“From Somatic Dominance to Trauma Awareness” – Interview with J. Brown (Transcript)

"From Somatic Dominance to Trauma Awareness" - Interview with J. Brown (Transcript)

Image: myself and Diane Bruni at the #WAWADIA event on May 29, 2014. I refer to this event in the interview. The write-up and (unfortunately) butchered video is here. I love how Diane is looking at me here, trying to figure out how full of shit I am.


Thank you to J. Brown for having me on his podcast, as part of his series about current news in the Ashtanga world. You can also tune in to his talks with Kino MacGregor, Scott Johnson, and Sarai Harvey-Smith.

Here’s our talk. Resources and transcript (trimmed of intro/outro) below.


Karen Rain’s writings on her experience with Pattabhi Jois and Ashtanga Yoga can be found here. I interview her at length here.

I’ve updated my WAWADIA project plans here. My article on Pattabhi Jois and sexual assault, featuring Karen’s voice and the voices of eight other women, can be found here.

Here’s where I’ve quoted Theodora Wildcroft on the fear of contagion elicited by the voice of the victim.

Here’s my conversation with Colin Hall and Sarah Garden.

I’ve posted the classic “Deception, Dependence, and Dread” summary from cult researcher Michael Langone here.



Matthew Remski:


Jason Brown:

Hi, how are you?

Matthew Remski:

I’m good, I’m good. I just listened to your intro to Scott Johnson. I didn’t listen to what Scott had to say, but I really appreciated the intro, it was good.

Jason Brown:

Well, thanks. There was still some debate about it, I guess. I just default to transparency and not everybody always thinks that’s a good idea. But for me, it’s where I feel most comfortable. So, thanks. But what else, what’s been going on, how’s your day going? It’s the middle of the day for you too, right?

Matthew Remski:

It is. And I just got up from a nap with alongside the almost two-year-old, Owen. And that was really good because I was up until about 1:30 in the morning after doing another interview with my friends Colin Hall and Sarah Garden at Bodhi Tree in Regina. It took me a while to come down off of that. But the sun is shining, we got some backyard cleaning done over the weekend, we emptied out the basement. Things are heading in an upward arc it feels in many ways.

Jason Brown:

Yeah. You know what, you mentioned two and a half years for your son and-

Matthew Remski:

Almost two, he’s going to be two in May 17th.

Jason Brown:

Well, we last spoke, the last time you were on the podcast was May 2016.

Matthew Remski:

Oh, my goodness. Was he born or not?

Jason Brown:

I guess he wouldn’t have been born because it’s exactly two years ago. But we spoke about that book that you wrote with Michael Stone about becoming fathers and stuff. I remember that. I can’t believe it’s been two years.

Matthew Remski:

Yeah, it’s been a long time. We’ve been in touch since. The difference between the podcast and being on the phone is a little bit thin.

Jason Brown:

That’s true actually. That’s a good point because sometimes, I had Peter Blackaby on and I had not had other conversations with him other than the two that you hear on the podcast, but you and I had had many conversations. There is a three line there. And gosh, so much has happened. When we last spoke, we were talking about WAWADIA still. And right at the end of that, we were saying, “Oh, it’s going in different directions.” And people were sort of, I think upset back then and maybe still that it was started out as what poses hurt you, what poses don’t hurt you. People wanted to sort of have some how to practice safe in clear, simple answers. And you were like, “I looked at it and I don’t know that pose exists. And you were saying that it was going in this direction of the interpersonal dynamics that were going on.

Matthew Remski:

Yeah. That’s a good summary actually. It took about two years to figure out that I was barking up kind of a dissociative tree, that when the hard data is really laid out as I think you yourself suggested those years ago and perhaps before that as well, we don’t really see that yoga is any more damaging physically to anybody than any other physical activity. In fact, it’s probably safer. When that was clear, for a moment I held on to this notion that the problem with yoga injuries is the problem of expectation, that people get involved in this practice for therapy and spiritual healing. And why it seems very bizarre that they would hurt themselves, that they would develop repetitive stress or chronic pain.

I held on to that for a while. But trying to hang a research narrative on that premise became a lot less important than realizing the kinds of stories I was overlooking or I was papering over in the midst of all of the interviews that I was doing with people who had injured themselves or who had been injured by teachers. And a couple of key things happened that kind of spun me around. And one of them was that Diane Bruni was an early supporter of the work and she was one of my first interviews. And she told me about the correlation between overuse, repetitive stress and her hip injury coming out of the Ashtanga world.

And I interviewed her, it was a really compelling interview. She loved the project, she was a big supporter and she wanted to host this event at her home studio in Parkdale here in Toronto. We advertised it, it was going to be under the banner slash branding of WAWADIA or my project. And 60 people showed up, and she was going to speak on her injury experience. I was going to give my initial research that was related to psychosocial dynamics of injury. And then we had also a sports medicine doctor who was going to come, and he was going to do a little bit of statistical analysis on who got hurt when and where and how. And Diane was going first, and she just did not follow the plan. That’s not really her jam.

It wasn’t unexpected, but at the same time, what she began talking about was really outside of what I felt the scope of my project should be. She started talking about the whisper network that she had encountered in the late 1990s that informed her that Pattabhi Jois was allegedly assaulting female students. And she described how that led her into a kind of crisis of faith and professional choices like how was she going to associate herself with a system where this was true? And the information that she had was credible. She told the story, and I was sitting there gripping my meditation cushion listening to her say it and thinking, “This wasn’t in the program, this wasn’t part of the deal.”

Jason Brown:

Yeah, sorry to jump in. But I remember when I spoke to her, she came to Brooklyn and I met her. And she came on the podcast and we talked, but she talked a lot more about actually ripping up her hip and then stuff that she felt was wrong with Ashtanga having to do with just biomechanics and stuff. She didn’t necessarily, we might have gone and don’t I really remember, somebody wasn’t the focus of our conversation at that time.

Matthew Remski:

Okay. Here’s the thing and this is where I think you and I as media people in the yoga world have this interesting interaction. If you interviewed her after that event, you might have been the recipient of the fact that I had silenced her because what happened at the event was that we had planned to have it videoed. That whole first section was on video.

Jason Brown:

I saw it. I remember seeing some video of you guys doing that section.

Matthew Remski:

You didn’t see the story she told though because I actually convinced her to drop it. I said, “Look, the story is uncorroborated, you’re not naming your source. I’m a little bit concerned about legal liability.” I had all of these great rationalizations for encouraging her to desist. By the way, we’re very close friends and we have talked this out since. And I have given her my sincere apology for what ended up being like about a six month to a year long contribution that I made actually to the silencing of this story because I really felt that the sex scandal genre was a kind of dumpster fire of controversy and confusion. And there are specific reasons that I felt that way but are not just personal.

Jason Brown:

Oh, I remember when we spoke last we were talking about the Jivamukti thing. And I just know that you have often used Facebook as a little bit of a litmus test for things, it seems to me. I could kind of understand why you were being super careful because that’s what people were always coming after you, that’s what people still come after you about in terms of just being too sensational and not sourced or whatever?

Matthew Remski:

Right. That does play into it, but there’s something deeper to investigate there. And that is that I believed somehow that these two forms of harm were separated and separable that somehow the somatic dominance that Diane Bruni and then, of course, the nine women who came forward for The Walrus article are describing in terms of assault is of a piece with attitudes of somatic dominance that are registered in the tissues. I wanted to really pull those apart. But I think, and I also began to realize that the discussion around injuries in yoga was so charged because there was this underlying theme that wasn’t actually being addressed. It’s like, why are we so upset about repetitive stress injuries and why are we really trying to figure out what the best way of doing Trikonasana is?

It seemed to be carrying a lot more than, “Okay, let’s improve our technique when we’re doing spin class.” It was fraught with not just the expectations of therapy and spiritual equanimity, but also it was fraught with I believe this unspoken set of grievances about how we had been taught or how we had been held in the community. I think by the time Diane got to you, she had already sort of been taught by somebody who’s like you, which it was me that this really isn’t the time or place to talk about this stuff. And it was so strange is that all of the arguments that I presented to her were a kind of hyper rationalized version of the arguments that had buried or made people’s responses to that infamous video of adjustments inconclusive. That video popped up for years-

Jason Brown:

I remember seeing it, I remember seeing it.

Matthew Remski:

Remember what people would say, they would say, “Oh, we don’t actually know what he’s doing.”

Jason Brown:

It looked bad, but I didn’t trust it because it’s just an out-of-context clip on the internet. I wouldn’t damn somebody on an out-of-context clip on the internet because I don’t trust that.

Matthew Remski:

Right, there is that. There’s the credibility of the technology. But then there’s also when there’s the acknowledgement of what’s actually happening in the physical contact, it’s like, well, these encounters are taking place in the intense and well-defined parameters of long-term teacher-student relationship or guru student relationship. These are advanced practitioners, they know what they’re doing, they know what they signed up for. Obviously he’s touching men and women in the same way, actually obviously he’s not. There was this endless, endless round of equivocation that I really think infected me, it poisoned me in a way to such an extent that I was looking through my emails yesterday to try to figure out when the video started to really catch my attention.

And it was my friend Carol Horton in 2013 who sent it to me. And she said, “Have you seen this thing? It’s really awful, it’s disturbing.” And I wrote back to her, and I saw my reply and it said, “Oh, yeah, I’ve seen it. It is awful.” I don’t know if I change the subject or, I don’t know. It’s just I didn’t follow up on it. And I think what was going on was that one of the things, one of the many things was that in the absence of there being audible voices, it was just too easy to equivocate over the imagery. And for the longest time I thought, well, nobody’s spoken out about this, but I was actually wrong.

In 2010, Anneke Lucas published a blog post that she just reissued in 2016, it had disappeared because the website, you probably remember it Yoga in New York City.

Jason Brown:

I do, I remember. The problem was is when [Maya 00:14:26] was a problem, but I remember there was the whole thing going on with Yoga for New York and they were trying to regulate the teacher training programs. And we raised money and got lobbyists and actually stopped that. I was one of the first times that that kind of happened. And in the meetings that we had for Yoga New York, this issue came up in those discussions. But I remember being at the time feeling like it was a distraction from the other issue.

Matthew Remski:

Right. And that’s the horrible, it’s this unintentional sort of fog of neglect and rape culture and kind of just low expectations that really delays and delays, and delays the story coming out. Anneke publishes this thing in 2010, she clearly says I was groped this way, this is what it felt like, this is how I confronted him two days later. You can go back and you can find her post. When you put this up, I’ll put it into the comments.

Jason Brown:

She said it on the podcast, she came on the podcast long before the #metoo thing happened. We talked about it the last time she came on. And I remember, and guess because she also told her personal story, which is also so mind glowing. And then she also mentioned that, but I guess it just at the time seemed so crazy. What’s interesting to me right now is I think we share something in that. You’ve been interviewing people as have I in a sense. And doing that and then going back and observing yourself and your behavior when you’re talking to people about these things, which is just sort of a natural for what we’re doing. [inaudible 00:16:11] anything or whatever, reveal stuff.

I always talk about it on the podcast, and you see, “Oh, crap, look at that,” in yourself. And I do think that that’s been happening for me a lot recently. And that’s what I was talking about on the podcast this week, that trying to address these things as someone who’s starting conversations often means having to do it in yourself and failing sometimes or something.

Matthew Remski:

Oh, I think that’s a huge part of it. I can tell you for sure that getting to the point where I could actually listen just did not come naturally to me. And it really took the patience of people like Diane Bruni who when I’m talking to her about, I don’t think that releasing that part of video is a good idea if we want to keep the focus on safety in asana practice. And she’s like, “But you know what I’m saying is true?” And she looks at me with this face where she’s half exhausted, half disappointed. And I’m like, “Yeah, and what am I supposed to do about it?” And there is the problem right there, it’s like you immediately sort of jump into what you think should be your problem-solving mode instead of just better listenership.

And that was a very hard lesson that I had to learn. And it was really out of those conversations with Diane that I started to pursue the stories. I reached out to Anneke, Anneke put me in touch with Marisa Sullivan. Marisa Sullivan put me in touch with Maya Hammer. Maya Hammer was Diane Bruni’s student in Toronto. And then this sort of web, this network emerged. And all I had to do was to re-associate myself with the awful sensations that I felt while watching that video and to not push them to the side, to not say, I don’t want to deal with that or I don’t know what’s going on there because I was nauseated when I saw that video.

I am not the victim of sexual assault, but I am a victim of male violence and I know what somatic domination feels like in my body and I had a sense of what generally was happening in the depiction of that physical contact. I did not put it together with, oh, this may well be predatory behavior.

Jason Brown:

Well, it makes me think a little bit of what I think it was Theo wrote recently, might have even been, I think it was Theo when she was just saying that listening to the realities of this, nobody wants to do it. It feels so terrible, and I know I keep bringing it up on the podcast and then just kind of budding it off because, oh, my god, because I want to talk about it because I think we need to. But it feels so horrible so you avoid it.

Matthew Remski:

Right, right. There’s a couple of things, Theo Wildcroft, I’ll put the link to this one too. I published a little thing where I just quoted from a conversation she and I had over Skype about how the story of the trauma survivor is actually contagious. We feel that we will be infected by it, we feel that it will change our world, it will have to change our perspective on everything, on how everything works together, on what right and wrong is, on who’s in control, on whether or not something is good or something is bad. And the deeper sense of infectability, I guess is that you might begin to reorganize your own memories in a different light. There might be some reframing that you’ll have to go through if you hear Karen Rain describe something that sounds pretty familiar but you didn’t think of it that way and then, oh, no, is that something that you have been carrying in some unconscious way as well?

