Short answer: there’s a lot you can do if after all this you still love yoga and Buddhism the way you did in the beginning and you still want to share it with others. Scroll down if you don’t need the primer on the problem.
In January of 2018, Shannon Roche, current CEO of Yoga Alliance said the following in a video announcement of YA’s updated sexual misconduct policy:
There’s a deeply troubling pattern of sexual misconduct within our community, a pattern that touches almost every tradition in modern yoga.
Every human being deserves to practice yoga free from abuse, harassment and manipulation.
In honour of those who have spoken up, and in honour of those who have been too hurt to speak, we have to start somewhere, and we have to start now.
“Almost every tradition.” Did she really say that? Yes she did. Is that accurate? Yes it is.
You can scroll to the very bottom for an incomplete List of abuse documentation. Roche is speaking for the yoga industry here, but her statement might equally apply to Buddhist organizations, so The List is in two parts.
Please note I’m not talking about “Yoga” and “Buddhism” in some general sense, and as you’ll see from the list below, I’m not referring to organizations that are strictly indigenous to India or South Asia. The focus here is on modern businesses conducted mostly in English and responsible for the global commodification of yoga and Buddhism as wellness and spirituality products.
When I present The List publicly to groups of teachers and teacher trainees, I can feel the air get sucked out of the room.
Because virtually everyone who has professionalized into yoga or Buddhism over the last thirty years has done so in relation to one or more of these groups.
The List makes clear just how terrible the yoga and Buddhism industries have been at fostering the communities of competence, safety, dignity, and even love that their marketing has promised. The List lays bear the toxic outcomes of (mainly) male charismatic leadership over brands that vie for commercial legitimacy within an unregulated field. The List shows that the main thing that facilitates practice — a safe social space — is actually a very rare commodity. On the broadest scale, the sensitive observer will look at the list and wonder “What was this industry about, really?”
So what now? What do all of those trainings and certifications mean? What baggage do they carry with them? What do we do with this past?
I remember writing about Anusara Yoga in 2012. I was amazed at many things, but two stood out: how quickly the organization imploded, and then, how equally quickly so many people moved on. Some of the higher-ups simply switched gears and replicated abusive patterns in unregulated coaching or MLM schemes. But the lower-downs with more integrity tried to pivot to independent teaching status where they could still share what they really loved and valued. As they did so, many scrubbed their resumes, as if it had all been a bad trip they’d rather forget. I remember talking to many friends at the time. They now had a secret, and didn’t know what to do with it, and wondered how they would recover their sense of confidence.
There are fewer and fewer secrets now. That said, some of the articles listed below are from the early 1990s, so the secrets have been open for ages, and of course the survivors of these organizations have known the truth all along.
#metoo sweeping through the yoga and Buddhism worlds has turned the open secret into a do-not-pass-go reality test, and shown that abuse ignored is abuse perpetuated. One of the clearest recent examples has come from Dharma Ocean, where brave former students of Reggie Ray have disclosed a system of charismatic coercion that mimics the Trungpa/Shambhala community Ray famously broke away from. (Pro-tip: charismatic men splitting off from charismatic groups to form their own groups are waving red flags right in your face.)
The shame-scented grace period within which people have been able to quietly rebrand and move on is now over. We’re in a golden age of cult journalism. Skepticism is at an all-time high. And the yoga labour market is simply too saturated to skip town and just hang out another shingle. There’s no room left for blank slates. But there is room for honest growth and resilience.
Four Groups of Stakeholders
What do we do with the knowledge that our education is compromised by the unaddressed abuse histories of our schools? Let’s first get clear on who wants to do something.
In my experience so far, people relate to their abusive groups in four modes of descending intensity. I’ll briefly describe them here to narrow down who my real audience is here (spoiler alert: it’s group 3), because that audience has the burden of being surrounded by people (groups 1+2) who used to be friends and associates, but have now revealed insupportable values.
- Doubled-down Devotees. Take a look (trigger warning) at this petition organized by Russian Ashtanga students. And this one, organized by a Bulgarian student of Manouso Manos. Here are folks who show the classic hard-cultic habits of absolute denial, DARVO, black-and-white thinking, and bounded choice. For these folks, revelations of abuse by Jois and Manos cannot be true, but must be evil, must be motivated by hate and jealousy for sincere practitioners like them who have found the truth. These folks are the life-support system for the high-demand group before it implodes fully, or runs out of recruitment possibilities. That these two petitions target non-English speakers shows that the most recalcitrant elements of a cult will always evade responsibility in their home lands and languages to go for broke abroad.
- Reformer-Apologists. These respectable bystanders are often able to admit that their guru was a flawed man. Oddly, this can automatically increase their own social capital, because they are said to be showing wisdom and forgiveness. “Jois was only human,” they say, never naming the behaviour as criminal. They are even less likely to acknowledge that the criminality was enabled by the organization. Their statements and actions consistently ignore or minimize survivor testimony, and seem guided primarily by the need to limit liability and preserve the idea that the practice of the organization itself (as continued on through their virtue) will be enough to solve all problems. They typically argue that the practice can be separated from the abuser at the centre of the organization, even when they themselves enabled the abuser, and owe him a chunk of their social status. Most of these folks have financial positions to defend in relation to the organization. I’ve talked with many survivors who say that these folks are far more harmful in their behaviours than those in group 1, because reformer apologists pretend to care, but then go about business as usual. In the worst cases, they go so far as to take on reformer roles within the organization, even while shutting down survivor voices.
- The Disillusioned-Sincere. This is the group of people who are worth talking to about how to move forward with integrity. These are folks who professionalized through an abusive school. They may or may not have known about the abuse at the time they were on the inside. If they didn’t, they may have felt something. If they did, they might have frozen in response to it and haven’t known what to do since. They generally finished their educations and then struck out on their own, but were always low enough on the totem pole that it would have been a risk to clearly differentiate from the group. They’ve had good learning experiences, and they value the shreds of community they have left, but they also question what unspoken things they picked up. They can feel lingering weirdnesses, silences, and secrets. Most of all, they want to reclaim whatever it was that drew them to practice in the beginning, and to extract that from the mud. They know it’s worth keeping and sharing with others.
