“Betrayal of Trust”: 1991 Mercury News Investigation of Sexual Assault Allegations Against Manouso Manos — by Bob Frost

"Betrayal of Trust": 1991 Mercury News Investigation of Sexual Assault Allegations Against Manouso Manos -- by Bob Frost

This article from 1991 has been parked on my website in PDF form for almost two years, after one of the anonymous sources for it sent it to me. It article was recently featured in Miranda Leitsinger’s investigative report for KQED, which presents two new allegations: one from 1983, and the other from 2015. The journalist, Bob Frost, stands by every detail. The San Jose Mercury News West Magazine is no more; the PDF has been the only version available. I’ve had it transcribed for ease of reading. You can contact the Ethics Committee at IYNAUS at ethics@iynaus.org, and support survivors of sexual abuse by donating to RAINN.

Notes:

The importance of the Frost article may increase in relation to the response of IYNAUS to the new allegation. In a letter responding to the KQED article, IYNAUS President David Carpenter suggests that Iyengar’s pardon of Manos at the time was an appropriate organizational response. But it fails to cite the findings of the 1991 article in his summary of how the community dealt with allegations against Manos at that time.

Carpenter writes:

There were then two sets of allegations against Manouso Manos.  The first was that he had sexual relationships with female students outside of class.  The second was that he inappropriately touched students in class. These allegations were made before the establishment of IYNAUS, but a committee was formed to investigate the allegations. Manouso Manos admitted to sexual relationships with his students, but denied the allegations of inappropriate and non-consensual touching in his classes and workshops.

The committee presented the evidence and its conclusions to Guruji, and many teachers communicated with Guruji about the appropriate response.  Guruji decided to give Manouso Manos a second chance.  He did not expel him from the system.  But he stated that Manouso Manos would not get another chance if he engaged in sexually abusive conduct in the future.  Other remedial measures were also adopted.  Mr. Manos publicly confessed his misconduct and apologized to his students, fellow teachers, and to his wife at the 1990 U.S. Iyengar Yoga convention. Restrictions were imposed on his teaching for a period of time.

This statement contradicts Manos’s statements to KQED, made through a spokesman. Leitsinger writes:

A spokesman for Manos said the West article was inaccurate, saying Manos wasn’t suspended but voluntarily left (he said he didn’t know the reason for his departure) and didn’t seek reinstatement but was invited to return. He also said Manos denied past and current allegations of sexual misconduct. He didn’t know why Manos hadn’t sought a correction to Frost’s articles if he believed there were inaccuracies.

Frost gives more detail about the events to which Carpenter refers:

Allegations of sexual improprieties caused the institute to suspend him as a teacher in October 1989. Sources say that “many” allegations against Manos have been reported in letters and phone calls to the institute in the last two years. The charges have been reviewed by at least a dozen people at the institute. The misconduct is said to have occurred both at the institute and in yoga workshops Manos has given around the country. No police charges or lawsuits have been filed against Manos.

According to three separate sources familiar with the case, all of whom insisted on anonymity, Manos allegedly rubbed his pelvis against women students in a sexually provocative way as the women were doing yoga poses, touched them in private places during classes under the guise of pose adjustments, and asked certain women students individually into an institute classroom after group classes, where, behind closed doors, he performed sexually charged physical manipulations, and had intercourse.

 

— MR

 

Betrayal of Trust: Spiritual force encounters human passions as a sex scandal erupts in yet another New Age community.

By Bob Frost

San Jose Mercury News
West Magazine
May 26,1991

Reprinted with permission.

[Original source.]

YOGA is the most powerful force in the universe, according to the most prominent yoga teacher in the world, B.K.S. Iyengar of Pune, India.

On the purely physical plane, its devotees say, yoga can enhance personal energy, reduce stress and ease such problems as lower back pain. A deeper yoga practice can be profound therapy, as serious an investigation of one’s life as Freudian or Jungian analysis.

Here’s how the therapeutic process might unfold. A prospective student, watching a yoga program on Channel 9, decides to get out of the chair and learn a few yoga poses, known as “asanas.” There are about 200 asanas in hatha yoga. The point of doing them is to relax and balance the body.

They range in difficulty from the apparently simple triangle pose, which involves spreading the feet and twisting the trunk; to the more intricate headstand; to postures that take years even to attempt, where the arms point north, the torso twists south and the legs fly off toward Bombay.

After a few weeks of watching classes, the student heeds the advice of the TV teacher and attends a local class or takes a private lesson. A live teacher is vital to yoga.

Teachers are trained to help each individual body adapt to the rigors of a pose. Often, a feeling of trust develops between teacher and student; this contributes significantly to the learning process.

The first months of yoga can be a wonderful time; after years of stiffness, students begin to feel what it is to have a relaxed, balanced, flexible body. It’s exciting. It’s also scary, because the psychic armor of a lifetime is being softened. The personal guidance of a teacher can help focus the excitement and allay the fear.

Progress usually slows after the first few months. The process of softening and unfolding becomes more subtle and gradual. Some students get discouraged and quit; any others level off their practice and are content with feeling better. But some students stick with the discipline, and for them, the teacher becomes indispensable — keeping their spirits up over the difficult years of daily practice, teaching the seemingly infinite subtleties of relaxing and opening, demonstrating a belief that one’s true self, one’s core self is OK. Demonstrating, in short, the value of trust.

SOMETIMES things go wrong. Occasionally, the relationship between teacher and student is betrayed.