And Karen Rain is a wonderful example of the type of voice that is so hard to listen to because she has zero fucks to give. She has no social capital to win or lose within the yoga world, she has been 20 years metabolizing her experience. I want to take that back, it’s not that she has zero fucks to give, it’s that she is able to speak outside of because she cares very deeply, actually. I know that about whether or not this continues or whether or not it can be improved or healed. Where she has nothing to lose is in the social capital department.

Jason Brown:

Yeah, I was going to say, I think when you first said what I took was that she doesn’t have any professional skin in the game.

Matthew Remski:

Not at all.

Jason Brown:

To me, that’s sort of why I have kind of looked to her and I had a chance to talk with her because she’s in that video. And everybody who got into Ashtanga in the early days knows that video. It’s the icon of Ashtanga coming to [inaudible 00:22:10] something, and she’s in that. And we all recognize other people from that video who went on to have these yoga careers.

Matthew Remski:

All five of them.

Jason Brown:

There you go. I didn’t even know that offhand, but she didn’t go on to have a yoga career. And this is why, and now it’s coming out.

Matthew Remski:

And it’s not just didn’t go on to have a yoga career, she couldn’t have a yoga career. I think this is a very important thing to draw out, of those six people, Karen was one of them, her name was Haberman then. And then we have Tim Miller, we have Chuck Miller, Maty Ezraty, Eddy Stern, Tim Miller and Richard Freeman. And all of them went on to have life long to this day careers in the broadcast of this method. And then we have somebody who completely vanishes. I had been aware of the video and then when I was actually visiting with and interviewing Elizabeth Kadetsky in New York City in maybe 2015 or so, she said, “You should try to get in touch with Karen because I learned Ashtanga from her in New Jersey in the early 2000s. And she had a lot of interesting things to say about her experience in Mysore, but I think she’s changed her name.”

And then I had to do this detective work to find her phone number and then call her up out of the blue. And her outsidership to this entire industry is so perfect and yet, it’s so radioactive. And I think that’s why it is extraordinarily difficult for anybody to even consider inviting her onto a panel or has she done any podcasts anywhere. There’s been a couple of public meetings on this particular issue. And as far as I know, she has not gotten many invitations. And it’s because the actual voice of the victim carries something that must be addressed, it cannot be equivocated, it cannot be turned into a photograph or a video that can be reinterpreted. The person is standing right there and they’re telling you exactly what happened and they’re telling you exactly what would help them.

And it’s no mystery anymore, you can’t stand there and you can’t say, well, I wonder what they want, I wonder what would be good or I wonder what we should do about this going forward. All of those somewhat self oriented concerns just have to dissolve actually.

Jason Brown:

I hear that. Having had a chance to speak with her and have that exact conversation with her, I felt like it had a big impact on me. I know that that has affected how I’m having the conversation a lot. And I guess trying to sort of think of the other side of the conversation in terms of why she’s not getting invited, I’ve had that conversation a little bit with some friends. And one of the things that someone brought up which I thought was maybe a valid point, maybe not is that I think people are a bit afraid because even when I was talking to her, I said a stupid thing or two and she was very sweet and gracious to help educate me. But it was touchy and I guess people don’t necessarily know that she would want to be on those panels, but you got to ask to find out I guess.

Matthew Remski:

A, you have to ask to find out. B, you’re going to make mistakes. C, if you show good faith and you say, “Yeah, there is obviously something here that I have to learn,” then 9 times out of 10 people in Karen Rain’s position, if they have the energy on that particular day are going to probably respond to that earnestness and say, “Yes, well, out of my desire to help other victims or to improve the culture in general, here’s what would be helpful.” And I can say now that the number of mistakes that I made in communicating with Karen was really almost … Sometimes I wonder about the amount of patience she had with me actually because I don’t have her experience. And not only do I not have her experience, but I have never encountered somebody who’s been able to … There are many people who can do it, but this is my first personal encounter with somebody who can speak so clearly to the facts and to the effects and to the meanings.

I’ll tell you about one thing that I did was when we were going back and forth in our interview process, and that was long, it took place over about a year and a half actually. And there’s is development story to that too, which we’ll describe in a future interview, she and I. But at one point, she decided she was going to make her me too statement and we were talking about that. And I was asking her how she felt and things. And then in the wake of making that statement, I began tracking the responses. And we were discussing the responses, and one of the things that she was very clear about with me was “I am triggered by seeing his photograph. That has a negative impact upon my nervous system, it makes me feel in these ways, that’s very hard for me.”

And what did I do when I was giving her reports on how people were responding in their blog post? I kept sending her just links to people’s blogs where Jois’s face is right at the top beaming. I don’t know how many of those I did before she said, “You’ve got to stop doing that.” I think when she initially said that, I didn’t even know what she was talking about. There’s a level of otherness to that experience that I just couldn’t grasp and so I made mistakes. And it’s really in making those mistakes and having them pointed out through the patience that she showed that I feel I’ve been able to go to college or something in-

Jason Brown:

Oh, I feel like just trying to have the conversation has been a huge education for me. And it does seem to go beyond how much of the more recent revelations and the reasons that we’re listening to it maybe in ways now that we weren’t before are just because of the #metoo phenomena.

Matthew Remski:

I think it’s integral. When Karen describes why she wanted to make her statement, she says in this forthcoming interview that the #metoo movement came and she said, “Well, I know that I have been sexually assaulted by somebody famous and I have to do my part.” There’s a paradigmatic listening shift that in the yoga world has its own crisis and conflict. In a way, the #metoo movement has had this profound effect on yoga culture so far. But at the same time, it has also encountered particular resistances that are related to the narratives that yoga people like to tell about themselves.

Nobody looked to Harvey Weinstein as a benevolent grandfather who is also a spiritual master. Being disillusioned about him is not so painful, everybody knew that the guy was off and cruel. There’s this extra layer of cognitive dissonance and idealization and mystification that #metoo has to break through. I think it’s happening in a unique way in the yoga world. And in some places, it’s taking a little bit longer than it should, but it’s definitely happening.

Jason Brown:

Well, that goes a little bit back to me where we started in the sense that if you start out trying to figure out why you’re hurt, you’re doing all this yoga practice and that you manifest chronic pain, which is what happened to me. And you start to examine why that is and maybe even you start a project called What Are We Actually Doing in Asana because of that. And then you first look to some technical things and you can identify things that you think might be it like maybe triangle pose is a problem. You’re trying to find some technical things that you think may be the answer. But when you examine deeper, as you said at the beginning, getting into these conversations with Amy Matthews and Peter Blackaby, you’re like, “But wait, is that really the reason?”

And when you start to look at it, it really comes back for me to something that you threw out there and it’s a term that I think is kind of an important term, this term “somatic dominance”. I think of it in two ways, there’s sort of the somatic dominance of the way a certain teacher and student relate. But there’s even a somatic dominance against my own body.

Matthew Remski:

Right. Well, I think those two things are inseparable actually, that the self relationship, the self objectification, the struggle with one’s own body in some way has got to be an internalization, and who knows which one comes first of the dominant pedagogy that one engages. And yeah, I think that in a way, that’s the core theme of the WAWADIA project. And it was really these stories of criminal acts, of boundary transgressions, of sexual assault and harassment that made the wider theme of dominance as it plays out in subtler ways, in non-sexual ways, but ways that are equally expressive of unequal power dynamics. That’s really the core. And it’s one of the factors, I think it’s one of the factors that contributes to the silencing of personal experience.

I used to go to Diane Bruni’s classes, but I was never in a Ashtanga community and I never practiced Mysore style. And I don’t think I would have tolerated adjustments for very long, although who knows? That’s the thing about being inducted into a system of influences that you really can’t predict what you’re going to accept depending upon what you’re told about it. But having not had that experience, when I imagine what it must be like to spend years every morning six days a week really placing yourself into the hands of the person who will mold you into the shape that you can’t quite attain yourself, that is enormous.

That has to have such profound effects upon other ways in which you would relate to that authority figure. And I think it goes along too with the general report of the silence within the culture. Now, this is not unique to Ashtanga, but the number of people who have described being in those practice rooms and not having time to speak openly with the teacher about how something felt or to give them feedback or to tell them that they were hurt or to speak with them after class or to have tea with them or whatever. That kind of deep, involved, close, intimate, claustrophobic almost somatic space in which a very powerful set of sensations is being negotiated, it’s not really given to stepping back and having a conversation.

You would have to reorient your entire way of communicating with that teacher in order to step back and say, “Hey, can you tell me a little bit about what you knew about Pattabhi Jois and his relationship to his women students?” In order to do that, you would have to completely reorient yourself somatically towards the person you were speaking to. I think that the whole sort of landscape of one body expressing power over another or offering itself as a gateway to another’s experience that they can’t attain themselves, that’s both the root of to me, the WAWADIA project now, but also it’s the sphere of influence that circulates out from the difficult, the terrible stories detailed in The Walrus article.

Jason Brown:

Well, I’ve been thinking about what you’re pointing to a lot because I just had this conversation with Scott Johnson. And he and I are kind of the same generation where we didn’t go to India and meet the gurus and have a direct connection to them. Our teachers were the Westerners who went and did that. I didn’t have any, I don’t know. The picture of Pattabhi Jois was up on the altar and I was just sort of taught to revere them as the living masters. But it was sort of secondhand through my teachers. But my teachers, at least the ones that I went to, they didn’t set themselves up in that same way with me.

They may have had a certain, I said it on the podcast that the in is the teacher rather than the in being things that that teacher taught other people or something. There’s sort of this difference. I want to come back to what you’re saying because it goes back to the connection between why doing really hard assists and popping someone’s hamstring connector relates to sexual abuse in the space, this idea of somatic dominance. And even in some of the Ashtanga teachers I’ve been speaking to who don’t have this direct connection to Pattabhi Jois as their guru, they still have learned to do these assists. Even like when someone’s in paschimottanasana and they lay on top of them on their back, some of them aren’t crazy trying to pull your leg behind your head.

But when I spoke to these very thoughtful Ashtanga teachers who I think are being incredibly thoughtful, Scott and Sarai, they’re really tackling these things. But when I asked them specifically about this, I asked Sarai, “Do you still do that?” And she said, “I will if someone wants me to, but I do them in a different way.” But she could hear in her voice there’s this question of that. There’s a consent often given to them to lay on their back when they’re in paschimottanasana but that dynamic of teaching is sort of what we’re talking about. I don’t do that anymore, I don’t put my weight on anybody like that anymore because of this sense of dominance to it even if someone wants me to do it in a way.

For me personally what I’ve come to in my own practice and why I do it, it’s not the space where someone could have a conversation with me. I guess what you’re saying to me, they connect. I am there after-class and if you want to talk to me about whatever, that’s what I’m most interested in actually.

Matthew Remski:

I think that there are so many things going on with the squish that you’re talking about from the practitioners that I’ve spoken to. Some students will develop relationships with teachers where that is a moment of deep, sweet intimate connection that feels safe because they’ve built up a field of trust between them over a long period of time. And then some people feel as though it’s something that they have tolerated for a while and some people didn’t like it at all and they gave boundaries. There’s a whole spectrum of responses. But the basic sort of principle of whether or not there’s a transparent conversation around affirmative consent and why it’s happening, why it’s happening. Is it really that the student is being helped into a deeper expression of the posture or is what is happening that a certain type of intimacy is being communicated and that is richly appreciated by both the student and the teacher?

And if it’s the latter thing, there is nothing illegal about that. However, it’s something that should be discussed openly. It should be transparent, it can’t be hidden underneath the sphere of mysticism or “This is the way the parampara does it” or “This is what Guruji did.” It really doesn’t matter that some people really crave that contact, there’s nothing wrong with that. What’s wrong with it is whether or not the reasons for that craving are fully exposed and whether or not they can be interrogated without shame, without guilt, whether they can be fully discussed. And I think this is why it’s a really contentious conversation within the community because the reality is that that physical contact is deeply, deeply nourishing.

And then in the absence of transparency around it, people discovered that the line between that physical contact and a kind of grooming for assault is very difficult to find. And that is a very, very threatening. It’s a very shaky ground I think for the people that I’ve spoken to to be standing on. and I really admire folks like Scott and Sarai and Greg Nardi and his partner Juan in Florida and Jean Byrne in Australia figuring out how to negotiate all of that because it’s rough. It’s like people want contact and yet contact has to be safe. And safety comes through transparency. And transparency comes through honesty about what the thing actually is.

Jason Brown:

Well, that’s the word I was going to use, transparency because I think a lot of these assists, they have been held up until now with this air of magic. And you know me, I’m an advocate for magic when it comes. But I adopted certain things, I remember standing on someone’s back and pushing my way down to give them cracks. I used to do it all the time to people, people loved it. I think of it now and I shudder. But that’s what teachers did to me, teachers did it to me.

Matthew Remski:

But you think they loved it?

Jason Brown:

People would ask me for it, they’d be like, “Jay, please, will you stand on my back? Jay, will you stand on my back?” A teacher had done that to me, I liked it and I did it to other people. But I guess there’s sort of this idea that the yoga teacher knows something that you don’t. And that means that you would give over to them because they’re somehow going to do something that you wouldn’t be able to do or know how to do on your own.

Matthew Remski:

Right, right. And think about the vulnerability of that being an embodied ritual where the actual posture that the teacher knows more about than you is the thing that they’re going to put you into that you can’t get into on your own and that you might not be able to get out of on your own. Immobilization actually is a key feature of that moment. And, of course, that brings up all kinds of notions of surrender and trust. And the question for me is, does the yoga world, never mind Ashtanga, does the yoga world have anywhere near as intelligent a conversation around the issues of immobilization, trust, sensation, pleasure and pain as, for instance, the BDSM community does.

