Senior Students of Yogi Bhajan Give a Master Class on Abuse Minimization and Deflection, and Carrying On
Abuse crisis statements from senior teachers in yoga groups provide a rich vein of data for research. By laying bare the mechanisms by which a high-demand group and its beneficiaries protect themselves under stress, they also reveal the foundational tools upon which the group’s relationships are built.
These statements, delivered as sombre reaffirmations of faith, strip everything down to the bone and show what’s really operational: what got the group going, what kept it alive, what will persist —and perhaps glow brighter — through fire and famine. In times of uncertainty and stress, judges fall back on the law, lawmakers fall back on constitutional documents, and doctors fall back on basics like sanitation and hydration. High-demand group leaders have little to fall back on but habit, myth, and pious affect.
I’ve written about the formal rules of these statements here. I’ve also analyzed specific statements from Susan Piver and Judith Simmer-Brown of Shambhala International, and most recently from Reggie Ray of the now-defunct Dharma Ocean organization.
This one comes from Satya Kaur and Shiv Charan Singh of the Karam Kriya School in Portugal. They are responding to the publication of Pamela Dyson’s memoir, in which she describes 3HO founder Yogi Bhajan abusing her. They also hint that they are responding to ongoing revelations make in the Facebook group dedicated to her book.
Like anyone I can google Singh’s bio, but I don’t know anything about these teachers personally: their backgrounds, how they teach, how they’re regarded by their students. I’m also relatively uneducated in the byzantine details of the global “Kundalini Yoga as Taught by Yogi Bhajan” network, which consists of several intersecting institutions and multinational businesses — some of which, like Akal Security — are overwhelmingly wealthy and powerful. So I’ll limit my annotations of the transcript below to the structural elements that are clear to me as outside observer and high-demand group researcher. I’ll ask some questions that are often invisible to the indoctrinated.
The original video was posted to YouTube on February 28, 2020. I’m archiving it here for preservation, because these statements often deleted as the crisis deepens, and they come to be seen as additional evidence of institutional abuse.
What are the directors of the Karam Kriya School. I’m Satya Kaur and Shiv Charan Singh. The Karam Kriya School is one of the main teacher training schools in the world, training, Kundalini teachers at level one and two.
The opening positions the speakers as qualified representatives of the culture. However, it also identifies them as beneficiaries of the culture’s branding and teaching content. Everything that follows can therefore be considered through the framework of what they have to lose socially and financially in the current abuse crisis. This will not be mentioned.
So for this reason, a lot of people look up to us as to what we have to say. What is our opinion, what is our stance in relation to what’s going on in the Kundalini yoga world.
Note how the language shifts here. After claiming centrality as informants, they now have a separate “stance in relation to” the culture. They are both inside and outside.
And as many of you are watching this are aware of, there’s been some recent allegations as to what Yogi Bhajan did and how he conducted himself towards certain people when he was alive. Talking about some 40 30, 20 years ago.
“Allegations” is a dogwhistle term for “claims to be doubted or tested in court.” But what they are really referring to is Pamela Dyson’s comprehensive first-person account of sixteen years of Yogi Bhajan sexually, psychologically, and financially abusing her. Note that the content is not only detailed, but is immediately diminished by vague dating.
It’s not the first time there’s allegations of been made. They’ve just, everything has come up to the surface again.
Wait. What? This would be a good moment to explain what happened the last time(s). The speaker here is framing reports of institutional abuse as if it were periodic or cyclical bad weather, instead of the systematic suppression of voices and obscuration of patterns.
Because of the publication of a book of one of his early students called Premka Kaur. So we both had the good fortune of Yogi Bhajan when he was alive and learning directly with him. As far as I’m concerned, none of these allegations, or what’s coming out and the reactions that masses of people are having doesn’t change in any way the way I see Yogi Bhajan as a great teacher and master and my relationship with the teachings that he generously and profusely shared, which have impacted my life and impacted so many people’s lives in the world. So for that I’m eternally grateful.
This is as succinct and shameless an I-Got-Mineism statement as we’re likely to ever see. The speaker’s affirmation of “good fortune” instantly frames testimony against him as ungrateful or ignorant. The conflation of testimony with reactions to it put both into the category of chatter. “Reactions” itself is a dogwhistle dharmasplaining term: yoga practitioners are not supposed to be reactive. The sombre somatics of the speakers model a “non-reactive” affect for the viewer.
From the beginning for myself. And also for you it was clear that the focus was on the teaching on the practice and not necessarily on, Yogi Bhajan. He’s the master, he was the postman, as I’ve said, or the channel.
A major theme initiates here: Bhajan the man was not really important. What he carried was. His body, personality, identity — all unimportant.
What this theme begins to do is to erase the bodies, personalities, and identities of those who testify he abused them. Because if Bhajan’s body, personality, identity and actions are not important in relation to his holy teachings, neither are their impacts. Survivors describe the teachings being used to obscure his actions, but it’s the actions themselves, flowing from his body, personality, and identity that abused people.
And I look over the years and see how people have very much idealized or glorified Yogi Bhajan as representing, you know, their higher sense of self, the highest self or that you know, their aspiration of, of a great being projected that onto him. For me that was never really necessary and never the case.
The speaker here elevates himself above all survivors, dissidents, and complainants, by explaining that he really got it. He wasn’t fooled by idolatry. Notice the infantilization here: students were naive to project greatness onto Bhajan.
However, lower down, Shiv will reassert that the yoga he teaches must continue to be branded as “Kundalini Yoga as taught by Yogi Bhajan.” This is one of many dual messages in the statement: It’s not about Bhajan, but it’s all about Bhajan. Further: it’s not about Bhajan when we’re talking about abuse, but it’s all about Bhajan when we’re talking about the “technology”.
Anyway for myself he pointed to the Guru Granth Sahib really as as the guru. And so that was always my primary reference to the technology. And he was always a great, uh, gave so much insight to understand the teachings of the guru and the ancient teachings of yoga that came from thousands of years and he gave his, his, um, the spectrum on that. So the, the people are crying about it’s time to end the personality cult. Some people maybe have that issue.
The claim that Bhajan is not important is now substantiated with the claim that the Guru Granth Sahib is the real focal point of Kundalini Practice. My limited understanding is that the Guru Granth Sahib is the master-compendium of Sikh teachings that also records the lineage tree of Gurus going back to the 15th century. The book is accorded a kind of śruti status, going beyond narrative and argumentation to embody the living tradition itself.
I don’t personally know how to evaluate Shiv’s claim; what’s important to know is that the putative connection between Kundalini Yoga and traditional Sikhism is vigorously contested by some Punjabi Sikhs, and increasingly by 3HO dissidents.
The speaker presents the Guru Granth Sahib as not only the real reference point for Bhajan’s content, but also the source for the “technology” of the practice. “Technology” is a distancing word, like “software”, seemingly separate or separable from the systems that run it — in this case, the social system that runs Kundalini techniques.
The speaker’s quiet affect conceals punishing patronization. “Some people maybe have that issue,” he says, referring to the “cult of personality” that is the real problem — not the fact that Bhajan was a real leader with lasting impacts on people’s lives.
I think there’s a, there’s a difference between those people who are very close to him on a very regular basis in the United States and Canada and Mexico perhaps. And those of us who are in Europe who are, who have the opportunity to sit and learn with him maybe once or twice a year. So we were much more independent of what was going on in his daily life. And we had our own way of relating to the teachings much more directly rather than via Yogi Bhajan as a teacher personality or filter.
