m really happy to hear that he’s tuned into that and not surprised too cause like, you know, he’s super smart.
That’s the thing, right? And that’s the real challenge that I would pose on an individual level to those in these positions that they kind of get thrust into. It’s of course a combination of personal decisions they make to get there, but it’s also thrust upon them and it’s absolutely imperative that it’s your sacred responsibility to not fuck over people in their vulnerabilities, in their most vulnerable space. Like nothing is more reprehensible to me and more disgusting, then when I hear about these yoga practitioners you mentioned taking advantage of women in particular, but human beings in a very general sense in their most vulnerable spaces, literally the most vulnerable physical position they could be in.
Understanding trauma on a certain level, it really deeply, it’s repulsive and even makes me feel almost violent in my reaction to it because it’s really the worst thing a person can do. It’s one thing to be able to work with somebody and be abusive on almost a level playing field, if that makes sense. Like you’re you and I’m me and I’m going to be abusive. It’s another thing when you take advantage of people in these very vulnerable spaces, which is what these people do. And so I think, just to tie this into the climate crisis and the very vulnerable spaces that people are entering into, if you are a person that is engaging with this material on a spiritual level, on a scientific level, however you’re doing it I or anybody in my work that I respect, if we sense that you’re a snake oil salesman or that you’re trying to take advantage of people’s vulnerability, I promise you that we’ll call you out publicly. Like it has to be done.
Matthew, you’re so good at that. I read this article that you published about going to, I think it was back in 2017 I wish I could remember the name of it. You went to a yoga class, in the capacity of writing your book and being a journalist, you were like, you experienced trauma-bonding and you witnessed it in a group dynamic and that person, that yoga practitioner was calling you out and abusing you in front of everybody. And like I have no patience for that shit anymore or ever. I mean, I guess I’ve come to a place personally where I’m like, I have no patience for that. So I think specifically in the work that I’m doing with this podcast, in my own capacities with it there has to be a point where you have to call people out in a good way. I mean, there’s a way to do it where it’s appropriate, but there’s a way to do it where you’re able to articulate and point to this very specific reasons why these people are taking advantage of others in their most vulnerable states. That is not your responsibility. That is not what you’re supposed to be doing right now. And so I just want to say that clearly now that we’re talking about this particular subject, that that’s my, that’s my end of it.
And the vulnerability of the yoga posture that the person is in and then is assaulted… I think there’s a real analogy there. It’s a microcosm of the sort of catatonic, sometimes paralyzed and fetal position of grief and despair that many people feel themselves to be is all the time in relation to climate collapse. People are, people are super vulnerable and the leaders that they reached to have to be like, exemplary and their ethics and in their standard of care. And one thing that I want to… I don’t know how much more time you have, but I wanted to make sure too that I highlighted the, the potential vulnerability of how Buddhist and yoga discourse might start to enter — I think it’s already started to enter —eco-activism. I mean, there’s some good parts to that. So I think the work of Joanna Macy is really effective and it’s been helpful for so many people. Catherine Ingram is also well-learned in Buddhism, and I think she uses that in a really good way.
But I want people to know that Buddhist communities over the last 30 or 40 years have been racked by scandal and abuse. And most of that is unacknowledged or unresolved. And so when Buddhist teachers start showing up in ecoactivist spaces, providing wisdom or knowledge or what have you, some of that might be really useful, but I want people to be aware and vigilant to the fact that if organizing principles begin to grow around these figures, you want to look carefully at where they’re coming from. Because when Buddhist communities fall apart because of abuse crises, those teachers have to go somewhere. They’ve got to work somewhere else.
And what I’m starting to see is some of those folks showing up in eco-activism circles because that’s where they can sell their books or their programs or their meditations or whatever. And so just take things with a grain of salt, right? Like, I don’t wanna, you know, make people freaked out about everybody else because there’s enough horizontal hostility. But, you know, if somebody is claiming to have answers with regard to community health and critical thinking, take a look at where they’re coming from because, you know, if they belong to the Shambhala community or the Rigpa Buddhist community or something like that, then you know, you will want to know what kind of work they did to recover from the compromise of that institutional abuse.
I would ask this of you actually, if you could maybe provide something. So this could fit really easily within these Buddhist communities, yoga communities, and in these eco activist circles as well… When it comes to these dynamics, you mentioned, if there are things that maybe very specific signs of things that people can look out for. Because we’re talking about it in pretty general sense. We have some specific examples that are may very particular to yoga practitioners specifically with body and consent and boundaries and all of this, but maybe within a more general sense. So if people can have a takeaway, I guess you could say from this discussion of like what to look out for, both in positive ways. I think you mentioned something about Extinction Rebellion in a general sense: transparency is extremely important in these group settings and in these organizations. I completely agree. Look out for that, have respect for that. Try to embody that. If you are in fact leading a group, be very transparent in what you do know and what you don’t know. Don’t pretend to be something you’re not. Don’t pretend to be an expert in something you’re not. But as far as like abusive, potentially abusive, um, group dynamics, I mean, what can you point people towards?
A very simple model for looking at a group dynamics from a cultic studies perspective would be Steve Hassan’s BITE model where he describes the elements of behavioral, informational, thought, and emotion control. There are lists of examples that he provides where you can pretty easily sort of assess whether or not the group that you’re involved with is asking you to behave, asking you to control any of those aspects of your experience. Cathleen Mann has a model called the MIND model where, uh, she describes the group dynamics of manipulation, negation and deception. And then the “I” I’m forgetting, that’s embarrassing, but you can look up Cathleen Mann and the MIND model.