Jason Brown:

Yeah, you brought it up. And I saw that talk with that woman whose name I don’t remember, maybe you know her name.

Matthew Remski:

Tiffany Rose, my friend in Red Deer had a great interview with my friend Daniel Clements who’s in off of the coast of British Columbia, but I think he’s in Japan now. Yeah, that’s where it’s at. I am not a BDSM practitioner, but I am astonished by the richness of the discourse that that community has developed not without its problems, not without its own predators of course. But the richness that community has developed around these interpersonal interactions that are designed to provoke sensation in dyads. That’s what it’s about. And if the yoga world can learn something from that, I think that’s amazing.

Jason Brown:

I guess it brings me a little bit when we talk about learning from this and what we’re hoping to have happen by making people have to taste this stuff. It’s interesting to me that since I’ve been putting out some of these episodes, the kind of responses and comments and conversations that are happening, they’ve often been kind of surprising to me the way, I mentioned this week, people don’t see the same things or hear the same things that I hear. It goes back to what we talked about when we talked about your personal experience, I don’t know, did you listen to this podcast series called Dear Franklin Jones?

Matthew Remski:

No, I haven’t but I know quite a bit about Bubba Free John, Adi Da, Franklin Jones.

Jason Brown:

I’m bringing it up because I literally just finished it this afternoon before I got on with you. And for people listen who don’t know what it is, basically, Adi Da who I’ve heard about forever, the same we heard about Osho. There was that big documentary. But the series is by a man whose parents, he was born into it, his parents were in when he was a boy and he was in it. And when he got old enough too, he actually believed and practiced. And then at 16, they left. And he started going through this process through the podcast series of kind of unraveling he loves Adi Da and he also has to face that … He ultimately comes to I was in a cult. And he never thought of it that way. But through the course of the podcast, he comes to that.

I guess my question is, and I can hear people in the back of my mind right now when I bring up the word cult when we talk about Ashtanga yoga. It’s sort of like, how much is there cult-like behavior and how much of it is a cult or is there a line or where is the line? Because sometimes it feels a little bit like that when I try to have conversations about this.

Matthew Remski:

I’m really glad that you brought it up because it’s a discourse that I’m pretty familiar with being a two-time cult survivor myself. And it’s also highly radioactive. And I think it’s because there’s some fundamental misunderstandings about what a cult is and who cult members are. Cult members are you and I who become deceived by systems of influence. There are no predictors of who joins an organization that is deceptive and that begins to control their emotional labor or their finances or their ideas or their friendships or their relationships. People who I lived with in the two cults that I was in came from every walk of life, every level of education, every type of psychological background, every form of trauma or happiness that would be available in the whole menu of human experience.

Anybody is susceptible. And once you get that, once you get that the actual clinical psychology data on cult membership is not about who the people are but what the organization does, then the guilt associated with the word, the griminess, the shitty feeling that people get when they have to ask themselves, “Oh, was I in a cult?” All of that begins to lessen, it doesn’t disappear. But I can say from personal experience and from speaking to many, many other cult survivors to begin to understand that you did not join a cult but rather as Cathleen Mann says, you delayed leaving an organization that misrepresented itself to you. That begins to lessen the burden and allows you to pull back and look at, “Okay. Well, what were the mechanisms here that allowed for this system of influence to operate and then at the highest levels, for it to abuse people? What are the mechanisms there?”

And they’re pretty clear. Going right back to the fundamental research of Michael Langone, the three sort of building blocks of the cultic organization are deception, dependence and dread of leaving. And deception is however the first step. Going back to what you said about how adjustments were presented to you as a younger Ashtanga student. If you heard that, “Oh, this is the way we traditionally do it.” If you heard the sense that the adjustments had some sort of history to them. If you wondered why the teacher was touching somebody’s perineum and you discussed it in a group and somebody said, “Oh, that’s the Mula Bandha adjustment.”

All of those responses, those rationales, they are all deceptive. We know now from the scholarship that there’s no real pre-modern precedent for adjustments in yoga practice prior to the Mysore Palace. We know that there’s no such thing as the Mula Bandha adjustment that at best it’s a euphemism, at worst, it’s a rationalization that contributed to this feeling that something else was going on than what was actually going on. And what was actually going on was more properly termed sexual assault. But there was this veil of explanation over it that began to spread into other area. If we just take the Mysore narratives as an example, there’s this word used parampara to describe the method and the teaching lineage of Ashtanga yoga.

Now, that literally implies at least in medieval tantric terms that a teaching technique or a spiritual transmission was passed on for over multiple generations over centuries from one person to another, not generally through family lines. To call Astanga yoga a parampara, which is now a term that second-generation Jois students have picked up and started to use themselves to refer to how they relate to the Jois method, that is deceptive. It’s not true, it begins to create sort of mirage of importances and mystique and very attractive spiritual aspirations that people want to engage with, but they don’t have factual basis.

The entire origin narrative of the primary series is dependent upon the existence of a book that nobody has seen called the Yoga Korunta, which apparently was found by Krishnamacharya in 1929 in the Kolkata library bound into a copy of the Yoga Sutras. And the word within the culture is that terms like “vinyasa” come from that book to describe the harmonization of movement and breath. And then if you talk to Sanskritists who actually look at the literature they say, “No, there’s no pre-modern usage of vinyasa that works that way.” And these Jay, they might seem like niggling academic details. But what ends up happening is that a kind of phantom city is constructed out of idealizations and deceptions.

And when I say deception, I don’t mean it’s intentional. People can repeat these things because they like how they sound or because it gives them a sense of hope or validity or aspiration or something. But the … Go ahead.

Jason Brown:

Let me jump first saying, what I want to say is that when I point to what you just did, the research that you’re pointing to about how some of these origin myths and some of these things that we’ve thought of as coming from the ancient wisdom but were kind of maybe invented by charismatic men along the way. When I point to that kind of research that’s being done often by academics, by some people there’s this knee-jerk reaction to it as this baseless attack. To me, it goes back to what I said before, even in my conversations with Ashtanga teachers. Sometimes I have a conversation with an Ashtanga teacher, doesn’t sound like I’m talking to anybody who’s exhibiting cult-like whatever. But other times I’m talking to someone and when there’s an over defensiveness about the conversation, that’s when I start to feel that.

I guess, I’m just sort of wondering it seems to me that often what legitimizes what you’re doing is this connection to some idea of ancient lineage. It’s kind of what we said before to be able to let it come into question means de-legitimizing something that’s really important to you.

Matthew Remski:

And I think it puts people in a very emotionally tenuous position, and I think it’s very painful. People wind up having to resolve a lot of cognitive dissonance. But the thing is that it’s only really problematic, and here’s where we cross over into the threshold of cult analysis. Human beings can believe whatever they want to believe. It doesn’t matter whether they believe that their practices come from unicorns or whether Krishnamacharya got a download from Nathamuni. None of that matters, there are plenty of mythopoeic believes that do not end up fueling abusive organizational structures. There’s no solid correlation between belief and behavior.

The thing that is really good to focus on, and I think this also depersonalized cult discourse in a way that might be helpful is that let’s forget about whether or not the Yoga Korunta is true, let’s talk about whether or not we are willing to create a sphere of deception in which the real asset of the student, the real commodity that we’re going for is credulity. And because if we can get people to believe things, then will they believe me when they come to me and they say Pattabhi Jois just sexually assaulted me and I can tell them, “Oh, well that wasn’t sexual.”

There’s an interview that I’ll publish soon in a follow-up bit where a person who was there for not as long as Karen Rain but but almost describes being assaulted and going to her colleagues and being told preemptively, “Oh, that wasn’t sexual what he did to you.” Now, that’s a deceptive statement because it’s up to her to decide whether it was sexual or not. But it’s a deceptive statement that comes at the end of a long string of other statements that are designed to create a sphere of credulity. It’s not the first time that she’s been lied to. It doesn’t matter what the content of the lies are, what matters is that the individual is being induced into a system of influence and control and something is being extracted from them. That’s what matters.

Jason Brown:

And some of those deceptions, they’re happening in silence it seems to me.

Matthew Remski:

Yeah. Tell me what you’re thinking about.

Jason Brown:

It’s sort of what we were saying before that in certain yoga practice rooms, there’s a certain air about it. I remember that expression silence is the best teacher. In that space, you’re set up for this somatic dominance dynamic.

Matthew Remski:

You could be.

Jason Brown:

It seems to me. And then that’s why for me, it seems to me if you’re not going to have legitimacy because you’re connected to a particular guru or lineage tradition, the transparency and ability to have this kind of dialogue is the only thing that gives you any legitimacy.

Matthew Remski:

Well, that’s a very good point. And I would say that it’s like on the other side of the fear, that, oh, maybe the Yoga Korunta isn’t a thing or maybe there were some exaggerations going on there, or maybe the series are not traditional in the sense that they’ve been changing every couple of years according to how many people have had to funnel through the shala. On the other side of this nauseating fear that perhaps you have been lied to, perhaps you have been deceived, I believe, possibly lies the liberation of transparency, lies the liberation of, oh, wow, it’s amazing what our desire drive us towards, oh, it’s amazing what the process of idealization tells us about ourselves, oh, it’s amazing how we can be vulnerable to manipulation. We really should base our service towards others upon offering protection and safety and safe spaces and trauma awareness.

Far from wanting to just having any animosity towards people’s yoga inquiry at all, for me, personally looking directly at this stuff is actually the source of my spirituality because I don’t see what else I can learn about it except how I am deluded. I don’t see what is more valuable for me to learn except where my blind spots are, except where I shut down Diane Bruni or I can’t actually understand what Karen Rain is telling me, or I don’t want to look at that video, or I want to maintain some image of wholesomeness that is actually fragile and tragic in a way because it’s not going to last.

Jason Brown:

Oh, I so appreciate that because if we were going to think of yoga as being about some kind of freedom or liberation or moksha, which I generally don’t like to frame it as. But if we were, my experience of freedom is very much connected to just not having any secrets. That’s where I feel that sense of I don’t have anything to hide, I can feel free to talk about anything. I don’t know. To me, is where the freedom comes. And I heard you say in that talk, you offered this definition of moksha that I thought was quite-

Matthew Remski:

Right. Yeah, I said to Colin and Sarah that I had a teacher who gave, I think eccentric and perhaps unique etymology from the nirukta tradition or “what is not said” poetry of the Sanskrit technique where he described moksha as there was a way that he had of translating the roots, but the basic translation of the compound was “the end of infatuation”. And I feel like the process of disillusionment if I’ve been well supported, if I can reach out to reality in other forms, if I can find stability outside of my social bubble, if I can reach out and hold on to something else. And, of course, that depends a heck of a lot or almost entirely upon privilege, then I am able to survive the disillusionment process and perhaps even make it into compost. Yeah, the end of infatuation.

Jason Brown:

Yeah, the ending of illusions. And to me, that has to do with what I’ve been doing in this process of having the conversation like you described, it feels like practice to me.

Matthew Remski:

Yeah, I feel the same way.

Jason Brown:

Well, it brings me to something because in getting ready to talk to you, I reached out to some friends of mine who don’t know you so well, who I’ve heard be a little critical of you because we’re friends and I don’t want people to feel like I was soft-balling you. I reached out to them, and it’s interesting because the line of questioning was really I think sometimes a reaction to maybe even your writing style sometimes more than content. But what it boiled down to for me, which I thought was kind of an interesting line of questioning and maybe where we would start to wind it down is it’s sort of about your practice because sometimes people accuse you of being this academic. But I remember from when I talked to you before, you were a yoga teacher, you had a yoga center, you did Ayurveda. You’ve had a whole history of practice. I’m curious about that, what do you practice now?

Matthew Remski:

Yeah. I practice movement every day, sometimes on my mat, sometimes not. I generally sit every day, but I have to be really drawn to … I don’t even know what it is, by some internal ringing bell that says, “Okay. If you have time right now, you should sit down.” I go through the forums that I used to practice when I was in my full-on asana days occasionally. But I’ve also explored so many other different types of movement over the last couple of years that I’m sort of constantly playing and examining, but then I can have an almost nerdy aspect to that investigation that, I don’t know, starts the inner dialog in my brain about what is this action doing and is this functional movement? And what is that sensation actually?

When people ask me, “Would you teach asana again?” I always have to say, I really don’t know how I could. If I lived in Peter Blackaby’s town and he was giving a teacher training, I would probably go and do that. And maybe I would come out the other side and I would feel like I knew what I was doing.

Jason Brown:

Let me ask you something, when you are doing whatever you’re doing and it’s not like the forms that you learned back from your asana yoga teacher days and you’re doing other things that you describe, do you think of that as yoga practice?

Matthew Remski:

Oh, yeah. Absolutely, absolutely. I think that if there’s the thread of self inquiry, if I’m looking into my sensations and into the pattern of my breath and I am watching the relationship between my breathing arc and my thinking arc and if I’m seeing how thinking is embodied, and if I can feel knots in the flesh related to knots in my psychology, then yeah, that whole holistic and non-dual conversation I think is happening. And if there’s pleasure and interest in that, so much the better. But then also sometimes it’s boring.

Jason Brown:

I like that, that’s a really good point.

Matthew Remski:

And if it’s boring, for a while, I was like, “Why be bored?”

Jason Brown:

That’s true. Sometimes I think of boredom as a pleasure, sometimes.