A leading teacher at the Bay Area’s foremost yoga school has admitted publicly that he engaged in sexual misconduct with female students. Among several allegations against the teacher, Manouso Manos, 39, are charges that he fondled female students during classes. Manos said at a yoga convention last June that he had “disgraced” himself.

The case has been kept under wraps by the yoga community; this article is the first disclosure of it to the general public. Some yoga teachers and students are outraged not only by the sexual misconduct, but also by the subsequent unwillingness of the yoga world to disclose the case to the general public. They question the decision made last October by the school, the Iyengar Yoga Institute of San Francisco, to allow Manos back to teach classes open to members of the public who have no knowledge of his alleged misbehaviour.

“I was sexually abused by my father as a small child,” says Stephanie Lawrence, 46, an artist and yoga student living in Mill Valley. “I came to the San Francisco Iyengar institute six years ago to heal those wounds. Fortunately, I did not study with Manouso when I first came to the institute; had I been molested in a yoga class, it could have easily re-enacted the molestation I suffered as a child, and the result could have been psychically disastrous.”

Some observers believe this case also points up fundamental flaws in the Iyengar style of teaching yoga. That style, following the ideas of B.K.S. Iyengar, is the leading instructional method for yoga in the United States today, with about 500 teachers. There are some 100 Iyengar schools around the country.

The allegations against Manos are also a reminder that a series of sex scandals has plagued the spiritual/New Age community in the United States in recent years. They raise again the question of what constitutes appropriate behavior between men in positions of power or influence, such as teachers, therapists and gurus, and women who are their students, patients and followers.

SINCE October, at least five teachers at the Iyengar Yoga Institute of San Francisco have resigned to protest the school’s handling of the Manos case.

The school, located on 27th Avenue in the city’s Sunset District, is the Harvard University of yoga, home base for many of America’s leading instructors and a mecca for students from around the world. The school’s showpiece is its respected teacher-training program. The non-profit institute is licensed by the state of California as a vocational school.

Manos has for years taught well-attended classes at the school, and conducted workshops around the country.

Allegations of sexual improprieties caused the institute to suspend him as a teacher in October 1989. Sources say that “many” allegations against Manos have been reported in letters and phone calls to the institute in the last two years. The charges have been reviewed by at least a dozen people at the institute. The misconduct is said to have occurred both at the institute and in yoga workshops Manos has given around the country. No police charges or lawsuits have been filed against Manos.

According to three separate sources familiar with the case, all of whom insisted on anonymity, Manos allegedly rubbed his pelvis against women students in a sexually provocative way as the women were doing yoga poses, touched them in private places during classes under the guise of pose adjustments, and asked certain women students individually into an institute classroom after group classes, where, behind closed doors, he performed sexually charged physical manipulations, and had intercourse.

When he was informed that the specific allegations made against him would be cited in this article, Manos declined comment other than this written statement: “Though there are inaccuracies in the statements made in this article I do recognize the gravity of the subject matter. I urge anyone who is involved in a relationship that may be inappropriate (incest,employer-employee, minister/rabbi-parishioner, therapist-patient, teacher-student) to seek outside help and guidance.”

The director of the institute, Mary Peirce, did not respond to repeated requests for comments.

Accusations of sexual contact between Manos and students first surfaced in 1987. Confronted with them, Manos promised an institute representative he would not repeat the offense. In the late summer and fall of 1989, instances of sexual contact were again reported, and he was suspended as a teacher that October.

In the course of meetings and interviews about the case, Manos apparently never declared that he was innocent of charges of sexual misconduct. The master and mentor of the San Francisco Iyengar school, B.K.S. Iyengar, reviewed the allegations last year and discussed them with Manos. Iyengar, who had the authority to lift Manos’ teacher certification or impose other restrictions, decided action was not warranted and asked the yoga community to forgive Manos. The school’s board voted to reinstate him in October 1990.

One of the leading yoga teachers in the United States, Judith Lasater, then resigned from the institute’s board of directors because, she says, “I did not want to be associated professionally with such behaviour.” At least four other teachers – Jennie Arndt, Toni Montez, Donald Moyer and Mary Lou Weprin – resigned in protest from the school’s teacher training faculty.

A STUDENT who made an allegation against Manos agreed to describe her experience on the condition that she remain anonymous. The incident, she says, took place in 1986 in a city where Manos had gone to give a workshop.

“He had been very flirtatious with women in the class — touching women he didn’t know well, putting his arm around their waist and so on. This bothered me a little; it set a strange tone for the class.

“At the end of the class we all lay down in Savasana.” (This is the traditional last pose of Iyengar sessions. Students lie on their backs, close their eyes, breathe in a measured way, and deeply relax for about 10 minutes.) “He came by and put a block under my shoulders.” (A standard yoga procedure to elevate and open the chest.) After about three minutes he came by and put his hand inside my leotard and, basically, gave me a breast massage.

“It made me feel horrible. I didn’t know what to do. It scared me. I didn’t know if I had done something to bring this on; all the victim’s guilt and shame, ‘Am I responsible? Am I at fault?’

These thoughts went on for two minutes. I then said, ‘That’s enough.’ He said, ‘Oh, sorry’ and walked away. I didn’t talk about it to him afterwards. I felt ashamed and embarrassed – mortified, actually.

“I carried guilt around for along time, and the feeling that I should have stopped it immediately, and maybe I had done something to cause it–but I hadn’t.