Probably the most breakthrough text that I’ve come across in terms of de-stigmatizing normalizing and making more accessible, the whole cult studies genre is Love Terror and Brainwashing by Alexandra Stein where she uses the principles of attachment theory to describe how cultic organizations rewire members for a disorganized attachment, which in the simplest terms is really the confusion between love and terror.And this speaks a lot to the capacity for cultic groups to nurture trauma bonding where members are actually always feel compelled to move towards the abuser because they also believe that the abuser is providing love or an answer or a safe Haven. So there are resources that people can look for.
You’ve really skillfully summed up the need for looking at transparency. The transparency also should be about where the leader is coming from, what their background is and what they actually have competency in speaking about. In the yoga and Buddhist worlds, it’s really hard to suss out who knows what because often people are quoting from Sanskrit or Pali or Tibetan and it’s hard for most people to know whether they’re competent or not. So I think that that climate science can actually be manipulable in the same way. People who have research positions where they have a certain level of education can be automatically endowed with a kind of authority that lay people can’t really assess. So that’s something to look at too.
If people become more aware of the processes of idealization and transference and countertransference — that’s very helpful that if you get involved in a group where the leadership or the ideology is framed as being total or all-good or unquestionable. That’s really difficult if you can’t ask questions openly, if you can’t offer critique in a way that’s received with openness. These are red flags.
I wrote this article about how Buddhist organizations and yoga organizations over the last 50 years have been plagued by abuse histories. I think it was the title was like, if you’re an eco-activist looking to Buddhism for answers, here’s some things to be aware of. And it wasn’t about Buddhism, it was about Buddhist organizations and about how many of them have failed their members in terms of safety and protection. I posted that article to Positive Deep Adaptation and there was nothing but, “Hey, thanks. That’s really good information. Wow. That really opened my eyes to something. I’m really grateful for that. That’s really cool.”
Then I posted it to Extinction Rebellion Buddhists page and there was a discussion about whether or not they were going to delete it — a long discussion about like whether my article was disrespecting the Dharma or something like that. That’s not a good sign. Like, you’re kind of proving my point guys.
And so if there’s resistance to critique or if people want to privatize difficult discussions, move them offline, or situations where they’re out of the public eye, that’s a red flag. If there seems to be a concentration of social power that’s gathering around an ideology, you know, start asking questions, right? Like: Did you want to belong to a human community or did you want to belong to an activist community? You know, does it make sense to really pour money into somebody’s online platform who’s located in England when you don’t even know who your neighbours are? You know what I mean? So yeah: think locally, be aware of the impact of charisma, demand transparency, make sure that you can ask questions, and then you’re probably going to be more confident that you’re in a power-sharing environment, instead of a manipulative environment.
My little thing I would say is: Be an anarchist question authority. You know, just question everything. I mean, obviously there’s a point where that’s obnoxious and not really helpful, but just be aware that we live in a very peculiar time. This is very peculiar time that we’re in. Just have your wits about you. I know it’s difficult. This is a very difficult time to be alive, I would say for its own very specific reasons, but have your wits about you and there’s plenty of people like I think you and probably many others that you’ve cited as well that provide the tools and the frameworks to understand these things. And so I just asked people to.
Hopefully, hopefully a little bit, yes.
Well I think your, your writing is beautiful and that you come from a deeply compassionate place. And I imagine for you it was as much a personal journey as anything else to come to terms with these things. So I do admire you for that. That does take strength and courage. You are calling out people very specifically for their abuses and abusive people act abusively. So when you start to really talk openly about it, it creates all kinds of blowback. So I do want to say I admire you for that courage that you have demonstrated in that.
Thank you Patrick and just returning the compliment. I think you’re doing great work. It’s a great podcast, amazing series of people. And it’s changed my life for the better. So thank you for that.
2019 Yoga/Buddhism Accountability Roundup | Like Waiting for Government Action on Climate Catastrophe
In the aftermath of Julie Salter’s viral testimony that Swami Vishnudevananda (b. Kuttan Nair 1927, d. 1993) sexually used and abused her for three years while she was his personal assistant, the Sivananda Yoga administration has released a number of statements, one of which asks other complainants to email a Montreal PR firm.
Here’s Salter’s testimony:
The International Sivananda Yoga and Vedanta Centres homepages now feature a pop-up statement, dated December 16th, committing to “honesty and transparency” and promising the appointment of an independent investigator within “a few days”. This hasn’t happened yet.
On December 25th, 3H0 recording artist Snatam Kaur gave a concert of devotional music at the Sivananda Yoga Bahamas ashram with senior Sivananda dignitaries in attendance. She sat in front of a larger-than-life portrait of Nair, and opened by quoting her guru Yogi Bhajan, also accused of sexually abusing his secretaries who worked for years for little or no pay. In a 2017 interview, Kaur lauded Bhajan as “very devout Sikh”.
Here’s the latest communication from the Sivananda administration:
Sivananda students around the world — including the reported 45K graduates from the organization’s signature Teacher Training Course — who are wondering how the accountability process may unfold might benefit from a brief review of institutional abuse crises in the yoga and Buddhism worlds from this past year alone, and how the organizations have responded.
The publication of my book this past March brought together the testimonies of sixteen women who describe Ashtanga Yoga founder Pattabhi Jois sexually assaulting them under the guise of “yoga adjustments” between 1982 and 2002. Prior to the book, Jois survivors Anneke Lucas, Karen Rain, and Jubilee Cooke had all published their testimonies independently. Rain and Cooke went on to publish what is now the white paper on how yoga institutions should respond to abuse.