Matthew Remski:

Right. And sometimes it’s not, sometimes it’s connected with ennui and depression. And also if I’m able to feel other people better as the result of what I’m doing on my mat or on my cushion, then I feel like I’m doing yoga even though it’s not like I learned anything particularly from anyone that really made that connection solid. The yoga that I learned, the asana practice and breathing practices, meditation practice that I learned was really about individualistic self inquiry. And there was a sense that your life, your relationships would straighten out a little bit. But now when I can actually relax myself into the difficult conversation or the thing that I don’t know or the blind spot that I’m coming up against or some echo of intergenerational anger that’s playing out in my parenting, if I can do all of that, then I feel like I still definitely have my practice.

Jason Brown:

I like that. It integrates, it’s that direct connection between that time that you spend in practice and it having an actual application or something to you dealing with the thing that’s at the most forefront or whatever that’s in front of you. And very rarely for me is it about … And I guess it is physical, but often it’s more my direction in life and my relationships as you said, the way I’m relating to people. And I guess I’m wondering now how much has doing these interviews over the last years and hearing these stories and navigating all the stuff, how much has that affected and changes your practice along the way like?

Matthew Remski:

Oh, it’s been at the heart of it really. I think that the selfish part of it is that I’ve learned about ways in which I dissociate, I armor myself, I don’t give positive regard to other people, I project or I fantasize or I transfer or I counter transfer. I’ve gotten to see all of those things. Yeah, I wouldn’t be able to pull those things apart.

Jason Brown:

Yeah. I guess they don’t really separate out for me either, gain, the podcast and the blog writing and trying to … In a way, to me, I think of it in the sense of almost I need to do it and I think that if we can say the word yoga community, which I’m hesitant. But I think we need to grapple with these things. If some of us don’t go first and put ourselves out there and make mistakes and have to deal with that, then it’s going to be harder for everybody to do it.

Matthew Remski:

Yeah. And one thing I agree with you and one thing that I just want to sort of clarify is that in the midst of answering a question like how these interviews impacted you, I am sensitive to the privilege involved in listening to Karen Rain’s experience being part of my personal development. That’s not what it’s for. It was a very happy development that I feel responsible for paying back in some way. I think that you and I both in this particular arc, in this particular field can, I don’t know, in some ways have these encounters, these difficult encounters that we can ultimately turn around into some kind of spiritual or psychological benefit and not everybody has that possibility.

One of the things that Sarah Garden said last night was that she really liked how in the article the nine women who gave their testimony, the article turned around and showed how they were doing later on. And most of the stories were or the aspects to their stories that the article disclosed were all on an upward arc. Maya becomes a certified psychologist and Karen Rain heals herself through contact improv and dance. And Marisa Sullivan is doing all of these wonderful workshops, and Anneke is doing this fantastic prison work with yoga. And those feel-good stories, that feel-good part of the narrative, I think we want to be really mindful of because there’s a whole bunch of other stories out there, perhaps the majority of people who suffered abuse in yoga community and in relation to yoga methods where there isn’t an upward arc, where the life didn’t turn out well.

When there’s a positive story that arises out of adversity, we really want to remember, this is my firm belief that there’s a whole social matrix that allows that positive narrative to emerge. And that it’s really good if we’re not seduced by the notion even in small ways that somehow it all turns out for the best because I think in a lot of cases, that’s not true.

Jason Brown:

Well, I appreciate that and I’m glad you brought us back to the women in your article because I think that’s right. I may have fallen victim to some of the things that we were talking about even in the course of this conversation. But I really appreciate that you’re bringing me back to that and also to this idea that I know for myself, and I’m betting it’s true for you that the reason we’re we’re doing this is because we really want there to be healing. And we have our own relationships to yoga that have served us and we’ve seen it help other people, and we want there to be healing. And in order to do that, it feels to me that there has to be this transparency.

Sometimes I think when I get into these conversations with people, it gets to this back and forth and it’s like this who’s more intellectually, more morally superior than the other or something. And we lose this thread of why people are passionate about it. And you said another thing because it’s something I’ve been going through with the whole Kino episode and stuff. And someone asked you about it, and you made a really important comment. You said, “She said that she was conflicted about things,” and you take her comments in that context. And I think that’s important, it was important for me to hear it that as much as I can sometimes have a reaction and feel passionate and get upset where I feel like someone’s deflecting, these are really hard things. And people are grappling with them, and we have to do it in the spirit of like shared humanity or there’s no way we’re going to get through this in a good way.

Matthew Remski:

Yeah. When I encounter statements that are problematic or controversial, I just have to reflect back upon my own divided intentions. You mentioned that, yes, we do want healing. To be completely honest, I’ve also had to negotiate the fact that I want revenge and that my need for justice is very much related to early streams of anger that I have worked in for a long time to try to understand and to try to unravel. And the paradox is that it’s driven me to this work, and it can also harm this work.

Jason Brown:

Revenge against who?

Matthew Remski:

Well, it’s a long story.

Jason Brown:

Isn’t that what people are accusing you of sometimes, you’re taking that out on?

Matthew Remski:

Yes, exactly. And they’re right, and a lot of time they’re right. They can feel it and I would say they have a good point. And every time I’ve been accused of this guy is an unhealed dude and he’s toileting on people, I’ve really tried to listen to that. I haven’t always been successful, but I have become more respectful of the paradox of the fact that you do not become an activist without, well, I think it would be very rare to become an activist and certainly not an activist journalist without having a personal need for some kind of justice. And the problem with that is that every story becomes about you. And what was so fortuitous for me, so lucky was to somehow find myself involved in this process where I could step out of the way and let these nine people speak. I really could step out of the way. Now, that didn’t come naturally to me.

Jason Brown:

Yeah, I was going to say the folks at The Walrus did you a big service I think because I’ve read all your stuff and this one, there was none of those moments where the alarm goes off and I go, “Oh, Matthew,” that little flourish of a language, you just know that’s the thing that everybody’s going to jump on. But it seems like this particular article was quite impeccably checked and sourced and there wasn’t that in there. And I haven’t seen anybody being able to jump on you for that in this one.

Matthew Remski:

Yeah. I’m grateful for that, that kind of firewall that’s provided. But I’m even more grateful for the lesson that I learned through that editorial process and others, which is it’s the paradox is you’re driven here by a sense of justice, you have a passion for it and you cross over the threshold and you really have to leave that at the door. And I think the article is largely a result of my being helped to do that. And now the problem that I think I’m going to have to face next is that I have to cross back over that threshold outside of the mainstream feature article mode. And if I go farther with this material, which I intend to, I do have to bring back the analysis and the personal positionality. And I have to be able to say, “Okay. Along with this evidence, here is my research input, my observational input into where this story goes to next.” And I think that’s going to be interesting to navigate.

Jason Brown:

And I know just in our conversations, there’s a lot more in the research that you’ve been doing over these years and it does seem like there’s bigger works coming. This was just a little bit of something that came up and maybe because of recent and current events with me too, but it does seem like all of this is leading to much larger works. I was one of those people who helped finance WAWADIA a few years ago, and I’ve heard people express little grief. Maybe we could give a little update. I think I’ve been privy to conversations with you and been learning, and I think people have on Facebook been learning from the project as it’s been happening. But I know you’ve got plans for stuff to eventually come out. Where are you in that process?

Matthew Remski:

Yeah. I sent out a too late update to all of the crowdfunding supporters. I think the day that the article was published, I said basically this is, and I put the same statement I think on the WAWADIA page on my website. and I basically said, “This is why this project is late is that it took a left turn into the investigative and into the interpersonal dynamic of toxic pedagogy.” And now that that has been covered, that data has grown. The backstory on The Walrus article is that it was accepted for publication in December and it took basically five months. And during that time, I continued to compile data, I continued to research.

And what I thought was going to be the second chapter in a book called Shadow Pose as my agent has been flogging throughout North America for the last year is now too large to fit into that book. And it’s got to become its own book, but its own book really dedicated to the industry itself and presented as a case study for how abuse can happen within a yoga community, how it can be enabled and how it can be prevented. That will be the first volume of the WAWADIA project, which is now going to be at least two volumes long. The second volume is still called shadow pose as far as I’m conceiving it. The book on Pattabhi Jois is 180 pages in manuscript form right now.

The second book is still at its 300 pages that it was before with the Jois material extracted or at least reduced. And it’s going to be a much more generalized alternative history of the modern postural yoga movement that describes the movement from somatic domination to trauma sensitivity. That’s the basic arc, how did that happen? Who were the major figures in that? And how did the trauma-sensitive movement arise in response to realizations around somatic dominance in the yoga world in general?

Jason Brown:

Well, I think that final note you just made is sort of where we’re at.

Matthew Remski:

I think that’s the story, yeah.

Jason Brown:

That’s where we’re at.

Matthew Remski:

Right, right. If there’s a short way of describing the arc of the last 50 years, we have gone from somatic dominance to trauma awareness.

Jason Brown:

And practice is reflecting that.

Matthew Remski:

And practice is reflecting that. And modes of teaching are reflecting that. And that’s the story that I’m trying to tell not in an academic sense, but in a kind of interview fieldwork sense that focuses on key figures like Donna Farhi is a key interview subject for that book because she begins her career in the Iyengar world and spends eight years there and then has to leave. And she goes on to create her own thing.

Jason Brown:

Well, I guess there’s one last little tidbit that I got from your talk last night that is maybe the perfect note for us to end on at least in my mind, which is this story that you told about the older woman and the younger woman next to each other at a Pattabhi Jois practice. Do you know which one I’m talking about?

Matthew Remski:

I do. Did you want me to just-

Jason Brown:

I want you to tell it again even if people heard it because there’s a lot more who are going to listen to this and maybe saw that Facebook Live thing. And to me, it really kind of encapsulates what we’re just saying, maybe just tell it again if you don’t mind.

Matthew Remski:

Yeah, sure. One of my interviews was with a senior Jois student, and she’s probably in her late 50s now, she might be in her early 60s. And she went to Mysore several times, she was thick in the Ashtanga community in her home state in the US. And somewhere in the early 2000s, Jois came back on tour to California and was in one of these big gym environments and there was a couple of hundred people there or something. And she shows up, and she’s maybe in her early 50s then. She rolls out her mat and there is a woman in her early 20s who rolls out her mat beside her. And when Joyce comes in, he walks around and he greets everybody. And he recognizes the older woman, and he says hello and greets her.

And then as he passes on in front of the younger woman, the younger woman says, “Oh, hello Guruji, I have this problem with my back,” she names some condition, some injury or vulnerability. And she says, “I would rather not be adjusted today.” I’m interviewing the older practitioner, and she’s recounting this story. And when she gets to quoting the younger woman, her voice fills with indignation. And she says, “What kind of nerve does that young woman have? Who does she think she is? She’s going to come into this room and demand that the Guru not touch her? That’s why she’s here, why did she even come?”

And it was this kind of stunning moment for me in the interview recognizing this deep generational divide that the older generation is expressing indignation over the younger generation asserting agency over their bodily autonomy. And I just thought it said so much. And it said so much about things also changing naturally and organically and without a lot of effort too. There are tremendous efforts on several fronts. But in other ways with a thousand different little cultural movements, it is gradually becoming unacceptable for one person to exert somatic dominance over another. I’m trying to bring the way that happens into focus.

Jason Brown:

I really appreciate it because I do think there just has been a huge change. Even among people who haven’t been saying this previously, I’ve been hearing them say it where, yeah, in the past, nobody ever asked. And now, it’s not cool to touch somebody without asking.

Matthew Remski:

Right, right. Figuring out how that happened and trying to tell that story clearly, I think can only strengthen the values that are being expressed. That’s what I hope to go on and do. And I kind of dodged, “What’s your publication schedule?” I’m kind of negotiating figuring out exactly when this first book will be done. But I do want to say that I hope within a couple of weeks, I’ll have a firmer answer.

Jason Brown:

Fair enough, fair enough. I for one don’t mind. Again, I have a friendship to you, not everybody has that benefit. I know you’ve been working on stuff. I know you didn’t just take the money and run.

Matthew Remski:

There were no vacations.

Jason Brown:

No, you’re working hard on this stuff. I hope that in this conversation we’ve done some of what we were just saying in terms of these conversations being yoga practice and finding these ways forward.

Matthew Remski:

Well, thank you.

Jason Brown:

Oh, no, Matthew, thank you. It’s been great to talk to you, I’ll be in touch. I think this is going to post in two weeks, I’ll let you know for sure. All right man, take care. And yeah, it’ll be ongoing.

Matthew Remski:

Okay, yes, have a great day.

Jason Brown:

All right man, take it easy.

Matthew Remski:


Talking about The Walrus Article on Jois with Colin Hall and Sarah Garden on Bodhi Talks Live

Talking about The Walrus Article on Jois with Colin Hall and Sarah Garden on Bodhi Talks Live


The Unbearable Smugness of “I Got Mine-ism” Amongst Cult and ex-Cult Members

The Smugness of "I Got Mine-ism" Amongst Cult and ex-Cult Members

I’ll preface this post by saying that, in accordance with the clinical research, I do not believe there are strong correlations between prior life experience and the likelihood that a person will join or stay in a cult (or “totalist”, or “high-demand” group.) What follows is a speculation, based on memory and anecdote, on why people who are already inside such a group may be more prone to the kind of enabling and moral harm that Philip Deslippe​ has described to me as “I got mine-ism” (IGM).