“One of the reasons it was so hard to accept was that it had been done in the context of yoga. Yoga is a thing we turn to in order to begin opening our bodies; there needs to be that element of trust there because it can be a very vulnerable experience.

“It went on for two minutes because I was in shock, basically. It took me that long to realize what was happening and to realize it was wrong – I had crazy thoughts like, ‘Oh, this is the way they do yoga in California, where he’s from, and if I react he’ll think I’m uptight about my body.’ He was the teacher, after all; students really abdicate a lot of power to teachers. I’ve had many thoughts since then about what I should have done – instantly get up and say, ‘Get your hands off me, you pig!’

“I didn’t report it right away because I was ashamed and embarrassed, and felt guilty, thinking I would be judged and not believed. It was easier to go on and forget about it and it wasn’t as if I had been raped.

“I felt like I was the only one it had happened to; when I heard that it had happened to others I thought I could come forward and be believed.”

MANOUSO Manos, who lives in San Francisco, is a native of the United States. He became prominent as a yoga teacher in 1984 after successfully organizing and managing the first national Iyengar convention, in San Francisco. He is perceived as B.K.S. Iyengar’s “right-hand man” in America and as one of the master’s “star teachers.”

As a forceful advocate for Iyengar’s yoga and organizational ideas, Manos came into serious conflict with others in the Iyengar circle who were more inclined to a flexible approach. The conflict also colored the institute’s handling of the allegations against Manos, according to one teacher. “When we spoke out against the school’s handling of the sexual misconduct matter, we were accused by some people of waging a personal vendetta against Manouso,” the teacher says. “Our objections to his conduct were discounted on the grounds that we had personal grudges.”

Iyengar, 72, is “widely regarded as the world’s leading exponent of hatha yoga,” according to Yoga Journal. (There are several branches of yoga; hatha yoga is the branch concerned with physical poses. In addition, hatha yoga students learn meditation and various breathing exercises.) Iyengar’s Light on Yoga, published in the mid-1960s, is considered a modern classic in the field. Iyengar’s regal demeanour, vigorous air and fervent teaching style have earned him the nickname “Lion of Pune” (pronounced poo-nah). After becoming known in India as a yoga master, he attracted attention in the West in the mid-1950s as a yoga tutor of violinist Yehudi Menuhin, who grew up in San Francisco. (Menuhin’s mother, Marutha, lives in Los Gatos.) A grateful Menuhin gave Iyengar a wristwatch inscribed “To my best violin teacher B.K.S. Iyengar. Yehudo Menuhin, Gstaad, Sept. 1954.”

Reached by phone in India and asked if he believed the allegations against Manos by the woman quoted above, Iyengar replied, “No. That is an old, old story. I doubt its truth. I do not believe past things when they are kept quiet for so long.”

Asked if he thought perhaps the woman had been too embarrassed or ashamed to report the incident, he said, “I do not believe that.”

Did he question Manos about whether the woman’s charge was true? “He did not say,” Iyengar replied. “Why should I ask him? I don’t want to listen to hearsay. When a report is fresh, immediate, then it is more likely to be true. When reported later it is all dexterous words.”

The fact that no charges or lawsuits have been filed against Manos has helped keep the case contained within the yoga community. But there are other reasons for the community’s silence on the matter. Yoga teachers don’t know how Iyengar will react to presentation of the case to a broader public. Teachers do not take lightly the prospect of displeasing Iyengar. The Iyengar institute may also be concerned about losing students, especially because it has experienced financial problems in the past year.

Iyengar said he does not believe some of the the charges against Manos, but insisted that Manos has become a “changed man” who will not repeat his previous actions. Manos is “not the same person” today as a year or two ago; he is “transformed,” Iyengar said.

Asked how he was able to judge this, Iyengar replied, “I trust him. I trust his words. I have taken an oath from him. He told me he had lost so many others but he did not want to lose me. I told him that I can forgive once but not twice.”

But is he not in fact forgiving Manos twice, because of allegations that were reported in 1987, followed by the surfacing of allegations in ’89?

“No,” Iyengar said. “I never knew about 1987. Nobody told me in 1987. I was only informed later.”

Iyengar said he views the Manos case as an opportunity to “teach one and all” the importance of high ethical conduct in yoga: “This is a stepping stone for others to follow. I see it from this angle, as a learning experience.” Ethical conduct, he continued, is a paramount concern of his.

When he was asked if, as some sources claim, he believes Manos was seduced by some of the women, Iyengar said, “Yes, naturally. Unless a woman shows willingness, the man will not act.”

Does even strong temptation excuse such behaviour on the part of a yoga teacher? “Man is weak; forgiveness is what is important. Did not Christ forgive many people?”

When she was told of Iyengar’s doubts about her veracity, the student whose allegations are quoted above said, “Well… I’m sitting here trying not to scream or cry. It makes me want to forget about ever doing Iyengar yoga again.”

“I BEAR MANOUSO no ill will,” says Linda Cogozzo, managing editor of Yoga Journal magazine and an 11-year student of Iyengar yoga. “But thus far there has been no attention paid by the yoga community to what I believe are the key issues in this situation: the misuse of power and the betrayal of a student’s trust by a teacher.

“The emphasis in the community, from Iyengar on down, has been on forgiving Manouso. No one has talked at all about the women involved. And this makes me wonder what representation and value I, as a woman, have in the Iyengar community. I’m thinking not much.”

