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?
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.