- The Long-Time-Gone Independents. People like Angela Farmer, Donna Farhi, and Diane Bruni are far enough away from their abusive learning communities that they’ve had time to feel and model the empowerment of personal creativity. They’re in a good place in relation to the systems that booted them out or that they had to leave, but it wasn’t always easy.
The iron laws of cultic allegiance mean that for the most part, people in groups 1+2 will only ever be able to serve their own diminishing markets. They’re either too indoctrinated or conflicted to care about or have the ability to move beyond their groups to show the general public that they’ve learned something beyond what their leader taught and his enablers rationalized.
Folks in Group #2 might move at some point to #3, but only if they get pushed off the island by fellow Group #2ers. I think there’s too much at stake in terms of identity formation for them to go on their own.
But if you’re in Group #3, there are three categories of action I believe you can take to reparatively and positively move forward.
I. Personal Inventory and Therapy:
As a Disillusioned-Sincere person, it’s tough to realize that your educational affiliation is compromised, or worse — that it has value to the extent that the group’s leaders suppressed abuse histories. But here we are.
My sense is that personal reckoning in most cases has to come first in order to get over the guilt and shame responses that impede being able to truly listen to and centre survivor voices, and let them carry reform forward, or conceptualize a new way of doing things altogether. So here are some thoughts I hope are helpful:
- It’s an unregulated profession in which male charisma — not competence, not kindness — has been the primary currency of value. It’s not surprising that the power dynamics are bad. You didn’t make the system up, and you wouldn’t have chosen it if offered a choice. But you can take responsibility for your part.
- If the group you were part of was indeed cultic, there is no shame in having been recruited. You know you didn’t sign up for abuse. The group hid that part from you.
- Educating yourself on how high-demand groups work can be really liberating. Here’s a great reading list from Janja Lalich.
- Don’t get caught up in the meaningless shame spiral of thinking that, for instance, the victims of Jois judge you harshly because you love Ashtanga. They don’t care what you love to do with your body, as long as you’re not hurting anybody else. That shame is a black-and-white defence against moving forward.
- You may have been a bystander to harm. Or you may have perpetuated harm. You can go to therapy to explore how that might have happened, and how you feel about it. But keep in mind that the group may have taught you to do exactly that, and that there were strong mechanisms in place to egg you on and shut you up.
- You don’t have to totally forgive yourself for having been there in order to do a good job with the next two categories, and the main point is not to make yourself feel better. But if you are gentle with yourself you’ll have less of your own stuff in the way moving forward.
The baseline, ground-zero instructions for how to listen to and support those your organization abused are in this white paper by Karen Rain and Jubilee Cooke: “How to Respond to Sexual Abuse Within a Yoga or Spiritual Community With Competency and Accountability.” Please read it, digest it, and share it with everyone you can. Follow up, to the best of your ability, on its distinct suggestions (I’ve added some terms in brackets to broaden the scope):
- Seek education from experts outside of the community [on all aspects of equality and justice, for no yoga or Buddhist organizations have this as a focus].
- Learn about sexual [physical, emotional] violence.
- Talk in a way that supports survivors and does not cause further trauma or perpetuate rape culture.
- Be accountable.
- Understand and address the shortcomings of the organization.
- Design policies and practices that help prevent further sexual [physical, emotional, financial] abuse.
- Utilize resources.
Here’s yet another tool that Karen Rain has offered for Jois-identified teachers who want to do the right thing. They can take this pledge,which commits to stepping back from any leadership in reform.
If you know that you have some bystanderism or enabling in your past, it might make sense to personally apologize to those you impacted. However, it’s anyone’s guess whether they want to hear from you, and there’s no telling how it will go if you do reach out.
In considering repair, let’s think about money as well. As an example, check out this still from this famous video released in 1991:
Jois stands in the centre. From the right we see Maty Ezraty, Eddie Stern, Chuck Miller, Tim Miller, Richard Freeman, and Karen Haberman (now Rain). Jois died a wealthy man, and five of these students went on to have very lucrative careers. There are reports that Ezraty’s net worth at the time of her recent death was 15M USD. Karen Rain, by contrast, had to leave the Ashtanga world, and her career, because she was able to discern that Jois was assaulting her and other students. Most of her colleagues on that stage alongside her knew what Jois was doing to women. Rain had to leave what she loved behind and start over.
Maybe at some point someone will be able to collect data on the amounts of money that survivors of abuse in yoga and Buddhist communities have had to spend on therapy and lost wages. In some cases, groups of survivors might find themselves in class action territory.
Until then, do what you can to support and platform survivors of your organization. And you can go farther than that by refusing to participate in yoga financial structures that suck profits up to the top. As with any vertical system, wealth accumulates because it gets stolen from others. You can re-orient yourself in relation to this by moving towards yoga service in public health spaces. See the Yoga Service Council for more details.
III. Moving towards Protection, Mitigation, and Freedom
This is where I pitch my book, because the last section is called “Better Practices and Safer Spaces: Conclusion and Workbook”, and it goes into detail about how to recognize cultic dynamics and how to think critically about group-based spiritual practice. It contains several frameworks meant to foster protection and safety. One such framework is the PRISM method, which I use in consulting. Another calls for a “Scope of Practice for the Yoga Humanities”, in which I argue that it’s not enough for yoga teachers to adhere to a physical SOP that would govern things like touch and unlicensed dietary advice, but for teachers to abide by standards of humility and self-restraint in the areas where they can most easily manipulate the emotions and intellects of students.
At this point I also believe that the staunchly anti-regulatory attitude of the (especially American-dominated) yoga industry has to be called out for enabling abuse. This is a very contentious topic, but I’ll just give one example to prove my point:
It was not only internally reported, but publicly reported, in 1991, that Manouso Manos was committing sexual assault and misconduct on a regular basis. Had yoga teaching in California at that time been a licensed profession, he would have been barred for life. It wasn’t and he wasn’t, so he was free to go about his business after being “forgiven” by Iyengar.