While some individual Ashtanga leaders have published statements of accountability and allyship with the Jois survivors, no official statement has been made to date by the Jois family or by any entity that would represent Ashtanga Yoga worldwide. Sharath Rangaswamy, Jois’s grandson and inheritor of the family business, issued a rambling personal statement on Instagram that’s now deleted. (Reprinted here. More commentary here.)
No-one in the Ashtanga world has taken steps to commission an independent investigation, or to raise reparations funds for survivors. Meanwhile, senior Ashtanga figures like Eddie Stern continue to obfuscate what they knew and when.
IYNAUS and RIMYI (two influential arms of the Iyengar Yoga global body) gather together considerably more administrative power than anything found in the Ashtanga world. After their botched attempt to internally investigate testimony against Manouso Manos was exposed, they hired an independent investigator who found the testimony credible.
IYNAUS and RIMYI delisted Manos, and barred him from using the name “Iyengar” in association with his continued teaching. He’s doing it anyway in Russia. Recently, he gave a workshop at a secret location in Los Angeles, attended mainly by other Iyengar teachers:
No concrete efforts have yet been made by the organization to raise reparations funds for survivors.
Ten months after an independent investigation found that Shambhala leader Mipham Mukpo had committed sexual misconduct (even though many people refused to participate in the investigation), the Shambhala Interim Board has announced that it supports the return of Mukpo from “retreat” in Nepal to bestow Tantric initiations on devotees this coming summer. The initiated practices involve participants visualizing Mukpo as a divine being.
The announcement also comes after a group of Mukpo’s former aides released a scathing description of his assaultive behaviour over the years.
In Mukpo’s own statement of intentions regarding the upcoming retreat, he makes no mention of the testimony against him, nor of any steps he has taken to mitigate further harm. Survivors and disillusioned members mocked Mukpo’s statement on reddit.
While Shambhala entities continue to fundraise for various projects, no concrete efforts have yet been made by the organization to raise reparations funds for survivors.
There’s a warrant out for Choudhury for failure to pay the first of what will likely be many judgments against him.
No concrete efforts have yet been made by the organization to raise reparations funds for survivors.
Sogyal Lakar died in exile in August. The year before, an independent investigation found that Lakar had sexually, physically, and psychologically abused many students over decades. The report came one year after eight former devotees described their experiences.
No concrete efforts have yet been made by the organization to raise reparations funds for survivors.
Even when organizations do a seemingly good job at investigating and confirming abuse testimony, we’re not seeing mitigation and reparations. For members of the Shambhala, Iyengar, and Rigpa communities, this might feel especially demoralizing — that the organizations to which many have committed the best years of their lives have mounted transparency campaigns that ultimately allow for the return to business-as-usual.
Opinion: It’s really like waiting for world leaders in the Global North to take decisive action on the climate crisis. They have the science, yet they are powerless, feckless, or nihilistic in response to the momentum of the culture. Whatever initiatives are taken are ineffectual or performative.
I don’t have answers here, but the stalemate does make me think of two things: how cultic organizations are designed to self-perpetuate in part by restricting outside input and avoiding outside scrutiny. Secondly, it makes me think of the distinction that activists like Aric McBay make between those who believe that corrupt systems can change, and those who don’t. I’ll end therefore with two grafs from McBay’s Full Spectrum Resistance.
Many of our [organizing] obstacles have been part of the culture(s) of the left. So I should clarify some of the terms I’ve been using, especially liberal and radical. Some people use radical as a synonym for “extreme,” but that’s misleading. The word radical originates in Latin, where it means “of the roots”—as in, from the grassroots, or root problems. Radicals see the dominant culture as having deep-seated problems that require fundamental changes to fix. They want to uproot entrenched power structures like apartheid, or patriarchy, or capitalism. As such, they tend to advocate (or at least support) political action that falls outside of what the political establishment considers acceptable. (Phil Berrigan’s argument that “if voting changed anything it would be illegal” is something radicals understand well.)
Liberals, in contrast, see the problems in society as comparatively superficial. They accept most of the established power structures of society—say, corporations or the parliamentary state—and they seek to work within those structures to make change. Liberals try to use “representative” systems of political power, either by electing someone sympathetic to them or by persuading someone already in power to grant concessions. Radicals may do this, at times, but radicals also like to build up their own community power and create movements that can exert political force more directly.
— Loc. 803.
So: here’s to a radical 2020 for our spiritual communities, and life on earth.
Last week, I released the following video of the late Maty Ezraty puts Eddie Stern at a meeting of senior students in Mysore in the early 1990s, at which Jois’s abuses were openly discussed and acknowledged.
Ezraty recalls that she and Chuck Miller decided at that time to actively distance themselves from Jois. Stern went on to help Jois publish a book, to host Jois at U.S. events, and co-edit Guruji, a collection of interviews that glorify Jois.
Yesterday, Eddie Stern released a statement about the criminality of Pattabhi Jois. The statement is co-signed by his partner Jocelyne and can be found here on his site.
Through present-tense phrases like “The stories that are being reported on the actions of Pattabhi Jois…”, the Sterns imply that they have only become aware of Jois’s abuses recently, or since survivors like Anneke Lucas and Karen Rain have spoken up.
The Sterns’ statement was simultaneously published with this podcast excerpt with Eddie Stern, hosted by Leanne Woehlke.
In the podcast, Stern says:
I’ve read the reports of these women. I didn’t know what he was doing. And after reading the book, I could confidently know that — the Matthew Remski book — I could really confidently say I didn’t know about those things.
However, this same book recounts how Anneke Lucas went to Stern in 2001 after Jois assaulted her in New York. Here’s the relevant excerpt:
Anneke said that after Jois had returned to India, she went to Eddie Stern to report the groping incident. He was Jois’s host, after all.