This is not uncommon as a distancing technique during an abuse crisis: to claim that one was always on the periphery, that they maintained good boundaries, and therefore always had a healthy perspective that they have presumably taught from ever since. This has been notable in abuse crises I’ve studied and published on in Ashtanga, Iyengar, Shambhala, and Rigpa communities. The overall effect is to foreclose discussion of systemic abuses involving enablement, bystanding, intergenerational abuse, moral injury and secondary trauma, and to paint the abuse of a leader as a bad apple that can be plucked out of the bushel.
Notice the casual, Euro-pompous slagging of Americans.
I recognize that for those people who have come forward, especially recently, such as Premka and others since her, uh, and who have disclosed their experiences of private time with Yogi Bhajan and they disclosed the hurt and the sense that of the exploitation that they were subject to, then I acknowledge.
Very mixed language here. “Private time with Yogi Bhajan” sounds at first like a special privilege that the victims misunderstood. What is actually being described by Dyson and Katherine Felt is abuse perpetrated because the victim is isolated. “Hurt” is also euphemistic, and the passive of construction of “that they were subject to” is also noteworthy.
This is a healing process and that’s to be treated with respect and as to be, um, honor the courage to come out and say things as they were as they are. I acknowledge that as that’s a good thing that these things have come out, that there’s no secrets, there’s no taboos. There’s no, silencing of women’s voices. I think this is very important. And, um, and if with it comes like a breakdown of an illusion and if there’s a shattering of projections that were you know, throwing to onto Yogi Bhajan that he was, he was beyond this, it was beyond that. If this kind of illusions are broken and if the raw reality comes through, I think this is a fantastic, uh, fantastic times, fantastic opportunity to, um, come closer to the reality to see things more clearly. And to grow up.
Instead of contemplating and absorbing the reality of criminal actions perpetrated by her guru, the speaker proposes that the principle of disclosure (as opposed to the content) is potentially a new spiritual gift. That Dyson and others are not silent anymore is good for the group, not because the group now knows that the founder was an abuser, but because now the group can engage a deeper level of illusion-smashing. Satya is coming close to arguing that the abuse crisis is a good thing — not for the survivors, but for the group itself, because it will presumably allow those members who expected there not to be abuse in a spiritual group to “grow up”. The abuse crisis, in other words, doesn’t reveal criminality and fraud, but how true adults will respond to criminality and fraud.
And also to not turn those projections onto any other teacher, male or female, you know that teacher is just the teacher, messenger and the teachings are beyond that. And the other questions that people are inquiring about, like the Golden Chain for example, you know, is it still, is it still a valid, yeah. And suddenly our understanding is that the Golden Chain…
…is the Golden Chain, is the Golden Chain.
Big pause here. What is the “Golden Chain”? Unlike the Guru Granth Sahib, the Golden Chain is a fictitious legitimization reference. It’s the epithet that Bhajan and the group has used to claim that his teaching content has passed through the ancient system of experiential testing that is Indian wisdom culture. All we need to know about this is that it’s a bullshit idea, deconstructed by the polite but razor-like scholarship of ex-member Philip Deslippe in his groundbreaking 2012 article, “From Maharaj to Mahan Tantric: The Construction of Yogi Bhajan’s Kundalini Yoga.”
“For the students of Yogi Bhajan,” Deslippe writes,
the history of Sant Hazara Singh [Bhajan’s putative guru, for which there is scant material evidence] is more than a matter of simple genealogy or lineage. Yogi Bhajan taught that that in Kundalini Yoga the link that stretched back to antiquity from student to teacher formed the ‘GoldenChain’. Every time Kundalini Yoga is practiced, whether privately or in a public class, the mantra ‘Ong Namo Guru Dev Namo’ is intoned three times to ‘tune in’ to this Golden Chain and to be guided and protected by it (Khalsa 1996, 14). Sant Hazara Singh is the only tangible person offered who precedes Yogi Bhajan in the lineage of Kundalini Yoga. The idea of the Golden Chain also helps to bolster the accepted belief in 3HO that Kundalini Yoga was an ancient practice that was forced into secrecy for centuries until Yogi Bhajan taught it openly in the West. The secrecy explains why nothing predating Yogi Bhajan seems to mention the specific details of Kundalini Yoga’s practice in the same context, while the Golden Chain of masters and their students explains how such a practice could be passed down and remain intact until the late 1960s.
But when the Golden Chain of Kundalini Yoga is investigated rather than invoked, it unravels. Within the first 2 years of 3HO is a hidden and vigorously revised history that stands in stark contrast to the accepted understanding of what Yogi Bhajan’s KundaliniYoga is and where it originated. A 3-month trip that Yogi Bhajan took to India with 84 of his students in December 1970 can be seen as the dramatic, demarcating pivot that ended the initial understanding of Yogi Bhajan’s Kundalini Yoga and birthed its current, popularly understood mythology. Instead of a single unaltered lineage, there lies a progression of forgotten and abandoned teachers, figures invented and introduced, and a process of narration and mythologizing born out of cultural context, temporal events, and pragmatic necessity.
It’s notable that not only do the speakers use circular logic to invoke (rather than investigate, as Deslippe says) the Golden Chain, they also speak the sentence together like some ouroboros of indoctrination. Circular logic is reinforced by somatic mirroring.
So that goes on and everybody can tune into it. The mantras of [mantras]. This gives us always a link to that lineage. And you might feel that link through your local teacher. You might have felt through Yogi Bhajan, you might continue to or not, but the Golden Chain continues to exist. The consciousness of Guru Ram Das prevails in this age that we live in and, and anybody can tap into that. And so the mantras are still completely valid, relevant. And the Golden Chain is a very real phenomenon if one chooses to connect with it and our commitment.
On faith alone, the Golden Chain is asserted to be real, and again linked into traditional Sikhism. But the speaker goes farther here and makes the reality of the Golden Chain contingent upon the students belief, which is compared to the teacher’s commitment. The subtext is that loss of belief will be responsible for the destruction of something thought to grant salvation. The choice to disbelieve is flagged as dangerous.
This goes further. One might say:. I don’t want to mention Yogi Bhajan in my classes. Of course you can teach a whole Kundalini class, just the kriyas and the meditation and never mention his name. But if you’re asked, you know, you’re not gonna hide and lie and pretend otherwise. That is the source of the teachings as we have them. And also, not wanting to quote Yogi Bhajan: It’s Kundalini Yoga as taught by Yogi Bhajan. Now we recognize that he may from a variety of different means gathered together his own synthesis. But kundalini yoga is thousands of years old. There’s lots of references to show that the concept of Kundalini has been, uh, known in traditional cultures throughout the world also thousands of years.
Here’s perhaps the crux of the speaker’s branding challenge. Having spent considerable energy attempting to separate the man from the teachings, the speaker must now reassemble the teachings with the brand, which happens to contain the man’s name, while also emptying that name out of its human reference. You can almost here the “TM” being attached to the name. This allows the speaker to both further separate from the relationship and stake ownership over the (now presumably neutral) content.
So clearly what Yogi Bhajan has also done here, by putting his name to it, is taking his own responsibility for the fact that he was told, “Don’t teach this or you’ll be dead in a year.” But he taught it and he survived that. So he took all his risks, put it together in the best way he felt was to serve the, the, uh, the age, the change of the age we live in. And the Western society that was, as he spoke about: all these hippies going to India, coming back with suitcases of trinkets, but no real spirituality in the inside. The fact that he came to make teachers not to collect students, made them stand out quite clearly amongst many other great yogis, swamis, gurus as it came from India at that time. So he chose a very remarkable path and took a lot of risks. And In a way he even crucified himself before all this current crucifixion is now going on by just stepping forward and saying, I’m going to do it. I’m going to make teachers, I’m not looking for the students and I’m going to teach at the risk of my own life, and this needs to get out there and it needs to get out there now.