I don’t know how licensing could or should work, but I do know that a blanket rejection of the very idea regulatory oversight is an ongoing slap in the face to abuse victims in the industry. What that attitude basically says is “The consequences of everyone being unaccountable to a college or licensing board are not as important as my freedom.” That’s immoral.
One of the most powerful assertions and recommendations that Rain and Cooke make in their article is this:
Accreditation through an organization lacking transparency, accountability, or reparations for abuse is inadequate for establishing safety. Upgrade accreditation through an uncompromised yoga organization or other educational avenue.
Let that sink in for a moment. What it’s saying is that those certificates from Pune and Mysore that people have been waving around for years are now liabilities. They thought they were showing their competency, but now they show corruption.
What Rain and Cooke are saying here is that a flawed certification can and must be upgraded. You have be able to show yourself, your community, and the public what you have done to mitigate your prior education. This is obviously the best thing to do. In a world of workshops, why not pursue the knowledge that will show real leaning? Even without the need to mitigate your resume, taking a trauma-sensitive certification would be an excellent thing to do.
Eddie Stern is a central figure in the Jois tragedy. He knew that Jois was assaulting women at least as early as 2001, when his student Anneke Lucas disclosed to him that Jois assaulted her (PAAIC p. 319-20). Yet, he went on to host Jois on many tours, and in 2012 released the book Guruji, in which close to 40 devotees of Jois give their hagiographical accounts of his mystic power, and no-one breathes a word of his criminality. Stern’s co-editor Guy Donahaye has disclaimed the book and promoted an accountability gesture for Ashtanga teachers to sign. Here’s Donahaye’s statement on the book:
Since his death, KPJ has been elevated to a position of sainthood. Part of this promotion has been due to the book of interviews I collected and published with Eddie Stern as “Guruji: A Portrait of Sri K Pattabhi Jois” which paints a positive picture of his life and avoids exploring the issues of injury and sexual assault. In emphasizing only positive stories it has done more to cement the idea that he was a perfect yogi, which he clearly was not.
By burnishing his image, we make it unassailable – it makes us doubt the testimony of those he abused. This causes further harm to those whose testimony we deny and to ourselves.
I would like to offer my sincere apologies to all victims who were harmed by KPJ or by his teachings as passed through his students for my part in cultivating this image of perfection that denies the suffering and healing of many. I would also like to apologize for taking so long to write this – it was not easy to do.
Aside from a poorly-presented series of quotes in the New Yorker, Stern has remained publicly silent on the issue of institutional abuse in Ashtanga. And his new bio note scrubs all reference to Jois.
Here’s a thought experiment: without his connections to Jois, would Stern have been able to build the networking power that enables him to now release a book with a forward by Deepak Chopra, or be the fly-in asana guy for the Walton family’s upcoming conference? (This brings us back to money, see above.) What does it mean that Jois has now vanished from his history?
Whenever someone asks me what they should do about their prior affiliation with the Jois family, Manos, Satyananda, or Choudhury, I can basically say: “Don’t do what Stern does.”
Here’s what transparency, which I believe leads to freedom, looks like:
- Fully own your educational past, and your relationships.
- Show how you’ve updated your education.
- If you feel that you were in a high-demand group, this is not a point of shame if you can show what you’ve learned from it. If you have to make amends to anyone before spilling it, do it: it’s the right thing to do anyway.
- Within the bounds of legal risk, be frank about both what you learned to do and what you learned not to do. If you can refer to mainstream articles to make your point about your former school, that should be safe. I am not giving legal advice here, but I can say in general that the test for defamation is that what you say about your past needs to be untrue for you to be in legal jeopardy. That said, people with money can sue over anything.
- If it’s not your style or it wouldn’t be appropriate or would be legally dangerous to share about your past in a confrontational way, you could instead write a manifesto of values that clearly names dynamics that you have suffered and will continue to work against and reverse.
Owning your past, flaws and all, can give a new sense of creative and educational opportunity. Erasing trauma and history does not lead to freedom, but working with both may.
Note: The organizations on this incomplete list are all different. What they share is social power that has survived unresolved abuse histories of different varieties. Often this involves the lieutenants of abusive leaders assuming routinized leadership positions by burying the truth about the organization’s origins and how they have benefited from the silence of the organization’s victims.
Rinzai Zen (Joshu Sasaki Roshi)
Diamond Mountain / Asian Classics Institute https://michaelroachfiles.wordpress.com/
New Kadampa Tradition
It could be that you’re already familiar with modern global Buddhism, be it of the Tibetan, Burmese, Thai, Vietnamese, “mindfulness”, “insight”, or other variety. Your practice might predate your decision to join an eco-activist group or ecological support network. If this describes you, you may have already navigated what I’m about to say.
I’m addressing this in particular to those activists and concerned citizens who have been introduced to global Buddhist practices and communities through eco-activism networks that are understandably reaching out to seek sources of support and nurturance in a critical time.
I’m writing because I’m seeing a lot of interest in Buddhism as both a philosophy and as a series of self-and-co-regulation techniques within groups like Extinction Rebellion and Positive Deep Adaptation. I don’t want to discourage this interest in any way, but I do believe there are some things to bear in mind for those on the verge of going deeper into practice. These are facts I’ve gathered as a survivor and researcher of cults.
Here’s the main point, which I’ll break down below:
Yes: use the techniques and be comforted by the philosophy. But: be very wary of taking advice from or handing leadership over to “career” Buddhist teachers in the following areas: ethics, communications, group behaviour, political tactics, regeneration culture, or community building.
Why? Here are a few reasons:
1. Virtually every large modern Anglophone global Buddhist community is awash with unaddressed abuse. The abuse has been physical, emotional, sexual, financial, and spiritual. The pattern is broad and the damage is deep. Links at the bottom.