Others in the yoga community feel the case has been dealt with properly. Lolly Font, owner/director of the California Yoga Center in Palo Alto, says the situation “has been a very good thing for Manouso. I think he’s learned an awful lot from having to come clear and admit to what he’s done.” Font said she takes classes regularly from Manos and considers his teaching on par with the best she has experienced.

Betty Eiler, owner of Yoga Fitness in San Jose, considers the Manos case “water over the dam.” She adds, “Nobody, really, has a completely clean slate in their lives. Manouso has suffered greatly over this: he’s paid his dues.”

But many agree with the teacher who says, “I’m disgusted and disillusioned. This even is like a festering wound that has never been cleaned out. It’s still dividing the yoga community in the Bay Area, and since this area is the center of yoga for the United States, it’s dividing the community nationally, and in fact internationally.”

Although many teachers say Iyengar should not be blamed for Manos’ alleged misconduct, others, probably a minority, believe he must share in the responsibility. An experienced teacher said, “Mr. Iyengar can be physically abusive when teaching. He sometimes slaps students, or hits them in the head or kicks them, as a way of ‘creating awareness,’ of saying, ‘Hey, wake up!’ And he can be verbally abusive, calling people ‘stupid.’ Not all people, and not all the time. I have come to view Iyengar’s physical abuse as related to Manos’ sexual abuse. If Iyengar doesn’t respect people’s physical integrity, if he crosses physical boundaries, it creates a climate where sexual abuse can occur.”

Larry Hatlett, co-director of the Yoga Center of Palo Alto, disagrees. He does not see how Iyengar’s style could have led to Manos’ alleged misbehaviour. “I think it’s Manouso, period,” Hatlett says.

For his part, Iyengar denies that he is aggressive. “I do not think that word is accurate. I am intense. I am intense because it is important, the work that we do. Why waste time?”

THE WORD “GURU” has roots in Hinduism. In the strictest sense of the word, a guru is someone “enlightened,” profoundly spiritual and close to God; today, the word is often used by various disciplines to describe any revered teacher/leader/guide.

The very first Indian guru to get widespread attention in the Western mainstream press, the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, got caught up in charges of taking advantage of the guru-devotees relationship.

Several Beatles biographies say the group got fed up with the Maharishi in 1968 because they felt he was conducting an illicit romance with one of his female disciples. The Maharishi has apparently never commented on the matter. The Beatles did make a comment–their bitter song “Sexy Sadie” was originally titled “Maharishi.”

Sexual misbehaviour is an extremely delicate topic in the U.S. spiritual/New Age community – in part because it seems to occur so often, especially among American devotees of Eastern religions. In the November/December 1990 issue of Yoga Journal, Katharine Webster writes, “Sexual contact between gurus and their American disciples is not a new or rare phenomenon. Over the past 15 or 20 years, numerous spiritual teachers have admitted to, or been charged with, having sexually exploitative relationships with their female students.”

In the 1980s, the Zen Center of San Francisco was hit hard by a sex scandal involving its leader, Richard Baker. The centre has rectified its problems. Also in the ’80s, revelations about the sexual conduct of Swami Muktananda and Eknath Easwaran, among others, generated controversy.

One of the latest cases involves Swami Rama, guru of the Himalayan Institute of Yoga Science and Philosophy. The institute, a huge enterprise based in Pennsylvania, is a hub for East Coast spiritual seekers, with a publishing company, scientific lab, yoga teacher-training program and health clinic. Writing in Yoga Journal, Katharine Webster describes allegations of numerous instances of sexual misconduct by Swami Rama. The Himalayan Institute has not publicly responded to the charges.

Dr. Peter Rutter, a prominent San Francisco psychiatrist and Jungian analyst, said, when interviewed for this article, that he knows personally and “conservatively” of about 250 victims of sexual misbehaviour in U.S. and British communities that study and practice Eastern religions. These 250 include his patients, people who have attended his workshops and people who have writ- ten to him.

In his well-regarded book Sex in the Forbidden Zone, Rutter discusses the issue of sex between men in positions of power or influence and women who come to them seeking guidance.

“The forbidden zone,” he writes, “is a condition of relationship in which sexual behaviour is prohibited because a man holds in trust the intimate, wounded, vulnerable or undeveloped parts of a woman. The trust derives from the professional role of the man as doctor, therapist, lawyer, clergy, teacher or mentor, and it creates an expectation that whatever parts of herself the woman entrusts to him (her property, body, mind or spirit) must be used solely to advance her interests and will not be used to his advantage, sexual or otherwise.

“Under these conditions,” Rutter continues, “sexual behavior is always wrong no matter who initiates it, no matter how willing the participants say they are. In the forbidden zone the factors of power, trust and dependency remove the possibility of a woman freely giving consent to sexual contact. Put another way,the dynamics of the forbidden zone can render a woman unable to withhold consent, and because the man has the greater power, the responsibility is his to guard the forbidden boundary against sexual contact no matter how provocative the woman.”

The four major “talking” therapy groups – psychiatrists; psychologists; marriage, family and child counselors; licensed clinical social workers–all forbid relationships between therapist and patient/client. And in January 1990, California enacted a law making it illegal for a psychological therapist to have sex with a patient. Seven states currently have such laws. Yoga teaching, while considered by many a therapy, does not fall into the framework of the laws.

As noted, no charges or lawsuits have been filed in the Manos case. “It’s difficult for women to come out with these charges publicly,”Rutter says. “It’s a terrible ordeal, requiring them to make public the most personal, intimate aspects of their lives, which they would not have to undergo had there not been a violation of the relationship in the first place.