Even though Bhajan has been said to be irrelevant to the content, he is now re-invoked for emotional impact. This alternation between detachment and attachment, between neutrality and investment, equanimity and devotion, is a big red flag for both cognitive dissonance and aiding in the inculcation of disorganized attachment, wherein the group member is never quite sure what they are being offered, because the goalposts continually move.
And in case you missed it, the speaker compares Dyson and her supporters to the Sanhedrin and Pilate who together crucified Jesus.
And one of his very early lectures he described why he chose to teach Kundalini yoga and not Hatha Yoga. He’s made many references. If you read the library of teachings that he acknowledges some kriyas, he put them together in his morning meditation that came to him or what he had to teach that day and so on. So he put his name to it and that was his crucifixion from the very beginning. So it is Kundalini Yoga as taught by Yogi Bhajan. If anybody wants to go and do others kind of Kundalini Yoga they can do it. Put their name to it, put some other name to it, that’s their choice. But this teaching that we have received and the we pass on, continues to be on that, uh, that with that reference to it
Note that the library of teachings is currently being scrubbed of passages like this one, recently erased by admins, but captured and quoted throughout Kundalini dissident circles:
“Rape is always invited, it never happens, a person who is raped is always providing subconsciously the environments and the arrangements. If you do not provide the circumstances and arrangements it is impossible. ” — Yogi Bhajan April 26, 1978 Espanola, NM
The library will disintegrate publicly, even as it’s surely been downloaded for future scholarship. It will be hard for teachers like Shiv and Satya to refer to it in the future with any credibility.
If there’s anything that should be concerned, if there’s anyone that should be concerned with these allegations is really Bibiji his beloved wife who I greatly respect and love. Um, these disclosures might affect her and be hurtful for her. Her life has already been very hard as it was.
Note: Bibiji is still a leading figure in the movement. I don’t know anything about her, except that she is being used here as a symbolic figurehead, the embodiment of the organization.
So I don’t think it’s so much everyone’s concern what did happen didn’t happen. It’s 16 years ago for God’s sake what is there to change now? What matters, what you change about yourself. And how you conduct yourself. That’s what really matters. There will continue to be abuses. There will continue to be a desperate women who put themselves in very vulnerable positions, who will be taken advantage of. This will continue to happen. The new age feminist movement is coming in hard, thank God, but it takes generations. So, but each step forward, each step that we dare to be more ourselves is a great step.
I’ve highlighted the obvious rape-culture affirmation. What’s extremely manipulative about it is that it is immediately followed by a pseudo-feminist shout-out, as though feminism was Satya’s central concern.
Very interesting, people saying: Okay, so now we realize that Yogi Bhajan was just a man. But I think that might be interesting to separate Harbhajan Singh. He was the man, and when they took on Yogi Bhajan. Actually that is where he’s saying, “I stand under to understand the teaching and to pass that teaching on. So Yogi Bhajan was the teacher, but there was a man there and the man did what the man did.
As if it wasn’t hard enough to sever Yogi Bhajan from his teachings, students are now asked to sever “Yogi Bhajan” as a persona from his birth identity. Now there are three entities over which culpability can be dispersed. Who committed clerical sexual misconduct against Dyson? If it was Harbhajan Singh, we shouldn’t be surprised. If it was Yogi Bhajan, well that was a hollow idol. And — it couldn’t have been the teachings themselves, of course.
So I think these are little details like that. Just a little way of thinking that turns everything around.
This is a huge tell. Consciously or not, the speaker is admitting that thought manipulation is required to weather the abuse crisis.
And a lot of people are saying a lot of things on the internet and it really shows not so much about actually what really happened. And it doesn’t necessarily even show a healthy way forward. It’s just showing that people have agendas and they’ve been waiting for this kind of door to open and suddenly they all want to throw up all kinds of stuff, whether it’s trying to fight and defend his name, whether it’s trying to, to say I knew it, I knew it and therefore this and that and the next thing, it’s all actually says more about the people who are speaking out than it necessarily says about actually what has happened. And when saying that, not with any, uh, position ourselves to deny what has happened. We do know that, um, an independent inquiry has been started and of course we fully support that and also very welcoming the statements that have been made by a KYTAB, KRI, 3HO and Sikh Dharma International.
Survivors and group members are to be doubted in that less-than-real-place called the internet, while the group should be supported in investigating itself. Remember back the top, where he says that the “allegations” have been recurrent through 3HO history. Why would the organization investigate itself now?
That, uh, we are committed to uphold the code of ethics to continue training teachers to the highest standard possible. And our challenge is to take it all forward, as Yogi Bhajan said himself: be 10 times greater. So that commitment is ongoing and it’s a very important commitment as Satya said, because shadows are within all of us. Naive students are everywhere, tendency of projection on putting teachers on pedestals, all those kinds of things goes on and it’s not going to stop overnight just with these allegations.
Again: abuse testimonies are minimized to allegations, and then conflated with the naïveté of students. With abuse and the response to it conflated, the speaker determines that neither can be resolved.
So continuing to push forward with the code of ethics to uphold the highest standards as best we can and keep, keep passing that on to others. Please talk to your communities, talk to your national associations any opportunity to join conversation. Feel free to do so. We’ve been having a meeting with a lot of trainers and mentees this weekend and we’ve gone through a lot of what we might call frequently asked questions that, um, trainers or teachers might feel might be coming from their classes. And we’re putting that together and we’re discussing and sharing what is a honest and healthy response to some of these questions. And we’ll be sending that document out. It’ll be a public document in the next few weeks. Sat Nam. Thank you very much.
The speaker concludes with another dubious statement, conveyed through jargon designed to instil emotional allegiance. The mantra “sat nam” is typically translated as “Truth is my essence.”
Last week, I released the following video of the late Maty Ezraty puts Eddie Stern at a meeting of senior students in Mysore in the early 1990s, at which Jois’s abuses were openly discussed and acknowledged.
Ezraty recalls that she and Chuck Miller decided at that time to actively distance themselves from Jois. Stern went on to help Jois publish a book, to host Jois at U.S. events, and co-edit Guruji, a collection of interviews that glorify Jois.
Yesterday, Eddie Stern released a statement about the criminality of Pattabhi Jois. The statement is co-signed by his partner Jocelyne and can be found here on his site.
Through present-tense phrases like “The stories that are being reported on the actions of Pattabhi Jois…”, the Sterns imply that they have only become aware of Jois’s abuses recently, or since survivors like Anneke Lucas and Karen Rain have spoken up.
The Sterns’ statement was simultaneously published with this podcast excerpt with Eddie Stern, hosted by Leanne Woehlke.
In the podcast, Stern says:
I’ve read the reports of these women. I didn’t know what he was doing. And after reading the book, I could confidently know that — the Matthew Remski book — I could really confidently say I didn’t know about those things.
However, this same book recounts how Anneke Lucas went to Stern in 2001 after Jois assaulted her in New York. Here’s the relevant excerpt:
Anneke said that after Jois had returned to India, she went to Eddie Stern to report the groping incident. He was Jois’s host, after all.
According to Anneke, Stern’s wife – another senior Jois student – was also at the meeting.
“Eddie referred to ‘Guruji’s unfortunate problem’,” Anneke said, “apologized and told me I had done the right thing. His wife also offered words of sympathy.
“At the time,” Anneke said, “I was satisfied with the acknowledgment alone. But Eddie carries his share of responsibility by failing to warn me and others, and by persisting in spreading an image of Pattabhi Jois as though he was an enlightened guru.”
