Trigger warning: descriptions of sexual and physical assault.
Josh Summers: 00:00:06
Hi Matthew, how are you doing?
Matthew Remski: 00:00:07
I’m good. Thanks for having me, Josh.
Josh Summers: 00:00:09
Thanks so much for coming on. Let me introduce us. I am Josh Summers. I’m a yoga teacher and licensed acupuncturist. And this is Meaning of Life TV. You are Matthew Remski, a yoga teacher as well also an industry consultant in the Yoga Industry and an author of several books. Most recently you’ve written a book about problematic group dynamics in the yoga world and it’s called Practice and All is Coming: Abuse, Cult Dynamics and Healing in Yoga, and Beyond. So I should say, you know, is it’s really nice to meet you. This is kind of an odd sort of endorsement to you, but, right at this point I’d say you’re the main reason I go onto Facebook.
Matthew Remski: 00:01:00
That’s, that’s mixed. I’m happy to hear that. And I’m sorry to hear that all at the same time.
Josh Summers: 00:01:06
No, no. I mean, for me it’s positive because there isn’t that much, worth following on Facebook. But, I came across your work maybe two or three years ago. Someone shared something you had blogged about, about abuse and some of these problematic dynamics in the yoga world. And I just kind of got into following what you had to say about it and it really seemed like you had some trenchant analysis that was deeply missing in the broader conversation. So I want to dive into that. Talk about what’s going on in Yoga land, uh, what’s problematic about it and what might be some ways that things can be remedied. But as way of introduction. You are yourself a survivor of two cults, and I know that part of this work in this book has been a bit of a healing journey for you. But how did you come to a focus on the Ashtanga yoga situation in particular and what was going on in that that you felt needed to be highlighted?
Matthew Remski: 00:02:15
Well, I came to it reluctantly. The project that I had started with was a broader research project into injuries in yoga classes or in yoga practice. And the format was quite broad. I had started interviewing people from all communities and methods. And it had started with the strange realization that everybody that I knew who had professionalized into the yoga world or who was a really dedicated student was injured in some way. There were some people who were suffering from chronic pain or from repetitive stress injuries. And I found it very weird for a so-called therapeutic practice that people came to for spiritual benefit, but they also seem to be working themselves really hard in. And I started to wonder about that.
The book that started to emerge out of that research project was originally called Shadow Pose, and the project name was What Are We Actually Doing in Asana? And I still have Shadow Pose as kind of like a book structure. The first chapter was going to be an examination of the interview data of senior students of Mr Iyengar. And the second chapter was to be an analysis of interview data coming from the Ashtanga world. And at a certain point I realized that the injury question in the Ashtanga world, which is profound, it’s, it goes deep was still a surface question to the abuse issue that had been silent for many, many years, but also carried by a number of women survivors in a kind of whisper network as well. So once I started getting more and more attuned to the fact that that was an underlying story that Mr. Jois had actually assaulted women throughout his career, and nobody had really published on it, I realized that I couldn’t just put that into a chapter somehow. There was going to be a lot more work to do on that.
When I started to get a sense of how grave the issue was, I really resisted going into it because I thought that — my gut was that if it really was true that Pattabhi Jois was a serial sex abuser and that he did it in broad daylight and that there were an untold number of women victims and that none of them had been able really to speak out publicly about it until Anneke Lucas in 2010, and that the community had not done anything about it. And it was probably widely known within the upper echelons of the Ashtanga world, even into, even as early as 2012 — but of course, we now know it was far earlier than that.
But in 2012, there was a big hagiography published of Jois’s life featuring interviews with 40 students, and everybody talked about how wonderful he was and what a grandfather and father figure he was, and a spiritual teacher and all of that. So I had the sense around 2015 or 16 that if what I was hearing was true and I believed that it was true, that it would really rock the foundations of this particular community. And I was scared of that. And I also thought that it would rock the foundations of the broader yoga world because Jois is incredibly influential. Without him, there’s no vinyasa. Without him there’s no sense of the contemporary group yoga class as being a, an intense, ecstatic, immersive, silent experience filled with breath and sweat. Without him, there’s no adjustment protocol. Not that he really gave a protocol: he assaulted people. But the whole notion that the teachers should always have their hands or should have their hands on a student at all times that comes from his particular pedagogy. And so I just was terrified of the implications of what I was hearing and I resisted it for a long time actually.
Josh Summers: 00:06:52
Yeah. Some of our audience is definitely going to be familiar with the names in terms of that you just mentioned, but there’s, there’s probably a yogic un-literate audience, right, that is listening too, so can you put Ashtanga on the map and then put Pattabhi Jois in relationship to Ashtanga on the map in that?
Matthew Remski: 00:07:12
Yeah. So Pattabhi Jois is the innovator of a system that he named as Ashtanga Yoga, but it’s unclear when that name came into usage because it seems that he was calling his classes that he gave to the businessmen of Mysore up until the end of the Sixties, just “Yoga”. He had been trained in the Mysore Yoga Shala at a very crucial point in the development of modern yoga history. He was born in 1915. He met the person who many consider to be the father of modern yoga Tirumalai Krishnamacharya, when he was about 12 years old. And he actually describes being brutalized by Krishnamacharya being beaten as he learned to do asanas. And of course, he’s not describing that in terms of abuse, but rather as a badge of honor. He goes on to further his studies, later on in his life with Mr. Krishnamacharya and assumed a teaching position at the Mysore Yoga Shala sometime in the late Thirties. But also under Krishnamacharya’s tutelage was his brother-in-law BKS Iyengar. And so from this one gym which was set up by the Maharaja Wodiyar in 1934, we have two of the pillars of the modern yoga evangelical movement. Iyengar is responsible for the notion that the bodily postures that we assume in yoga should some sort of geometrical form and balance and symmetry and a kind of architecture of grace. But Jois is the person who puts postures into rigorous sequences and really gives the modern group class its fluid and intense feeling, going forward.
Josh Summers: 00:09:14
And the Ashtanga/Jois form has spawned into numerous side forms, right?
Matthew Remski: 00:09:20
Right. So if you’re new to all of this jargon, and you’ve been to a flow class you are benefiting from and perhaps being injured by Jois’s legacy. If you’ve been to a Vinyasa class, you are probably benefiting from Jois’s legacy if you’ve been in a class where rhythmic breathing has been timed with movement in some sort of coordinated way that’s all coming from Jois. And also I’d say that it’s Jois’s senior students coming out of his tutelage from the late Sixties, but then especially into the 80s that really give modern yoga its aesthetic in terms of its incredible athleticism, its beautiful, but sometimes scary contortionism. When you look on Instagram today at #yoga you will see images that really had their birthplace in terms of their sensuality their, their structure, the whole aesthetic really comes out of the Jois movement. It’s not Iyengar Yoga photographs that get the most clicks on Instagram. It’s really the beauty and the artistry and I would say the sensuality and the sublimated sexuality of — and sometimes not-sublimated sexuality of that imagery that is directly coming from Jois. And I think there’s something in there too around the connection between the yoga posture and a kind of sexualized performance. I mean, objectification aside, and all of those sort of image issues aside, I think the fact that, um, many of Joyce’s female students were learning in an environment in which he sexually objectified them, that’s really pertinent. So when we go to Instagram and we look at yoga images right now we’re looking at least part of a legacy of people really having to perform under the male gaze in more ways than one.
Josh Summers: 00:11:41
So talk about that: the sexual objectification, with Jois. And how did that lead to abuse both physical and sexual under, under him in his classes, and describe what that dynamic looked like.
Matthew Remski: 00:11:57
I mean, objectification is just dehumanizing. What all of the 16 women who gave their testimony for my book I describe is that you know, they weren’t people to him. “TM”, who is the one testimony giver who wanted to remain anonymous described feeling as though she was just a piece of ass who was there for him to hump her or to give him pleasure in some way. And so the assaults actually took place in plain view of everybody, but under the auspices or under this this story that he was adjusting people, that he was helping students attain postures that they couldn’t otherwise attain or even more kind of deceptively, and I would say creepily, that his touch was conveying some kind of spiritual knowledge.
And this really goes back to a very old and sacred idea in a part of Indian wisdom culture called Tantrism where the guru is said to embody a kind of bio-spiritual grace. And that by his, usually it’s his touch, or their gaze or they can strike you with a peacock feather that there’s a literal sort of a transmission of spiritual realization into the student’s body. And that’s a felt, phenomenological experience. And part of the story that started to accrue around what Jois was doing as he was sexually assaulting women and possibly men too, that’s not verified by first person testimony though. But part of the story that started building up around him was that this is what he was doing was that he wasn’t digitally raping that woman, he was helping her find her “mulabandha”, which is a term for an internal muscular, but also esoteric, sensation that is tied to the rise of Kundalini or esoteric energy. So he was doing that or he was helping her heal from sexual trauma. As Karen Rain says, this whole sort of slew of “cryptic justifications” arose around his behavior.
And the weirdest part is that he wasn’t the source of them. It was the students who said these things about him. I actually regret not making that clear in the book. I don’t say that he was the source of the explanations, but I also, I don’t think I’m explicit enough in saying that it’s pretty likely that he wasn’t. I don’t think that anybody asked him directly, what are you doing when you grope these women’s breasts or when you put your hands on their buttocks or when you put your fingers into their vaginas, like: “What are you doing?” When he was confronted about sexual assault, the few times that I have evidence of it, he was very embarrassed. He would burst into tears at one point. And apparently he would stop from time to time, but like somebody who had clearly an illness, he wasn’t able to stop for very long. So objectification was a felt reality by the women who he assaulted.
I think we have to then wonder what it means for his senior students and how they present asana or yoga practice to the world now. Like what were the conditions under which they learned? Because if they were assaulted while they were learning, that’s going to inform their bodily sense of who they are and what this means and what they’re feeling and who they’re doing it for. And if they were watching other people being assaulted, what kind of secrets are their body’s holding and as I said in the beginning, these are some of the reasons why I was scared to go into this material because it’s really deep. It suggests that at the heart of this, you know, venerable, lauded, beloved, you know, spiritual/wellness practice, there’s this really dark problem that, that hasn’t been looked at and hasn’t, and hasn’t been addressed.