“There’s tremendous risk for them. If they speak out they’re often punished within a community, or blamed. People in the community might say initially that a charismatic man ‘couldn’t possibly have done such a thing.’ The next step in the denial process is ‘Well, he may have done it, but he was seduced.'”

As Katharine Webster writes in Yoga Journal, ‘The followers of ‘enlightened’ men are usually reluctant to find fault with them, since to do so could invalidate the students’ own years of study and devotion. Instead they deny the experience of the ‘unenlightened’ women who are the guru’s victims.”

“Personally,” Rutter says, “I am in favor of women going public with such charges. I think they have more to gain than lose if they do.”

Rutter adds that today, within some professions, such as therapy, there is “universal” condemnation of sexual contact. In other professions, such as teaching, there is only “a gradually growing awareness of the problem.” A number of universities have passed internal rules making teacher-student sexual contact illegal. The model rule in the academic world, Rutter says, is a University of Iowa edict that states in part, “Voluntary consent by the student in such a relationship is suspect, given the fundamentally asymmetrical nature of the relationship.”

WHY do sex scandals keep happening in the spiritual/New Age community?

There is, of course, sexual misbehaviour in corporations, volunteer organizations mainstream religious groups, professional and collegiate athletics. And many spiritual/New Age gurus and teachers conduct themselves impeccably, without a breath of impropriety.

But in this community–especially among Western followers of classical Eastern religions–there are unique and potentially volatile dynamics at work. These have to do with the exalted status of the guru/spiritual teacher, and the spiritual hunger of many people in the West.

Followers sometimes initiate, or welcome sex with gurus and teachers because they believe that sex under such circumstances is an especially life-enhancing thing to do, a way to be permeated with the guru’s enlightened essence.

“A woman might try to see it as a positive experience,” Peter Rutter says, “but in 99 percent of cases, that veil of illusion sooner or later falls away and the woman realizes she has been terribly abused and exploited. This might happen five minutes later or 20 years later.”

A central reason the woman eventually feels exploited, Rutter believes, is that the experience is a reinforcement of one of the most degrading things she’s heard (directly or indirectly) about herself. “Sex is all you’re good for.” When such message comes from a trusted guru or spiritual teacher in the form of a sexual episode, Rutter says, it is especially painful and damaging–”it strikes at the heart of her psyche and soul.”

Ganga White, president of the White Lotus Yoga Foundation in Santa Barbara, identifies “an amazing spiritual gullibility among those of us in the West.” Westerners may have a hard time differentiating authentic spiritual leaders from those prone to exploitation, he says, because we have a different way of judging things – a way of judgment based on materialism. “Maybe we see spirituality as an accumulation of things – accumulation of merit, knowledge, power – rather than what it really is: a subtle process of inner opening and understanding.

“The question,” he continues, “is not why so many spiritual leaders have fallen; the question is, who says they had risen to a state of true enlightenment in the first place? Somebody can be the head of a big organization and write books and have a lot of centers, but they may not be any more evolved than you or I. We’re duped or mesmerized by a person’s possessions – possessions of knowledge, charisma and so forth. These are not necessarily indications of a higher awareness.”

There doesn’t appear to be an easy, sure-fire way to find authentic spiritual guides not prone to sexual, financial or philosophical exploitation. Indicators of authenticity, says White, are “love and compassion, and an absence of the ‘Me’ – an absence of ego and self-centeredness. What I suggest to people is, accept teachers who start setting you free right beginning, not one who ask you to sit at their feet. There’s a difference.”

Donald Moyer, one of the teachers who resigned from the San Francisco Iyengar institute, says, “The question is, how do we take a practice like yoga, from a culture, India, accustomed to hierarchy and dealing with power in a different way, and bring it to the West, and avoid lapsing into some sort of patriarchal throwback? Westerners, when they first are attracted to Eastern though, sometimes tend to put down all Western attitudes. We need to be able to see the value of our own contributions – democratic values, psychological understandings,and developing a sense of personal responsibility for our actions.”

“The problem is not yoga,” says yoga teacher Arthur Kilmurray. “Yoga is a process of purification that stirs things up within a person. How those stirred-up issues are dealt with is a function of such things as the culture, the times we live in and how an individual is able to deal with the issues.”

Stephanie Lawrence of Mill Valley says that she is doing yoga exclusively at home these days. She quit going to classes because of what she terms a “humbling attitude” exhibited by some male yoga teachers. “The cumulative effect of many years of studying yoga led me to feel that I had handled some integral part of myself over to some of the teachers, that I had allowed myself to be humbled by them, and forgotten that I was my own best teacher.

“I think that climate may be due to a kind of passivity among women that’s confused with surrendering, a word that is often used in yoga. When women can’t stand up for themselves, are passive in that particular way, then that passivity is almost handing the power to the teacher to do what he wants with them.”

_____

BOB FROST is a contributing writer for West.

Shambhala Investigator Tells Sakyong Accusers Not to Talk to Anyone

The outgoing “Kalapa Council” — the Board of Directors for Shambhala International — sent out a newsletter on Saturday. The newsletter was meant to clarify the role played by the Halifax legal firm, Wickwire Holm, in an internal investigation of possible sexual misconduct within Shambhala’s leadership, including the allegations against the spiritual leader of the organization, Ösel Mukpo.