Nine years later, Anneke showed Stern a draft of the article she was about to publish.
“Eddie’s first question was ‘Why do you want to humiliate him like that?’ to which I answered: ‘He humiliated himself.’ Eddie agreed with me. (PAAIC, p. 319)
Additionally, Stern told me via email in July of 2016 that he had flagged the infamous Jois adjustment video as inappropriate content. The video was subsequently deleted from Vimeo, but is now reposted here (trigger warning).
“I am very happy that they pulled it down,” he wrote, “and I hope that you will reconsider the need to continue using that video to prove/make some kind of a point.”
In his open letter to John Scott, Guy Donahaye says that Stern was a source for confirming Jois’s assaults:
Eddie Stern acknowledged the abuse and supported my action although he has as yet been unable to make a proper public statement. He is also the person I turned to for confirmation about KPJ’s actions after Matthew Remski had contacted me.
The structure of the podcast focuses on Stern’s own pain and concerns that he has been “targeted” for enabling Jois over the years. He describes being in therapy, and how he’s learning to listen.
Woehlke expresses sympathy over Stern being held responsible for Jois’s actions. She worries aloud that the discourse over Jois’s criminality will “undermine the good of a practice that can help so many people and especially someone like yourself who has been one of the primary teachers of this form of the Ashtanga tradition.”
Stern told Woelke that the movement to remove images of Pattabhi Jois from shalas — initiated by Jois survivors like Karen Rain and Jubilee Cooke — constitutes a form of denialism:
I don’t think it should be brushed under the rug, which is what I believe people want to do when they want to take Pattabhi Jois’s photo off the wall and stop using the opening prayer.
Like, okay, you can’t just sweep the guru under the carpet and then like, everything’s going to get better.
When Woehlke and Stern begin to discuss solutions to the crisis, he has this to say about the consent movement in modern yoga:
I don’t know if consent cards are like the answer. Um, you know, I see people selling consent carbs like all over the place now and I’m like, what are you turning sexual abuse into another industry? And it’s just really weird to me. That cuts off an important line of communication to where, you know, I don’t have to, you know, I don’t want to, I don’t want to sound, say the wrong way, but by using a card and just putting it on your mat, all of a sudden now you’re not communicating with the person who’s supposed to be your teacher. You just start putting out a stop sign there. One of the reasons I think that we have so many problems in our societies because of difficulty communicating. Like we don’t know how to communicate. Um, in a lot of ways.
And sometimes there’s a lot of fear, there’s a lot of whatever. So I just question and I wonder: would working on communication be a better way to surmount these problems rather than something like consent cards? If people really like consent cards cause they, they’re truly not able to verbalize it, I don’t want to remove that from them. Um, I, I just am going to make that observation that people are turning sexual abuse into another industry by selling things like consent cards.
Those who leave or escape from high-demand yoga groups seem to reorganize through two successive demographic splits.
The first split separates out those who must ghost out of the industry altogether to heal themselves and start over. Their drive to escape might be driven by the fact that they were abused too severely by the group to recover. There can be other factors as well, such as whether they have a pathway towards a different social circle and life, or whether they retained interests and skills outside of the group.
The second split occurs between those who stay within the industry, often because they need to.
I’ll use the Anusara example here, but you could substitute in many different organizations. I’ll call the splinter groups Category 1 & 2.
Category 1 is made up of those who figured out that John Friend created something toxic from top to bottom. They emerged with the drive to completely reorient themselves in relationship to their practice and self-understanding. It was a lot of hard work, and very lonely, because the rule book had been torn up. They might go through associations with other groups, and successive disillusionments as they detect similar patterns emerging. It takes them a long time to realize that the wisdom of disappointment has made them into leaders. I’ve seen many Category 1 people also start and follow through with training in a licensed therapeutic skill.
Category 2 consists of those who believed that Friend created something really awesome and it was just a damn shame that he let it get to his head or his ego or something and made “mistakes”.
Category 2 goes on to basically replicate the dynamics they learned in the high-demand group, but with enough savvy to remain just above social reproof. They might apply these strategies to leading a new yoga group, owning a studio, or they’ll skip sideways into an MLM (which gives you a sense of how they were thinking about yoga training to begin with).
The mechanisms are the same: puff yourself up in the name of inspiring others, whether you can follow through or not. For Category 2 people, charisma is not something to interrogate but to domesticate. Weber called it “routinization”. If they remove the rough edges it’ll all work out.
To switch examples for a moment, Category 2 people in the Ashtanga world seem to believe that they can keep all of the elements of Jois’s scheme — the implied consent, the absence of informed consent, the performative stress, the mystifications around the value of the postures and their relationships to spiritual development — and somehow it will all be cleaned up if they manage to not assault anyone. They may even honestly believe they’ve never injured anyone through cranking adjustments. The more savvy ones add stuff like brand-new concerns over cultural appropriation. Or they contort themselves into oblivion pretending that going to Mysore every year is coherent with feminism.
In the worst cases, Category 2 people form their own high-demand groups. The best recent example is Reggie Ray and his alleged coercive control over Dharma Ocean. Ray broke away from Shambhala.
It’s way better to work with (and especially for, if you’re junior) Category 1 people. They tend to be hyper-aware of issues of power and fairness, and if they have blindspots they’re happy to see and acknowledge them, and then take steps to mitigate. You’ll also find that they’re doing a wide range of supportive work within the industry, often for little to no pay. They’re writing, researching, mentoring, creating content that has no concrete market value.
Category 2 people, by contrast, fold all of their labour back into brand-building.
One thing that makes Category 2 people crappy to work with or for is that they view themselves as the ethical exiles of the first group — those who were doing Anusara “right”, those who weren’t so stupid as to have sex with their downline and have weed trafficked in over state lines. They were the ones who were able to see the value in the method and not screw it up with their selfish desires.
This particular grandiosity can make Category 2 people impervious to critique. I’ve noticed their politics can become even more neoliberal and responsibilist, because after all, they were individually able to steer clear of John’s train wreck, and they did that through their own grit and gumption, right?
This also means that many many maintain a long-term subtle contempt for Category 1 people who didn’t “get over it”, or who foster a “victim mentality”. Accordingly, they’ll be more resistant than Category 1 folks to new information about their student’s needs. If they jump on the trauma-sensitive train or start using woke-talk it will be because it’s a good biz plan.
In the cult literature, it’s widely accepted that there are no predictors for who gets recruited and who doesn’t. Similarly, I doubt there would be any predictors around who branches off into Category 1 and Category 2.
But if I were to speculate, I’d imagine that, while there might be psychological factors at play, Category 2 people were protected and supported by types of social privilege that insulated them from full disillusionment when the high-demand group fell apart. They had capital to move on with, for instance. Or perhaps they were always socially separated from those lower down in the group, and so they never had to learn from them about how terribly unequal things were.
Another factor might be that Category 2 people were more active as enablers in the original group (whereas Category 1 people might have done more bystanding), and so are better defended against self-examination. It’s a lot harder to cop to the fact that you enabled than to the fact that you were a bystander.
Bystanding in itself is an “off” feeling, through which it’s easier to access shame and perhaps even guilt. Those feelings are gold for disillusionment.
Somehow, the Category 1 person permitted themselves to be fully and wholly disillusioned, to such an extent that they would never be able again to rebuild in the same way.
Maybe disillusionment is not just something that happens. Maybe it’s also a skill that can be developed.
Psst: here’s a plug for my online seminar, coming up in February!
1. It’s Not Just Men
In YTT groups, I introduce the theme that the last century of global yoga has largely run on the fuel of “somatic dominance” by which teachers assume possession and authority over student’s bodies, and the body itself is an object of surveillance and discipline that must perform its virtue.