Josh Summers: 00:16:39
Yeah. Major dark underbelly. As I’m listening to you, I’m imagining the listener that may not be familiar with the “Mysore” style of practice. So just to say that this is a style where unlike a typical led class: if someone were to go to a regular yoga studio or a gym and the teacher would sort of take them through a sequence, talking them through, maybe adjusting at times — but in the Mysore system, students show up quite early in the morning. Sometimes as early as 4, 4:30 AM. And they’re not following a led series of instructions from the teacher. They’re following a series of postures that they’ve been given in a successive stage-like manner. So you’re basically practicing independently and then the teacher comes around and adjust you or, quote-unquote assists you. And it’s that intimate contact of the adjustment or assist where this is the moment of abuse.
Matthew Remski: 00:17:45
Right. In Jois’s circumstance it becomes really complicated because one of the things that the Ashtanga world has prided itself on for the last 30 years is the sense that the teacher is able to learn and know about the student intimately because they are having personal interactions with them multiple times per morning, every morning, six mornings per week, two hours per session, two days off per month. That’s where we get into the notion of whether or not the method fosters communities that are actually high demand or cultic. How much time is actually occupied? But this feeling that people are getting individual attention and that when the teacher comes around and pays them that close attention. Meanwhile, their colleagues are not supposed to be looking. They’re supposed to be concentrating on their own stuff. They’re supposed to be concentrating on their breath or there’s even eye positions that people are supposed to take. There’s this sense that you and the teacher are alone and there are people who absolutely love and they thrive on that and there’s no reason they shouldn’t. They shouldn’t because it sounds like a really good thing. And I know that it works in practice in many circumstances, but it also sets up a very, very vulnerable situation in which, people can be exploited in plain sight.
Josh Summers: 00:19:19
And just to be really explicit about it: you document this in your book, but what were the adjustments that were abusive?
Matthew Remski: 00:19:28
Yeah, well, he would grope women’s genitals and breasts and he would climb on top of them and actually thrust his genitals against their own genitals. He would come behind women and digitally rape them by actually pressing his fingers through their tights and into their genitals. It’s almost incredible to say, but you know, story after story, testimony after testimony, this is what we come up with and it doesn’t make sense for 30 years of such activities to to take place in plain sight without there being a network of complicity that’s supporting and enabling them. And, and that’s why I started to use the language of cult analysis to describe how it actually happened.
Josh Summers: 00:20:30
The network of complicity. I want to explore that more. It does hit me on a personal level. I never really pursued Ashtanga yoga myself. I have lots of friends in the Ashtanga Yoga world. Authorized teachers. Um, and I’ve taken a few classes here or there. But when I first got into yoga, just to put a context on this, when I first got into yoga and started hanging around and studios that had an Ashtanga Yoga program, I did hear these whispers around certain kinds of adjustments and that the euphemism that was given for this kind of very intimate genital touch was called a “mulabandha check”. And as you described, mulabundha is sort of this energetic muscular lock down in the perineum, and the teacher is coming around feeling that to make sure it’s in quote-unquote engaged. And I’m appalled at myself in a way, that I kinda joked along like, ha ha, like this is just a spiritual… I don’t understand it because I’m not far enough along to even perceive it myself or to see the value of it, to see how important it is — when it’s just bad shit.
Matthew Remski: 00:21:52
But there’s something plausible about it. There’s something plausible about it. And I don’t think I addressed this in the book either except, except where I get into the fact that especially a Tantric and Hatha Yoga history is filled with analysis and thought and practice around the sublimation of sexual energies. And so there’s a way in which people show up in spaces like this and they are working so extrovertedly with their bodies in very vulnerable positions and they’re told that this practice will have kind of like a total effect upon their bodies, minds, emotions, psyches. Why shouldn’t their sexuality somehow be included in that? Why shouldn’t the intimacy of their, you know, their deepest selves be somehow exposed? And isn’t that where so much strength lies?
This is all the language that surrounds the sexuality of yoga that I believe begins to soften a person up into not really going, Wait a minute! What’s more obvious here is that this guy’s sexually assaulting women. And that he’s doing it for his own gratification and that there’s no therapeutic benefit to this. And you could meditate your way into believing that there was perhaps, but most people are not actually having that experience and we shouldn’t be telling them that they should.
So you know, I appreciate your confession. But I also want to say that, you know, the notion that the notion that people should be liberated somehow in the way in which they conceive of their sexuality within yoga is part of yoga’s appeal actually. And so I don’t think it’s a big leap for people to go, Oh, well maybe I shouldn’t be so uptight about such and such, or maybe I shouldn’t, ask too many questions, or that’s private after all. But also we’re working on our private stuff. And so I think it’s very confusing. Again I’ll refer to TM in the book, who says that as soon as she was sexually assaulted, somebody who saw it happen came up to her and said, “Okay, so you realize that what just happened to you — that wasn’t sexual.” And she was very confused. She was like, “What do you mean it wasn’t sexual?” And they had some explanation about Shaktipat or spiritual transmission. And you know, she didn’t give the impression in the interview that she totally bought off on the idea then, but she bought off on it enough to be confused and to be disarmed and to be put in this position where she felt that her own critical thinking or her resistance to the idea was somehow problematic. And that it was going to stand in the way of her spiritual development or something like that. So it’s not, it’s not a surprise that these things get wrapped up to together and sold on and end up rationalizing abuse to me.
Josh Summers: 00:25:43
In following you, I know that you have your eyes on many different yoga and Buddhist meditative spiritual communities that have lots of these bad dynamics at play. What was it about the Ashtanga situation itself that made you want to put it in the forefront of your case study in the book?
Matthew Remski: 00:26:09
I think it’s really kind of awful serendipity really because it was reportable. The evidence was clear. The network of sources that I began to develop began to send me this cascade of information.
Josh Summers: 00:26:33
Let me interject for a sec. But in terms of evidence being clear, because this sometimes comes up when I have conversations with people about.They refer to the “allegations”. The thing that listeners need to know is that there’s ample video and photographic evidence documenting all of this.
Matthew Remski: 00:26:51
There’s also 16 women who said “He assaulted me, and this is how he did it.” One is enough. There’s no question anymore that we’re in “allegation” territory. That’s a really crucial moment actually because one of the things that comes up in each one of these yoga or Buddhist community, you know, spiritual, physical, emotional, sexual abuse cases is that the behavior of the actual actions of the leader of the perpetrator are always interpretable. There’s always something mysterious or like, or a little bit beyond or childlike or innocent or super spiritual about the leader, about Mr. Jois or about Manouso Manos. Or about Bikram Choudhury, although less so, more and more people would see him clearly for who he is.
But there’s always something mysterious about the leader or the guru — which is probably not a good word for these people — that allows their behaviors to be endlessly bandied about as though, Well, we can’t really know what he was doing. And you know, the relationship between the teacher and the student is sacred. And you know, we don’t know what’s going on. We can’t really interpret… You bring up the video evidence. People argued about that for years. They are watching sexual assault taking place like before their own eyes and they’re saying, Oh, we don’t know what’s happening. We don’t know what’s going on.
So it’s been a combination of forms of evidence that, I think have moved it out of allegation territory, but more importantly, out of the territory of interpretation where the leader who has perpetrated crimes is somehow beyond the realm of the normal citizen who can be evaluated according to the same standards of evidences as anybody else. And it’s something about that interpretability that is like essential to his magic, usually his magic that, that you never know quite what he’s doing. You never know whether it’s actually for your benefit or not. And you know, even if he’s abusing you, maybe he’s helping you get over ego. There were people who would say that.
I guess the other thing that Jois would do is that he would just steal money from students. He would cut short their stays or would say that they owed him more money than they actually did, or he would make up exchange rates between the US dollar and the rupee in his favor. When that came up, that was well known as well. And when that came up, people would say, Oh, he’s helping people with their money issues. You know, they’re attached to money. So people are capable of all kinds of BS when it comes to the interpretability of the magical person.
Josh Summers: 00:29:56
And that was one of the things I wanted to ask you about is what role does a kind of somewhat flaky, soft or even direct interpretation of ancient spiritual texts that draws on particular metaphysics? How do the spiritual metaphysics factor in to this cocktail of toxic group dynamic?
Matthew Remski: 00:30:30
I think I have two feelings about this question. One is that it’s hard to say, how pre-colonial, especially Indian wisdom tradition metaphysics play any kind of role in this at all because I don’t think global yoga practitioners have access really to those metaphysics. I don’t think we know the kinds of relationships that they’re grounded in. I don’t think we have a clear idea of what the commitments, the social and economic and relational commitments, there are or were or were supposed to have existed between teachers and students that might ground all of this stuff. I do know that whether they’re accurate interpretations or not, there are all kinds of yoga or Buddhist or pseudo-yoga or pseudo-Buddhist ideas around, emptiness, interpretability, the play of Lila, karma, all kinds of, of terms that are correctly or incorrectly used to describe or to rationalize things that we would rather not confront as being abusive.
I’ll give an example of a concept that carries both of these histories. I go into detail in the book, on a Sanskrit word that is “parampara”. Now, parampara in precolonial terms, and up until this point, even now in contemporary India, means something very specific about how knowledge is transferred, especially spiritual knowledge in this context. It can apply to other forms of knowledge as well. But it implies this unbroken, usually familial, certainly intimate relational transfer of knowledge that depends on a whole series of social commitments and contracts in order to keep it stable. Now it also implies that the knowledge that’s being transferred goes way back in history and has been tested by time. Well, modern yoga ashtanga practitioners or Jois method practitioners from America and Europe have started using the word parampara to describe what they belong to. And so what that means is that they’re saying that a technique that Jois developed in the late sixties and changed several times as his shala got busier, they’re implying that that is traditional in a way. They’re implying that it has the weight of several generations of validation behind it. They’re implying that they belong to a heritage rather than a branded family business. And so we have this beautiful word that carries an ancient heritage that I personally don’t have access to how that actually works, but I know it’s there and I hope that it can be recovered in some way or it can be made more known, or I can have more access to it at least. And then we have this sort of like contemporary bastardized version of the term that’s used to pretend that the people who are the people who are using it have something, you know, magical or special when that’s really deceptive.
Josh Summers: 00:34:10
And the deception around it too. I mean in the yoga landscape at large, at least in my experience, Ashtanga, has held this kind of vaunted position as the legit, hardcore, no nonsense, real authentic practice.