The Shambhala investigation doubles up on the third-party investigative work of The Buddhist Project Sunshine, which has ignited a firestorm of controversy throughout the organization. Shambhala International has not denied any of the findings of the BPS, although a key leader has tried to discredit the motivations of the investigators, claiming they are staging an “attack upon the Mukpo family”. Continue reading “Shambhala Investigator Tells Sakyong Accusers Not to Talk to Anyone”

Are Cult Members Stupid? Are Cult Recruiters Evil? (Let’s Talk About Viruses Instead.)

I was speaking with the survivor of a high-demand group. They described having been recruited by a family within the group that had offered them a job.

In time, the requirements of the job began to blend with the requirements of the group. Within a few months, the subject found themselves thinking that they were somehow still in the job, but had also become intrinsic to the centre of the group. This felt both special and strange. Ultimately they went on to suffer abuse at the hands of the group’s leader, from which they’ve spent the rest of their lives recovering.

In essence, the person I was talking to described being deceived, which is cult tactic 101. She showed up for a job, was asked to begin to interact with the group as an implied condition of ongoing employment, and was told that the group’s leader would offer her enlightenment. It wasn’t true.

They asked me:

So do you think that the family had planned all along to bring me in, and for those things to happen to me?

I could hear the tenderness of the question. Behind it was the terrible thought that perhaps this family, with whom they had bonded, had purposefully and callously betrayed her.

This was a question about evil.

I offered that neither of us could have a real clinical insight into the family. Even if we did, I said, it wouldn’t resolve the question of their intentions. We can never fully say why people do things, or whether they’re doing things in good faith, or with full agency.

I always find it easier, I said, to focus on impacts.

But the feeling of the subject’s question twigged something inside me.

There was a horror to it, a shame, a sense of claustrophobia. And contagion.

Can people really be so awful? 

 

____

 

These are all feelings that also exude from the more common question that survivors ask. This would be the self-accusatory question: “How did I fall for that?” Or, “How could I have been so stupid?”

The self-accusatory questions show the internalization of the victim-blaming that fuels the wider culture. Which, in its most domesticated state, serves as the basic logic of neoliberalism.

It touches the root of a primal shame: Why did I deserve that?

Self-blame is bolstered by various legal, economic, and journalistic conventions that don’t have the tools (and perhaps don’t want them) to investigate the difference between consent and informed consent, or situations of trauma in which the fold response can broadcast false consent.

The things you said yes to because saying yes was safer than saying no. 

Okay. So when this feeling of shame comes over the ex high-demand group member, here are two facts that cannot be denied:

1) They didn’t deserve it. Nobody deserves to be lied to and abused.

2) There are no predictors for why they got drawn in. There is no research to suggest there’s a particular “vulnerable type” who is more prone to recruitment. Nothing protects a person against deception. It doesn’t matter if you had an abusive childhood. (That wouldn’t be your fault either.) There are many people who have had abusive childhoods don’t wind up in cults.

Having wound up in a cult can feel like a personal failing. But it’s not. It’s more like having been infected by a virus.

According to Stein’s model of cult-as-disorganized-attachment-machine, part of the infected member’s condition is to believe that the source of the sickness is also the cure.

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So let’s bring this back to the subject’s question: “Do you think that the family had planned all along to bring me in?”

That first, pragmatic answer still holds true: there’s no way of knowing.

But can we say anything else — something that sounds a little less like a shrug — to relieve the burden of having to ponder a terrible betrayal?

If we use the virus metaphor, perhaps we say that the subject got hired into a contagious environment. Perhaps the family didn’t even know they were infected. They were part of the group, after all, because they too, at some point, had been deceived.

The main difference between the subject and the family that hired her may have been that the family had incubated the group virus for long enough that they themselves were contagious in their daily actions. They may not even have recognized they are symptomatic.

My point is: wondering whether recruiters are evil shares space with the victim-blaming impulse. Both depend on the premise that personal agency — and therefore, the capacity for informed consent — remains intact in relation to a cult, even though the cult runs on deception. Both depend on the premise that personal choices are the prime movers of cultic involvement and action, rather than a kind of social contagion.

A good metaphor gives us space for working on the questions of the heart. But as much as cult-as-virus idea might relieve the survivor of self-blame — and, if they want to go there, the traumatic conviction that they were betrayed — it has a hard limit. A virus does not excuse criminal activity.

And, as an amorphic, amoral, depersonalized thing, the virus shares characteristics with the chaotic and naturalistic forces of “karma”, by which criminality has so often escaped scrutiny and accountability in yoga and Buddhism groups.

But if we don’t take it too far, there’s another reason to like the metaphor. It might let us think of cult awareness education as a kind of vaccination programme.

Reading a good cult analysis book is actually a lot like getting a sharp pinch in the arm. (Here’s an amazing bibliography.) It stings, burns, maybe swells a bit. You know the vaccine contains tiny bits of the virus itself, suspended inertly in the medium.

Every good cult book I know has been written by someone who had to develop their own antibodies.

So: a few regular, highly-researched shots in the arm. It should be enough arms to offer herd immunity to those who don’t have access to the information. It’ll be good to keep up to date, and pay the experts to watch for mutations.