According to Anneke, Stern’s wife – another senior Jois student – was also at the meeting.
“Eddie referred to ‘Guruji’s unfortunate problem’,” Anneke said, “apologized and told me I had done the right thing. His wife also offered words of sympathy.
“At the time,” Anneke said, “I was satisfied with the acknowledgment alone. But Eddie carries his share of responsibility by failing to warn me and others, and by persisting in spreading an image of Pattabhi Jois as though he was an enlightened guru.”
Nine years later, Anneke showed Stern a draft of the article she was about to publish.
“Eddie’s first question was ‘Why do you want to humiliate him like that?’ to which I answered: ‘He humiliated himself.’ Eddie agreed with me. (PAAIC, p. 319)
Additionally, Stern told me via email in July of 2016 that he had flagged the infamous Jois adjustment video as inappropriate content. The video was subsequently deleted from Vimeo, but is now reposted here (trigger warning).
“I am very happy that they pulled it down,” he wrote, “and I hope that you will reconsider the need to continue using that video to prove/make some kind of a point.”
In his open letter to John Scott, Guy Donahaye says that Stern was a source for confirming Jois’s assaults:
Eddie Stern acknowledged the abuse and supported my action although he has as yet been unable to make a proper public statement. He is also the person I turned to for confirmation about KPJ’s actions after Matthew Remski had contacted me.
The structure of the podcast focuses on Stern’s own pain and concerns that he has been “targeted” for enabling Jois over the years. He describes being in therapy, and how he’s learning to listen.
Woehlke expresses sympathy over Stern being held responsible for Jois’s actions. She worries aloud that the discourse over Jois’s criminality will “undermine the good of a practice that can help so many people and especially someone like yourself who has been one of the primary teachers of this form of the Ashtanga tradition.”
Stern told Woelke that the movement to remove images of Pattabhi Jois from shalas — initiated by Jois survivors like Karen Rain and Jubilee Cooke — constitutes a form of denialism:
I don’t think it should be brushed under the rug, which is what I believe people want to do when they want to take Pattabhi Jois’s photo off the wall and stop using the opening prayer.
Like, okay, you can’t just sweep the guru under the carpet and then like, everything’s going to get better.
When Woehlke and Stern begin to discuss solutions to the crisis, he has this to say about the consent movement in modern yoga:
I don’t know if consent cards are like the answer. Um, you know, I see people selling consent carbs like all over the place now and I’m like, what are you turning sexual abuse into another industry? And it’s just really weird to me. That cuts off an important line of communication to where, you know, I don’t have to, you know, I don’t want to, I don’t want to sound, say the wrong way, but by using a card and just putting it on your mat, all of a sudden now you’re not communicating with the person who’s supposed to be your teacher. You just start putting out a stop sign there. One of the reasons I think that we have so many problems in our societies because of difficulty communicating. Like we don’t know how to communicate. Um, in a lot of ways.
And sometimes there’s a lot of fear, there’s a lot of whatever. So I just question and I wonder: would working on communication be a better way to surmount these problems rather than something like consent cards? If people really like consent cards cause they, they’re truly not able to verbalize it, I don’t want to remove that from them. Um, I, I just am going to make that observation that people are turning sexual abuse into another industry by selling things like consent cards.
Those who leave or escape from high-demand yoga groups seem to reorganize through two successive demographic splits.
The first split separates out those who must ghost out of the industry altogether to heal themselves and start over. Their drive to escape might be driven by the fact that they were abused too severely by the group to recover. There can be other factors as well, such as whether they have a pathway towards a different social circle and life, or whether they retained interests and skills outside of the group.
The second split occurs between those who stay within the industry, often because they need to.
I’ll use the Anusara example here, but you could substitute in many different organizations. I’ll call the splinter groups Category 1 & 2.
Category 1 is made up of those who figured out that John Friend created something toxic from top to bottom. They emerged with the drive to completely reorient themselves in relationship to their practice and self-understanding. It was a lot of hard work, and very lonely, because the rule book had been torn up. They might go through associations with other groups, and successive disillusionments as they detect similar patterns emerging. It takes them a long time to realize that the wisdom of disappointment has made them into leaders. I’ve seen many Category 1 people also start and follow through with training in a licensed therapeutic skill.
Category 2 consists of those who believed that Friend created something really awesome and it was just a damn shame that he let it get to his head or his ego or something and made “mistakes”.
Category 2 goes on to basically replicate the dynamics they learned in the high-demand group, but with enough savvy to remain just above social reproof. They might apply these strategies to leading a new yoga group, owning a studio, or they’ll skip sideways into an MLM (which gives you a sense of how they were thinking about yoga training to begin with).
The mechanisms are the same: puff yourself up in the name of inspiring others, whether you can follow through or not. For Category 2 people, charisma is not something to interrogate but to domesticate. Weber called it “routinization”. If they remove the rough edges it’ll all work out.
To switch examples for a moment, Category 2 people in the Ashtanga world seem to believe that they can keep all of the elements of Jois’s scheme — the implied consent, the absence of informed consent, the performative stress, the mystifications around the value of the postures and their relationships to spiritual development — and somehow it will all be cleaned up if they manage to not assault anyone. They may even honestly believe they’ve never injured anyone through cranking adjustments. The more savvy ones add stuff like brand-new concerns over cultural appropriation. Or they contort themselves into oblivion pretending that going to Mysore every year is coherent with feminism.
In the worst cases, Category 2 people form their own high-demand groups. The best recent example is Reggie Ray and his alleged coercive control over Dharma Ocean. Ray broke away from Shambhala.