Matthew Remski: 00:34:31
Well, every group does say that though. Like the Iyengar fold will say that This is authentic. This is true. This is hardcore. It’s hard to know. I mean, every group makes proprietary and sort of like advocacy claims, self-advocacy claims. I don’t want to interrupt. I would agree.
Josh Summers: 00:34:56
Okay. Did you get into this in your book about the, like Mark Singleton’s work looking at the origin of modern postural yoga of which Jois’s system comes as part of?
Matthew Remski: 00:35:09
I refer to it here and there throughout the book because you can’t really avoid it. Singleton’s work I think dated 2010 really blew the lid off of the notion that postural sequences or postures themselves or the way in which they’re practiced in group class formats with adjustments, that any of that has any pre-modern heritage. It’s more like Indian anti-colonial activists in the 1920s and 1930s wanted to indigenize physical culture influences from Europe. Actually colonial influences: gymnastics, harmonial gymnastics, weight lifting, bodybuilding. They wanted to indigenize these physical culture practices, as forms of national physical culture, but also anti-colonial pride building. And it worked. It was really, really effective.
But what we have is something that pretends to have a stronger linkage to the medieval history of Hatha Yoga than it actually does. And then that’s what gets exported to the world is the notion that Jois’s system is ancient or that it goes back to Patanjali, or something like that when there’s no evidence for that at all. But it becomes a very powerful selling and marketing point. You know, it’s so common within the modern yoga world, and this is why I think Singleton’s book was so riveting and so outrageous to many people. And also so earth shattering is that you know — he doesn’t phrase it this way — but the research as he lays it out basically says what we have believed about the modern posture, about the modern yoga movement is mostly deceptive. It’s mostly a kind of clever elaboration or —
Josh Summers: 00:37:20
It’s an invention.
Matthew Remski: 00:37:23
It’s an invention. And we have endowed it with a kind of orientalist idealistic mysticism, and that has become one of its main selling points. It’s also what has made it resistant to contemporary biomechanics and contemporary kinesiology and contemporary physical therapy. So it’s really, it’s really complicated. Here’s another example. There’s part of this invocation of tradition that also shielded Pattabhi Jois from scrutiny because one of the things that his students would say, and they say it to this day actually, is that his adjustments, as brutal as they were, as injurious and as intrusive as they were, were traditional. Well, they might’ve been traditional in the sense that that’s what Krishnamacharya did to him. But we don’t have any evidence that physical adjustments in yoga existed prior to the 1920s. I proved that I think in my book by citing the work of several historians of medieval yoga, or one in particular, Dr Jason Birch, who says there’s no evidence for anybody physically assisting anybody else in a yoga posture prior to the 20th century.
Josh Summers: 00:38:46
And just to jump on that for a second — around the nature of the adjustments, because we’ve discussed how there’s a component of sexual assault in them, but the physical assault too… the stories of people just hearing ligaments snap or rip. I mean that was just sort of sending shivers down my spine as I read, the whole book in a way. It’s harrowing to read.
Matthew Remski: 00:39:17
And it also shows how effective and immersive the propaganda was around Jois’s power that the senior students openly joke about how they all crawled crying out of practice everyday. They all openly talk about how, Oh yeah, he blew out my knee and he was doing this, but I got the posture or he led me towards a more advanced position in the series or something like that. The way in which this group of people was inculturated to withstand pain is extraordinary. And I think it’s had a huge ripple effect. Or kind of like a trickle down effect into the next generation with regard to how we regard the body and effort and pain in general. You know, there are very few, I would imagine in North America and Europe, yoga teachers who are cranking people today the way that Jois cranked people in his day. But I think that the basic ideas around what pain means, what injury means, what pushing yourself means, what being pushed by a teacher means: those have all remained intact in places.
Josh Summers: 00:40:47
So you’ve sort of discussed a little bit about the spiritual interpretation and reframe of a lot of this behavior. What has been some of the response you’ve received or seen in light of the stuff coming out and also in light of your book. How is the community both within Ashtanga and th yoga community outside of Ashtanga receiving this?
Matthew Remski: 00:41:13
There’s a huge spectrum and there’s kind of a line in the sand as it were, of that spectrum between people who identify as Ashtanga practitioners and people who don’t. Amongst the people who do, this is a difficult book to read and some people have really negative reactions to it. Although it’s not like the reactions that they’ve had to my more informal blog work over the years, which a lot of people have just been able to dismiss or to say it’s agenda driven or something like that or that, “You just hate our community”, or something.
Josh Summers: 00:41:56
Again, this is very personal for me. I have friends who I’ve tried to talking about your work with both here and in Europe and there has been this view that you’re, this opportunist, you’re your swooping in on this thing just to elevate your own work and your own, your own profile, and I’ve always gone cross-eyed when that’s come up. I’m like, this is not what he’s doing.
Matthew Remski: 00:42:20
It’s opportunist in a sense that nobody was doing it for one thing. And I would say that anybody in the Ashtanga world who calls me an opportunist should really ask themselves the question, “If you knew about this, where was your book? Where was your newspaper report? Why didn’t you go to a journalist? I mean it didn’t have to be me. Why was it me? Why was it me? It’s like, it’s 2010 and Anneke Lucas published her account and it got buried on Facebook. There was like five likes to it. Nobody shared it. You know, there’s one comment saying, “You know lot of people are going to say you’re a very brave person sometime in the future.” Fast forward six years later, she republishes her blog. By that point, I’m talking to Karen Rain for two years. People asked for like a decade. “Where did Karen Haberman go? Where did she disappear to?” She got so far away from the Ashtanga scene in the yoga world in general, she changed her name and it’s like nobody wanted to ask a little bit further?
So I mean, okay. Opportunistic. Yes. But that’s because there’s this great big vacuum. And with regard to my profile, well, we all have jobs and you know, my job as strange as it is and as self-made as it is, is that I look at abuse and spiritual communities. And so, yeah. Does it raise my profile? Yes. Does it make me fame and fortune? Um, no. I mean, anybody who thinks that somehow I’ve gotten rich on this just doesn’t know anything about what writing a book means or what it means to sell it or anything about it. And, and, you know, it’s like, did you, did anybody say that, Ronan Farrow was opportunistic for reporting on Harvey Weinstein? I don’t think so. They looked at the work and they said, Wow, he gained the trust of, what was it, eight women who he published on in that first New Yorker. He gained the trust. He was able to publish their testimonies. He pretty much stayed out of the way. And he created a victim-centered narrative. And so I didn’t actually — you asked the question and I didn’t want to go on a rant about —
Josh Summers: 00:44:43
Well actually, you know, I just want to interject too, is that the people that I’m in contact with, that had said that actually have read the book and have actually completely changed their tune. Oh, okay. So even with people that were initially critical, they’ve read the book and they feel that this is a very fair, balanced treatment and important that it’s out now.
Matthew Remski: 00:45:05
Yeah. I hope that slowly gets in. I think part of that maybe the threshold has to do with, it’s not like I was a professional journalist in sports or something like that, and I got wind of this story and people didn’t know who I was, but, you know, I’ve been writing as a cultural critic within the yoga world for the last five years. My book on Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras was in 2012. And there’s been a lot of divided opinion about the value of what I do ever since then. So as a cultural critic, as I’ve reported on various abuse stories, the Anusara implosion, the Jivamukti lawsuit, the Satyananda Yoga thing, Shambhala, Rigpa… As I’ve done that work, I’ve made a lot of allies and I’ve made a lot of enemies. And all of that really is in the sort of public, very jousty sphere of blog work and social media.
A book is a different thing, you know, when it’s editorialized and fact checked and there’s legal backing of publication behind it, it’s 380 pages long and there’s 380 foot notes or whatever, it’s well-cooked. And so I think it’s unfortunate that I already had a name coming into this particular work, that I carried the baggage of past work with me. But at the same time, I don’t think I would’ve gotten the book contract without that. So it just is what it is. I hate that phrase, but I think there’s there’s nothing to have been done about it.
Josh Summers: 00:47:13
Well I won’t repeat it is what it is, but, one of the things I really appreciated about the book was the level of analysis that you went into, sort of deconstructing the dynamics in these high demand groups that that broadens the conversation from just saying, Oh, well the perpetrator was just a bad apple. Like he was, he was a bad man. And, we can throw him out but keep, keep this very valuable and integral practice intact. Right. Or the opposite, which I hear a lot too is Okay, well if these people, like with Karen Rain going back again and again and getting continually assaulted: What’s going on in her psychology or someone’s psychology like that, that keeps them there? Why aren’t we talking about that more? And I know you’re excellent at eviscerating both of those, those, those veins, right?
Matthew Remski: 00:48:18
Yeah. So on one hand, yeah, on one hand the bad apple argument just doesn’t work because nobody assaults… Jubilee Cooke estimates that there’s 30,000 — her conservative estimate is that there’s 30,000 distinct episodes of abuse or assault —
Josh Summers: 00:48:35
Just briefly take me through the math on that.
Matthew Remski: 00:48:42
Jubilee Cooke is one of the women who gave testimony and she was one of one of the women who was there for eight months. And so I’ll talk about her in the second section as well, in the second part of this answer, and she was assaulted repeatedly, but she said, you know, this happened to me in three different postures every single morning. This is the number of mornings. Every morning that I was there in Mysore, I saw three other women who, who got assaulted in those three postures. So she starts to build numbers out of what she personally experienced and what she personally witnessed. And then she just counts up the years she counts up the tours. I think she uses, no, I don’t think she uses my research to try to figure out how many women he actually came into contact with when he’s away from the Mysore shala on world tour, you know, in California or New York or Boston or whatever, or Hawaii. And she comes up with a conservative estimate of 300 or, sorry, 30,000 individual sexual assaults over what’s likely a 30 year period.
That’s not a bad apple. That’s a whole orchard. That’s like a bad apple and a whole bunch of people saying, No, this is great. This is a great apple. This is a great apple! In a more contemporary story, what we’re seeing with Manouso Manos right now.
Josh Summers: 00:50:21
Just for reference, who is he?
Matthew Remski: 00:50:24
He’s probably BKS Iyengar’s most famous, most prominent, most senior student, and the one who most embodies his own teaching persona. BKS’s gruffness, his shouting, his way of both electrifying and terrifying a room at the same time. He has recently had allegations, numerous allegations of sexual assault verified against him by an independent investigation that was commissioned by the Iyengar Yoga Association of the United State, or IYNAUS. And so in that ongoing story, which is still unfolding, we have this sense administratively within IYNAUS that you know, he’s been delisted, he’s been decertified and the Iyengar family has removed his right in light of these crimes, which can’t be prosecuted — they’re all outside of the statute of limitations — but in light of these behaviors, he’s been prevented from using the Iyengar trademark in his teaching going forward.