In discussion, most groups rightly dive into truths about male violence, male charisma, bullying, and sexual assault.
So then I trouble the gendering of that story a little by showing clips from this Jivamukti class from 2014. Check out the teacher’s entrance into the space after about 20 minutes of fawning speeches.
Take a look at that bowing sequence. You can’t see the whole room but I assure you everyone is bowing right back in this parody of Tibetan monkdom. I know that’s where it’s from because they started the bowing thing after teaming up with Michael Roach over a decade ago. But he never took it that far. The teacher seems to be making intrusive eye contact with every person in the room; Roach never bothered with that. (Maybe he didn’t have to, being male and 6’+, 200+ lbs.)
After I show the clip I ask:
What would it cost you socially to be in that room and not mirror the teacher with the bowing thing?
What would it cost you to chew gum, slouch on your mat, blow a fart, or yell out “Hey, are we getting started yet or WHAT”?
People get the point. They know they would feel way out of line, which is another way of saying that they’d feel controlled.
What I believe the teacher is doing here, unconsciously but habitually, is establishing a coerced “habitus” (via Bourdieu, very nice intro video below), or rules of somatic behaviour or ethos for that space.
Right from the beginning of class, there is a contagious way to be there. It’s sophisticated, because it looks like respect, surrender, and even gentleness. And the teacher and some students might even feel all those things deeply and authentically. But the impact is that the people in that room who show strong buy-in for what she’s doing are now under her somatic influence.
And so when, inexplicably, she lies fully on top of women at 1:57 and 1:58 or sits right down on the thighs of a woman in supta virasana at time cue 1:11:50, and gives a lecture about not finding fault in others, it’s just par for the course. Implied consent, and intimacy conflated with care.
If there’s a next stage in examining somatic dominance in Yogaland, it might involve seeing how it translated, in cycles, between generations and across genders in the 1980s and 90s, how it could be coded to express female strength and empowerment (even though it was an overflow of male violence), and how this further impeded survivors of Jois, Manos and the rest from being heard.
2. What Does Somatic Dominance Feel Like When You’re Doing It?
How would you know if your somatic dominance circuits were turned on? I’m sure it feels different for everyone, but here’s how it felt for me.
I’m using the past tense, not because I’m totally over it, but because it’s very easy to remember how I did it when I was teaching active yoga classes, which I haven’t done since about 2014. I also remember having to stop teaching in part because I was becoming more aware of my somatic dominance tendencies.
I remember distinctly crossing over a threshold into the teaching space. It could have been in the parking lot, at the front door, or in the lobby. If the studio was particularly modern and sleek and minimalist, the feeling was more acute: in some way the bare lines and white walls and flower arrangement were contagious with a kind of meticulous aesthetic attention that called perfection out of my body. I remember holding my breath more, standing up even more straight, feeling my skin glaze over with smooth hardness.
In some ways I’m describing basic somatic defensiveness via grandiosity, and I would have felt a degree of these things when stepping into any professional environment. If there was a suit involved it would have started at home with subtle fretting over how crisp my collar was going to stay on the commute — the collar signifying my armored skin.
But what made this particularly yoga-related was that as I was both holding my breath and puffing myself up, I was also aware of the pre-verbal tape-loop of all of the Iyengar instructions that were then embedded in my back-brain. In other words: I was turning basic social discomfort and self-defensiveness into a somatic virtue — a sign of transcendence over those very things.
I never met Iyengar but I’ve heard enough and I’ve met enough men like him that my gut says there were threads of intense social awkwardness and maybe even shame that the demonstration of asana mastery helped him overpower.
So the first somatic dominance is over myself. How does it pivot to take power over others?
Of the thousands of students I encountered in my classes, I’ll imagine here someone generic: male or female doesn’t matter. As soon as I instinctually identified that this person was NOT as erect as I was, I remember turning towards them and subtly doubling down, both trying to model something, and encouraging them to mirror me. I remember now with some shame the sense of gratification I had when they did mirror me, either then or in the class, and I understood it then as a good thing: that I had inspired a new confidence. But perhaps what I did in some if not many instances is that I procured a kind of compliance, and the gratification was not from having given them something, but from having their mirroring of me make me feel better about my own strained efforts to achieve comfort and dignity.
And the irony is that the person who came in slouchy or melancholic may well have been far healthier than I in their psyche-soma. If they were feeling crushed and drained of dignity that’s one thing — and I assumed this was the case for everyone — but if they were just being themselves in somatic honesty, and were able to do that because they were less bound to our systems of self-objectification, I actually disrupted that out of a projective need for bodily validation. I created a problem were there was none, and I called it yoga or mindfulness, and I got paid.
All of this took place on a subtle level that created a nameless power dynamic that normalized the standard adjustments I then went on to apply, without clear consent or even the notion of what clear consent would mean or how it could be affirmative or informed.
One more thing about how stealthy this was. We used to say “strong and soft”, which I suppose echoed the old “sthiram sukham”, and gave me at least a sense of somatic continuity with an ancient nobility. I still appreciate this double instruction, but I think it can nurture the seeds of what I’m describing above:
In the Iyengar instructions, the strength and firmness was always built first, upwards from the ground. Strong feet, knees like so, quads engaged, do something something with your perineum and navel, micromanage you rib cage and especially your floaty ribs and don’t forget the mystical kidneys etc. And after this pillar of nobility or self-defence was built, the teacher would ask you to “soften your eyes”.
What was the eye thing about? It felt interesting to have this play of tension between skeletal firmness and eyeball softness, so there was that. But I also think the soft eyes managed to spiritualize or Mona-Lisa-ize the entire presentation. So that you could be armored but also inviting and wise. So that if you were actually defending your body against your neighbour with a thousand muscular actions in your butt, you could also affect openness and intimacy with the person you were asking to mirror you.
What does this all have to do with charisma?
As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, charisma doesn’t have to look like anything in particular. It’s not how you hold yourself or defend yourself, as I’ve described here.
I believe that charisma is the somatically contagious feedback loop that initiates when all of the stuff I’ve described above begins to work to the advantage of the person performing it. And so they escalate it. Before long, it becomes their “method”. The content doesn’t matter. It could be Iyengar or it could be Ru Paul or it could be Donald Trump: charisma is the commodification of somatic defence, which, at a certain saturation point, can flip into habitual bullying.
3. Somatic Dominance, Buddhist-Style
In Yogaland, somatic dominance is explicitly part of the wellness programme, where posture is the sign of multiple levels of attainment. While lately I’m pretty consistent about pointing these critiques at “Yoga/Buddhism”, I’d like to bring out the “Buddhism” presentations of somatic dominance a little more clearly.
There’s no doubt that sitting with relative stability and stillness makes sense for whatever meditation is for whoever is practicing it. So I’m not talking here about what people do when they’re sitting at home. I’m talking about how the posture of meditation gets translated in group settings into the somatics of control. How things like stillness, erectness, a wide and/or vacant gaze, a quizzical smile — can all be virally transmitted through a group so that suddenly it feels taboo to slouch, even if by slouching you would relieve the pain in your spine.
In the crudest examples, the Zen master literally beats you with a stick to force your posture into compliance. But how much more effective is it if you can encourage the student to straighten themselves, through manners alone?
I remember distinctly walking into Karme Choling in about 1995 and developing a wicked headache and backache from sitting up way too straight to listen to the warrior talk. I had no idea what was going on inside me, and no tools for investigating it. It would be decades before I understood the coercive stiffness at the root of the culture and its links to repression.