2. It is rare that a modern global Buddhist community trains its members in anti-oppression, ecological awareness, or the history of social movements. It’s just not on the curriculum. Despite this, there is a tendency amongst long-term practitioners to assume that Buddhist practice magically confers insight in one or all of these areas. Many labour under the illusion that being Buddhist magically makes them anti-racist, for example. Or they believe that a Buddhist perspective gives insight into how best we confront the state, as in the recent viral post that suggested that (without using this language) XR rebels view the police with metta, because “we’re all on the same side.” The poster has a point, though not the one intended: for fifty years, global Buddhism has for the most part sanctified, rather than resisted, the neoliberal police and surveillance state. Bottom line: competency in Buddhism does not predict competency in any other area, and may in fact impede it. There’s no shame in this: one can’t be good at everything.
3. Recent implosions of prominent Buddhist organizations have exposed decades of widespread abuse and enablement. This has scattered many senior staff, many of whom are now looking for new communities, new angles, and new work. In many cases, these are folks who have been deeply embedded — as enablers and victims — in cultic dynamics. It takes a long time to get sorted out after being embedded. Healing and accountability can happen, but I can say anecdotally as a journalist and researcher in this area that it is rare.
4. Most Buddhist teachers that attained social power in these groups did so not through the strength of their training nor any measurement of their attainment in the techniques of meditation (for there is none), but through their skill at serving the leadership, or through the power of their charisma, and the group transferences that feed it. Leadership in these organizations is often gained through socially toxic means.
5. The post-implosion histories of many Buddhist organizations feature a pattern of charismatic lieutenants breaking away from the original group to found their own communities, often with predictable results. I guarantee that there will be Buddhist teachers whose organizations have recently failed who out of narcissistic or financial necessity — or just pure habit — will now try to lead or monetize their brands within eco-activist organizations.
6. Part of what we’re seeing in the highly-flawed internal reform movements of organizations like Shambhala is the adoption of woketivist language as a form of brandwashing, even while the needs of the organization’s survivors remain unaddressed. Arguably, any attention placed on social justice issues has some social benefit, but the activist newcomer to Buddhism should consider that the newly-minted eco-Buddhist teacher might be far more interested in promoting their own ideology than in the actual cause. They may be using XR or PDA as a delivery device for their real commitment.
7. While the self-and-co-regulation techniques of meditation, mindfulness, metta, warrior-compassion, right speech, etc. can all valuable in and of themselves, activists who are unfamiliar with global Buddhism should know that each and every one of these techniques and attitudes has been used in various group contexts to suppress critical thinking, member agency, and enable abuse.
8. Abuse in Buddhist organizations often plays out along gender lines. Every organization listed below was founded and/or was led by a charismatic male teacher. The majority of sexual assault victims to come forward in recent abuse revelations are women. It is also true that the majority of unpaid administrative and emotional labour in these groups is performed by women. Further, women’s administrative visibility and labour can be used to extend the pretence that an organization’s values are feminist, trauma-aware, or justice-oriented — all values that aid in recruitment, especially of younger women. But in reality, many of these organizations are deeply patriarchal and misogynist. Eco-movements do not want to import yet more forms of misogyny and unexamined rape culture, whether explicit or internalized.
None of this is to say that Buddhists are bad people or that there aren’t some Buddhist teachers doing great social justice or activism work. In my experience, these are the folks who have been independent from branded communities for years, have spoken out against abuses they witnessed, and have adopted an interdisciplinary approach to how they continue to learn and practice. Many hold qualifications as psychotherapists, social workers, or scholars of religion, and this can afford some critical distance. (However, in the case of Shambhala International, many earned their degrees at the group’s own university, Naropa, and so can’t really be said to be qualified outside of the group.)
Bottom line: Buddhism can be great, but the organizations and leadership structures that have emerged in its globalization period are often myopic, bourgeois, self-serving, and at times abusive to their members. People who professionalized in those spaces have a lot of work to do to show how they’re not going to repeat what they’ve been through or been complicit in.
I predict that the era of ecological collapse will be a boom-time for cults — political, religious, or both. This is because nobody knows exactly what’s going to happen, but we do know it’s going to be apocalyptically bad, and we’re going to be even more desperate for community than we are now. This means that conditions are ripe for inspired and charismatic leadership, which we already see in the figureheads of XR, for example. Charismatic leadership is one of Lalich’s four factors in defining the cultic. (Another is totalizing ideology. XR is at least 2 for 4. A third thing to look at would be information control. Hm.)
Many of us may be starting to feel like strong communities are the only reliable refuge we’ll have as collapse continues to spread. So far, branded global Buddhisms have not provided good models for strong community.
Messianic movements are dangerous, and so is the modern police and surveillance state. I hope we can all be careful that global Buddhism doesn’t get used to meditate those dangers away.
Some online responses to this article have suggested, without offering evidence, that the institutions listed below have made strides towards rectifying abuse. For those who wish to research this assertion, I propose the following test:
Try to find published survivor testimonies that speak to these improvements.
Such testimony might read as follows:
“I was abused in [organization name] and the organization has been very responsive to my needs. When I approached the community with my story, I knew who to go to, and no one ignored, deflected, or snubbed me. No one tried to tell me the abuse was my fault or that I should use the spiritual techniques of the group to reframe the abuse as love. I found several people in the organization who became allies and helped me to come forward. They took risks with their own social capital to defend me against enablers. The leadership did not stall or try to limit the PR damage. They investigated and sanctioned those who abused me. They offered me direct care in my recovery, and paid for my related expenses. They really showed that they were able to offer the values of their spirituality in difficult circumstances. This has restored my hope in [Buddhism/yoga/etc], because it has helped to heal the very deep level of trauma that comes from spiritual abuse.”
Problematic global Buddhist Organizations (an incomplete list):
Stories of abuse and betrayal tremble beneath the veneer of spiritual groups. Silently. For decades.