 

 

 

Judith Simmer-Brown to Distraught Shambhala Members: “Practice More.” (Notes and Transcript)

Judith Simmer-Brown to Distraught Shambhala Members: "Practice More." (Notes and Transcript)

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:

  1. Do not rely on the personality or individuality of the teacher. Rely on the Dharma teachings themselves.
  2. Do not rely on the literal words. Rely on the meaning of the teachings.
  3. Do not rely on merely provisional teachings. Rely on the definitive or ultimate teachings.
  4. 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.” (Shambhala: The Sacred Path of the Warrior, 2009, p. 17). A similar theme grounds 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)”

Jivamukti Yoga Claims Position “At the Forefront” of the Consent Card Movement

Jivamukti Director Claims Company Is “At the Forefront” of the Consent Card Movement

(With thanks to Karen Rain for her editorial suggestions.)

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In this Triyoga Talks podcast (transcript excerpt below), Jivamukti co-founder Sharon Gannon is asked about why the Jivamukti New York flagship studio has started using consent cards. Gannon throws the question to studio director Jason Morris, who takes the opportunity to present some rebranding talking points.

For Morris, Jivamukti “has been a safe haven” historically, and offering consent cards is a way for the brand to continue to be safe, and to be “at the forefront” of the conversation on consent.

This is a revisionist stretch.

In 2016,  JYS settled a sexual harassment lawsuit against lead teacher and trainer (Gannon was also named in the suit) in 2016. In an interview, the plaintiff in the suit suggested that a culture of implied consent in relation to adjustments was a factor in the harassment.

The 2012 book Yoga Assists: A Complete Visual and Inspirational Guide to Yoga Asana Assists authored by Sharon Gannon and her Jivamukti co-founder David Life does not contain the word “consent”, nor any substantive discussion of power differentials in teaching. The book is currently on sale in their shop. Continue reading “Jivamukti Yoga Claims Position “At the Forefront” of the Consent Card Movement”

Pema Chödrön on Trungpa in 2011: “I Can’t Answer the Relative Questions”

This is a followup on notes I published about the structure, language, and impact of disorganized attachment evident in the Shambhala organization. It also provides an update on the question of Chödrön’s approach to Shambhala history, and whether it provides clarity or obfuscation in relation to the present revelations of institutional abuse.

On July 13th, Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse (Khyentse Norbu) cited Chödrön’s 1993 interview with Tricycle as a laudable example of how a Vajrayana student is to view and contemplate their teacher. However, Norbu incorrectly dated Chödrön’s statement to 2015. I argued that this unfortunately could create the unfair impression that Chödrön’s 25 year-old views are current, and perhaps issued to pre-empt current criticism of Shambhala.

But in the 2011 hagiographical film “Crazy Wisdom: The Life and Times of Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche” (New York: Kino Lorber), director and Trungpa student Johanna Demetrakas records Chödrön delivering an aphoristic encapsulation of her 1993 statement.


At time cue 51:00, Chödrön says:

People say to me, how could you follow a teacher like that? Or how could an enlightened person do that? I do not know. I can’t buy a party line where they say it was sacred activity or something like this. Come up with ground to make it okay. I also can’t come up with ground or a fixed idea to make it not okay. You know, I’m left, really left in that I don’t know. I don’t know. But I can’t answer the relative questions because he defied being able to answer them.

Continue reading “Pema Chödrön on Trungpa in 2011: “I Can’t Answer the Relative Questions””

“May You Ever Remain”: A Chant to a Buddhist King as Propaganda and Indoctrination

For Shambhala outsiders trying to understand what real devotees are up against in terms of mental and emotional entrainment, consider this hymn to Ösel Mukpo, who now stands accused of clergy sexual misconduct. It comes from the Shambhala Chant Book (“limited” in-house publication of the Nalanda Translation Committee, 2011):
 
 

It identifies Mukpo as both the reincarnation of a Tibetan saint and a meditational deity. It says that he is a king, a ruler of the “three worlds” (of desire, form, and formlessness), and the “manifestation of buddha activity.” The chanter prays for Mukpa’s influence to spread through Jambudvipa, which basically means “earth”, but from the perspective of deities who can perceive multiple worlds.

According to members I’ve spoken with, this chant is deployed to two contexts. At some Shambhala centres, entry-level members are introduced to it at weekly gatherings. When they ask about the chant’s meanings or express discomfort at praying to human being as if he were a deity, they are typically told that they can understand it “symbolically” for now, and that deeper meanings will be unfolded at higher levels of commitment.

The second usage of the change comes at those higher levels, where, along with explication, the chant itself becomes an expression of “samaya”.

“Samaya” is a “contract” to a teacher made in Tantric streams of Indian wisdom culture. Breaking it, which can happen through as little as thinking badly about that teacher, is said to result in endless cycles of disgusting and horrific torture in “hell-realms”. Over the years I have received communications from members of neo-Tibetan tantric groups who say that this is a source of literal terror for them.

I don’t think it matters that much that the literal meanings of these threats might be lost on postmodern practitioners. When I had “samaya” with Michael Roach and his teacher, the late Khenpo Rinpoche, I took the gory details as metaphors for inescapable psychological pain.

Many traditionalists would say that a text used for Tantric practitioners is actually forbidden to those who are not initiated. In other words, it would be “illegal” for students who had not attained a certain maturity in relation to the teaching content to be asked to read ritual literature “symbolically”. Amongst all of the ways in which the followers of Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche have, like him, both appealed to “tradition” while holding it in contempt, what would this one be about?

A commenter on my Facebook feed wrote about how he was asked to hold the meaning of the chant symbolically as a new student. He remarks:

“Sadly it turns out that this soft-symbolic, “Don’t worry about it’, ‘You are your own meditation instructor'”, guidance on the chants is actually a bait and switch for those who enter the Vajrayana path, which I fortunately never did.”