And that’s it, right? Like, this is not a regulated profession. He can go on and teach whatever he wants. He can teach Manouso Manos Yoga tomorrow and open up shop wherever, maybe in Bali or something. But the thing is, is that administratively we have this sense that while he’s been excised, somehow he’s been amputated and, you know, we’re all fine now. Well, here’s somebody who had such teacherly influence for such a long time and such administrative influence over the entire organization for such a long time. Now I would say what the organization has to do is say, “Okay, who actually trained under this guy and who would attribute their certification to him and who was tested by him?”
Because everybody involved in that is going to have to answer some questions about, Well, what did you actually learn from him? Here’s somebody who is probably less of a yoga teacher than a sexual predator posing as a yoga teacher. “What did you actually learn? And how can we help you learn some more? Or how can we help you mitigate this educational stain?”
And then on the other side of it, it’s like anybody who asks, why did Karen Rain keep going back to get assaulted by Pattabhi Jois every, every year — doesn’t know anything about trauma, doesn’t know anything about domestic violence, doesn’t know anything about a trauma bond, doesn’t know anything about being gaslighted. That response, which is very common and I would say, you know, it’s so common, it shouldn’t be shameful. I just think people should be open to correcting it.
People who have that response really have to get educated in what it means to be in a toxic power dynamic, that confuses your basic capacity to feel as though you have agency. Like I bring up the metaphor in the book that if you broke a person’s leg and there they were on the ground, you wouldn’t blame them for not running away from you as you came in to damage them further. But somehow with sexual assault, we look at the survivor or the victim or the survivor and we say, why didn’t you run away when actually the sexual and the physical assault have deprived them in many cases of their capacity to feel as though they are autonomous, to feel as though they can have individual agency, to feel as though they have their own bodies even.
Josh Summers: 00:54:41
Right. That’s a huge, hugely important piece that I think gets overlooked. I know you’re not found at this guy and I think I have mixed feelings about myself, but I was glancing through Jordan, Jordan Peterson’s book and he makes some comment that I think is really relevant here where he says you know, if we deny a victim response, some responsibility, we deny them agency.
Matthew Remski: 00:55:04
Right? Yeah. Except that he’s going to use that to say that we somehow as observers of the victim have to give them responsibility within our assessment of what happened during a particular crime. Right. The problem with that is that there might be some, some therapeutic application of that principle of well, You know, in this moment, do you feel as though you have agency with regard to how you’re moving forward coming out of this experience. That might happen privately in therapy later, but what happens is, and I can hear it in that quote, is that the notion of victim is turned into a kind of psychological state instead of a label for somebody against whom a crime has been committed.
The further problem with assigning responsibility, regardless of what that even means — like what does that mean? Is it about the clothing? Is it about the fact that you went that morning? Is it about the fact that your voice froze when you wanted to say No? Like what, what responsibility are we actually talking about and can that discussion survive the fact that one of the reasons that Karen Rain was assaulted over and over again was because the group had deceived her about what was going on?
The problem that I don’t think Jordan Peterson or any of his kind of like alt right bros want to really face is that you cannot be responsible for having been deceived. I’d even say his own fans aren’t responsible for him deceiving them! It’s very, very difficult to protect yourself against being deceived. That’s what deception is. It happens to intelligent people. It happens to mediocrely educated people. It happens to people who aren’t educated at all. If you are deceived about why you are in a place, about what is going to offer you, then you’ve really already had your agency taken away. It’s not like you’re going to give it. In both cults that I was a recruited into, they presented themselves as, other than what they actually were.
No, there’s no part of Ashtanga Yoga that said to Karen Rain, Hey, this is a cult in which you’ll be sexually assaulted every day! No, that’s not what they said. They said: This practice will give you spiritual liberation and if you follow this teacher’s instructions as closely as you can and you surrender your body up to them, your process will go a lot faster. That’s what they said. That’s what they said. And if she’s to blame for believing that, well, you know, let’s have another conversation about what people actually end up believing.
Josh Summers: 00:58:38
Yeah. I thought that that part in the book was great. And you also from there, you then expand into an analysis of sort of structural, systemic conditions that do kind of disorient and confuse and create this kind of vertiginous internal phenomenology for the person that makes it very difficult to see one way or the other.
Matthew Remski: 00:59:06
And I think I really have the work of Alexandra Stein to thank for that because she uses this basic — so just a caveat here, when we talk about the psychology of person who’s victimized by a cult, it’s not to say that, you know, there was something inside them that made them more vulnerable. The deception is the threshold. And then there are a psychological processes that can take over that make recruitment easier, dependency, easier, dread of leading, easier — but what she says is that the main thing that the cult does is it rewires your way of relating to people, to everyone, really towards the end of the attachment spectrum, known as disorganized, where you’re actually in a constant state of love and fear of approaching, but withdrawing, of going to a person for love who on some level is also hurting you, but you feel dependent upon.
And one of the things that she says this creates is this amazing — I say it’s amazing, it’s awful, but it’s amazing to me because it articulates my own cult experience so well — she describes a triple isolation in which you’re isolated from the outside world. You’ve lost your old friends probably, or you’ve written them off or they’re not enlightened enough for you, or you’re just separated from them because you’re in an ashram or something. And then you’re isolated also from people within the group because there are certain things that are taboo to talk about. And in the Ashtanga world, you couldn’t say around the breakfast table at Mysore: He sexually assaulted me. Or if you tried to, you’d be told, Oh no, that’s not what it was.
And then that second layer of isolation leads to a kind of internal isolation from your own moral sense, where it’s like you had values that helped you navigate the world. You had a compass that was a shining light for you, but now it’s kind of broken or it’s been occluded and the wisdom of the group has entered in and has kind of overwhelmed what you’ve been able to decide for yourself in terms of your moral values throughout your life. So that triple isolation is like this amazing idea. You’re with other people, but you’re totally all alone at the same time. And the only person who really is the reality principle is the leader, is Mr Jois, is Mr Iyengar, is, Manouso Manos. In my case, it was, in my case, it was Michael Roach of the Asian Classics Institute or Charles Anderson at Endeavor Academy. Like that guy was the reality principle.
Josh Summers: 01:02:01
Right. They have all the answers.
Matthew Remski: 01:02:04
Right, and that’s part of what alienates you from your own, even your will to, to propose an alternative or to ask questions, which of course you’re not allowed to do.
Josh Summers: 01:02:19
Yeah. I thought the inclusion of attachment theory there was, was pretty helpful, for just for shifting the blame on the victim and, or the blame on the leader,
Matthew Remski: 01:02:34
Yeah. It’s a system. They’re working together. I would like people to just reflect on the fact that you have no idea who Jim Jones was. You have no idea what was going on in Chogyam Trungpa’s head, you have no idea what, what the inner life of Bikram Choudhury is like. The, what is it called, the Eisenhower Rule? What psychiatrists came up with in the 1950s where they self imposed — they’re starting to break it with Trump now — but a lot of professional clinicians, have this self-imposed rule that they’re not going to diagnose people that they’re not in clinical practice with. I think that’s a really sound principle. You don’t know, I don’t know what’s going on in Pattabhi Jois’s head. I don’t know what his internal constellation is like. I’ve spent two years interviewing Karen Rain. I feel like I know her a lot better than I know him, but I still wouldn’t presume to know why she makes choices that she does. All of that intentionality, all of that speculation on people’s internal states, what it usually does is it overshadows the fact that a crime has been committed and we can obviously set up ways of preventing it from happening again. [Correction: it’s the Goldwater Rule. Woops.]
Josh Summers: 01:03:58
I know we’re closing in on your time a bit and I do want to get into maybe the path ahead. You know, I know you hold that intention in the book of, of offering some sort of roadmap forward with better practices. So one of the things that I as a teacher, myself, and I do trainings in various yoga studios. One thing that’s come up from me is that I’ve had some studios on my schedule that still have photographs of Pattabhi Jois in their altar corner of the studio. And there haven’t been, to my satisfaction, statements of distancing and denouncing and separation and all that. And I have to say, I’m deeply grateful to you for your work because it’s helped me sort through how to engage with that. But one of the things that has come up for me and trying to talk about it with these hosts and these other studios is, it’s hard to escape a little bit the idea of or the dynamic of virtue signaling, where you kind of come off pious or sanctimonious: Look, you have this photograph up and you’re silencing victims and doing your part of an institutional enablement. And I think that’s really all important to say, but it actually hasn’t gone very well for me with these places. I get labeled as being judgmental. I’m not understanding them, not letting them handle it in their own way.
Matthew Remski: 01:05:33
You know, but you don’t have to do that work because the survivors have done it for you. Really. Like, Karen Rain and Jubilee Cook published this amazing — I hope this goes into the show notes — this amazing essay in Yoga International that the title is something like “What do survivors of sexual abuse in Yoga communities need?” And it’s like a white paper that basically lays it out and says, Look, here we are, we’re sexual assault survivors of a 20th century yoga master. And this is what happened to us and this is how we feel about what will create safety and respect, not only for us, but for students going forward. And, you know, I think anybody who reads through that and you know, there’s stuff around: don’t venerate people who are sexual assaulters or rapists. That’s not safe for the people who come to your studio. You know: you have to make a distinction between people that you love because you love them and people who are triggering to your students. I mean, that’s just, that’s basic adulting for one thing.
But anyway, their list of the things that you can do is all laid out for you. And I don’t think you have to be worried about virtue-signaling by referring to what survivors of sexual assault need. To me, virtue signaling is, you know, some sort of opportunistic self aggrandizement based upon associating yourself with you a fashionable social cause. But you’re not getting anything out of those confrontations if you’re trying to teach there.
And as far as like being judgmental goes, I mean, well, asking for basic justice and respect isn’t judgmental. What’s judgmental or perhaps the better word is just inept, is to continue to keep your head in the sand about what the person that you love did to people. You can still love him, but it doesn’t mean that you have to venerate him or say that he was somebody that he wasn’t in public terms.