IGM is a defensive strategy by which a member who has not (or believes they have not) directly experienced abuse or institutional betrayal within the group deflects stories of abuse within the group by immediately self-referring, saying things like: “I don’t know about other’s experience; I find/found the teacher/teachings to be profoundly helpful in my life.” The statement is usually couched within an unwillingness to act on behalf on victims or mitigate future harm. Continue reading “The Unbearable Smugness of “I Got Mine-ism” Amongst Cult and ex-Cult Members”

What that Rajneesh Documentary Leaves Out

What that Rajneesh Doc Leaves Out
Coincidence: I wrote this the same day that Win McCormack’s masterful summary of his investigative reporting on the Rajneeshis from 1983-1986 was posted. It completely confirms the speculations I’ve assembled here based largely upon my own cult experiences. It also damns the Way’s efforts to near irrelevance. For a fuller picture and citations, I encourage you to read it here.
I’m glad that Rajneesh doc was made and is out there, but I have to object to the notion going around that it adds to a general understanding of cult dynamics. It doesn’t.
It can’t. What the Way brothers have made is an intoxicating Bollywood Western, minus the choreography. Yokels vs. invaders stage a culture war on a battlefield of orgasms and guns, fuelled by diamonds and drugs and the budget of the DA, played out against pop abstractions of orientalist woo and Americanist fantasies of freedom.
The Bhagawan is dangerous, we know, we KNOW… but who can resist goggling and chuckling at this swindler wearing his assortment of tea cosies and Star Trek priest robes, stoned on his upscale IKEA throne? And then there’s Sheela! OMG Sheela! Cooking up salmonella special in her Jesus Grove kitchen. Now the Swiss are letting her take care of old people! OMG! And so on.
For me, the prurient high point was the retired DA saying:
And so they blended up the beavers, and poured the blended-up beavers into the water supply.
The Ways are in their 30s. They made a baseball doc previously. This might be why the last word they give to the endearing Marlboro-man rancher Bowerman is a jovial “It’s like a ball game! Somebody wins, somebody loses, and life moves on…”.
I wouldn’t expect the Ways to be drawn to or equipped for the task of the victim-centred narrative. But that’s what we need if learning about cults is what we want.
If you read reviews that laud their “objectivity”, consider this short list of big things they left out:
  • The effects of joining the Rajneesh movement on members’ families and prior attachments.
  • The effects of arranged marriages and divorces and forced migration.
  • The effects of ashram life on the children born or brought into the organization.
  • The money that members were required to give, and how the 30K “working members” of the Rajneesh movement worldwide — according to Sheela — were paid virtually nothing. For years. What it meant for 99% of them to hitchhike or drive out of the Oregon desert with a few bucks of gas in their tanks and the clothes on their backs, while the leadership scatters over the earth with trunks full of diamonds and gold.
  • The drug trafficking and prostitution by which members paid their passage to various communes and then fees when they got there. (Citations in Falk.)
  • Strongly-encouraged sterilizations of members. (ibid.)
  • Interviews with ANY of the 6K homeless people exploited by the org.
  • More than glancing reference to the 10K audiotapes that contain evidence of battery and sexual assault committed amongst members. Law enforcement obviously didn’t have the resources to investigate these fully. So do these just disappear into another shot of the Bhagwan’s vacant gaze while the opera music rises? I guess so.
Consider this last point for a moment. They seemed to be saying that the tapes were of private domestic exchanges. What we have to do, however, is put that together with the somatics of public ritual.
If you saw that sequence in the 2nd episode that featured footage of dynamic therapy from the German filmmaker’s hidden camera, you witnessed physical and sexual assault, sanctioned through the guise of spiritual catharsis.
The camera, of course, presents the scene as an oddity that will provoke a sex panic amongst all those normies in overalls and suits. The media others the members as dangerous because of heterodox behaviour that could spread like a virus.
But the deeper truth is that the members are first and foremost dangerous to each other. They are being stimulated to exert control over each other as part of the top-down dominance hierarchy. Fearing the members’ behaviour from the outside is premised in part on believing that it is chosen, consensual. Not only is that premise either weak or false, but it fails to account for the fact that the members undertaking that “meditation” every day may be living in a state of perpetual volatility, if not trauma.
When I was a member of Endeavour Academy from 1999 to 2003, a similar dynamic meditation occupied the central hours of every day. Our sessions weren’t as explicitly violent as the Pune footage shows, but they did feature heavy body contact that was often rough and/or sexualized, despite the ideological understanding that “we were not bodies”. The leader commonly hit and rubbed up sexually against members — women and men both, but with the women he often mimed gestures of intercourse. Everybody laughed. I understand now that the laughter was defensive, but it was conflated with ecstasy.
It’s notable that Endeavour had many ex-Rajneeshis in it. Some of them were socially prominent. It was the next thing to do for them. This was the late 90s; many of them had been in similar communities since Oregon imploded in 1985.
This is something we should keep in mind when we think about influences in yoga and meditation communities of the early 2000s, when things started to mainstream and gentrify. Do a little digging, and you’ll find that many A-list yoga personalities have backgrounds in these groups. Then, just think about who might emerge from the 70s-80s cults with enough of their confidence and charisma intact — and also having spent their formative years disqualifying themselves from mainstream professional life — to take leadership roles in new yoga groups.
I’m not bringing this up to foster paranoia, but rather consideration. Of course people change, mature, and grow in kindness and self-reflection. But this process is rarely seen, and hard to measure. I counted some of those ex-Rajneeshis as some of my closest friends. One in particular I loved dearly. He taught me how to cook for three hundred people at a time. I still have some of his psychedelic paintings on my wall. My little boys stare at them in wonder.
But it pains me to say that could not trust this friend, or any other ex-cult member, in a teaching role in the fields of yoga or Buddhism or meditation unless I had a clear sense from them that they had transparently digested and healed the cult-wiring of their brains and nervous systems in such a way as to be able to provide students safer spaces than we had.
Four things I can report from my own Rajneesh-lite experience:
  1. Your “performance” of ecstasy (real or contrived) within the group meditation session was directly related to your social rising and falling within the group. Your capacity to physically express oneness with or domination over the group translated into social and even financial opportunity outside of the session. If you’ve never been in such a mosh pit, you can start thinking about those group activities as being non-verbal dominance rituals that test the position and resolve of participants.
  2. If you were a young woman in that melee, you were targeted for sexual attention. Some gained social and even spiritual capital from this to the extent they presented themselves as welcoming.
  3. THESE HOURS DOMINATED YOUR ENTIRE DAY AND MADE YOU INCAPABLE OF INDEPENDENT ACTIVITY. When Rajneeshis describe being “emptied” or “mindless” at the end of the session, you have to think about what comes next, how easy it is for them to go pick vegetables or clean toilets without thinking about where they are or  whether they’re being paid.
  4. The experience cannot be shared with people outside of the group. The session is so strange it cannot be described without deep self-consciousness or shame. The central part of your day, the material reason that you are in that group at all, has the function of isolating you, while, paradoxically, purporting to show you your oneness with all humanity and the universe. This isolation-through-oneness causes severe internal splitting, a cognitive dissonance that compounds daily. I believe that this somatizes in very distinct ways. I remember that in my group we would commonly speak of feeling intense internal “pressure” that would discharge in severe headaches or periods of near-catatonia. We had a narrative about these sensations being evidence of a “transformational crisis”. It was understood that the sensations would intensify until we “popped”, which might look like a seizure in the middle of the session room that could last anywhere from minutes to an hour, and was generally followed by days of radiant dissociation. We would say that the person had “gone to the other side”.

The meditation is a highly effective opiate, and it holds people in a kind of labour and agency stasis. Also, it is so fucking stressful that of course you look happy when you’re scrubbing vegetables. “I just love being here in this community” is a partial statement. It needs to be qualified by “I’m also so relieved no one is screaming at me right now, or that I’m not jumping up and down with no sense of self.”

Think about what it means for 10K people to be engaged in a daily ritual that expresses and routinizes their positions within a somatic hierarchy, and then mobilizes their excess labour for centralized profit. Think about parents caught up in this daily cycle, and how they are or are not energetically or emotionally available to their children.
If you watch Wild Wild Country, I encourage you to think about these things, because the doc won’t ask you to. The doc wants you to wonder about Sheela’s mental health, how Sunny can keep permasmiling. The Ways want you to get all verklempt with Niren as he wells up remembering the great genius delicate sensitive man — THE GREATEST MAN WHO EVER LIVED NO THAT’S A FACT I’M A LAWYER — and the great project and the great possibility that failed… but maybe it didn’t really, because wasn’t it all a test and play of consciousness? [Sheds more tears.]
I hope that you were all able to hear the abstraction and objectification with which these humiliated honchos uttered the word “sannyasins”. As if they were still speaking for the group. As if everyone would still be on the same page. As if they were actually hiding their complicity, and their wounding.
It was really moving to hear about how much Jane was able to understand and recover, but even with her it doesn’t appear she was asked about the mass suffering at the heart of the group. It’s too bad — I have the feeling she understands some of it.
Think of everyone they could have interviewed. The Ways have said that they didn’t want to gum up the narrative with too many talking heads. Fair enough. Clinical psychologists probably depress Netflix rankings. But when you focus on four ex-leaders you give up a lot in exchange for flash. You get the self-absorbed musings of the privileged. Those for whom it more or less worked out.
They could have interviewed a single child who grew up there. A single homeless person lied to and kidnapped and then fed narcotics in his beer when he started to get anxious. Or just a single woman or man who now names her experience in dynamic meditation as assault, and is now working with complex PTSD. I can assure you many are out there. 
Finally, since the buzz over this doc has erupted, I’ve seen several earnest and naive convos cross my feed about how cult analysis discourse is alienating, it defames all members, etc. Or that analyzing this cult is structurally racist — as if Osho was somehow drawing on a venerable tradition, instead of actively abusing traditions and getting turfed out of India in the process. As if his first victims weren’t Indian. Yes it is important that we not perpetuate colonial stereotypes of evil sex yogis, but that’s a small part of the mix here, even though the Ways want you to focus on it.
The complaints are always abstract; they never make mention of the obvious harm and suffering produced by an organization like this. This too is the fault of the documentary bias. WWC plays up the culture war angle, which is like candy to the “civilizational struggle” addiction that certain yoga people seem to be nursing. Rajneeshpuram was not about spirituality, anymore than rape is about sex. It was about power.
And please don’t tell me that without Osho we wouldn’t have the sweet sweet tunes of Deva Premal and Miten, and so everything’s even-steven and that the dark produces light or whatever. There’s plenty of folks who make good music without the aid of gun-addled sex and doomsdays cults.
Those who came out of Rajneeshpuram and then enjoyed good and productive lives are the beneficiaries of privileges that had little to do with the cult. They may in fact have socially and psychologically benefited from having been able to come through the chaos armed with an unearned experience of invulnerability, and then reinforced by leaving with an unearned story of perseverance-and-triumph.
If you want the fuller story, find the silent and silenced majority.

Faith in Yogaland (a work in progress)

Articles of Faith (in progress)

When I talk with my yoga friends these days, there’s only one topic: the forest fire of reform sweeping through our sub-culture. Or at least the social media layer of it (the thickness of which is hard to gauge).

We talk about Rachel Brathen’s #metoo post, and what will happen when she connects her correspondents and supports them in taking further action, whether legally, or in the mainstream media. We talk about Karen Rain’s statements. This one, and this one.

We also worry about the smoke inhalation. About the toll taken on faith and hope, about the 30M yoga practitioners in the U.S. alone who are getting dusted in ash, the majority of whom may not know or care about the venerated names, what Yogi Bhajan was really up to, or may have no feeling at all that the memorized script of Bikram’s method might be inseparable from the man.

But it’s not right to infantilize the innocent practitioner. I’ve spoken with several older devotees of these teachers. They question the value of airing “old stuff”. “Why disturb the faith of new students?” they ask. I tell them they sound like Catholics filibustering inquiries into the clergy.

This morning I’m thinking about how one wise friend said, “there will always be yoga tomorrow.”

It’s a good thing. Countless people will wake up at 4 to get to the shala at 5 to perform a candlelit ritual of bodily testing and reclamation. They’ll head to the gym after work. They’ll go to restorative class, or a therapeutics class with those Iyengar backbending props. People will treasure the waves of warmth and sensitivity and tender self-observations that ripple out through their day. The vast majority will feel supported, nurtured, even liberated.

The vast majority — millions — practice in the space between two poles: the fires of reform and the marketing of an industry that has tried to pretend it has no shadows. How can we support this space on a daily basis?

Further, I have to ask every day: what’s my responsibility, with this strange platform, cobbled together out of critique? I spend half of my working life burning the roof. How do I show the less visible work of those I admire, shoring up foundations in the clay and the mud?

I’ve published gestures to hope here and here. But they’re a little melancholic.

I have a more robust list in mind. What do they call these things? Gratitude lists?

It’s a jumble of precious moments and articles of faith, both personal and social. They perform two actions for me: they counter the demoralizing content, and they provide space. This is a list with candlelight instead of fire.