It’s way better to work with (and especially for, if you’re junior) Category 1 people. They tend to be hyper-aware of issues of power and fairness, and if they have blindspots they’re happy to see and acknowledge them, and then take steps to mitigate. You’ll also find that they’re doing a wide range of supportive work within the industry, often for little to no pay. They’re writing, researching, mentoring, creating content that has no concrete market value.
Category 2 people, by contrast, fold all of their labour back into brand-building.
One thing that makes Category 2 people crappy to work with or for is that they view themselves as the ethical exiles of the first group — those who were doing Anusara “right”, those who weren’t so stupid as to have sex with their downline and have weed trafficked in over state lines. They were the ones who were able to see the value in the method and not screw it up with their selfish desires.
This particular grandiosity can make Category 2 people impervious to critique. I’ve noticed their politics can become even more neoliberal and responsibilist, because after all, they were individually able to steer clear of John’s train wreck, and they did that through their own grit and gumption, right?
This also means that many many maintain a long-term subtle contempt for Category 1 people who didn’t “get over it”, or who foster a “victim mentality”. Accordingly, they’ll be more resistant than Category 1 folks to new information about their student’s needs. If they jump on the trauma-sensitive train or start using woke-talk it will be because it’s a good biz plan.
In the cult literature, it’s widely accepted that there are no predictors for who gets recruited and who doesn’t. Similarly, I doubt there would be any predictors around who branches off into Category 1 and Category 2.
But if I were to speculate, I’d imagine that, while there might be psychological factors at play, Category 2 people were protected and supported by types of social privilege that insulated them from full disillusionment when the high-demand group fell apart. They had capital to move on with, for instance. Or perhaps they were always socially separated from those lower down in the group, and so they never had to learn from them about how terribly unequal things were.
Another factor might be that Category 2 people were more active as enablers in the original group (whereas Category 1 people might have done more bystanding), and so are better defended against self-examination. It’s a lot harder to cop to the fact that you enabled than to the fact that you were a bystander.
Bystanding in itself is an “off” feeling, through which it’s easier to access shame and perhaps even guilt. Those feelings are gold for disillusionment.
Somehow, the Category 1 person permitted themselves to be fully and wholly disillusioned, to such an extent that they would never be able again to rebuild in the same way.
Maybe disillusionment is not just something that happens. Maybe it’s also a skill that can be developed.
Psst: here’s a plug for my online seminar, coming up in February!
1. It’s Not Just Men
In YTT groups, I introduce the theme that the last century of global yoga has largely run on the fuel of “somatic dominance” by which teachers assume possession and authority over student’s bodies, and the body itself is an object of surveillance and discipline that must perform its virtue.
In discussion, most groups rightly dive into truths about male violence, male charisma, bullying, and sexual assault.
So then I trouble the gendering of that story a little by showing clips from this Jivamukti class from 2014. Check out the teacher’s entrance into the space after about 20 minutes of fawning speeches.
Take a look at that bowing sequence. You can’t see the whole room but I assure you everyone is bowing right back in this parody of Tibetan monkdom. I know that’s where it’s from because they started the bowing thing after teaming up with Michael Roach over a decade ago. But he never took it that far. The teacher seems to be making intrusive eye contact with every person in the room; Roach never bothered with that. (Maybe he didn’t have to, being male and 6’+, 200+ lbs.)
After I show the clip I ask:
What would it cost you socially to be in that room and not mirror the teacher with the bowing thing?
What would it cost you to chew gum, slouch on your mat, blow a fart, or yell out “Hey, are we getting started yet or WHAT”?
People get the point. They know they would feel way out of line, which is another way of saying that they’d feel controlled.
What I believe the teacher is doing here, unconsciously but habitually, is establishing a coerced “habitus” (via Bourdieu, very nice intro video below), or rules of somatic behaviour or ethos for that space.
Right from the beginning of class, there is a contagious way to be there. It’s sophisticated, because it looks like respect, surrender, and even gentleness. And the teacher and some students might even feel all those things deeply and authentically. But the impact is that the people in that room who show strong buy-in for what she’s doing are now under her somatic influence.
And so when, inexplicably, she lies fully on top of women at 1:57 and 1:58 or sits right down on the thighs of a woman in supta virasana at time cue 1:11:50, and gives a lecture about not finding fault in others, it’s just par for the course. Implied consent, and intimacy conflated with care.
If there’s a next stage in examining somatic dominance in Yogaland, it might involve seeing how it translated, in cycles, between generations and across genders in the 1980s and 90s, how it could be coded to express female strength and empowerment (even though it was an overflow of male violence), and how this further impeded survivors of Jois, Manos and the rest from being heard.
2. What Does Somatic Dominance Feel Like When You’re Doing It?
How would you know if your somatic dominance circuits were turned on? I’m sure it feels different for everyone, but here’s how it felt for me.
I’m using the past tense, not because I’m totally over it, but because it’s very easy to remember how I did it when I was teaching active yoga classes, which I haven’t done since about 2014. I also remember having to stop teaching in part because I was becoming more aware of my somatic dominance tendencies.
I remember distinctly crossing over a threshold into the teaching space. It could have been in the parking lot, at the front door, or in the lobby. If the studio was particularly modern and sleek and minimalist, the feeling was more acute: in some way the bare lines and white walls and flower arrangement were contagious with a kind of meticulous aesthetic attention that called perfection out of my body. I remember holding my breath more, standing up even more straight, feeling my skin glaze over with smooth hardness.