You know, I think the whole notion of the veneration of the photograph is so difficult for so many people because there was an intensity with which he would gaze at them or they would gaze at him. And often that would happen within the of adjustments. And I believe that if, if in some cases, if those portraits on those altars are looked at from just the right angle, the person might go, Oh my God, actually he’s not who I thought I was, who he was after all. It’s almost as if the portrait will stay on the altar to preserve something that if it cracks will crack the entire world along with it. And that’s a tough place to be in. I would acknowledge it.
But if you’re running a public space, and people who are sexual assault survivors are going to it and they can Google Pattabhi Jois’s name and that story is the first thing that comes up… how are they going to feel safe and how were they going to feel as though you’re not somehow excusing or aiding and abetting or minimizing or just not caring about sexual assault. That doesn’t make sense. Right? If one in four women are survivors of sexual assault — and it’s probably higher than that — do you really want to almost emotionally haze or gaslight a quarter of your potential practice population? It doesn’t make any sense. My main point is that is that you don’t have to do that work because it’s already been done for you in, in Rain and Cooke’s essay. And so that’s really cool.
Josh Summers: 01:09:44
That crossed my desk a little while ago and I did very much appreciate that. I feel like if I’m going to these places,I’m coming in not as a regular teacher, I’m coming in for a workshop or a training. I feel like if I’m going to a place that still venerates put a Jois-type figure that in some ways my, my showing up is complicit with this network of complicity.
Matthew Remski: 01:10:10
That’s a hard one, right? You’d have to make some personal choices around whether you’re using that privilege, the fees that you’re getting from the training to push back against that idealization. There’s going to be a lot of calculations in there. There’s people who are at certain points in their career where they can say, well, I’m not going to work with so and so anymore, and they can make that public and that will be very, very effective. And they won’t hurt because of it financially. But, you know, I think people who are in different financial circumstances might find it more effective to preserve the relationship with their Ashtanga Yoga shala hosts than to separate altogether and to slowly encourage them to change. So, you know, those are individual choices for sure.
Josh Summers: 01:11:12
Yeah. Within the Ashtanga world in general, what reforms do movements do you see happening and what, what gives you a sense of hope?
Matthew Remski: 01:11:27
The reform so far has been strong in some areas in the zone of sentiment, rather than action. But that’s gonna take a long time. It’s not like it’s not going to happen. I’m sure. I’m sure things will improve. But when you asked me that question, I think of an amazing accountability statement made by Sarai Harvey Monk who is authorized by Sharath Jois sometime in the 2010s, something like that. And you know, she laid out this five point, “this is how my participation in this organization is complicit with this abuse history and here are the five things that I’m going to do now in my classes to make sure that I don’t carry any of those impacts on.” There has been a couple of other statements like that, but hers is a real standout. There’s a guy named Guy Donahaye, who actually was the co editor with Eddie Stern of a very popular book in 2012 called Guruji which I describe in my book, and I criticize very closely and heavily as being a hagiography of Jois that was published with the cultural knowledge of what was being left out. So, Guy is the co-editor, Eddie Stern is the other editor, but Guy has gone on kind of like this solo truth and reconciliation tear on his blog. And he’s published a lot of really beautiful pieces about that are basically, What the heck were we doing? What did we overlook? Who did we not listen to? What does Karen Rain have to say? How can I make this up to her? Like he’s doing an amazing amount of public vulnerable, accountability work.
And he recently also sponsored a petition that’s on Facebook, trying to get Ashtanga certified and authorized teachers to make accountability statements. That’s moving kind of slowly because I think there’s a lot of fear around the control that the family still has over the finances and the copyrights and the ability to practice, uh, or to teach the, the, the method, quote-unquote legally or with the validation of the family. So that’s moving slowly.
And then on the logistic or the sort of material front, there is a group that’s in formation and I think it’s called the Amayu collective. And two of its leads are Scott Johnson from London and the UK. And Greg Nardi from Orlando or Fort Lauderdale, Florida. They’re coordinating with a few other second generation of Ashtanga teachers. So it’s a young group, I think about five, and one of them isn’t a teacher, I think her name is Emma. She’s actually a women’s studies professor in southern England somewhere. And she’s a student and I think she’s also an educational specialist. I think this group of five people are putting together a kind of alternative training program to what’s on offer through Sharath Jois and KPJAYI. I don’t think that has really gotten off the ground yet. There’s a lot of aspirations involved there. I know that the group will have some challenges with diversity with inclusion and also. I would say that they probably have to do a better job of making sure that they’re professionally consulting with survivors like Karen Rain and Anneke Lucas and Jubilee Cooke. Because I think that’s essential. Any reform movement that isn’t asking Jois’s survivors exactly what to do and exactly what they need and exactly what they would have needed to keep safe is not really a reform movement at all.
Josh Summers: 01:15:43
And in Yoga at large, I know yoga is kind of like the wild, wild west of, industries. What kind of reform… I know you mentioned things like more of a consent culture in terms of adjustments and scope of practice considerations. What would you like to see, see moving forward?
Matthew Remski: 01:16:04
Well the last part of my book is written as a workbook for the yoga teacher training industry. It summarizes the analysis of the Jois event and the cult literature that I use. I try to lay out a number of tools that I think — I’m not an expert in this — but I think will be helpful as teachers, students and administrators and yoga service providers and yoga academics as well go forward in figuring out how to identify toxic group dynamics. So there’s tools in there and the tools are accompanied by personal essay questions for review. So there’s something in there called the PRISM method. There’s eight best practices for avoiding cultic dynamics. There is also, as you mentioned, a scope of practice for the yoga humanities that I think would be a good idea.
And it’s something that Yoga Alliance may adopt in part, not because I wrote it or anything, but because it’s in the air now they’re doing a renovation of their standards after 19 years. Scope of practice or defining a scope of practice for a yoga teacher is a keystone of that effort. And that’s super important because one of the reasons that Jois was allowed to be who he was is that nobody gave him any limits. He was given kind of free reign to pontificate about every aspect of a person’s life, you know, so it’s not just that he was teaching people asana, but he was also telling them to stop taking their medication or he was telling them that their back didn’t need surgery or, you know, he was giving them spiritual advice perhaps or, or what have you. It’s like the modern yoga movement has been built on the charismatic personalities that did not have a scope of practice because it was thought or they assume they could do anything. And that is about to get checked. And that’s a really good thing. Like if you’ve trained as an asana, a teacher, let’s stay in our lane: let’s not give dietary advice. Let’s not pretend you’re a marriage counsellor. Let’s not start talking about the chakras. Let’s not give psychological advice or talk about people’s medications.
Also let’s not BS about history and philosophy either because it’s becoming increasingly clear — and I want to cite my colleagues Theodore Wildcroft here for coming up with this analogy — it’s becoming increasingly clear that Yoga teachers are not physiotherapists. They’re not going to be trained to take care of your subluxated disc in your back, and they’re not going to be trained to fix your labral tear. Now that’s new. What the public is less aware of is that it’s fairly easy for your run of the mill yoga teacher to manipulate a whole class of people intellectually and then psychologically by claiming that they know more about yoga philosophy than they actually do. So one of these tools that I offer in the sixth part is: are you really clear as a yoga teacher about what the limits of your humanities knowledge is? Or are you giving people the impression that you know, what yoga philosophy says when actually very few people know what or understand the depth and breadth of yoga philosophy? So I hope those are helpful ideas. I hope that people are able to begin to look at the communities that they live in a little bit more critically, to look at the kind of leadership that they have a little bit more critically and start modelling that critical thinking.
Josh Summers: 01:20:26
I think it’s a great direction forward. I’m getting drowned out, I think, I don’t know if you can hear, I’m getting drowned out by leafblowers, lawnmowers, unfortunately. But look, it’s been great. I’ve really enjoyed talking to you and I’m really super appreciative of the work you’re doing. I know it’s tough sledding. I follow you also in the common threads and you’ve rolled up your sleeves, the knuckles are out and it’s bit of a knife fight in there, but you’re fighting the good fight. And I just want to thank you for that.
Matthew Remski: 01:20:55
Thank you, Josh. It’s a pleasure to talk with you. Great questions. Thank you.
Josh Summers: 01:20:58
Great to chat.
Donna Noble of Curvesome Yoga interviewed me about my new book. She was direct and to the point. An edited version of this interview has already appeared on the Accessible Yoga blog, edited by Nina Zolotow. The AY blog is definitely a must-read: bookmark it! This is the full version of the interview.
DN: Tell me about your yoga journey.
MR: I happened upon yoga for the first time in Manhattan just days after leaving a high-demand group, or cult. The simple instructions gave me permission to feel myself, to feel my own agency again. It was only one class at that point, but I never forgot the feeling, and would sometimes practice on my own. I was soon recruited into another high-demand group. And then, again, found yoga after leaving. It was 2003 by then. The first YTT boom was in full swing, with a lot of trainers beginning to offer one-month programmes. I had no other real prospects at the time, and so I signed up, plunged in, trained hard, and within a few years owned a studio and was teaching up to 20 classes per week. That lasted through a second studio and ten more years, and then I started researching the shadows of the industry.
What does the essence of yoga mean to you and has it changed since writing the book?
The book has only deepened my sense of what’s truly important to me in practice. My current understanding of moksha revolves around the possibility of seeing oneself, one’s relationships, and the world as clearly as possible. This means understanding projection, transference, idealization. It means seeing through the anxiety by which we organize our power structures. It means trying to understand interdependence and everything that invisibly makes up your world and your position in it. It means seeking out a pause when possible and feeling all of the threads of connection hum and vibrate.
Working on a book about abuse and healing in the yoga world amplified all of these things. It broke through my desire to idealize the yoga world — a habit that was wrapped up in spiritual bypassing. It forced me to listen carefully to the experiences of people who carry traumas I have never known. That exposure has opened me up to a vision of how necessary empathy is, and how supportive we can be when we feel it, if we’re also open to feedback.
As my interview database for the project expanded, the network connecting traumatic experiences became more visible. Eventually it revealed an entirely alternative yoga world, which didn’t look anything like the marketing at all. It looked like the rest of the world, only painted over in gold and sprinkled with goji berries and wishes for a perfect life. Isn’t that what coming to reality feels like? An evaporation of infatuation? Seeing things as they really are, and learning how to love again from ground zero?