  1. A long breath, deep or shallow, never gets old.
  2. Nor does that feeling I had rolling out of my first savasana, gazing at my hand lit up by the sun, and thinking I am That.
  3. There are radiant heating coils in the polished concrete floors of Lacombe Yoga, in rural Alberta. It’s -31C this morning in Lacombe. My friend Tiffany runs the place. She’s a trauma expert. She taught over 500 classes in 2017 and barely broke even.
  4. Yoga Service Council. I’m not as involved as I want to be, because time and other excuses, but wow, what great work that network does. YSC is like the Canada of modern global yoga. (Canada on a good day.)
  5. I love talking with Jivana Heyman. Social media allows me to fantasize a wonderful IRL community.
  6. I get to talk with almost all of these people on a panel looking to build an actionable and aspirational code of conduct for yoga teachers.
  7. What’s left of movies in the wake of Weinstein? Lady Bird opens. Patty Jenkins champions Wonder Woman. In the yoga world too, what was always underneath will rise up.
  8. I go to a Community Centre in the basement of a public housing complex to play handball and swim. On Tuesday and Thursday mornings, one of the activity rooms is packed with Indian women in saris and punjabis doing yoga. The door is open and I can hear the breath count and see the simple stretches of people taking a holy hour for themselves. The drab room has a cold tile floor and florescent lights. It’s about as far away as you can get from the gentrified spaces I identify with yoga. The class is free. I listen at the door and realize I don’t know anything about yoga yet, and this makes me happy.
  9. So many of us are coming out of cults. Tuning in to the deception, dependency, and dread-of-leaving. We’re learning that everyone comes out at a different pace. We all have different needs, different privileges. We really can learn to respect each other’s pathways. Maybe the fires are burning the cultic to fertilize the permaculture.
  10. I’ve learned that yoga trolls are like vrittis, and yes they can be stopped. With single-pointed concentration on the “Block” button.
  11. Several years ago, Dexter Xurukulasuriya in Montreal humbled me during a global yoga culture 101 presentation for a YTT with the best yoga cultural appropriation questions ever. Their family is from Sri Lanka. They reminded me of their comments by DM: “Since EVERY culture has its own rich, complex treasury of inspirational poetry, imagery, mythology and holy scripture,” Dexter wrote, “shouldn’t we ask why some people feel so comfortable and are so drawn to re-work and update other people’s traditions rather than their own? Isn’t it a form of privilege to be able pick and choose whatever aspects of a culture you want to adopt when so many of us have been so forcibly estranged from our cultures through colonial and imperial violence and while your own still-living traditions are actively oppressing millions of people? Isn’t this reworking of our cultures a kind of colonization? Isn’t abandoning rather than reworking your own traditions an abdication of responsibility?” Um, uh, I said. Yes. You’re right. 
  12. I recently visited Dexter and they prepared incredible food. “Bonchi curry, parippu, vambatu moju,” they said, “and Sri Lankan red rice with cardamum & cinnamon, and an arugula salad topped with purple carrots, Quebec cranberries and crickets from the local market.” They taught me to eat it with my fingers. Two trips to India, and nobody ever showed me how to do this. We talked about a lot of things. When we circled back around to appropriation, I said: “The thing is, non-Indians aren’t just enthralled by the yoga, or some romantic idea of India. And it’s not just that our churches are dead to a lot of us, or that our mystics haven’t been taken seriously for centuries. This yoga fascination is also about falling in love with the families of the gurus.” I said that at least one aspect of the yoga cultural appropriation story evolves out of the Euro-American wish for stable, predictable, orderly relationships. A conservative family, with strong gender roles, in which everyone understands their place in the universe. Where dad isn’t drinking the war away, but instead lighting the oil lamps in front of the divine and the ancestors every morning. As Dexter and I talked and listened to each other I could feel the bits and pieces of love we might recover through all of our jumbled history. We fell in love with your families. They smiled, then served something chocolatey.
  13. Yoga and Movement Research Community. Hurray. Sometimes a multiple car pile-up, but people are getting better at keeping it moving, limiting their rubber-necking.
  14. I’ve been working with a friend on an app that aims to take the yoga conversation out of the Facebook trench and into a creative, talking-circle space, with professional moderation. We can always dream.
  15. Some yoga researchers are so generous. Like this one. And these ones.
  16. Uma Dinsmore-Tuli suggests that all of the wild alchemical aspirations of medieval yoga may be a cultural case of womb-envy. Woah.
  17. When I enter the room to give a presentation at Queen Street Yoga, I walk by framed statement on the wall about how the studio occupies the land of the Anishnawbe and Haudenosaunee people. A while back, on the opposite wall, there was a “Body-Positivity Blackboard”, where students were encouraged to finish the sentence, “My body is great because…”. Different hands have written: “It made a baby”, “Its squishiness makes me good at cuddling”. I picked up the chalk as people filed past, murmuring cheerfully. “Through depression, anxiety, and neglect,” I wrote, “my body has always been here, holding me.”
  18. Consent cards.
  19. Talking about my late friend Michael Stone with one of his students. He’s been diagnosed with bipolar disorder as well. He disclosed this on social media, saying he wanted it to be an open part of his discourse around teaching yoga. We sat on the patio on College Street in the late summer sun. He explained to me little about what he thought might have been going on for Michael. Part of his practice is knowing which parts of yoga work for his diagnosis, and which parts don’t. He has the most gentle, self-aware voice.
  20. TFW I’m texting with Be Scofield about plans for a cult-busting website while she’s driving across the rural South. We also text about how much she adores a good Kundalini class. Then we throw potential cult-infiltrator code-names back and forth. She turns down “Maya Honeypot”. I never argue with her. She’s the boss.
  21. I’m in class with Peter Blackaby at Esther Myers Yoga Studio. He says: “It’s not quite exercise. It’s not quite therapy. I’m not quite sure what ‘good alignment’ means. The only term that makes sense to me is ‘self-inquiry’.”
  22. I get a stack of papers in a big brown envelope all the way from New Zealand. Donna Farhi has sent me a file of her notes on the ethical complaints she collected from throughout yogaland in the 1990s. The contents are heavy: Donna has been doing the heavy lifting.
  23. At Esther Myers again, sitting with Monica Voss on the tatami mats. She tells me she’s never been injured practicing yoga. I look puzzled, and she looks back at me, puzzled that I’m puzzled. Like — why is that even a question? We talk about Vanda Scaravelli. Then we talk about the relationship between teaching yoga and the hospice work she does. Her voice is quiet. I can hardly hear it when I listen to the recording afterward. I turn my phone off and just try to remember. That’s oral tradition, creeping back in.
  24. Before dawn, I unroll my mat in my cramped space. The black rubber absorbs a landing strip of scant light against the sheen of the hardwood. Around me, the books are mute with shadow. On the harmonium-case that serves as my writing table, my laptop sits like a window closed against the storm. I light a candle.

The Guru May Actually Hate You, and You May Actually Hate Him

The Guru Actually Hates You, and You Actually Hate Him

Image: Father Yod of the Source Family.




Yesterday, I learned something new about cult leaders from Philip Deslippe​, a whip-smart Religious Studies scholar who focuses on the history of modern yoga and new religious movements.

He once interviewed an attorney who handled a number of high profile cases against cults. The attorney said that from his experience, leaders follow clear patterns:

At some point they realize how desperately co-dependent they are in relation to their students. They begin to regard their students as idiots, children, incompetents. They begin to loathe them not only for their immaturity, but even more intensely because they are dependent on that immaturity, that devotion, for their daily bread. They’re trapped. Some drink themselves senseless, others take drugs, hide out under mountains of cash, or think help. Some manage to kill themselves.


What impresses me about this analysis is that we’re always aghast when we hear of cruelty and abuse flowing downward from a spiritual leader. We can’t believe its inconsistency with their apparent spiritual mission. But what if instead of pathologizing it we considered a simpler answer: it’s an economy of loathing.

Sogyal Rinpoche punching a nun, Trungpa sexually assaulting public figures in a temple, Osho staring blankly at his followers from the window of his Rolls. Iyengar ranting about how students who have touched his feet for a decade are ignorant fools, and then hitting them, Michael Roach giving people meaningless unpaid tasks and joking with the inner circle: “Of course we’re in cult.”

The pattern I’ve seen seems to be that the cruelty increases in direct proportion to the “success” of the guru. Is power its own addictive feedback loop? Yes, but so is loathing. How can the guru not loathe himself, when he sees he’s propped up by the very people he’s broken? Then, if you’re a crazy wisdom dude like Sogyal or Adi Da you fold that very corruption back into the the content of your teaching: of course the world is an absurd illusion for you. What else do you know?

They hit their students, sexually dominate them, starve them, steal their labour and money, mock them. These are all morbid actions, but they also acts of retribution against the terms of their shameful imprisonment, which they blame on their students, and cannot own for themselves. And the most incredible part of all is that as the loathing escalates, so does the devotee’s need to say it is something else, all the way up to love, in order to stand it.

This is not a post about humanizing cult leaders, although everyone is human. They were all little boys once. It’s a post about standing outside the cult mechanisms in our lives to see that fantasy and idealization are the opposite of love, and that when directed en masse at a leader whose charisma flows out of some ungodly wound, a downward spiral ensues that belies the upward spiral of the group’s self-narrative.

Of course there’s another side of the loathing economy. A a part of the devotee secretly loathes the guru as well.

Because devotion is inseparable from fantasy and idealization, it must have a conflicted core. How can you love someone who towers above you in grace and humanness? How can love a person who builds his presence before you on the premise he knows you, knows your nature, knows the nature of the world? How can you really love a saviour, when the first thing a saviour must do to be a saviour is to concretize your sense of inadequacy?

My guess is that the tension holds true in both the flesh and the abstract. Who can truly love Jesus, whose nature excludes you from communion with God? Who can truly love Krishna, who knows enough about the universe that he can reverse your reason and moral doubt and send you off to war? That we eroticize both is a clue to how hard it is to really love them.

The shadow cast by fantasy and idealization is that of your presumed failure. The guru sits there and pontificates, and you are seduced. The secret of seduction is that “seduction” means: “being led away from yourself.” If you pay attention you can feel it happening. The body is running away from him as fast as it can. But the socialized self co-opts that kinetic energy, and aims you at his feet.

The disillusionment, already built-in to the structure of fantasy and idealization, becomes a little more palpable when the devotee subconsciously realizes their fantasy and idealization can’t be fulfilled. Somewhere they feel they don’t actually love the leader, or perhaps never did. But they’re in so deep they force themselves to. The leader smells the lie he brought on himself, and lashes out.

Really sorry this post is dark. I still believe that the more we can see this clearly, I believe, the less it will happen.

Whiplash Is a Terrible Movie

Whiplash Is a Terrible Movie

I loathed the movie Whiplash. If you haven’t seen it, I’ll spoil it for you here.

An embittered genius jazz band conductor for an elite New York school emotionally and physically abuses and gaslights the mostly young men in his band, constantly.

Who knows what happened in his own history for him to be this way but it was probably brutal. He plays the boys off of each other in a dominance hierarchy in which everyone pays tribute upwards. The administration knows it, the faculty knows it. Nobody stops him. The school believes he gets results, rather than that they are a selection facility for talent and privilege, and that results can be and are arrived at in many different ways.

The narrative centres around one boy, a drummer, who we watch manage the trauma of this relationship. He does everything he can to please the abuser, including rehearsing maniacally until his hands bleed. The euphoria of music, plus the flow states of his toxic effort, afford him and viewer a kind of spiritual bypassing relief.

But of course the abusive teacher cannot be pleased by any of the drummer’s efforts. Why? Because then he would lose his power.

Accurate depiction of abuse? Yes. Good movie? No, because the writer-director chickens out at the end through a cascade of rationalizations that pretend to show that the abuse was all worth it. He avoids the more obvious, less Oscar-worthy answer, which is that some children survive horrible things with remarkable resilience, while others don’t.

After the abuser wields every trick of power in the book and betrays the drummer in the most epic way, the director then has the boy finally surrender to the abuser and the “process” in a moment of communion through the ecstasy of music. It’s a very Christian apologetic, really, with glory and pain not only contingent upon each other, but that contingency throbbing with an (homo)erotic charge.

Who is caught in the crossfire? The woman, of course. The drummer’s partner appeals to his emotional core, and so she must be discarded. Such an old story: somato-psychodramas between men feed the roots of the misogyny tree. Demeaning women comes to be accepted by patriarchy as an insignificant form of collateral damage.

The pseudo-resolution of the film orbits around the faulty premise that abusive teaching can produce empowered learning. Is there any data for this, or is it merely the best story we think we can tell?

Is it such a prominent story because it’s untrue? Do we have to keep repeating it to convince ourselves it’s meaningful?

I don’t buy it. Abusive teaching can be correlated with certain performed results, but only through a battery of other factors coming together.

We have to name the process: saying the band leader got the drummer boy to show his “essence” – which is what the entire denouement of the movie tells us – is a trauma response designed to relieve cognitive dissonance.

This culture conflates communion with survivorship, which is why brothers-at-arms war movies are a staple. We didn’t actually need to go to war to find out who we really are. Rather, we were sent to war and we found out how we each improvise survivorship according to our privileges and wounds. Except for those of us who didn’t survive, and who therefore didn’t get movies made about them.

Although – the dead were in those movies, really. They were the bit characters who had their heads shot off in order to show everyone else what dangers the survivors survived. That’s the thing about triumph-through-adversity narratives. They require sacrificial victims. In Whiplash, the director throws another kid under the bus to illuminate the resurrection of the hero via contrast. That the sacrificial victim is black adds another disturbing layer.

This is all on my mind because of yoga, of course. In response to a description of teacherly abuse on the Yoga and Movement Research board, someone commented to the effect that the teacher involved was difficult, full of contradictions, but that, like fire, being around him could be “incredibly transformative.”

Sorry, but “transformative” is not the appropriate word. If dude were able to pull himself up short in the middle of his intrusions and say “Wow, there’s my anger management problem pouring out again, full force. I think it has something to do with intergenerational violence and my need to offload my repressed humiliation onto younger men. I’m really sorry” – that would be transformative. Anything less is just a cycle of abuse with chaotic results narrativized by (partial) winners who need to make sense of winning.

I believe the comment also betrays something unintended. It puts the old-school yoga teacher in the category of artist. It suggests: “He’s a genius, but he can burn you.” This has been used as a framing device for guru-types forever.

Of all of the problems with this model, this is perhaps the most pernicious. Maybe it hangs around precisely because of vestigial Christianity, and we can’t stop making sense of things that way.

I’ve never met any, but I believe that spiritual geniuses — unlike artists, who I know a bunch of — would be those who figure out how to not burn others with the coals of their past.