In some ways I’m describing basic somatic defensiveness via grandiosity, and I would have felt a degree of these things when stepping into any professional environment. If there was a suit involved it would have started at home with subtle fretting over how crisp my collar was going to stay on the commute — the collar signifying my armored skin.
But what made this particularly yoga-related was that as I was both holding my breath and puffing myself up, I was also aware of the pre-verbal tape-loop of all of the Iyengar instructions that were then embedded in my back-brain. In other words: I was turning basic social discomfort and self-defensiveness into a somatic virtue — a sign of transcendence over those very things.
I never met Iyengar but I’ve heard enough and I’ve met enough men like him that my gut says there were threads of intense social awkwardness and maybe even shame that the demonstration of asana mastery helped him overpower.
So the first somatic dominance is over myself. How does it pivot to take power over others?
Of the thousands of students I encountered in my classes, I’ll imagine here someone generic: male or female doesn’t matter. As soon as I instinctually identified that this person was NOT as erect as I was, I remember turning towards them and subtly doubling down, both trying to model something, and encouraging them to mirror me. I remember now with some shame the sense of gratification I had when they did mirror me, either then or in the class, and I understood it then as a good thing: that I had inspired a new confidence. But perhaps what I did in some if not many instances is that I procured a kind of compliance, and the gratification was not from having given them something, but from having their mirroring of me make me feel better about my own strained efforts to achieve comfort and dignity.
And the irony is that the person who came in slouchy or melancholic may well have been far healthier than I in their psyche-soma. If they were feeling crushed and drained of dignity that’s one thing — and I assumed this was the case for everyone — but if they were just being themselves in somatic honesty, and were able to do that because they were less bound to our systems of self-objectification, I actually disrupted that out of a projective need for bodily validation. I created a problem were there was none, and I called it yoga or mindfulness, and I got paid.
All of this took place on a subtle level that created a nameless power dynamic that normalized the standard adjustments I then went on to apply, without clear consent or even the notion of what clear consent would mean or how it could be affirmative or informed.
One more thing about how stealthy this was. We used to say “strong and soft”, which I suppose echoed the old “sthiram sukham”, and gave me at least a sense of somatic continuity with an ancient nobility. I still appreciate this double instruction, but I think it can nurture the seeds of what I’m describing above:
In the Iyengar instructions, the strength and firmness was always built first, upwards from the ground. Strong feet, knees like so, quads engaged, do something something with your perineum and navel, micromanage you rib cage and especially your floaty ribs and don’t forget the mystical kidneys etc. And after this pillar of nobility or self-defence was built, the teacher would ask you to “soften your eyes”.
What was the eye thing about? It felt interesting to have this play of tension between skeletal firmness and eyeball softness, so there was that. But I also think the soft eyes managed to spiritualize or Mona-Lisa-ize the entire presentation. So that you could be armored but also inviting and wise. So that if you were actually defending your body against your neighbour with a thousand muscular actions in your butt, you could also affect openness and intimacy with the person you were asking to mirror you.
What does this all have to do with charisma?
As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, charisma doesn’t have to look like anything in particular. It’s not how you hold yourself or defend yourself, as I’ve described here.
I believe that charisma is the somatically contagious feedback loop that initiates when all of the stuff I’ve described above begins to work to the advantage of the person performing it. And so they escalate it. Before long, it becomes their “method”. The content doesn’t matter. It could be Iyengar or it could be Ru Paul or it could be Donald Trump: charisma is the commodification of somatic defence, which, at a certain saturation point, can flip into habitual bullying.
3. Somatic Dominance, Buddhist-Style
In Yogaland, somatic dominance is explicitly part of the wellness programme, where posture is the sign of multiple levels of attainment. While lately I’m pretty consistent about pointing these critiques at “Yoga/Buddhism”, I’d like to bring out the “Buddhism” presentations of somatic dominance a little more clearly.
There’s no doubt that sitting with relative stability and stillness makes sense for whatever meditation is for whoever is practicing it. So I’m not talking here about what people do when they’re sitting at home. I’m talking about how the posture of meditation gets translated in group settings into the somatics of control. How things like stillness, erectness, a wide and/or vacant gaze, a quizzical smile — can all be virally transmitted through a group so that suddenly it feels taboo to slouch, even if by slouching you would relieve the pain in your spine.
In the crudest examples, the Zen master literally beats you with a stick to force your posture into compliance. But how much more effective is it if you can encourage the student to straighten themselves, through manners alone?
I remember distinctly walking into Karme Choling in about 1995 and developing a wicked headache and backache from sitting up way too straight to listen to the warrior talk. I had no idea what was going on inside me, and no tools for investigating it. It would be decades before I understood the coercive stiffness at the root of the culture and its links to repression.
Trungpa himself modelled upright posture in most of his talks. They called him “perky”, “inscrutable”, “spacious” and other things, when the truth was that he had to maintain that posture as a defence against being shit-faced drunk most of the time. He was erect because if he wasn’t he’d fall over. Of course he had to bring this somatic control into all areas of life. I’m sure teaching people to use utensils as though they were on the set of Downton Abbey helped keep a lot of them from keeling over into their plates.
When the next year I was brought to a Michael Roach event I interpreted the same feelings of erectness as excitement or “receptivity”, especially in relation to the more natural transference that overcame me. The Shambhala shrine room explicitly reminded me of 1970s Sicilian Catholic kitsch, so I was less inclined to interpret the Shambhala headache positively. Michael’s group was fringey and boho, so the headache I got from all the sitting there was more easily interpreted as a “blockage” related to my own hang-ups.