As one yoga and Buddhist organization after another implodes, reform efforts are afoot. Some, if not most, are well-intentioned. But the industry is still unregulated. It’s an economy that runs on opportunism, and co-optation is standard.
So how can you determine whether those who step forward to lead reform are acting in good faith and not self-interest? That they aren’t simply re-establishing the same dynamics and silencing the same voices? How do you know whether they are, unconsciously or not, more interested in preserving the social and economic structure that fostered the abuse than they are interested in really listening to what survivors have to say?
How do you know whether they’ve done the extremely hard work of seeing through and overcoming cultic dynamics? After all, it is harrowing to even try to make different choices and foster new patterns when you’ve been in a cult, which is always terrifying members into pursuing power and position instead of equality and transparency. Continue reading “Yoga and Buddhism Reform Movements: 16 Red Flags”
“A Hamster Wheel of Self-Help.” Conversation with Rachel Bernstein on IndoctriNation Podcast (Pt. 2)
Facing Investigation into Allegations of Sexual Assault, Manouso Manos Goes Full DARVO. IYNAUS Is Having None of It.
On March 8th, Manouso Manos posted a letter on his website, announcing his resignation from the Iyengar Yoga National Association of the United States. In its claims and defensive-aggressive tone, the letter positions Manos as the target of an unfair independent investigation into allegations of sexual assault potentially dating back to 1992. It also pits him against IYNAUS as the legitimate representative of the Iyengar family’s wishes, wisdom, and legacy.
Manos’s statements were elaborated in a 23-page support statement from his lawyers. Together, the documents present an object lesson in what psychologist Jennifer Freyd has defined as DARVO: a strategy used by those accused of crimes to turn back scrutiny and accountability. Continue reading “Facing Investigation into Allegations of Sexual Assault, Manouso Manos Goes Full DARVO. IYNAUS Is Having None of It.”
Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse Minimizes Clerical and Institutional Abuse in Christmas Message to Rigpa Students
On January 3rd, Rigpa International members received a letter from Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse, dated December 25th. It was emailed by Rigpa’s “Vision Board”. The Vision Board is the advisory committee now directing the global neo-Buddhist organization after the resignation of Sogyal Lakar in August, 2017.
In July of 2017, Lakar was accused of decades of physical, sexual, emotional and financial abuse in a now-famous letter written by eight former devotees. Lakar has not denied any of the allegations. After Lakar stepped down, Rigpa International commissioned an independent investigation that found the allegations to be credible and advised that Lakar be barred from all contact with Rigpa students.
The Christmas letter by Khyentse Norbu (Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse) minimizes the allegations against Lakar and suggests that critics of how Rigpa has handled the crisis are personally dissatisfied, are thirsting “for Rigpa’s ultimate destruction”, and intent on discrediting Buddhism in general.
Norbu was appointed as an advisor to the Vision Board after more than a year of vigorously supporting Lakar following the publication of the allegations. A month after the letter from “The Eight”, Norbu posted an essay in support of Lakar and Rigpa management. It was shared over a thousand times on Facebook. The essay, which Norbu insists must be read in its ten-thousand-word-entirety to fully grasp its wisdom, was lauded by his students around the world as a nuanced defence of the version of Tantric Buddhism proffered by Lakar and himself. In it, he criticized the letter-writers for their lack of spiritual maturity and loyalty.
“Frankly,” he wrote,
for a student of Sogyal Rinpoche who has consciously received abhisheka and therefore entered or stepped onto the Vajrayana path, to think of labelling Sogyal Rinpoche’s actions as ‘abusive,’ or to criticize a Vajrayana master even privately, let alone publicly and in print, or simply to reveal that such methods exist, is a breakage of samaya.1)“Abhisheka” indicates a Tantric initiation that binds the student to the teacher through a strict code of allegiance called “samaya”. Consequences of breaking samaya include rebirth in torturous realms.
In October, Norbu went further, and mocked the victims of Lakar, and all other victims of clerical sexual abuse. In a post he has since tried to delete, he presented a sixteen-page spoof contract produced by “Bender and Boner Lawyers” designed to ensure Rinpoches like himself “who desire to save all sentient beings yet also wish to have fulfilling sex lives” can do so with their students.
Lama Tsultrim Allione denounced the post.
Norbu’s Christmas letter, reprinted below, characterizes the allegations of criminal wrongdoing against Lakar as administrative faux-pas:
“Sogyal Rinpoche appears,” Norbu writes, “to have mishandled, mismanaged and misread a number of events.”
The letter also conflates criticism of Rigpa’s handling of the abuse crisis with criticism of Buddhism in general, while suggesting that those who think critically about Lakar or Rigpa are somehow not discerning practitioners.
“I can’t help but feel frustrated,” Norbu writes, “when I hear that Buddhadharma is being labelled a ‘cult’. Perhaps more than any other world religion, Buddhadharma actively encourages its followers to apply critical thinking to everything it teaches.”
Norbu also offers high praise for those “Western” Rigpa students who are maintaining their loyalty.
His compassion for international students, however, remains selective.
More than a year after posting his satirical sex contract, he posted the following 4chan-flavoured troll video targeting his critics, complete with Tibetan throat-chanting in the background.
Text of Letter
Letter from Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche to the Rigpa Sangha
Dear Followers of the Rigpa Mandala, who have taken Guru Padmasambhava as their refuge in this life, the next life and the bardo states.2)Guru Padmasambhava is said to have brought Buddhism to Tibet from India in the 8th century. His archetypal legend, which involves civilizing a hostile climate and subduing local demons, is a favourite amongst Tibetan evangelists today. The “bardo” refers to the liminal realm inhabited by beings after death and before rebirth.
I write to you with a heart full of warmth and jubilation. There is no need for us to dwell on the rough and precarious road that the Rigpa Sangha has been traveling recently, but I must confess that for a while I wondered if you would manage to stick together. Now I realize that my doubts were the symptom of a kind of cultural conditioning that made me skeptical about whether westerners are even capable of grasping the Dharma, let alone that you possess the resilience and persistence to continue to follow the spiritual path in the face of such turmoil.
Make no mistake, we are in a very difficult situation. History has shown us that when faced with similar crises – both in the East and the West – whole Sanghas, lineages and institutions have became demoralized and discouraged. Some became so disheartened that they now no longer exist.
For many reasons – some known, some unknown – Sogyal Rinpoche appears to have mishandled, mismanaged and misread a number of events. This is why we find ourselves in the current situation. Yet, from what I hear, far from falling apart, the Rigpa Sangha is alive and well. Not only do you continue to function as an organization, but you still practise together and, in spite of all the uncertainty, you have maintained the continuity. How have you managed it? As I contemplate this question, I always remember one very important aspect of Rigpa: that Sogyal Rinpoche introduced an enormous number of people to a great and authentic lineage of teachings and to some of the most remarkable, learned and realized teachers of our time. You then thought about and contemplated everything you were taught and, as a result, have realized that there is much more to Buddhism in general and the Vajrayana in particular, than just one person. So the contemplation, study and all those introductions have borne fruit, and will continue to bear fruit long into the future.
Never forget that ours is a path that not only cherishes but also strongly encourages its followers to prepare themselves through ‘hearing and contemplation’ before they engage in any of the practices. The path of the Vajrayana is no exception. I can’t help but feel frustrated when I hear that Buddhadharma is being labelled a ‘cult’. Perhaps more than any other world religion, Buddhadharma actively encourages its followers to apply critical thinking to everything it teaches. By hearing, contemplating and analysing the Dharma, we develop an unshakable trust and devotion for the path. This must be what the Rigpa Sangha must have done because all over the world, despite of a roller-coaster eighteen months, you continue to gather together on the 10th day for the Guru Rinpoche tsok, the 25th day for the Dakini tsok, and for daily Riwo Sangchö, Tendrel Nyesel and Vajrakilaya practices. This suggests that somewhere along the way, you must have realized that the Buddhadharma is not just the Vajrayana and that the Vajrayana is not just a person called Sogyal Rinpoche. You must also have realized how much wisdom there is in the Buddhadharma and how many skilful means it offers to help both oneself and others. This is how you, as a Sangha, have kept the spirit of Rigpa alive. It is also why Rigpa hasn’t fallen apart. And for me, if this is not confirmation that the Dharma has taken root in the West, that firm foundations have been laid and that the Dharma in general, and especially the Vajrayana, are now sprouting shoots, I don’t know what is.
At the same time, I know that many of you are confused, disappointed, even desperate and depressed. And who wouldn’t be in such a situation? What’s impressive, though, is that however wretched you feel, you have all remained devoted to the path of Shakyamuni Buddha.
When any system is transplanted to a new place and culture – political, commercial, educational or religious – it often faces innumerable difficulties and challenges for a very long time before it can be said to be firmly established. This is doubly true for the sacred path of the Dharma. No one ever said that following a spiritual path was going to be easy! The teachings are full of information about potential obstacles that will continually test a practitioner’s character, especially in the Vajrayana.
At this point, I would like to encourage all of you to continue to listen to and contemplate the Buddhadharma. In fact, I would like to request that you never stop listening to and contemplating the Dharma, particularly the Vajrayana, because by doing so, you will come to realize that it is utterly flawless. The more you listen and contemplate with an open mind, the more confident you will become about the path. As your confidence in the path and its result increases, even surrendering to a guru and following the path of the guru will become the exact opposite of precarious! In other words, what had seemed to be a risky path will instead be safe and secure.
Most of the Rigpa Sangha are practitioners of the Vajrayana, so undoubtedly, you will have taken the bodhisattva vow. As followers of the bodhisattvayana path, you know that your path is the path of long-term planning – in this case, your plan or aspiration is to enlighten all sentient beings. You also know that bodhisattvas mean what they say, so this aspiration is not just some kind of a feel-good fantasy. And having taken the bodhisattva vow, you know that the big vision of the bodhisattva path is to propagate, preserve and introduce the Buddhadharma to all those who have a karmic connection with it.
Rigpa has been a very effective vehicle for Buddhadharma. Through Rigpa, a great many people have been introduced to the Dharma. You should continue this activity. Never imagine that the propagation and preservation of the Dharma is the job of just one person. I have always considered Rigpa to be very important in terms of upholding, preserving and introducing the Dharma to the western world. I still see it that way, now more than ever. Each and every Rigpa student should bear this in mind. Of course, I don’t mean that you should all take on teaching roles! Rather that Rigpa’s network of Dharma centres around the world should continue to provide everything students and practitioners need to study and practice the Dharma, including a good teaching programme through which those who are interested can meet authentic Dharma teachers. Basically, that Rigpa continues to provide a vessel that creates the causes and conditions through which the Dharma is upheld, preserved and introduced for the benefit of all, now and for years to come. This activity is so important and it also sends out all the right signals.