The veneer functions like money does in the Epstein world to write the laws, conceal the truth, and dispose of the evidence. Spiritual groups don’t have Epstein-level money, but they have other shiny objects to distract and confuse. They have stories of extraordinary men, spiritual transformations, and a coming enlightened age.
One type of question I often field is “what makes the Jois story a yoga story?” or: “What makes the Rigpa story a story about Buddhism?” I counter the deflection of this question by saying “It’s true: these are rape culture and high-demand group stories.”
Then I add: “But it’s important that we see how they play out in environments in which they are explicitly not meant to happen: places where vulnerable people come to be protected from abuse.”
But there’s another reason I believe stories of spiritual abuse are important to investigate and understand. In some cases, the group has an outsize impact upon the broader culture, usually through having found a way to conceal its origins, manage its image, and secularize and popularize its techniques.
I’m not talking about groups like Scientology, which unduly influence celebrities who carry a lot of social power, but which also have a hard time commodifying their core content. (One test here is that Dianetics has always been published in-house, while much of the “advanced” literature is hidden altogether.) With Shambhala, for example, the core content is sanitized, legitimized, and monetized through institutions like Naropa and a number of spiritual/self-help books that became touchstones in the 1990s neoliberalism that believed it was progressive.
That core content is a group effort. More importantly: the group effort conceals itself through the presentation of individual genius. Nowhere is this more efficient than in the spiritual book industry.
Spiritual books are marketed on the basis of the awakened personality and the intimacy of the author’s written “voice”. The public ends up thinking they’re encountering the realized presence of Pema Chödrön on the page, for example. That page, and the buzz around it, gets her onto Oprah.
But Chödrön’s ascent to Oprah isn’t driven by her personal wisdom or virtue. She gets that gig because she has risen to the top of a high-demand group as a spokesperson.
I started writing about cults in 2012 when a group I’d been recruited into more than a decade before began to implode, after the partner of one of the group’s leaders died of exposure in the Arizona desert.
In the ensuing nine years, I’ve weathered a broad spectrum of blowback from loyalists to the groups I’ve written about critically. The responses unfold over a spectrum of defences: from primitive-enraged to sophisticated-subtle. I believe most of the responses share the features and impulses listed below.
This is not a complete list, nor is it scientific. It’s based primarily on personal observation. Some researchers might disagree with some premises here, and I welcome feedback and objections. I’m including a bibliography of diverse resources below.
I’m not presenting this list to imply that people whose cult ties lead them to gaslight or abuse others are somehow more deserving of empathy than anyone else. None of the impulses described here excuse the behaviour. People who act out like this have work to do, but it may be hard for them to even develop the impulse to do it.
I’m presenting the list for informational purposes, so that if you wind up trying to speak reasonably to or call out the harms of a person enmeshed in a cult, it might be helpful to identify some of the baffling responses as they come.
If you have the spoons for it, you can help a friend or relative in a high-demand group simply by engaging with them as if they are a full and rich person with their own ideas and autonomy. The work of Alexandra Stein suggests that modelling secure attachment is key to healing. Steve Hassan’s work suggests that appealing to a person’s “pre-cult” self can be very effective. A friend did that for me once with a letter. He helped free a part of me that had been locked up.
1. All group members are abuse victims, to varying degrees.
Dominance hierarchies exist within high-demand groups just as they do outside of them, so not everyone suffers the same. However, everyone recruited into a high-demand group has been deceived in one way or another. They have had their time, energy, and emotional faculties hijacked for a purpose that is not their own, and which is rarely clear to them.
Those who bear the brunt of the abuse in a high-demand group — women, children the poor, the super-earnest and altruistic — emerge with clear disabilities, up to and including CPTSD. But — absent real sociopathy — even those who enjoyed a certain amount of power within the group will carry with them guilt, moral injury, and the sensation of sunken costs. Criticism or resistance to the group may make these wounds sting and provoke intense defensive responses related to any sense of responsibility for the abuse they may carry.
They are caught in a bind: they are not responsible for having been deceived, and yet they are responsible for the power that deception allowed them to have over others. It is far easier to dismiss critical engagement or vilify whistleblowers than it is to engage in this deep moral complexity.
2. The voices of survivors are psychologically threatening to those who have not yet owned their survivorhood.
Intuitively, we know that if we really listen to them, we might succumb to a kind of sickness marked by feelings of doubt, shame, and guilt. We know we’ll have to start asking questions about how the big picture is organized. We’ll have to bear out the possibility that everything we value is infected by everything we fear.So what we do to trauma survivors—even, sometimes, if we are survivors ourselves—is that we shut those voices down and quarantine them in an attempt to keep ourselves sterile and safe.
This begins to account for the reactions that go beyond silence and dismissal. Often survivors who speak up and whistleblowers are not just refuted. They are depicted with contempt, revulsion, and loathing.
The most basic form that this takes is through false psychiatric diagnoses. I’ve seen survivors labelled as mentally ill. It can get even more crude: I’ve had my physical appearance mocked, my face described as “creepy”, my intentions as predatory. This shocked me at first, until I understood through this contagion principle that whistleblowing quite literally reveals hidden cancer and rot, and disgust is a reasonable response.
There might be something else going on. Some of the survivors I know radiate a kind of awareness of the world and of their own vulnerability that is somatized through hypervigilant affect. They wear no masks in the world. I believe that sometimes the raw honesty of their presence shows the person who has not yet come to terms with their own survivorship what it would feel like to live without armour, and this is terrifying.
3. They love the group leader in a complex, intense, and painful way.
Many group members have been entrained to love the leader with a passion designed to overcome the fear they provoke, or to rationalize or erase the harm they commit. They might feel dependent on the leader’s gaze or attention, and desperate to stay in their good graces. Somewhere they are aware of the emotional and material capital they’ve given up to their commitment, and their ardour must measure up to that loss. In some cases their love mirrors what happens in the trauma-bonding of intimate partner abuse.
Rachel Bernstein recently provided a very accessible run-down of the trauma bond. I’ll post it at the bottom.