If I had had the tools I would have understood that what was really happening was a new form of repressive behavioural control. There were proper ways to be in Michael’s presence. You could deviate from those ways in your body if the deviations expressed special insight or closeness to him. That’s why we watched Ian Thorson tremble and spasm and bark and quiver and sometimes even fall over out of meditation posture and chalked it all up to his devotion to Michael tickling his kundalini. I didn’t know him in the last ten years of his life, but back then I don’t remember anyone asking whether he needed medical care.
Most of us weren’t as “blessed” as Ian. We sat upright and still and got filled up with instructions to such an extent that there was no room for internal questioning, let alone breaking the spell in the room with any kind of challenge.
This happened in other contexts as well, subtler ones, and way closer to home. I remember the first time I hired my friend Michael Stone to teach at Yoga Festival Toronto. I passed by the room as they were setting up and 50 people surrounded him, all sitting stock still, mirroring him, arranged like a Renaissance painting. This is just part of what made his chaotic death so shocking to almost everyone.
As for myself: I remember leading meditation classes where I would open with the basic instructions about sitting upright, but then also model that uprightness myself, and lay it on thicker than I actually felt like doing, and then continued to straighten and ground and whatever as the people around me mirrored me.
And I kept going as I felt the relief of having others validate the sublimation of my bodily anxiety and shame.
That Time Manouso Manos Started a Yoga Class with a Verbal Attack And Showed How Trauma Bonding Works
Special thanks to Cassie Jackson, who was there that day and helped confirm many details. Her testimony of Manos assaulting her is included in the IYNAUS investigative report on pages 15-17.
In January of 2017 I emailed Manouso Manos to request an interview. At that time, my research for the book that eventually focused on Jois and Ashtanga Yoga was casting a wider net. The working title back then was Shadow Pose: Trauma and Healing in the Cult of Modern Yoga.
I was upfront and honest about the project. I told him I was investigating intergenerational trauma in the yoga world, and would be citing the 1991 report on allegations of sexual assault against him. I wrote that I wanted to ask him if or how he had changed over the years, and how he understood his teaching within the legacy of BKS Iyengar.
This was about ten months before I heard about the sexual assault claim Ann Tapsell West was preparing to file against Manos, which was first dismissed by the IYNAUS Ethics Committee, and then substantiated by an independent investigator.
When I wrote to Manos I did not know that there were or would be contemporary allegations against him. I also didn’t consider or research sexual offender recidivism. In this light, my initial query was naive.
Manos’s curt responses included a threat to take me to court for writing about him from the public record. Then, paradoxically, he invited me me to come to one of his classes for free.
So I made plan to go. I didn’t expect a warm welcome. But I didn’t expect to be ambushed. Continue reading “That Time Manouso Manos Started a Yoga Class with a Verbal Attack And Showed How Trauma Bonding Works”
For the minority of yoga teachers (and smaller minority of yoga consumers) who have woken up to the fact that somatic dominance is a primary currency in commodified yoga, the Johnny Kest scene in the recent NYT/FX/Hulu doc was outrageous, but also recognizable and predictable.
There’s been a lot of great commentary on it already — most of it nailing down how the embodied entitlement of implied-consent “adjustments” merges with Kest’s patronizing shutdowns of the very straightforward feedback given by the women who were able to speak in the moment.
Theodora Wildcroft remarked that this is the kind of thing that exposes the mainstream industry as unworthy of public service — a blow to everyone moving in that direction. There will be much more to say on that point.
This is important to repeat: it’s bad enough that Jois’s crimes were hidden, now we see clearly that the invisibility of Jois’s crimes has enabled brand profitability for teachers of Ashtanga and beyond. In the meantime, Jois survivors have left careers, suffered health problems, and racked up therapy bills.It was clear to me years ago that this wicked calculus would put Jois’s survivors in class action territory if it were not for the fact that those who have profited on Jois’s name aren’t represented by any suable organization.
The documentary does not answer the question of whether Kest has committed assault. But it does show how easily he could.
Kest is operating in a somatic environment normalized by Jois, and which neither the industry around him nor its trade associations have challenged in any accountable way. The environment has changed in that adjustments have been standardized and domesticated within training systems, and the somatic dominance has crossed a gender line. But the basic premises remain. Here’s an incomplete List:
- The teacher assumes dominant and definitive knowledge over the student’s body.
- That knowledge is established by the objectifying male gaze* that diagnoses flaws that must be manipulated back into order. This means that the adjustment starts and can be felt before the touch. (*can come out of men’s or women’s eyes).
- The interventions are endowed with transformative mystery and so there can be no informed consent. (I.e.: The student’s body is to be enlightened to something it did not yet know. This can cannot be pre-explained.)
- Thinking or talking about what’s happening in the power dynamic encounter constitutes an interruption of esoteric communication. Asking questions means you’re not tuning in to the silent sweaty wisdom of God.
- The unregulated environment of implied consent, heavily gendered power dynamics and the value of silence provokes a spectrum of responses. Enthusiastic responses are instantly recruited to support the marketing narrative of the space, regardless of whether they are healthy or fawning (trauma-related).
Here are brief excerpts from an interview I did with the late Maty Ezraty on July 5, 2016. The stories she told provided valuable background information for my research into the crimes of Pattabhi Jois.
Maty had requested some of the following details remain off-record, which is why they didn’t make it into my book. But now, statements from Eddie Stern reported in the New York Times that suggest he didn’t see Jois abusing students warrant publishing these minutes out of a ninety-minute discussion.
Ezraty had important insights to contribute about the misogynistic culture surrounding Jois. Her premature death precluded her from being able to share them widely. But, as you can see, she felt very passionately about this story. In our email correspondence she was supportive of my investigation.