Yes, Rigpa’s image has been tarnished over the past year or so. But for decades many of Rigpa’s activities earned it a good and wholesome reputation. Rigpa’s positive, beneficial contributions to the Dharma far outweigh the bad, so it would be silly to dwell on the difficulties. Instead, we must look at what we can learn from this situation, correct the misunderstandings and errors, and make Rigpa even better. This is what the bodhisattvayana path is all about. Bodhisattvas of the past have gone to extraordinary lengths to help sentient beings – some crossed oceans of fire and others willingly leapt into the hell realms in order to preserve the Dharma and for the sake of helping others. In the light of such heroism and valour, will we allow ourselves to be daunted by a few avoidable obstacles that are entirely transformable?
Many of you have taken the Vajrayana to heart. And despite everything that has happened, many of you also continue to feel an unwavering devotion for your master, Sogyal Rinpoche. This is your choice. If you choose to follow the Vajrayana path of your own free will, sensibly, soberly and with the utmost devotion – basically, if you know exactly what you are doing – all I can say is that I rejoice at your decision and am full of admiration for you. Other people may criticize your devotion for Sogyal Rinpoche, but their approval of your path is far less important than your decision to follow it.
There have been, are, and always will be people whose sense of personal dissatisfaction leads them to oppose, slander and, I dare say, even thirst for Rigpa’s ultimate destruction. Instead of wishing such people ill, we must always remember that we are followers of the Buddha. We must therefore feel compassion for all those who stand against us and try to understand the cause of their pain – especially if they were once our Dharma brothers and sisters. Try to embrace them with compassion and pure perception. And rest assured, if their pursuit of the Dharma is genuine, sooner or later they will see the truth and find a path back.
Yours in Devotion to Guru Padmasambhava,
Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche
25 December 2018
References [ + ]
|1.||↑||“Abhisheka” indicates a Tantric initiation that binds the student to the teacher through a strict code of allegiance called “samaya”. Consequences of breaking samaya include rebirth in torturous realms.|
|2.||↑||Guru Padmasambhava is said to have brought Buddhism to Tibet from India in the 8th century. His archetypal legend, which involves civilizing a hostile climate and subduing local demons, is a favourite amongst Tibetan evangelists today. The “bardo” refers to the liminal realm inhabited by beings after death and before rebirth.|
Credible sources say a petition letter (copied below) is being circulated amongst the inner circles of the Rigpa International organization, and is gathering signatures of support. It has been translated into English, most likely from Dutch.
The petition letter asks for the Rigpa “Vision Board” to reinstall Sogyal Lakar (aka Sogyal Rinpoche) as the public spiritual guide for the organization.
The petition letter lists seventeen original signatories. Emails to six of these signatories requesting comment have gone unanswered. The names have been redacted in the copy below, pending a response.
A source says that most of the signatories make up part of a core practice group at Rigpa’s Lerab Ling temple, located in southern France.
Rigpa’s Vision Board took over organizational leadership in August of 2017, after Lakar was forced to retire following accusations of physical, sexual, emotional and financial abuses brought against him by eight former devotees in an open letter published a month earlier.
The petition letter asks for Lakar to be effectively reinstalled as spiritual figurehead of Rigpa. It uses the language of inclusivity to argue that Rigpa students who “don’t have a problem” with the abuse allegations against Lakar are now unfairly marginalized because of the controversy.
The petition letter rebuffs the recommendations made by a recent independent investigation into the allegations, commissioned by Rigpa. The investigation, conducted by the London law firm Lewis Silkin, confirmed that Sogyal Lakar committed “serious physical, sexual, and emotional abuse” and that for decades, senior Rigpa management enabled Lakar’s behaviors and “failed to address them, leaving others at risk.”
The first recommendation of the 50-page report was that “Sogyal Lakar should not take part in any future event organised by Rigpa or otherwise have contact with its students” and that Rigpa should “disassociate itself from Sogyal Lakar as fully as possible. Following the independent investigation, Rigpa issued a statement that said, “Rigpa commits to act upon the report’s recommendations.”
The petition letter ignores the recommendations, saying, “…we continue to have full confidence in Sogyal Rinpoche. We will always take him to be our root teacher…”
It makes no concrete suggestions as to what Lakar’s rehabilitation within the organization would look like. Lakar, 71, has recently received treatment for colon cancer.
The Dalai Lama has repeatedly spoken out in the last 18 months about Lakar’s abusive behavior and Rigpa’s exploitation of students.
The Vision Board, to whom the petition letter is addressed, is staffed by five non-Tibetan devotees, and advised by three Tibetan lamas.
One of the lamas is Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche, who mocked the eight original complainants in October 2017 with a satirical “Sex Contract” that would purportedly secure consent from devotees for various sex acts with their teachers. More recently, he trolled Rohingya refugees with a rambling letter of praise for Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi.
Another Vision Board lama is Khenchen Namdrol Rinpoche, who gave a speech at Lerab Ling in September condemning the eight letter writers, suggesting they are possessed by demonic spirits. The speech was live-translated for a cheering audience by Shambhala Publications author Sangye Khandro (Nancy Gay Gustafson).
A source says that most of the signatories are part of the “Lerab Ling Practicing Sangha.” The Practicing Sangha was formed at Lerab Ling after its founding in 1992 and are distinguished by their high degree of loyalty and devotion to Lakar.
Lerab Ling functions as the organization’s administrative and spiritual headquarters. It was home to Sogyal Lakar before he fled French authorities after accusations against him were first made public. In May 2018 French police raided Lerab Ling as part of an ongoing investigation in Lakar’s abuse. Rigpa and Lerab Ling temple were both suspended by the French Buddhist Union following the open letter by the eight original complainants.
Lerab Ling continues to host programmes for both the public and dedicated Rigpa students. The next public event, “Living in Harmony with what Really Matters”, is scheduled for over the holidays.
In the summers, the centre also hosts Buddhist camps for children and teens.
A letter to the Vision Board about our concerns regarding the current direction.
Firstly. Thank you for all you do to preserve the Dharma and Sangha. We are so happy to be part of the effort you have made so far to take care of those in the Rigpa Sangha who have been hurt. Sangha unity is foremost in our minds as advised – for us it means a Sangha where each and every member is allowed to hold views and openly practice as we believe in.
It has been more than a year of healing and the direction we now seem to be heading, is of concern to us. The profile of retreats and courses that are being promoted and views being held are of concern to us.
We now feel that slowly, the needs of those in the Sangha who don’t have a problem is perhaps being over-looked or just not highlighted. We worry that by continuing to remain quiet in order to give space to our dharma siblings who were hurt, might indeed be mis-construed to mean we hold the same views.
So this letter is to state that we continue to have full confidence in Sogyal Rinpoche. We will always take him to be our root teacher and we bring this body of students to your kind attention. We request to be provided forums where we are able to openly express our devotion and practice the lineage of which Sogyal Rinpoche is an integral part. The peaceful co-existence of these events together with the ones already taking place will make for real sangha inclusivity.
The question of spiritual integrity is of concern to us. No matter how noble a reason, we believe there are certain lines which cannot be crossed. Commitments and rules for students following the path of Dzogchen is one of them. What we hear to be occurring at Dzogchen retreats is of great concern to us.
In the same vein, we have full confidence that you will hold any rules and commitments that pertain all level of the spiritual path – Vinaya, Mahayana, Vajrayana – in their entirety and not make them flexible to accommodate varying views and conveniences. We will be grateful if you continue to uphold spiritual integrity above and beyond the success of an organization.
Thirdly and most importantly.
The upholding of the spiritual lineage carried through by Sogyal Rinpoche. For us, we believe what differentiates Dharma centres is their spiritual lineage. At Rigpa we had the greatest fortune to be blessed with the lineage of the unsurpassed Dzogpa-chenpo. This is our crown jewel, our greatest blessing, our glory -which sets us apart from any other centre. Most importantly it our gift to give the world, for all sentient beings and the future of Dharma. This most precious gift – the greatest of compassions – we can only give if we have it ourselves.
We believe that this is a living lineage of blessing, transmitted person to person and it is embodied in the person of Sogyal Rinpoche as an irreplaceable link in this chain. And it is simply not possible to uphold this lineage without him being squarely at the centre of it. Hence it is unclear to us how we can preserve this our most precious possession in the current direction of barely being able to say his name.
Thank you again for all you do. We hope that together we will be able to exit this period of difficulty – stronger and wiser – and continue to keep Rigpa as the gift it is to the world.
[names of 17 signatories]
On October 17th, eight Shambhala students chosen by the Transition Task Force to form an Interim Board of Directors were sworn into service for a twelve month period.
The move comes as the global neo-Buddhist organization navigates allegations of sexual assault committed by its spiritual leader, Ösel Mukpo, also known as Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche.
The allegations against Mukpo were first publicized by Buddhist Project Sunshine in February. BPS is headed up by Andrea Winn, a life-long Shambhala member, along with independent investigator Carol Merchasin. The team’s three reports also contain allegations of intergenerational and institutional abuse within the organization, which was founded by Mukpo’s father, Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, in 1971.
The revelations have shaken Shambhala International to the core, triggering the resignation of its Board and forcing Mukpo to step down from his administrative role. Recent financial reports show that the organization, which posted 18M in North American revenue in 2017, is now in financial crisis. Some local centres, including the one in New York City, will soon be closing.
Winn’s team, along with the women who provided their testimony, also prompted Shambhala to commission its own independent investigation, led by the Halifax firm Wickwire Holm. Some community members have doubted the impartiality of the investigation and its gag order on complainants.
According to its new website, the Interim Board is charged with several tasks, including keeping the crippled organization solvent, coordinating international affairs, and communicating the results of Shambhala’s collaboration with An Olive Branch, an American Zen-based group that consults on ethics policies for Buddhist groups.
The website also states that the Interim Board will “Release to the community as much of the Wickwire Holm report as is legally and ethically possible while respecting confidentiality.”