If you engage with someone who is enmeshed in a high-demand group and has developed insecure attachments to the leader(s), it will be very hard to avoid implying that they are trauma-bonded, and this can be incredibly shameful.
In the process, you’ll also be shedding light on the unconscious but persistent sense of betrayal that they feel in relation to the “good” leader who is actually hurting them and others. By pointing out betrayal, you will be cast as the betrayer. (See the resources from Freyd below.)
Also: be aware of the vicious calculus at play. Karen Rain has pointed out that the lengths to which some Ashtanga people have gone to vilify me mirrors the love they have expressed for Jois.
4. They believe their community loves and protects them, but they also doubt it. You are externalizing those doubts.
Everything the person feels about the leader they may feel about their fellow members. However, the web is intricate and the textures are subtle. If they’ve been in the group for years they have spent a long time finding the right niche of safety-that-isn’t-quite-safety. They have friends who are not primarily friends and family members who are not primarily family members: in both cases allegiance to the group trumps all.
As an outsider to that group, you are making an intervention in the voice of someone the group already vilifies. Of course you cannot understand them, of course you are out to destroy their vision. The number of people who have accused me to trying or wanting to destroy their communities is astonishing, until I realized that that defence is proof of the fragile insularity of the group.
The paradox of being in a group like this is that you are isolated within it. Alexandra Stein says it this way:
Contrary to the stereotype of cult life, followers are isolated not only from the outside world, but in this airless pressing together they are also isolated from each other within the group. They cannot share doubts, complaints about the group or any attempt to attribute their distress to the actions of the group. At the same time as this isolation from other people – either within or outside of the group – is occurring, there is also a deep loneliness and isolation from the self. The time pressures, sleep deprivation and the erasure of the individual mean there is never any opportunity for solitude – that creative and restful state where contemplation, thinking and the space in which changes of mind might occur can take place. As there is no space between people, neither is there any internal space allowed within each person, for their own autonomous thought and feeling. Thus there is a triple isolation: from the outside world, from others in the group and from one’s own self.
— Terror, Love and Brainwashing: Attachment in Cults and Totalitarian Systems (loc 1835)
The cult member is also aware at some level that they will be punished for leaving. This accounts for the “dread” famously articulated by Langone and others. As the person who stands outside of the cult and seems to offer you a pathway to leaving, you may become the very embodiment of that dread.
5. They might have cognitive injuries.
If the group’s practices have involved repetitive actions or rituals that have contributed to what we could call a dissociative reflex, it can be really hard for a group member to stay on point and think clearly. The suppression of discursive (let alone critical) thinking is actually a feature of many group ritual instructions. I’ve heard many reports of people leaving high-demand groups with substantial cognitive deficits. In my own case I couldn’t concentrate for long enough to write a coherent sentence, on account of the meditation and mantra practices I had been given.
So if you’re communicating with a group member and it seems that they can’t think straight, follow an argument through, or hold a stable definition of a term — hold space for the possibility that they simply can’t.
If the repetitive ritual involves physical labour or pain, this can be another obstruction to cognition. The person in chronic pain or who is dependent upon daily endorphin-release rhythms to feel not-miserable may simply not have the stamina for complex cognitive or psychological consideration.
6. They may feel existentially dependent upon the group ideology.
If the group’s belief system is totalizing and transcendent, and if it has been ritually embedded for long enough, it can begin to feel like the member’s own voice or sense of self. Everything leads back to the message, which is repeated over and over again.
Questions are disruptions of that message, but more importantly, questions disrupt the self-soothing rhythm of how that message is internally recited. Many group members report a feeling of deep anxiety when the internalized message is opened up to questioning. It can feel as though the basis of the person’s life is being attacked. So don’t underestimate the power and danger of saying something as simple as: “Do you really believe that?”
Another aspect: if they were recruited through totalizing promises, it might feel as though deconstruction of those promises feels totalizing. This accounts for how often cult analysts are called “bullies” by group members. It’s upside down. The analysis is calling out bullying.
7. The financial benefits of group membership may be as invisible as other forms of privilege.
The group member whose social and financial status is the product of the group’s hierarchy of harm will resist seeing that just as strongly as any consumer will resist seeing the harm of consumerism. If you point out that their relative comfort or safety in the group is dependent on any kind of “I-Got-Mine-ism“, you’ll face the same blowback that POC activists face when calling out white privilege, or women face when calling out male privilege. At the root here may be some deep strain of fragility that simply cannot turn the guilt of having benefited from the suffering of others into an active justice plan.
8. Because the criticism of the group feels like it is attacking the group member’s self and sense of authenticity, they will call you a fraud.
Classic projection. People engage in ad hominem all the time in this world. But in this discourse the flip to ad-hom is so instantaneous it should raise big red flags. Key things to notice: as soon as the response has migrated into ad hominem, you won’t be talking about the data anymore. You won’t be quoted directly. You’ll be defending irrelevant things like your religious commitments or daily habits. One person said that they could tell I was a carnivore from my writing and therefore I was mistaken about everything.
A particular sore spot in this theme is around educational attainments. Almost every single charismatic leader I’ve written about has falsified his educational background or source of lineage authority. The follower of someone like that is in a precarious position with regard to legitimacy. Legitimacy therefore becomes a fixation. Ad hominem arguments begin to merge with arguments from authority.
9. Please add your own observations in the comments.
Rachel Bernstein on the “trauma bond”:
[In the trauma bond] you become connected to the person who is abusing you or traumatizing you, or stressing you out in a way that people outside the relationship might not understand necessarily. Usually it goes like this: that you’re with someone who was abusive, let’s say, who is selfish or narcissistic. And they need to take this power away from you and make you feel small and make you feel afraid of disappointing them and not getting things done perfectly. And they get very punitive towards you. But then they are intermittently kind and giving funny, forgiving, emotionally generous and soft, and it’s like intermittent gratification. It draws you in into something that is called a trauma bond, where you want that sweetness and that break from the mistreatment to continue as long as it can.