Trungpa himself modelled upright posture in most of his talks. They called him “perky”, “inscrutable”, “spacious” and other things, when the truth was that he had to maintain that posture as a defence against being shit-faced drunk most of the time. He was erect because if he wasn’t he’d fall over. Of course he had to bring this somatic control into all areas of life. I’m sure teaching people to use utensils as though they were on the set of Downton Abbey helped keep a lot of them from keeling over into their plates.
When the next year I was brought to a Michael Roach event I interpreted the same feelings of erectness as excitement or “receptivity”, especially in relation to the more natural transference that overcame me. The Shambhala shrine room explicitly reminded me of 1970s Sicilian Catholic kitsch, so I was less inclined to interpret the Shambhala headache positively. Michael’s group was fringey and boho, so the headache I got from all the sitting there was more easily interpreted as a “blockage” related to my own hang-ups.
If I had had the tools I would have understood that what was really happening was a new form of repressive behavioural control. There were proper ways to be in Michael’s presence. You could deviate from those ways in your body if the deviations expressed special insight or closeness to him. That’s why we watched Ian Thorson tremble and spasm and bark and quiver and sometimes even fall over out of meditation posture and chalked it all up to his devotion to Michael tickling his kundalini. I didn’t know him in the last ten years of his life, but back then I don’t remember anyone asking whether he needed medical care.
Most of us weren’t as “blessed” as Ian. We sat upright and still and got filled up with instructions to such an extent that there was no room for internal questioning, let alone breaking the spell in the room with any kind of challenge.
This happened in other contexts as well, subtler ones, and way closer to home. I remember the first time I hired my friend Michael Stone to teach at Yoga Festival Toronto. I passed by the room as they were setting up and 50 people surrounded him, all sitting stock still, mirroring him, arranged like a Renaissance painting. This is just part of what made his chaotic death so shocking to almost everyone.
As for myself: I remember leading meditation classes where I would open with the basic instructions about sitting upright, but then also model that uprightness myself, and lay it on thicker than I actually felt like doing, and then continued to straighten and ground and whatever as the people around me mirrored me.
And I kept going as I felt the relief of having others validate the sublimation of my bodily anxiety and shame.
That Time Manouso Manos Started a Yoga Class with a Verbal Attack And Showed How Trauma Bonding Works
Special thanks to Cassie Jackson, who was there that day and helped confirm many details. Her testimony of Manos assaulting her is included in the IYNAUS investigative report on pages 15-17.
In January of 2017 I emailed Manouso Manos to request an interview. At that time, my research for the book that eventually focused on Jois and Ashtanga Yoga was casting a wider net. The working title back then was Shadow Pose: Trauma and Healing in the Cult of Modern Yoga.
I was upfront and honest about the project. I told him I was investigating intergenerational trauma in the yoga world, and would be citing the 1991 report on allegations of sexual assault against him. I wrote that I wanted to ask him if or how he had changed over the years, and how he understood his teaching within the legacy of BKS Iyengar.
This was about ten months before I heard about the sexual assault claim Ann Tapsell West was preparing to file against Manos, which was first dismissed by the IYNAUS Ethics Committee, and then substantiated by an independent investigator.
When I wrote to Manos I did not know that there were or would be contemporary allegations against him. I also didn’t consider or research sexual offender recidivism. In this light, my initial query was naive.
Manos’s curt responses included a threat to take me to court for writing about him from the public record. Then, paradoxically, he invited me me to come to one of his classes for free.
So I made plan to go. I didn’t expect a warm welcome. But I didn’t expect to be ambushed. Continue reading “That Time Manouso Manos Started a Yoga Class with a Verbal Attack And Showed How Trauma Bonding Works”
For the minority of yoga teachers (and smaller minority of yoga consumers) who have woken up to the fact that somatic dominance is a primary currency in commodified yoga, the Johnny Kest scene in the recent NYT/FX/Hulu doc was outrageous, but also recognizable and predictable.
There’s been a lot of great commentary on it already — most of it nailing down how the embodied entitlement of implied-consent “adjustments” merges with Kest’s patronizing shutdowns of the very straightforward feedback given by the women who were able to speak in the moment.
Theodora Wildcroft remarked that this is the kind of thing that exposes the mainstream industry as unworthy of public service — a blow to everyone moving in that direction. There will be much more to say on that point.
This is important to repeat: it’s bad enough that Jois’s crimes were hidden, now we see clearly that the invisibility of Jois’s crimes has enabled brand profitability for teachers of Ashtanga and beyond. In the meantime, Jois survivors have left careers, suffered health problems, and racked up therapy bills.It was clear to me years ago that this wicked calculus would put Jois’s survivors in class action territory if it were not for the fact that those who have profited on Jois’s name aren’t represented by any suable organization.
The documentary does not answer the question of whether Kest has committed assault. But it does show how easily he could.
Kest is operating in a somatic environment normalized by Jois, and which neither the industry around him nor its trade associations have challenged in any accountable way. The environment has changed in that adjustments have been standardized and domesticated within training systems, and the somatic dominance has crossed a gender line. But the basic premises remain. Here’s an incomplete List:
- The teacher assumes dominant and definitive knowledge over the student’s body.
- That knowledge is established by the objectifying male gaze* that diagnoses flaws that must be manipulated back into order. This means that the adjustment starts and can be felt before the touch. (*can come out of men’s or women’s eyes).
- The interventions are endowed with transformative mystery and so there can be no informed consent. (I.e.: The student’s body is to be enlightened to something it did not yet know. This can cannot be pre-explained.)
- Thinking or talking about what’s happening in the power dynamic encounter constitutes an interruption of esoteric communication. Asking questions means you’re not tuning in to the silent sweaty wisdom of God.
- The unregulated environment of implied consent, heavily gendered power dynamics and the value of silence provokes a spectrum of responses. Enthusiastic responses are instantly recruited to support the marketing narrative of the space, regardless of whether they are healthy or fawning (trauma-related).
Here are brief excerpts from an interview I did with the late Maty Ezraty on July 5, 2016. The stories she told provided valuable background information for my research into the crimes of Pattabhi Jois.
Maty had requested some of the following details remain off-record, which is why they didn’t make it into my book. But now, statements from Eddie Stern reported in the New York Times that suggest he didn’t see Jois abusing students warrant publishing these minutes out of a ninety-minute discussion.
Ezraty had important insights to contribute about the misogynistic culture surrounding Jois. Her premature death precluded her from being able to share them widely. But, as you can see, she felt very passionately about this story. In our email correspondence she was supportive of my investigation.
Below the clips, I’ll fill out some context and provide transcription.
The first clip opens with Ezraty talking about how she and Stern disagreed about Jois’s crimes. In the second, she describes a series of assaults that “we all saw.”
After years of zealous lauding, promoting, and hosting his yoga guru, Pattabhi Jois, Eddie Stern recently removed all mention of Jois from his bio. To date, he has said nothing in print to acknowledge Jois’s crimes.
But Katie Rosman of the NYT did manage to interview him. Here’s the copy:
Eddie Stern is considered the ambassador of the New York Ashtanga community and is an author of a hagiographic biography of Mr. Jois. He too has been disinclined to take part in a public discussion. After three months of background conversations, however, he agreed in late October to an interview.
“I was in Mysore when Karen was there. I didn’t see Guruji” — their preferred title for Mr. Jois — “doing the things she described, but I believe her when she says that was her experience.”
He said he traveled to India annually from 1991 to 2009 to study with Mr. Jois and sometimes spent three months at a time practicing with him there. He said he never saw Mr. Jois treat any student differently from another.
Mr. Stern wants to help the community move forward. “I’m trying to get educated about these things myself,” he said.