Below the clips, I’ll fill out some context and provide transcription.
The first clip opens with Ezraty talking about how she and Stern disagreed about Jois’s crimes. In the second, she describes a series of assaults that “we all saw.”
After years of zealous lauding, promoting, and hosting his yoga guru, Pattabhi Jois, Eddie Stern recently removed all mention of Jois from his bio. To date, he has said nothing in print to acknowledge Jois’s crimes.
But Katie Rosman of the NYT did manage to interview him. Here’s the copy:
Eddie Stern is considered the ambassador of the New York Ashtanga community and is an author of a hagiographic biography of Mr. Jois. He too has been disinclined to take part in a public discussion. After three months of background conversations, however, he agreed in late October to an interview.
“I was in Mysore when Karen was there. I didn’t see Guruji” — their preferred title for Mr. Jois — “doing the things she described, but I believe her when she says that was her experience.”
He said he traveled to India annually from 1991 to 2009 to study with Mr. Jois and sometimes spent three months at a time practicing with him there. He said he never saw Mr. Jois treat any student differently from another.
Mr. Stern wants to help the community move forward. “I’m trying to get educated about these things myself,” he said.
When pressed to discuss photographs posted online that show Mr. Jois touching students in ways that many consider inappropriate, Mr. Stern said he regretted agreeing to speak and ended the phone call. “I don’t trust you, and I don’t trust The New York Times,” he said.
The data from Stern here does not line up with what Ezraty says. Here’s the transcript of the above clips:
I’ve had arguments with Eddie about this, you know, in India, Eddie has definitely rationalized all this and there’s no rationalizing to it. It, it so happened. Yeah. It was so blatantly obvious and as a community it’s really pathetic that we all put up with it. I mean, we, we stopped having him [Jois] at Yogaworks in 1993 or 94 due this issue. Yeah. We decided consciously that we could not have him at our school for this reason.
Had you had students complain about him?
Not me, but, you know, off the record, I can’t speak for Chuck. But Chuck had a woman, a very, very, very dear student to him, come to him and tell him the same thing. This was probably in 1991 or 90, something like that and Chuck did similar what Eddie did.
[Note: previously in the interview I had shared reports about Stern’s response to Anneke Lucas when she discussed with Stern that Jois assaulted her at a NYC event in 2001. Lucas told me that Stern’s responses were a mixture of acknowledgement and rationalization.]
And at that time it was more low key. Yeah, it was really low, it really was low key then. I mean, nothing like in the later years. And she stopped coming and um, mind you, this was a student he really liked, like she was a really good student. She stopped coming. And then in 1993 I think our last trip to India, I think that was our last trip. It had gotten worse, or 94, I can’t remember. Chuck would know the years much better than me. I’m not so good with years. It was so blatantly obvious in India. I mean it was just like, it wasn’t no more like “kind of happening, but no one saw it.” It was so… it had gone to another level, like you could not ignore it anymore. And I remember we had a meeting, me and Chuck and Eddie and Nikki and Eddie was there and we were all, and I’m like, we were all like, what is going on here?
And they were, they deflected it and, Chuck and I couldn’t, and it was at that point we made a real decision that we were no longer we just couldn’t. You know, we love the system and we still had a lot of room in our heart for him, but it had gone to a level that we just, we couldn’t deal with.
Pattabhi Jois was humping, humping one particular girl in class every single day. Humping!
In Mysore, the room was small. It was in Lakshmipuram. We were 12 people in the room. It was impossible to miss it. We’re talking in supta padagushthasana, being on top of her and hump-ing her. You had to be blind. Blind to not see. In downward dog. He would just go like this to her. There was no misunderstanding of what the heck was going on. There was no misunderstanding. There was nothing to misunderstand. It was happening. We all saw it. It was very disturbing.
UPDATE: 11.13.2019 05:30 ET
In response to criticism on my Facebook author’s page that it was unethical for me to publish these statements, Jois survivor Jubilee Cooke (also interviewed for the NYT article) has written the following:
In my view, it is far more unethical for Maty to ask Matthew to conspire in the secrecy of Jois’s crimes and their cover-up by senior AY teachers. Matthew and Maty did not have the same kind of formal, confidential, and binding privilege as an attorney and client would have. The value of this recording is not that it provides further proof that Jois is guilty. Rather, it is valuable in that, for the first time, we hear recorded testimony that Eddie, Maty, Chuck and Nicki gathered and made a conscious decision as to how they would handle Jois’s sexual abuse — some decided to continue their studies with him and to host him in the U.S. without warning students away; some did not. Many chose to lie publicly about their knowledge, and none of them reported Jois to the authorities in India or the United States (as far as I know), nor did they stop him by other means.
I would love for someone with expertise in United States law, preferably in sex crimes, to weigh in on this. Sure the statute of limitations has run out, at least in terms of criminal law, and probably for civil as well, but I’m still keen to know: Could Eddie, Maty, Chuck and other senior AY teachers have been charged as accessories or accomplices before or after the fact when they hosted Jois locally in the United States? Even after they stopped hosting Jois, were Maty and Chuck duty bound to report Jois to (let’s say) the FBI given that they had prior knowledge of Jois’s crimes (based on this recording) and probably knew that he would likely offend in multiple states while on tour in the United States? (Even back in the 1990s, it was pretty common knowledge that the rehabilitation of sex offenders had a high failure rate. There’s a reason why sex offenders must register even after they’ve completed their sentence.)
I can’t help but wonder if people would be as offended if this recording had revealed the intention to cover up murder or a child prostitution ring — would people would feel differently about Matthew going public in these instances?