So you learn that you can control it by shifting your behavior a bit and pleasing that person as best you can. So the sweetness and the break lasts for a longer time. But that really in the back of your mind, you know, it’s not gonna last forever and that the abuse is probably gonna come back and then there’ll be a break from it again. And you’ll know what you need to do in order to try to keep that good feeling going and continue getting that break that you need. But the cycle just continues. And then if the abuse comes back, you might feel you deserve it because you just had the recent experience of this person being kind to you. And if a kind person is angry with you, you can more easily feel like it’s your fault. Children learn to appease someone who puts them under overwhelming stress or abuse because they have to. If that person or those people are their only caretakers and they don’t have anywhere else to go or any other adults in their lives who they really know yet and can rely on, they are stuck.
— from “One More Thing” at the end of Betrayal and Power w/ Nitai Joseph, former Hare Krishna – S4E5.
Ainsworth, Mary D. Salter. Patterns of Attachment: a Psychological Study of the Strange Situation. Routledge, 2015.
Arendt, Hannah. The Origins of Totalitarianism. Penguin Classics, 2017.
Farhi, Donna. Teaching Yoga: Exploring the Teacher-Student Relationship. Rodmell Press, 2006.
Freyd, Jennifer J. Betrayal Trauma: the Logic of Forgetting Childhood Abuse. Harvard University Press, 1998.
Freyd, Jennifer J., and Pamela Birrell. Blind to Betrayal: Why We Fool Ourselves We Arent Being Fooled. Wiley, 2013.
Hassan, Steven. Combating Cult Mind Control: the #1 Best-Selling Guide to Protection, Rescue, and Recovery from Destructive Cults. Freedom of Mind Press, 2016.
Kramer, Joel, and Diana Alstad. The Guru Papers: Masks of Authoritarian Power. North Atlantic Books/Frog, 1993.
Lalich, Janja, and Madeleine Landau. Tobias. Take Back Your Life: Recovering from Cults and Abusive Relationships. Bay Tree Pub., 2006.
Lalich, Janja. Escaping Utopia: Growing up in a Cult, Getting out, and Starting Over. Routledge, 2018.
Langone, Michael D. Recovery from Cults: Help for Victims of Psychological and Spiritual Abuse. W.W. Norton, 1995.
Lifton, Robert Jay. Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism: a Study of “Brainwashing” in China.W.W. Norton, 1961.
Miller, Alice, et al. For Your Own Good: Hidden Cruelty in Child-Rearing and the Roots of Violence. Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 2002.
Oakes, Len. Prophetic Charisma: the Psychology of Revolutionary Religious Personalities. Syracuse University Press, 1997.
Shaw, Daniel. Traumatic Narcissism: Relational Systems of Subjugation. Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group, 2014.
Stein, Alexandra. Terror, Love and Brainwashing: Attachment in Cults and Totalitarian Systems. Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group, 2017.
Stern, Daniel N. The Motherhood Constellation: a Unified View of Parent-Infant Psychotherapy. BasicBooks, 2005.
Cyndi Lee Interviews Matthew Remski about Working Through the Abuse Crisis in Modern Yoga and Buddhism (+ transcript)
Notice: This interview is part of the Yoga of Healing and Awakening Summit, a free online event featuring essential depth teachings and daily practices for your body, mind and soul. This recording is a copyright of The Shift Network. All rights reserved.
Welcome to the yoga of healing and awakening summit, a free online event where you’ll discover essential depth teachings and daily practices for your mind, body, and soul. Share these visionary masters and esteemed practitioners with your friends and family and join us on Facebook at The Shift Network. And now your host, Cyndi Lee.
Cyndi Lee: 00:24
Welcome everyone. We’re so glad that you’re joining us and today I’m really pleased to introduce my special guest and friend, Matthew Remski. Matthew Remski is a yoga teacher, industry consultant and author of nine previous books including Threads of Yoga, a remix of patanjali’s yoga sutras with commentary and reverie, and the survivor of two cults. His work has been pivotal in illuminating the shadows of globalized Yoga and Buddhism and showing that disillusionment and critical inquiry can be gateways to mature spirituality. Matthew, thanks so much for being with us today. Welcome.
Matthew Remski: 01:08
Thank you so much, Cindy. Thanks for the welcome. Thanks for inviting me to do this. It’s a pleasure to meet you finally. Continue reading “Cyndi Lee Interviews Matthew Remski about Working Through the Abuse Crisis in Modern Yoga and Buddhism (+ transcript)”
Intention vs. Impact, Trickle-down Violence, and Doing the Systemic Work: Francesca Cervero and Matthew Remski Discuss Practice and All is Coming
Francesca Cervero: 00:00:00
Hello and welcome to the Mentor Sessions. I’m your host Francesca Cervero. The Mentor Sessions is a meeting place for Yoga teachers who want to be supported and thinking critically about their teaching. While you’re here, expect to have your ideas about right and wrong challenged and your deepest need for nurturing and support met by a fellow sister on the pad. Today we have a really special guest talking about his newest book. I have Matthew Remski joining me on the podcast today and we’re talking about his new book Practice and All is Coming, Abuse, Cult Dynamics and Healing and Yoga and Beyond.
If you don’t know Matthew, let me just tell you a little bit about him before we get started. Matthew Remski is a yoga teacher, industry consultant and author of nine previous books including Threads of Yoga, a Remix of Patanjali’s Sutras with Commentary and Reverie. As a survivor of two cults, his work has been pivotal in illuminating the shadows of globalized Yoga and Buddhism and showing that disillusionment and critical inquiry can be gateways to mature spirituality. He facilitates modules in philosophy, history, culture and community health in yoga teacher training programs internationally. He lives in Toronto with his partner and their two children. Matthew, welcome. Thank you for being here.