When pressed to discuss photographs posted online that show Mr. Jois touching students in ways that many consider inappropriate, Mr. Stern said he regretted agreeing to speak and ended the phone call. “I don’t trust you, and I don’t trust The New York Times,” he said.
The data from Stern here does not line up with what Ezraty says. Here’s the transcript of the above clips:
I’ve had arguments with Eddie about this, you know, in India, Eddie has definitely rationalized all this and there’s no rationalizing to it. It, it so happened. Yeah. It was so blatantly obvious and as a community it’s really pathetic that we all put up with it. I mean, we, we stopped having him [Jois] at Yogaworks in 1993 or 94 due this issue. Yeah. We decided consciously that we could not have him at our school for this reason.
Had you had students complain about him?
Not me, but, you know, off the record, I can’t speak for Chuck. But Chuck had a woman, a very, very, very dear student to him, come to him and tell him the same thing. This was probably in 1991 or 90, something like that and Chuck did similar what Eddie did.
[Note: previously in the interview I had shared reports about Stern’s response to Anneke Lucas when she discussed with Stern that Jois assaulted her at a NYC event in 2001. Lucas told me that Stern’s responses were a mixture of acknowledgement and rationalization.]
And at that time it was more low key. Yeah, it was really low, it really was low key then. I mean, nothing like in the later years. And she stopped coming and um, mind you, this was a student he really liked, like she was a really good student. She stopped coming. And then in 1993 I think our last trip to India, I think that was our last trip. It had gotten worse, or 94, I can’t remember. Chuck would know the years much better than me. I’m not so good with years. It was so blatantly obvious in India. I mean it was just like, it wasn’t no more like “kind of happening, but no one saw it.” It was so… it had gone to another level, like you could not ignore it anymore. And I remember we had a meeting, me and Chuck and Eddie and Nikki and Eddie was there and we were all, and I’m like, we were all like, what is going on here?
And they were, they deflected it and, Chuck and I couldn’t, and it was at that point we made a real decision that we were no longer we just couldn’t. You know, we love the system and we still had a lot of room in our heart for him, but it had gone to a level that we just, we couldn’t deal with.
Pattabhi Jois was humping, humping one particular girl in class every single day. Humping!
In Mysore, the room was small. It was in Lakshmipuram. We were 12 people in the room. It was impossible to miss it. We’re talking in supta padagushthasana, being on top of her and hump-ing her. You had to be blind. Blind to not see. In downward dog. He would just go like this to her. There was no misunderstanding of what the heck was going on. There was no misunderstanding. There was nothing to misunderstand. It was happening. We all saw it. It was very disturbing.
UPDATE: 11.13.2019 05:30 ET
In response to criticism on my Facebook author’s page that it was unethical for me to publish these statements, Jois survivor Jubilee Cooke (also interviewed for the NYT article) has written the following:
In my view, it is far more unethical for Maty to ask Matthew to conspire in the secrecy of Jois’s crimes and their cover-up by senior AY teachers. Matthew and Maty did not have the same kind of formal, confidential, and binding privilege as an attorney and client would have. The value of this recording is not that it provides further proof that Jois is guilty. Rather, it is valuable in that, for the first time, we hear recorded testimony that Eddie, Maty, Chuck and Nicki gathered and made a conscious decision as to how they would handle Jois’s sexual abuse — some decided to continue their studies with him and to host him in the U.S. without warning students away; some did not. Many chose to lie publicly about their knowledge, and none of them reported Jois to the authorities in India or the United States (as far as I know), nor did they stop him by other means.
I would love for someone with expertise in United States law, preferably in sex crimes, to weigh in on this. Sure the statute of limitations has run out, at least in terms of criminal law, and probably for civil as well, but I’m still keen to know: Could Eddie, Maty, Chuck and other senior AY teachers have been charged as accessories or accomplices before or after the fact when they hosted Jois locally in the United States? Even after they stopped hosting Jois, were Maty and Chuck duty bound to report Jois to (let’s say) the FBI given that they had prior knowledge of Jois’s crimes (based on this recording) and probably knew that he would likely offend in multiple states while on tour in the United States? (Even back in the 1990s, it was pretty common knowledge that the rehabilitation of sex offenders had a high failure rate. There’s a reason why sex offenders must register even after they’ve completed their sentence.)
I can’t help but wonder if people would be as offended if this recording had revealed the intention to cover up murder or a child prostitution ring — would people would feel differently about Matthew going public in these instances?
It could be that you’re already familiar with modern global Buddhism, be it of the Tibetan, Burmese, Thai, Vietnamese, “mindfulness”, “insight”, or other variety. Your practice might predate your decision to join an eco-activist group or ecological support network. If this describes you, you may have already navigated what I’m about to say.
I’m addressing this in particular to those activists and concerned citizens who have been introduced to global Buddhist practices and communities through eco-activism networks that are understandably reaching out to seek sources of support and nurturance in a critical time.
I’m writing because I’m seeing a lot of interest in Buddhism as both a philosophy and as a series of self-and-co-regulation techniques within groups like Extinction Rebellion and Positive Deep Adaptation. I don’t want to discourage this interest in any way, but I do believe there are some things to bear in mind for those on the verge of going deeper into practice. These are facts I’ve gathered as a survivor and researcher of cults.
Here’s the main point, which I’ll break down below:
Yes: use the techniques and be comforted by the philosophy. But: be very wary of taking advice from or handing leadership over to “career” Buddhist teachers in the following areas: ethics, communications, group behaviour, political tactics, regeneration culture, or community building.
Why? Here are a few reasons:
1. Virtually every large modern Anglophone global Buddhist community is awash with unaddressed abuse. The abuse has been physical, emotional, sexual, financial, and spiritual. The pattern is broad and the damage is deep. Links at the bottom.
2. It is rare that a modern global Buddhist community trains its members in anti-oppression, ecological awareness, or the history of social movements. It’s just not on the curriculum. Despite this, there is a tendency amongst long-term practitioners to assume that Buddhist practice magically confers insight in one or all of these areas. Many labour under the illusion that being Buddhist magically makes them anti-racist, for example. Or they believe that a Buddhist perspective gives insight into how best we confront the state, as in the recent viral post that suggested that (without using this language) XR rebels view the police with metta, because “we’re all on the same side.” The poster has a point, though not the one intended: for fifty years, global Buddhism has for the most part sanctified, rather than resisted, the neoliberal police and surveillance state. Bottom line: competency in Buddhism does not predict competency in any other area, and may in fact impede it. There’s no shame in this: one can’t be good at everything.
3. Recent implosions of prominent Buddhist organizations have exposed decades of widespread abuse and enablement. This has scattered many senior staff, many of whom are now looking for new communities, new angles, and new work. In many cases, these are folks who have been deeply embedded — as enablers and victims — in cultic dynamics. It takes a long time to get sorted out after being embedded. Healing and accountability can happen, but I can say anecdotally as a journalist and researcher in this area that it is rare.
4. Most Buddhist teachers that attained social power in these groups did so not through the strength of their training nor any measurement of their attainment in the techniques of meditation (for there is none), but through their skill at serving the leadership, or through the power of their charisma, and the group transferences that feed it. Leadership in these organizations is often gained through socially toxic means.
5. The post-implosion histories of many Buddhist organizations feature a pattern of charismatic lieutenants breaking away from the original group to found their own communities, often with predictable results. I guarantee that there will be Buddhist teachers whose organizations have recently failed who out of narcissistic or financial necessity — or just pure habit — will now try to lead or monetize their brands within eco-activist organizations.