The commenter’s observations describe a well-known feature of cult media.

The two performance levels — intro and advanced — allow this same chant to perform the dual functions of propaganda and indoctrination described by Alexandra Stein (via Hannah Arendt) employed by cultic organizations. She explains the difference here. My argument is that the intro-level chant, explained to newcomers as symbolic, works as propaganda. The advanced application, with its more literal implications and commitments, functions to deepen indoctrination.

“Propaganda is not indoctrination, though it may be the first step towards entering a process of indoctrination. Indoctrination is what happens during the subsequent process of brainwashing within an isolated context. Importantly, those to whom propaganda is directed are not yet isolated or are only partially so. They still have some points of reference in the outside world. They may still have friends or family or colleagues with whom they can check out their impressions. The much more intense process of indoctrination to extreme beliefs occurs when the new recruit has been successfully separated from their external contacts. Then they can begin to be broken down, to lose their own sense of reality, their own common sense, and they can eventually be pressured to take on new and often dangerous or damaging ideas and behaviors. This part of the process can sometimes take years. Propaganda can be seen as the softening up process that gets the recruit to the point where indoctrination processes can start to be implemented. Propaganda must be believable enough, must have some kind of hook into the real world so that potential recruits will follow the thread and not simply be repulsed immediately.” (2017, 53-54)

According to this schema, it would be worth investigating the relationship between popular Shambhala-based books and media content and the ritual literature of the inner core. The books on the Shambhala Publications back list, for example, might function as a “transmission belt” (again, after Arendt) towards the inner core and its high demands.

I don’t know how many people have “samaya” with Ösel Mukpo, but there are at least 200 gathering on the 15th at the Shambhala Mountain Centre. (More on this in this earlier post.)

Emails to registrants confirm that Mukpo won’t be there, and suggest that the retreat leaders will be attempting to “separate the teacher from the teachings”. In the case of this upcoming “Garchen”, those teachings are said to have been mystically revealed to Mukpo’s father in the early 1980s, and now Mukpo himself.

But this chant, in which devotion and metaphysics are inextricable, makes it clear just how difficult separating the teacher from the teachings actually is in this and other communities governed by modern appropriations of “samaya”. Devotion is the content. The medium is the message.

Reformers who really want to work towards student empowerment and safety have to not only insist upon the physical and administrative withdrawal of an abusive leader, but re-imagine a curriculum somehow separate from its origin story. The content didn’t come from outer space.

The manual from which this is taken ends with the statement: “This material is available in limited publication, and no general publication is made or intended. No part of this material may be reproduced or published in any form without the written consent of the Nalanda Translation Committee.”

Here it is anyway, because transparency, right? It’s important for everyone in yoga and Buddhist communities, which are so susceptible to mechanisms of undue influence, to see how hidden materials of indoctrination work.

Also, no author gets to establish the “intention” of a text as somehow separate from the way it is read, or its various impacts. That goes for me as well, which is something I contemplate as I continue to cover this subject.

The Challenges of Responding to Abuse at Shambhala: A Discussion with Susan Piver

On June 30th, meditation instructor Susan Piver posted this reflection on the crisis unfolding within Shambhala International. On July 5th, I published this response. But before I did I reached out to her to let her know it was coming, and to make sure that she felt it was fair. She asked for one correction, which I made, but then also suggested we book time to discuss our text-exchange via Zoom, and record it. Here it is.

I’d like to thank Susan for her invitation and her resilience in considering criticism. I’d also like to say something I think I left out of recording: I’m sorry my analysis hurt her feelings at first. I really admire her ability to pivot into a discussion nonetheless, and to have been inspired enough to turn this moment into a learning opportunity for her community, and for me as well.

 

 

 

A Disorganized Attachment Legacy at Shambhala: Brief Notes on Two Letters and a 1993 Interview with Pema Chödrön

On Sunday, a unknown number of unnamed “Women acharyas” released this unsigned letter. The acharyas are a group of Shambhala International leaders, empowered by their current head, Ösel Mukpo, to represent the legacy and teaching content of the organization. Their letter responds to a call for action from members outraged by revelations of continued institutional sex and power abuse in their community.

Mukpo stands accused of sexual misconduct by three anonymous women whose voices have been recorded by Andrea Winn in her Project Sunshine report. He has posted a vague admission of guilt. Winn’s work has pried opened an unhealed wound carved out by the abuses of Mukpo’s father, Chogyam Trungpa, and his lieutenants. Those stories are still coming to light, and they are unbelievably savage.

Insiders will be able to better parse out the likelihood of whether this particular political constellation of “acharyas” is equipped to understand the dynamics within which it is embedded and strong enough break out of them. I don’t pretend to have any insights on that. I hope I can, however, point out a key characteristic of crisis communication that does not bode well in the present, and which has deep and influential roots in the past. Continue reading “A Disorganized Attachment Legacy at Shambhala: Brief Notes on Two Letters and a 1993 Interview with Pema Chödrön”

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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Transcript

Matthew Remski:

Hi.

Jason Brown:

Hi, how are you?

Matthew Remski:

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

Jason Brown:

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

Matthew Remski:

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

Jason Brown:

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

Matthew Remski:

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

Jason Brown:

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

Matthew Remski:

Oh, my goodness. Was he born or not?

Jason Brown:

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

Matthew Remski:

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

Jason Brown:

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

Matthew Remski:

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

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

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

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

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