Matthew Remski: 00:01:30
Thanks so much Francesca, it’s really great to hear your voice again and thanks for the opportunity to speak about the book. Continue reading “Intention vs. Impact, Trickle-down Violence, and Doing the Systemic Work: Francesca Cervero and Matthew Remski Discuss Practice and All is Coming”
Trigger warning: descriptions of sexual and physical assault.
Josh Summers: 00:00:06
Hi Matthew, how are you doing?
Matthew Remski: 00:00:07
I’m good. Thanks for having me, Josh.
Josh Summers: 00:00:09
Thanks so much for coming on. Let me introduce us. I am Josh Summers. I’m a yoga teacher and licensed acupuncturist. And this is Meaning of Life TV. You are Matthew Remski, a yoga teacher as well also an industry consultant in the Yoga Industry and an author of several books. Most recently you’ve written a book about problematic group dynamics in the yoga world and it’s called Practice and All is Coming: Abuse, Cult Dynamics and Healing in Yoga, and Beyond. So I should say, you know, is it’s really nice to meet you. This is kind of an odd sort of endorsement to you, but, right at this point I’d say you’re the main reason I go onto Facebook.
Matthew Remski: 00:01:00
That’s, that’s mixed. I’m happy to hear that. And I’m sorry to hear that all at the same time.
Josh Summers: 00:01:06
No, no. I mean, for me it’s positive because there isn’t that much, worth following on Facebook. But, I came across your work maybe two or three years ago. Someone shared something you had blogged about, about abuse and some of these problematic dynamics in the yoga world. And I just kind of got into following what you had to say about it and it really seemed like you had some trenchant analysis that was deeply missing in the broader conversation. So I want to dive into that. Talk about what’s going on in Yoga land, uh, what’s problematic about it and what might be some ways that things can be remedied. But as way of introduction. You are yourself a survivor of two cults, and I know that part of this work in this book has been a bit of a healing journey for you. But how did you come to a focus on the Ashtanga yoga situation in particular and what was going on in that that you felt needed to be highlighted? Continue reading ““Abuse in the Yoga Community”: Josh Summers Interviews Matthew Remski”
Donna Noble of Curvesome Yoga interviewed me about my new book. She was direct and to the point. An edited version of this interview has already appeared on the Accessible Yoga blog, edited by Nina Zolotow. The AY blog is definitely a must-read: bookmark it! This is the full version of the interview.
DN: Tell me about your yoga journey.
MR: I happened upon yoga for the first time in Manhattan just days after leaving a high-demand group, or cult. The simple instructions gave me permission to feel myself, to feel my own agency again. It was only one class at that point, but I never forgot the feeling, and would sometimes practice on my own. I was soon recruited into another high-demand group. And then, again, found yoga after leaving. It was 2003 by then. The first YTT boom was in full swing, with a lot of trainers beginning to offer one-month programmes. I had no other real prospects at the time, and so I signed up, plunged in, trained hard, and within a few years owned a studio and was teaching up to 20 classes per week. That lasted through a second studio and ten more years, and then I started researching the shadows of the industry.
What does the essence of yoga mean to you and has it changed since writing the book?
The book has only deepened my sense of what’s truly important to me in practice. My current understanding of moksha revolves around the possibility of seeing oneself, one’s relationships, and the world as clearly as possible. This means understanding projection, transference, idealization. It means seeing through the anxiety by which we organize our power structures. It means trying to understand interdependence and everything that invisibly makes up your world and your position in it. It means seeking out a pause when possible and feeling all of the threads of connection hum and vibrate.
Working on a book about abuse and healing in the yoga world amplified all of these things. It broke through my desire to idealize the yoga world — a habit that was wrapped up in spiritual bypassing. It forced me to listen carefully to the experiences of people who carry traumas I have never known. That exposure has opened me up to a vision of how necessary empathy is, and how supportive we can be when we feel it, if we’re also open to feedback.
As my interview database for the project expanded, the network connecting traumatic experiences became more visible. Eventually it revealed an entirely alternative yoga world, which didn’t look anything like the marketing at all. It looked like the rest of the world, only painted over in gold and sprinkled with goji berries and wishes for a perfect life. Isn’t that what coming to reality feels like? An evaporation of infatuation? Seeing things as they really are, and learning how to love again from ground zero?
As one yoga and Buddhist organization after another implodes, reform efforts are afoot. Some, if not most, are well-intentioned. But the industry is still unregulated. It’s an economy that runs on opportunism, and co-optation is standard.
So how can you determine whether those who step forward to lead reform are acting in good faith and not self-interest? That they aren’t simply re-establishing the same dynamics and silencing the same voices? How do you know whether they are, unconsciously or not, more interested in preserving the social and economic structure that fostered the abuse than they are interested in really listening to what survivors have to say?
How do you know whether they’ve done the extremely hard work of seeing through and overcoming cultic dynamics? After all, it is harrowing to even try to make different choices and foster new patterns when you’ve been in a cult, which is always terrifying members into pursuing power and position instead of equality and transparency. Continue reading “Yoga and Buddhism Reform Movements: 16 Red Flags”
(With great love and care for independent booksellers everywhere.)
As part of my tour to promote Practice and All is Coming, I was invited by a well-beloved bookstore in a major North American city to give a presentation and sign copies as part of their author’s series.
This gorgeous bookstore is proudly independent, and has supported spiritual seekers, social progressives, and environmental activists for decades. The staff were kind and professional and encouraging.
I arrived early for the AV check and looked around. Behind the little stage area where I was supposed to stand stood the entire yoga section.
And there they all were.
It was strange and tense and activating to see piles of yoga books written by or associated with abusive leaders and institutional betrayal. I was there to present an argument against the messages and the media of exactly these books.
At the risk of wearing out my welcome, I made use of the paradox in my presentation. When I offered the following slide of The List of yoga organizations that have unresolved abuse histories, I was able to tie almost every one with a book from the shelf. I was worried about making the staffers uncomfortable, but they were really grateful and supportive. Who wants to sell compromised goods, after all? Continue reading “How Good Book Stores Become Unwitting Retailers for Yoga and Buddhism Cults”