Trance States and Choked Voices: Brief Notes on Charisma and Toxic Masculinity

Trance States and Choked Voices: Brief Notes on Charisma and Toxic Masculinity

Duff McDuffee pointed this out to me first on a Facebook thread. When Alex Jones — Infowars conspiracy theorist and hawker of survivalist protein powders — gets on a roll, the content of what he says is secondary to the state he embodies. He’s not communicating something to be understood, but rather broadcasting a trance state.

The content supports the transmission of this state only to the extent that it helps defamiliarize whatever hold on consensus reality he and his audience have. Yes, he is talking about aliens here, but this only underlines the alienating experience of a body that needs to transcend its pain and confusion.

You can watch a bit of the following with the sound on to get a sense of this intersection of content and somatics. But then you can mute it and just watch what he does with his body. Or: what his body does with him.

Gazing off to the right and up. Conjuring the completeness of his vision by caressing an invisible sphere in front of him face, as though the sphere were his face, perfected. Leaning with his eyes into the vastness or the void before him. The conspiracy theories seem rooted in the conspiracy of his being bodily possessed.

And — maybe the most important detail McDuffee pointed out: when Rogan interrupts the freestyle in any way, Jones’ primary goal is not to answer the question, let alone hear it. His goal is to maintain the self-enclosed-but-extroverted trance state. He needs to get back on that train as soon as possible, perhaps because it’s where he feels most at home, most protected.

A comparison to Trump here isn’t lazy: when we ask why he can’t stick to the teleprompter, something similar might be happening. Reading from the teleprompter, like taking in Rogan’s question, would stop the trance train.

Reading the teleprompter would be like being distracted from masturbating, which may tell us something about the adolescent anxiety informing it all, not to mention the overwhelming intersection between alt-right spaces and porn.

Other things that interrupt masturbating? Oh, you know — evidence, citations. Those little facts of external reality that call us into responsibility, that tell us our pleasure is not the only thing that exists.

Jordan Peterson rides a similar train, only in first class, and tenured. This modestly-titled clip is typical of his in-person somatic strategy, marked by constant repetition: pacing, hand gestures, head-tilts, the pretence of making eye contact. Again: try watching for a minute with the sound muted.

Back in June I went to one of his public lectures. It was sold out: 500 people, $30 each. $15K gross on a regular Tuesday night. Crowd was 90% white. Lots of buzz cuts, ball caps and sun glasses amongst the men, who made up maybe 70% of the crowd. Amongst the 20% of the crowd who were over 40, the vast majority were men. Going for a pee was like being at an NHL hockey game in 1978.

As Peterson strode onto the stage, the guy beside me yelled out over the applause, “There he is, there he is!”

The lecture was a stream of folksy megalomania: one long off-book, beyond-scope-of-practice-for-clinical-psychology digression after another of his alt-right sweet spots. He held out for 107 minutes before substantially addressing the published topic for a 2-hour event — The Tower of Babel (appropriately), and The Flood. And the actual substance he got to seemed designed to avoid distracting anyone from the mystery of himself. A key slide cited a banal remark from Mircea Eliade on the ubiquity of flood narratives (1:47:59). No citation provided. 

It was like he wasn’t even trying to conceal the fact that he’s not interested in the content.

Why should he? Nobody was there for the content, advertised or otherwise. They were there to commune with Peterson’s body, his performance of radical bravery, his fragility and grievances. Their adoring gaze on him was only broken by thrilled shudders elicited by phrases like “cultural marxism”.

Okay, full disclosure:

I know what this stream of loghorreic bliss feels like. Both of the cults I was in in my late 20s / early 30s were led by men whose social and somatic power hinged on being able to flip into these states at will.

In both organizations, I progressed far enough up the hierarchy to be invited to give sermons to entry-level members. The content was spiritual revelation, and I was to mimic the guru.

Before it felt terribly wrong — which was pretty quick — it was exhilarating. The format was “dharma talk”, or “satsang”. The premise was that I had something deeply subjective yet universally applicable to share. I could feel myself “filled with the spirit” of the guru. No other resources were needed. I opened my mouth, and something “inspired” poured out, fast. I created a wall of sound around myself that gave some kind of relief. I felt as though I was within a ring, but also rising above myself.

I’d had experience with this before, albeit “secular”. As a young poet and novelist, I would give readings from my work around town. (That was “social media” in those days.) I remember feeling that the microphone was like a gun-shield, and that if my text could fire out and overwhelm the room, my brilliance would be clear to everyone. My presentation style was loud and fast. I inflated myself with every inhalation.

It wasn’t unique. Many of the men I worked with and loved nurtured a similar affect. One of them, the now-famous Christian Bök, was then famous for reading his language poems so loud and fast that he literally foamed at the mouth. But Bök was self-consciously performing a kind of mania, mimicking the machine-like virality of language itself. Most of the rest us were just trying to emote, without receiving anything. As with punk rock, I think it was very hard for us to find the line between catharsis and aggression.

I haven’t lost my taste for holding forth, though it has declined to the extent I own my general shame. And to the extent that writing helps me sublimate an impulse I believe flows out of a deep wound. When I lecture now, I feel distinctly inadequate, and I try to respect and treasure this rather than overcome it.

I emailed a friend and veteran psychologist about the phenomenon of speed and overwhelm in speech. She wrote back:

In psycho-traumatology the concept of “pressurised talk” is considered symptomatic of a cry for help that went unanswered. It’s a new addition to the fight-flight-freeze-submit roster. And it’s helped me sit with many traumatized people who fill their hours with a wall of words. Simple, ongoing listening, with facial & gestural attunement (rather than the frustration, disbelief or boredom that this defence is unconsciously intended to re-create) slowly works its wonders. It seems that it is dangerous for them to allow a pause or moment of reflection. “Going inside” means losing your constant, necessary vigilance against the world.

I talked about Peterson with another friend. He remarked that Peterson sounds like he’s trying to speak while someone is throttling his neck.

I hear it too. He’s always running out of time. Why? Because things are always so bad, culture is always dying, the world is always ending. Patriarchy always holds the apocalypse over our heads like some fantasy of ultimate violence: wait till your father gets home.

Peterson’s fans have pointed out that he sounds like Kermit the Frog, which lets them fantasize about his archetypal resonance with Pepe the Frog.

Again, it’s not about data, or content. It’s about free association, rhythm, dream states, and the passions unleashed by all three. Which is why it makes sense that another alt-right babble-mouth Mike Cernovich compares himself to a DJ:

I would say that I pay more attention to what DJs do and how DJs manage their gigs and their fan base than anybody in traditional media. 

Alex Jones has the same throttled, pressurized voice. So does Tony Robbins, though he powers through it. So did the late great B.K.S. Iyengar. So does Michael Roach. So does Trump, though in a less obvious way: you can hear all of his vowels bottlenecking through jaw tension.

This might be a weak correlation. Jones’ voice also sounds soaked in bourbon, while Robbins lives with acromegaly. And of course vocal strain or awkwardness does not imply traumatized charisma.

My gut telling me there’s something more going on with these guys might be more of the same self-centred speech, but I’ll risk it:

Yes, they speak through the feeling of being choked, of having to overcome attackers. They also speak through the strain of the pubescent boy’s voice. as it breaks into a dangerous vision of manhood they feel it’s better to dominate than change.



Sudden Harvest: An Elegy for Michael Stone

Sudden Harvest: An Elegy for Michael Stone

Please support Michael’s partner Carina and children through this fund.

 Photo courtesy of Ian MacKenzie.

Content warning: description of organ harvest.




I started writing this the day my friend Michael Stone died. On that day, the surgeons carefully cut into the body associated with him, to take the parts that used to be him and give them to others in need.

I wasn’t there, but I picture the following:

Their scalpels slide under the skin that was him, and was scanned a hundred thousand times in vipassana meditation.

They poke through the webbing of fascia that was him, and was stretched and twisted through a hundred thousand yoga postures.

Their blue-gloved hands, splashed with blood, pluck out two kidneys like sleeping fish.

They saw through the ribcage, softened by a decade of exhaling visualized light in the Tibetan style. They lift out the still-pulsing lungs, and watch them shudder to stillness on the ice pack. As though Michael were still practicing to lengthen and smooth his breath into that single point of silence he craved.

The transplant team demonstrates an ancient proof in Buddhist logic:

If you look for the person among the parts, you will not find him. “Michael” and “my friend” and “Buddhist teacher” are designations applied to a collection of skin, blood, voice, eyes, behaviors, images, and mysteries. All of which are ultimately ownerless.

One of the mantras Michael sought comfort from was: There is no “me” or “mine.” It’s an assertion of emptiness, but it hides a multiplicity: Michael, like any person, was many.

There was Carina’s Michael: doting and vulnerable. The Michael who stood large beside his brother Jayme and sister Sunny. The Michael of his parents, his teenage friends, his first partner. His friends from many walks of life. Those who didn’t care about Buddhism or yoga.

The Michaels of his children: Arlyn, and the two boys he had with  Carina. The thirteen year-old, the four year-old, and the toddler knew different fathers. Baby-to-be heard a resonant voice to be remembered in dreams.

In rings circling outwards, more Michaels appear, each one a little less knowable: therapist, sometimes-monk, public speaker, heartthrob, author, entrepreneur. And of course, Michael the dharma teacher, sitting at the front of the room, by turns radiant, startled, or wooden.

Which Michael did his Buddhist teachers see? His therapists? His psychotherapy supervisor? What about his doctors?

Who was Michael to the man who sold him that little white pill?

The surgeons murmur over the body, and it sounds like prayers.



If you knew and loved Michael through his work, you beat the surgeons to that harvest.

You harvested the voice of his writing and podcasts, marked by the rhythm of the practices he loved and depended on. His penchant for boiling the broadest themes down to taut aphorisms. And for finding the Buddha everywhere he wanted to find him: novels, obscure Canadian poetry, cool apps, superior espresso, pop music, therapy, laundry, mountains, streetcars, his motorcycle, and hospitals.

If you were a student who went to his retreats, you harvested other things. Like how so many mirrored his exquisite posture with equal parts earnestness and piety. You absorbed a dynamic silence – at times anxious, haunted, or womblike. The talks he gave were metronomic, as though he needed the entire world to slow down and listen at the exact pace that soothed him. Then, his quirky yoga instructions tangled you up on your mat, made you teeter and laugh.

Perhaps you had a meeting with him about your meditation or yoga practice and he dispensed advice that connected, perhaps miraculously. Was he intuitive, or lucky? You can’t honestly say. Or maybe the meeting made no sense at all, and you felt odd about that – maybe even apologetic, like you were letting him down. Or: he outright frustrated you with those blue eyes that could seem to know you, love you, judge you, or be lost, all in quick succession.

You collected the countless steps of walking meditation, and the group chants Michael loved. They may have stirred you deeply. Or you may have found that in the English translations from Sanskrit or Japanese he collected and tweaked, they sounded angular and explicit to the point of embarrassment:

Don’t squander your life!

Does anyone really squander their life?



2013. We were walking through Mile End in Montreal, looking for the perfect cortado. Michael was telling me he’d backed off on the rigidity of practice in recent years, as we tend to do.

“I’m leaving just enough discipline to hold the shape of something,” he said, on the step of Café Névé. He gestured in the cold air with his hands.

That something was always meticulous, artistic, and intense. It felt like his longing for ritual order emerged, as much religion does, as an artistic response to internal and external chaos.

I remember when he rented my old space in Cabbagetown for several month-long retreats in 2006. One was in February. He’d ride his Danish bicycle over from Parkdale, and come in with snow in his beard that melted into the cup of coffee I handed him. Through the day, I sat at the desk outside the room, working to the rhythm of his somnambulant baritone, lulled by the vowels.

The students were Gen X, Y, and millennials, countercultural. Three-quarters women. When they trickled out to the bathroom they moved quietly and kept their heads down. It seemed like they were under a thrall they couldn’t risk breaking. When the studio door was left open, I could see the cohort encircle him. Some sat very close, absorbed in him.

I was impressed, and uneasy. What was going on? How did he manage to make all of that attention directed at him seem natural?

The fragments of his talks I overheard rung with a single note. It wasn’t from Buddhism or yoga. The texts were delivery devices for a sense of collective certainty, expressed through the first person plural.

“When we feel… we often find… and then we get caught up in… and so we practice because… and we fail… our hearts are like… our armour falls away… we are open to… we can be receptive to… we touch intimacy… we continue on with our work, not knowing.”

Michael’s register of wisdom could make people feel merged with each other, and with him. It created a feeling of group confession that generalized and depersonalized towards an unboundaried warmth. It seemed to hold nothing in private.

When the group left at dusk, the building vibrated. I’d sweep the room and then pause for a while by the altar they’d made by the window. I took note not only of the personal artifacts people had brought, but also the pristine and eccentric aesthetic Michael inspired. Japanese paper, quirky calligraphy, microbrew beer coasters folded into squat origami turtles.

The style was hipster zen, years before it was a thing. But instead of irony, it was imbued with what his brother Jayme described over the phone as Michael’s sense of the “ceremonious”. That same sense, Jayme said, that made the scene of Michael’s death so uncharacteristic of him.



I was never Michael’s student. I was his peer, colleague, co-author, and eventually, his friend.

I was that friend – I’m sure there were others – who made fun of him for having students. I would say:

Look at the mess you’re in now. People expect you to give them spiritual advice!

He smiled and shrugged, a little bashful. Sometimes he laughed. It was like he didn’t know how it all happened, even if he knew how to nudge it along. He didn’t stop it, because it seemed to be working. The glowing feedback he got burned everything else away. It’s hard to imagine anyone around him being large enough to persuade him to slow down.

But he asked everyone else to slow down, and look within. I wonder if he needed those around him to find the answers he couldn’t.