6. Part of what we’re seeing in the highly-flawed internal reform movements of organizations like Shambhala is the adoption of woketivist language as a form of brandwashing, even while the needs of the organization’s survivors remain unaddressed. Arguably, any attention placed on social justice issues has some social benefit, but the activist newcomer to Buddhism should consider that the newly-minted eco-Buddhist teacher might be far more interested in promoting their own ideology than in the actual cause. They may be using XR or PDA as a delivery device for their real commitment.
7. While the self-and-co-regulation techniques of meditation, mindfulness, metta, warrior-compassion, right speech, etc. can all valuable in and of themselves, activists who are unfamiliar with global Buddhism should know that each and every one of these techniques and attitudes has been used in various group contexts to suppress critical thinking, member agency, and enable abuse.
8. Abuse in Buddhist organizations often plays out along gender lines. Every organization listed below was founded and/or was led by a charismatic male teacher. The majority of sexual assault victims to come forward in recent abuse revelations are women. It is also true that the majority of unpaid administrative and emotional labour in these groups is performed by women. Further, women’s administrative visibility and labour can be used to extend the pretence that an organization’s values are feminist, trauma-aware, or justice-oriented — all values that aid in recruitment, especially of younger women. But in reality, many of these organizations are deeply patriarchal and misogynist. Eco-movements do not want to import yet more forms of misogyny and unexamined rape culture, whether explicit or internalized.
None of this is to say that Buddhists are bad people or that there aren’t some Buddhist teachers doing great social justice or activism work. In my experience, these are the folks who have been independent from branded communities for years, have spoken out against abuses they witnessed, and have adopted an interdisciplinary approach to how they continue to learn and practice. Many hold qualifications as psychotherapists, social workers, or scholars of religion, and this can afford some critical distance. (However, in the case of Shambhala International, many earned their degrees at the group’s own university, Naropa, and so can’t really be said to be qualified outside of the group.)
Bottom line: Buddhism can be great, but the organizations and leadership structures that have emerged in its globalization period are often myopic, bourgeois, self-serving, and at times abusive to their members. People who professionalized in those spaces have a lot of work to do to show how they’re not going to repeat what they’ve been through or been complicit in.
I predict that the era of ecological collapse will be a boom-time for cults — political, religious, or both. This is because nobody knows exactly what’s going to happen, but we do know it’s going to be apocalyptically bad, and we’re going to be even more desperate for community than we are now. This means that conditions are ripe for inspired and charismatic leadership, which we already see in the figureheads of XR, for example. Charismatic leadership is one of Lalich’s four factors in defining the cultic. (Another is totalizing ideology. XR is at least 2 for 4. A third thing to look at would be information control. Hm.)
Many of us may be starting to feel like strong communities are the only reliable refuge we’ll have as collapse continues to spread. So far, branded global Buddhisms have not provided good models for strong community.
Messianic movements are dangerous, and so is the modern police and surveillance state. I hope we can all be careful that global Buddhism doesn’t get used to meditate those dangers away.
Some online responses to this article have suggested, without offering evidence, that the institutions listed below have made strides towards rectifying abuse. For those who wish to research this assertion, I propose the following test:
Try to find published survivor testimonies that speak to these improvements.
Such testimony might read as follows:
“I was abused in [organization name] and the organization has been very responsive to my needs. When I approached the community with my story, I knew who to go to, and no one ignored, deflected, or snubbed me. No one tried to tell me the abuse was my fault or that I should use the spiritual techniques of the group to reframe the abuse as love. I found several people in the organization who became allies and helped me to come forward. They took risks with their own social capital to defend me against enablers. The leadership did not stall or try to limit the PR damage. They investigated and sanctioned those who abused me. They offered me direct care in my recovery, and paid for my related expenses. They really showed that they were able to offer the values of their spirituality in difficult circumstances. This has restored my hope in [Buddhism/yoga/etc], because it has helped to heal the very deep level of trauma that comes from spiritual abuse.”
Problematic global Buddhist Organizations (an incomplete list):
Stories of abuse and betrayal tremble beneath the veneer of spiritual groups. Silently. For decades.
The veneer functions like money does in the Epstein world to write the laws, conceal the truth, and dispose of the evidence. Spiritual groups don’t have Epstein-level money, but they have other shiny objects to distract and confuse. They have stories of extraordinary men, spiritual transformations, and a coming enlightened age.
One type of question I often field is “what makes the Jois story a yoga story?” or: “What makes the Rigpa story a story about Buddhism?” I counter the deflection of this question by saying “It’s true: these are rape culture and high-demand group stories.”
Then I add: “But it’s important that we see how they play out in environments in which they are explicitly not meant to happen: places where vulnerable people come to be protected from abuse.”
But there’s another reason I believe stories of spiritual abuse are important to investigate and understand. In some cases, the group has an outsize impact upon the broader culture, usually through having found a way to conceal its origins, manage its image, and secularize and popularize its techniques.
I’m not talking about groups like Scientology, which unduly influence celebrities who carry a lot of social power, but which also have a hard time commodifying their core content. (One test here is that Dianetics has always been published in-house, while much of the “advanced” literature is hidden altogether.) With Shambhala, for example, the core content is sanitized, legitimized, and monetized through institutions like Naropa and a number of spiritual/self-help books that became touchstones in the 1990s neoliberalism that believed it was progressive.
That core content is a group effort. More importantly: the group effort conceals itself through the presentation of individual genius. Nowhere is this more efficient than in the spiritual book industry.
Spiritual books are marketed on the basis of the awakened personality and the intimacy of the author’s written “voice”. The public ends up thinking they’re encountering the realized presence of Pema Chödrön on the page, for example. That page, and the buzz around it, gets her onto Oprah.
But Chödrön’s ascent to Oprah isn’t driven by her personal wisdom or virtue. She gets that gig because she has risen to the top of a high-demand group as a spokesperson.
Trigger warning: descriptions of sexual and physical assault.
Josh Summers: 00:00:06
Hi Matthew, how are you doing?
Matthew Remski: 00:00:07
I’m good. Thanks for having me, Josh.
Josh Summers: 00:00:09
Thanks so much for coming on. Let me introduce us. I am Josh Summers. I’m a yoga teacher and licensed acupuncturist. And this is Meaning of Life TV. You are Matthew Remski, a yoga teacher as well also an industry consultant in the Yoga Industry and an author of several books. Most recently you’ve written a book about problematic group dynamics in the yoga world and it’s called Practice and All is Coming: Abuse, Cult Dynamics and Healing in Yoga, and Beyond. So I should say, you know, is it’s really nice to meet you. This is kind of an odd sort of endorsement to you, but, right at this point I’d say you’re the main reason I go onto Facebook.
Matthew Remski: 00:01:00
That’s, that’s mixed. I’m happy to hear that. And I’m sorry to hear that all at the same time.
Josh Summers: 00:01:06
No, no. I mean, for me it’s positive because there isn’t that much, worth following on Facebook. But, I came across your work maybe two or three years ago. Someone shared something you had blogged about, about abuse and some of these problematic dynamics in the yoga world. And I just kind of got into following what you had to say about it and it really seemed like you had some trenchant analysis that was deeply missing in the broader conversation. So I want to dive into that. Talk about what’s going on in Yoga land, uh, what’s problematic about it and what might be some ways that things can be remedied. But as way of introduction. You are yourself a survivor of two cults, and I know that part of this work in this book has been a bit of a healing journey for you. But how did you come to a focus on the Ashtanga yoga situation in particular and what was going on in that that you felt needed to be highlighted? Continue reading ““Abuse in the Yoga Community”: Josh Summers Interviews Matthew Remski”