The report is due out in early January. In early December, the Interim Board will convene in Halifax, where they plan to meet with Mukpo.
Additionally, the Interim Board is to keep Mukpo “apprised” of their work, “even though he is not responding to any administrative aspects of Shambhala or the Interim Board.”
The installation of the Interim Board required that members swear this oath:
While highly unusual for any not-for-profit, this oath is consistent with Shambhala’s culture and mythology, which posits that members are living in, aspiring to live in, or trying to manifest an enlightened world, parallel to this one, governed by supernatural beings.
The “Rigden” to which Interim Board members are bowing is an archetypal ruler of that world, linked to the divine realms described in medieval Tibetan tantric literature. (The lede image for this article is of an incomplete painting of the “Primordial Ridgen”. The image is featured on many Shambhala Centre altars around the world.)
“Dorje Dradül” is an epithet for Chögyam Trungpa, who died of alcoholism in 1987, and was believed to be in telepathic communication with the rigdens.
“Kongma Sakyong, Jampal Trinley Dradül, and the Sakyong Wangmo, Dechen Chöying Sangmo” are epithets for Ösel Mukpo, Trungpa’s son and business heir, and his wife, Semo Tseyang Palmo. The term “dralas” refers to the embodied nature spirits that were a feature of Tibetan indigenous religion, prior to the arrival of Indian Buddhism in the 8th century.
The Interim Board was appointed by the Transition Task Force, led by senior Trungpa devotees, including Pema Chödrön. It is comprised of long-term Shambhala students and leaders, including the Chair of the Shastri (teachers) Council, a former President of Naropa University (founded by Trungpa in 1976), and a feminist anthropologist and psychotherapist who will teach at Naropa beginning in 2019.
Three of the Interim Board members are also practitioners of the “Scorpion Seal”, an initiated ritual meditation said to be divinely received by Chögyam Trungpa, and later revealed by his son. Part of the ritual, which is kept secret, involves visualizing the Mukpos as enlightened beings, as seen in this more introductory practice.
On their website, the Interim Board asserts that “We are especially sensitive to resisting a top-down approach that seeks to polish or smooth over harm that has already occurred.”
However, they did not respond to a request for comment on how they planned to impartially oversee the investigation of Mukpo, given their religious commitments to him as leader.
“Feminist-Informed” Ashtanga and “Trauma-Informed” Kundalini: How Cultic Deception Can Harm Academics and Therapists
High-demand groups hurt members and their families directly in physical, emotional, and financial ways.
That harm is contagious.
In this post I’ll look at two instances in which the primary tactic of the high-demand group — deception — radiates harm outward, wasting the time, resources, and emotional labour of well-meaning people who come into contact with the group and wind up promoting it, even as it belies their values. One comes from academia, and the other comes from the mental health world.
The 2016 article “Yoga As Embodied Feminist Praxis: Trauma, Healing, and Community Based Responses to Violence” (1) by Beth Catlett and Mary Bunn is built on meticulous fieldwork that assesses the efficacy of yoga programming in communities living with and recovering from violence. Bunn’s contribution comes from her work with Project Air, a non-profit bringing services including yoga instruction to HIV-infected survivors of the Rwandan genocide. Catlett’s focus is on the Urban Yogis programme for marginalized youth in Queens, New York.
Urban Yogis, as Catlett and Bunn report, is co-directed by an anti-violence activist named Erica Ford, and Eddie Stern of Ashtanga New York. Interviews with Stern and time spent in his service classes impressed the scholars with his humility and altruism, and dispelled their reservations about whether the patriarchal structure of Ashtanga Yoga could really serve a pro-social mission.
“Our engagement with the Urban Yogis program,” they conclude,
“has inspired a confidence that a feminist-informed social justice orientation to community engagement emphasizing ethics of care, commitment, shared power, and mutual political vision is indeed possible.”(2)
Had Catlett, Bunn, and their editors known about the active and unresolved abuse history in Ashtanga yoga when they began their research? If they had known, would they have chosen to highlight an Ashtanga yoga community in a book about feminist-oriented social values?
By email, the scholars vigorously confirmed they hadn’t known.
“Our starting point,” they wrote,
is always to listen to, and take seriously, the voices/experiences of those who have experienced violence and abuse — this is the way that we can learn about the ways that power operates in institutions, and these voices are important to inform our work to dismantle unjust systems of power, privilege, and oppression within such institutions.
We knew nothing of these experiences of sexual assault, abuse, and harassment at the writing of our chapter, and therefore, this new information about the abuse of power within the ashtanga community is something with which we will have to grapple as our work moves forward.
But why didn’t they know? Was the research naïve, overcredulous? Perhaps. But it’s also true that certain high-demand nodes of the Ashtanga yoga world hid crucial facts.
Stern himself plays a role in that story through his editorship of the propagandistic book Guruji: A Portrait of Sri K Pattabhi Jois Through the Eyes of His Students, The volume’s co-editor, Guy Donahaye, recently distanced himself from the book, writing:
Since his death, Guruji has been elevated to a position of sainthood. Part of this promotion has been due to the book of interviews I collected and published with Eddie Stern… which paints a positive picture of his life and avoids exploring the issues of injury and sexual assault. In emphasizing only positive stories it has done more to cement the idea that he was a perfect yogi, which he clearly was not.
By burnishing his image, we make it unassailable — it makes us doubt the testimony of those he abused. This causes further harm to those whose testimony we deny and to ourselves.
How then, does Stern become cited as a facilitator of “feminist-informed social justice” in the yoga world? How does he come to occupy that space to the exclusion of one of the hundreds of people, mostly women, that have been teaching consent-based trauma-sensitive yoga to at-risk populations for years?
Consider the enthusiastic undergrad and Master’s students who will read Catlett and Bunn’s essay and come away with a partial view of the method and community under discussion. Will there be a correction issued? Who will see it?
And how will Jois’s victims feel about reading feminist academic accolades to their former male colleague who has yet to publicly acknowledge the abuse? Months of fieldwork by two feminist scholars are now of questionable value, not because they don’t have productive observations to contribute about yoga service in general, but because their good will was confounded.
Trauma and addictions recovery specialist Gabor Maté works closely with a Canadian organization called Beyond Addiction, which offers a yoga-based training programme “for individuals seeking to develop healthy habits and overcome addictive behaviour, for health professionals and yoga teachers who work with addiction.”
The yoga community providing content for the program is 3HO: the “Happy, Healthy, and Holy” organization founded by Yogi Bhajan in 1969. Recent scholarship has shown that Bhajan’s postmodern “Kundalini” blend of Tantric Yoga and Sikhism has few historical roots in any stream of Indian wisdom tradition, despite the community’s lofty claims.
More importantly, anyone who Googles “3HO abuse” will find that the organization settled two lawsuits against Bhajan, including one case of rape and confinement brought by a woman who entered his harem of “secretaries” at age eleven.
Did Maté do a basic background check on the organization he’s promoting to his platform of 100K Facebook followers? Should he be concerned that a person with a trauma load might come to one of his 3HO-related trainings, do that Google search halfway through it, see that the Kundalini instructors he’s collaborating with still quote Yogi Bhajan without reservation? Should he be concerned if that person feels both triggered and betrayed?
“Dr. Maté is well aware of the possibility and actuality of abuse in any spiritual or medical culture,” wrote his assistant in response to an emailed request for comment.
That’s just not good enough.
Bottom line: if you’re going to platform a yoga community, method, or personality — especially with the altruistic intention of using those resources to help vulnerable people — do your research. Prepare to find out that that community, method, or personality has likely failed its vulnerable members and followers — and in the worst cases, traumatized them.
Then: work out how you’re going to relate to that community, method, or personality with transparency, integrity, and justice, in such a way that the patterns of harm, enabling, or bypassing stops with you.
(1) In Berila, Beth, et al. Yoga, the Body, and Embodied Social Change: an Intersectional Feminist Analysis. Lexington Books, 2016. 259-275.
(2) Ibid. 267.
On Saturday, August 4th, senior Shambhala International teacher Judith Simmer-Brown gave a talk in Boulder as part of a series called “Conversations That Matter”. The title was “Caring for Community,” and it was structured around a set of slogans called “The Four Reliances”, which are meant to help Buddhist practitioners separate out mundane and spiritual concerns.
In this context, the slogans were offered to help Shambhala practitioners in particular renew their commitment to the group’s ideas and practices, in the midst of continuing revelations of abuse within the group itself. They advise the practitioner to see immediate and obvious circumstances — and their interpretation of those circumstances — as ephemeral (or at best instrumental to a higher purpose) and to develop a depersonalized, non-judgmental, and non-verbal devotion to the group’s content.
The “Four Reliances”, featured in several Buddhist texts dating back to the first century CE, are:
- Do not rely on the personality or individuality of the teacher. Rely on the Dharma teachings themselves.
- Do not rely on the literal words. Rely on the meaning of the teachings.
- Do not rely on merely provisional teachings. Rely on the definitive or ultimate teachings.
- Do not rely on conceptual mind. Rely on the nondual wisdom of experience.
The presentation series is hosted by the group’s flagship Center, founded in 1970 by Chögyam Trungpa. Simmer-Brown’s talk was livestreamed for members of the public who registered via the Zoom platform. I registered under my own name, and recorded the event. No copyright notice or privacy request was posted.
Appropriating a popular concept from trauma-recovery discourse, Simmer-Brown explained that her talk would offer “foundational things that we need to know in order to be resilient practitioners.” In the Q&A that followed, she suggested that such resilience could be nurtured by the activities of the very group that had caused the trauma. “Our confusion and pain,” she told one questioner,” might drive us more deeply into practice.”
The appeal from group leaders to double down on group practice in the face of group abuse is a common theme in the crisis responses of yoga and dharma organizations. When the news of Pattabhi Jois’s decades of sexual assaults on his women students began to go mainstream, a common insider response was to repeat Jois’s most famous aphorism: “Practice, and all is coming.”
As the Shambhala foundations shake, many devotees are likewise relying on beloved sayings of Trungpa, such as: “The essence of warriorship, or the essence of human bravery, is refusing to give up on anyone or anything.” (the recent remarks of Susan Piver, as well as Pema Chödron’s 1993 and 2011 responses to Trungpa’s own abuses. Continue reading “Judith Simmer-Brown to Distraught Shambhala Members: “Practice More.” (Notes and Transcript)”A similar theme grounds