Friends harvested more hidden things:

His bouts of social unease, his obsession with dorky trivia and dark humour. You saw him long for guidance from senior teachers, like a prodigal son. He would connect with them, misfire with them.

You saw him draw conflict, get defensive, take a breath, take inventory, try to make amends. He would drift away from these people over here, become infatuated with others over there. You saw the acrimony from his divorce spill out and polarize a community. You understood that his prescription to always practice intimacy and forgiveness was the one he had written for himself.

You saw his effect on women, of all ages. They adored him and confessed to him. They poured their labour into his projects. Some became angry when they realized the imbalances. When they ghosted away, others came to replace them.

In such seemingly progressive spaces, it can be hard to call out hierarchy. The spirituality industry wants to make Iron Age yoga and medieval Zen look like they aren’t patriarchal in theme, form, and division of labour.

If you were a close friend, you saw how Michael’s doubts about his direction and competence were punctuated by flourishes of manic creativity. You saw how easy it was for his vision to outpace his introversion, and his appetite to outpace his digestion.

When he was flying high, his intellect became very porous, consuming and repackaging every idea he loved with dizzying speed. He was a DJ of ambient Buddhism, mixing freely from whatever tracks he could find.



If you were close to him, you collected his surges of warmth. These became more poignant when you realized that he often had to climb up out of a dark well to let them flow. You collected things that were hidden by his stylishness, his supermodel looks, and by the gold paint that people sprayed on him in their minds and online.

Maybe you were close enough to soak up what he was like with his family in its various constellations. How he loved and baffled them, how he thrilled but could also disappoint. How relatives orbited his sun in seasons of estrangement and reconciliation.

When he touched Carina’s hand or when his sons clung to his arms, or when he listened to Jayme play the banjo, or when he watched his sister Sunny whip up her cooking magic, you could feel his love come out in a flood of bewildered tenderness.

He ended our book together with a distillation of such moments:

Everything was in its right place and everything was heading in the same direction. In my body I felt something new about life: not my own life, but about the whole parade of humans moving through the world, of which my family was only one small part, but the largest part of the world I could ever know.

If you worked with him, like I did on his talk about struggling with the danger of his own charisma, you harvested the giddiness of his concentration. You understood that he survived in part by taking risks.

After their first son was born, Carina asked him to sell the motorcycle a psychic had told him he should buy. He did as she asked. But he kept driving too fast in his mind.

When we worked he would pause, waiting for the words to come. I could feel him teeter on the edge of something.  One March day, I prodded him a little harder. I could hear his tapping keys over the phone as he murmured:

“I came to understand the shadow of charisma — of my charisma — was dependency.”

There was that feeling I often had around him. A lightning bolt of clarity, and then something fuzzy and frenetic rushing back in.

He was impatient with whatever couldn’t be finished with the speed of a zen brush painting. I would offer a paragraph of commentary; he parried with a sentence. I built things up, and he hacked them away. He loved the koans that could be answered in a single word. He was acutely aware of the shortness of time, and he’d learned that art must be made from the simplicity of panic.

I can hear him saying now: “This elegy is too damned long. And you always go too far!”

I yell into my silent phone:

Dude, I’m just getting started. And you’re the one who went too far. Gone, gone beyond, and all that, right?

I wait for his laugh.



During a snowstorm three years ago, Michael and I met for lunch to finish work on our book. At one point he stopped and leaned over to ask me something that wasn’t really a question.

“Hey – do you generally feel even-keeled?”

I shrugged.

“I guess. Can you say more?”

“I mean – do you feel in control of your emotions?”

After I fumbled through an answer, he told me he was struggling with his mental health. That it had been going on for as long as he could remember. Suddenly many things made sense.

We got very still and gazed at each other. After a moment, I realized he was gapping out. I’d seen this before, but now it was clear that he had to struggle to come back to the table.

It occurred to me that this oscillation between intense focus and vacancy was part of what drew people to him. Like he could see you, and that felt so intoxicating, but then you’d have to chase after him to feel that again. Like he was profoundly okay in one moment, but you wanted to save him in the next. Or maybe you thought he was regularly falling into a meditative trance.

Things became more transparent between us, but never fully. I loved him more, even as – or because – I felt more uncertain about where he was going. I knew I’d been drawn to him without understanding a crucial thing. I was in his sphere because he’d cast a spell over me. Part of me resented that, but now I could love him closer to where he was.

We deepened things by trading war stories about our health. On the phone he’d tell me about crushing insomnia. About having to fly places and teach meditation on autopilot because he was exhausted and agitated. I told him about my heart palpitations in the middle of the night. He’d had that too. Once, I picked him up from the hospital when he went for knee surgery to fix the damage from that stupid lotus pose. Or was it skateboarding?

I developed a pulmonary embolism a few months after our book was published. I could easily have died. He was the first person outside of my family I called. I knew he would  say something luminous and comforting. But there was also the feeling that I wanted him to know I was joining him at the edge of something.

We talked a lot about self-regulation. He told me that he’d stopped meditating everyday as an experiment to see if meditation was actually making his swings worse. He suspected it was. This was around the time he taped an interview with the world’s leading researcher in the neuroscience of negative meditation experiences. I’ll bet the turns of his research interests map perfectly onto his internal labyrinth.

I had to take warfarin to thin out my blood clots. He told me that lithium seemed to help even out his moods. We joked about it: after years of studying Ayurvedic diet and self-care, here I was, kept alive on rat poison. And for him — after scouring the library of scriptures, he’d found the answer in the periodic table. A single molecule, labeled “3”.

I said it was the chemical version of the triple jewel of Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha. He laughed his broad broken laugh.



Over the next few years I saw Michael increasingly exhausted by a race against the pressures of his persona, the tightening claustrophobia of his brain, his search for better medications, and the possibility that disclosing it all would help, or at least give him the next thing to work with. I thought about the growing distance between what he saw in the mirror and the headshots staring out at him from the screen.

His public life went viral, even as he seemed to become more isolated. He kept preaching the necessity of practice, even as I knew practice was less accessible to him. His sermons were about place and connection and sustainability. But he composed them on airplanes. He preached about community from the remote island he moved to after leaving the community he had founded.

When he was getting ready to move out west with Carina and their first child, he called me to say that he wanted to give me a bunch of his books on psychoanalysis. Two titles stood out: Being a Character, by Christopher Bollas, and Terrors and Experts, by Adam Phillips, who Michael and I had recently gone to see lecture.

Bollas describes the devastating results of living in the prison of other peoples’ idealizations. Phillips opens his book by quoting Iris Murdoch on how philosophers show you what they fear through what they become experts in.

We thumbed through his books, stacked in the front hallway. “I really think psychoanalysis,” he said, “gave us the most beautiful literature we have.”

He sounded wistful. I don’t know whether he was giving me a message, telling me about what had helped him find peace for a while, or parting with things that hadn’t worked. He handed over the books with a generous smile, and his body pulsed with warmth when we hugged. But as I drove away I felt like a thief.

As time wore on, Michael became an ever stronger advocate of the thing he struggled to do.  Show each other your face, he would say.

I wondered whether his ideas got larger as his internal space and room to breathe narrowed. Not only did he constantly push himself to break new ground in Buddhist thought, he wanted to carve out a leadership role in the movement to renovate yoga postures. There was talk of building a new centre in the western mountains, and landing a university fellowship. He told me about one of his next books, in which he was going to be more transparent about his mental health. He was searching for the right hook. Something that could go mainstream.

If he was going to own his mental illness, he was going to learn and write and teach his way through it. It’s what he had always done.

It is perhaps what the Buddha himself had done.

A main difference being: Siddhartha Gautama wasn’t preceded in the world by the images of his own enlightenment. He didn’t need to feed the insatiable hunger of wellness culture. He did not have to live up to – nor compete with – the branding of spirituality.



The poet John Ashbury just died at the ripe old age of ninety. He once wrote:

Most reckless things are beautiful in some way, and recklessness is what makes experimental art beautiful, just as religions are beautiful because of the strong possibility that they are founded on nothing.



Don’t squander your life!

Sometimes the group whispered it. At the memorial, one of his students shouted it at the top of his lungs. Who was he shouting it at?

Those who harbour anger at Michael right now – and feel so guilty because of it – might feel sucker-punched by that line. Doesn’t it open a cut of hypocrisy? Did he really recite it a hundred thousand times? Who was he talking to?

The stigma Michael faced is real. But the broader story must include the fact that thousands of us paid him for the creative side of his mania, which was hard to separate from his talent. A portion of our money poured directly into a small industry of marketing and publicity that reflected our desires back to us. It paid for gorgeous photography and design, for occasional ghostwriting, and for partnerships that gave structure and anchoring to his flow states.

The yoga and meditation economy embraced him with open arms. And enabled him. He was working on four different books, all in different subject areas, when he died.

He may not have wanted to disclose. But if anyone could have turned stigma into stigmata, it was him. The spirituality industry, however, would suffer for it.

A disclosure like Michael’s would continue to erode the arbitrary distinctions between sane and insane spiritual leaders. It would be that much harder to read Pema Chodron or Alan Watts without wondering how much of Buddhism amongst postmodern converts is an elaborate way of covering over a hidden story.

If Michael had disclosed, we would look at our shelves full of Shambhala titles and wonder how many trees were felled to print them. We’d remember that the press that launched him was itself launched by the mercurial genius of Chogyam Trungpa: alcoholic, womanizing, surely undiagnosed. We would not be talking about the fall of a single hero, but the clay feet of a culture. We might sense the deep feelings of shame and inadequacy that drive so many men to the front of the room to prove themselves. We think they are vibrating, when really they are trembling.

After that line about squandering your life, Michael’s assistant would strike the gong while holding the rim, so it couldn’t ring to its natural end.



I was always a crappy Buddhist. Over that surreal weekend of his coma, I felt so identified with Michael’s body that I felt some shadow part of myself on that ventilator, forcing me to breathe, waiting for it to be switched off. A more solid part of me was here, not believing that he couldn’t taste this coffee, couldn’t stand in this garden, couldn’t smile at his wife, couldn’t hold his toddler.

Even two weeks later, his death still seemed a spectacle to me, I expected him to step out from behind a tree, or send a text from the edge of Algonquin Park, where he disappeared to when he was twenty. As though he’d just been out of cell phone range, and had no clue there was such a fuss.

It only really hit home as I sat with my family on a driftwood log on a Pender Island beach with a hundred others at the memorial. The children waited patiently through the chanting, holding the paper lanterns they would release after the last bell.

Jayme stood behind the altar with his partner Laura and cracked open the Zen liturgy with his banjo and a southern spiritual. His voice, braided with hers, carried light and ash. Their three year-old son pulled at Laura’s dress, asking to be picked up.



If you’re a Canadian Gen Xer like Michael and me, you’ll probably remember a little Québécois film from 1989 by Denys Arcand called “Jesus of Montreal”. I went to the Carleton Cinema over and over again to soak it in. I wouldn’t at all be surprised if Michael was sitting there during one of those screenings. I was eighteen; he would have been fifteen.

The movie tells a simple, predictable story. A wandering actor returns to his hometown and is hired to direct and star in a revamp of the Cathedral’s chintzy Passion play. He’s silent, magnetic, dreamboaty. Also a little wonky. He electrifies an unlikely cohort of disciples and leads them in pulling their art and their lives out of banality.

At the peak of his influence, while performing Jesus, and not really knowing what he was doing, the actor accidentally dies.

The concluding montage leaves the main characters behind. It cuts from one hospital room to the next, showing patient after patient waking up after their surgery to receive an organ, donated by the actor who played Jesus.

An old man wakes up with a new heart. A middle-aged woman has the bandages removed so that she can blink at her daughter with new eyes, and call out her name.

This is my body, which will be given up for you, as they say in the church to which I once belonged.

I cried harder during that scene than almost ever before or since, and couldn’t move from my seat until the janitor tapped me on the arm at closing time.



Whenever I crest over this present edge of numbness and am finally able to cry about Michael, I think the tears will join the river that started in that theatre. They’ll flow from the material realizations of love:

I’ll feel how one body becomes other bodies.

I’ll feel that this is all there ever was or needs to be: a recycling of flesh into new joys and troubles. This is the way biology grants forgiveness. The process itself is the only soul we need to speculate about.

I’ll feel that in death, as in life, a person is both visible and invisible. Charisma magnifies this split.

Visible or invisible, Michael couldn’t be found or boxed in. I was foolish to think he could be. So it goes for those burdened with charisma. They are who they are because they seem so much larger and more permanent than you, even when they desperately want to be equal, normal, not-special; even when they want to disappear.

I know this tune: I’ve spent years deconstructing the light and shadow of spiritual teachers. On the surface my crusade has been related to healing from being in two cults. But the deeper drives that both attracted me to those men and led me to loathe them flow from my own need to be special, to heal attachment wounds, to be seen and praised — and then the shame of recognizing these things.

Pegging Michael as charismatic, and feeling smug about it, let me off the hook for years. I could only truly love him when I began to understand that he was living an amplified version of my own needs.

Part of why I wanted to be his friend was that I wanted to see myself more clearly. Knowing he did many of the things I work against, I tried to forgive him because he was ill and couldn’t seem to do otherwise. Perhaps he was my dharma teacher after all, teaching me about love in that sideways land of the unconscious.

My eventual tears will tally all I harvested in every moment I knew him – over years, and not just suddenly. The organs are just the last parts to be offered.

I’ll understand that those who speak most about community and ethics and family and forgiveness and intimacy are those who most long for such things.

I’ll sense that the pain of watching a person you love shattering into emptiness can be soothed by the feeling that he’s already inside you, transplanted, flaws and all. He lends you the heart, for the brief time we have, to take care of others.