Kathryn Bruni-Young is a fellow Toronto (post)yoga friend who I’ve known for over ten years. It’s been amazing to watch her change and expand her practice over that time, and very cool to visit with her on her excellent podcast and share some thoughts how my path has swerved alongside her own.
We also got pretty deep into what it was like for both of us — her as a 2nd-gen insider, and me as a reluctant researcher — to come to grips with the shadows of Ashtanga Yoga. We also spent a good deal of time on the “What now?” question. Kathryn’s thoughts provoked a new take on it that I like.
The disillusionment phase that so many folks go through always brings up the “baby and bathwater” metaphor. When institutional abuse and enabling become clear within an organization, leaders often caution: “Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater.” What they generally mean is: “Stay with us. Don’t give up. At least keep a foot in. It’s not all bad.” It makes sense in some ways. It’s an appeal to preserve the relationships of a group, to guard against the pain of sunken costs, and to develop a kind of maturity around extracting the good from the bad.
But it’s always felt to me like there was something off about the advice. After all, it does suggest that feeling disillusioned is like harming a child. In chatting with Kathryn, I suddenly wondered: “Who’s the baby here?” I think the answer is that we’re the baby, trying to learn and grow. Of course we’re not going to throw ourselves out. We’re realizing the bath is dirty, and we’re looking for new water. We’re going to get out and find it.
Karen Rain \\ Ashtanga Yoga and Me Too
Norman Blair \\ Essay: Ashtanga Yoga Stories
Anneke Lucas \\ annekelucas.com
Mark Singleton \\ Modern Yoga Research
Sarai Harvey-Smith \\ Article
- The Sexual Misconduct of Pattabhi Jois: My Thoughts, Accountability, and 5 Changes to Pledge my Support for the Victims
Hi everyone, welcome back to the mindful strength podcast. I’m your host, Kathryn Bruni-Young. Today I have an old friend on the podcast with me, Matthew Remski. I’ve known Matthew since I was a kid. He’s been a friend of my mom’s for quite a while. We were there with him right at the beginning of his What Are We Doing in Asana? project that he started, which has turned into something even bigger now. And that’s what we talk about in this episode. Matthew has done hundreds of interviews with yoga practitioners. He’s put together some really powerful information and he’s been also doing lots of research on cult behavior and cult mentalities. And I’m just so excited to have Matthew here with me today. His work is controversial and we might not all agree on these topics, but I think that it’s an important part of the conversation. Welcome to the podcast, Matthew.
Thank you, Kathryn. It’s good to hear your voice.
It’s good to talk to you. I have known Matthew for years. I feel like I’ve known you since I was a kid since I was a teenager back when you had a studio. I remember when I did my advanced teacher training program with Downward Dog. They were renting your studio space and I think that those were some of my first memories of you.
That is totally true. I think that that would have been 2006 or so. Does that sound right? And I remember your mom — I think she knew about the space because I had come to town the year before my move back to Toronto and I think I had asked her if she needed any presenting help in her YTT program for subjects like Ayurveda. And so I’d started to do that with her. And yeah, I suppose she needed extra space and I remember the whole group piling in and I remember Soleil being there, and I remember, of course, you know, the intensity of the whole experience and for all of you. And I also remember, I think it’s still in storage somewhere — I have this, this plastic container filled with sewing measuring tapes that your mother was using for something. I’m not sure what it was. It was, I don’t know what she was doing. Spinal measurements, or using it as some sort of strange prop, but I remember they never got back to her and so it’s one of those things that several moves later, you know — I talk with her on the phone once a week or something like that, and it’s sort of in the back of my mind. I know that I still have a piece of her old studio in my house. So yeah, I remember and I, and I, I don’t remember you from that, from I don’t remember. Like I don’t have a visual memory memory of you coming into the space. Um, but I do remember you from Downward Dog and in 20, in 2006. How old would you have been…
now? I’m 29. I just turned 29, so
… 13 years ago. So 16. Yeah. And I remember I remember you as being like incredibly motivated and adept of course at everything you were learning. Um, and I just had this feeling of Wow, that is really interesting to be Diane Bruni’s daughter, and to be and to be learning, learning in this environment and to become so proficient. And then I know a little bit about your story afterwards, but, but yeah, it’s, it’s an amazing thing to reflect back on because you’ve had such a journey.
Yeah. I mean when I was 16 I was, I had, I was probably doing the teacher training program at that time and then the next year I had, I had started teaching other teenagers. But I mean, oh my goodness, looking back to that time in my life, I was like super focused on learning yoga and, and hanging out with my mom and it’s just so funny to think back to all those years ago.
And you really mirrored each other as well. And, and, and I think, and it’s what I was amazed by was, was how you kind of came to the same sorts of realizations around, you know, what movement meant to you at the same time. And in fact, you know, that became really important like 10 years later when, when your mom was the first interview that I did for this research project and you were there in the room, in the house in Parkdale. Um, so yeah, we’ve got, we’ve got a couple of intersection points.
Yeah, I think I remember that first interview that I did with my mom and I remember at that point no one was talking really openly about anything. And I remember like kind of weighing in on some of the things and at the same time feeling like, oh my God, don’t quote me, don’t quote me on any of this. And like I’m not saying anybody’s name and I’m not really giving you any concrete information.
And, and, well, we went back and forth too because, because I think I published parts of that interview, but I mean it’s more of it is going to be in this upcoming book. And, and I remember that you, yes, didn’t want to be quoted, but she wanted to say some very specific things. Like I remember you were, you were, you were kind of like a, you’re sitting almost across the room. And I think Diane, your mom said, you know, do you mind if Kathryn’s here and I said, of course not. And you know, she asked you, do you want to hang out? And you were like, yeah, okay, sort of. And then we got into it and then we got into it. And she came to the point, I still have this on the transcript. She came to the point where she’s describing how she’s developing severe knee pain and you know, she’s finally going to go and get an ultrasound and she discovers that there’s a big cyst in the middle of her joint because she’s been doing all of these, you know, knee pressure postures and she says the line, um, “So I thought it was like a meniscus injury and then you break in and you say “Like, everybody in Ashtanga has!” And then I have in the, in the, um, I have in my notes, uh, “Kathryn rolls her eyes.”
And then the other comment was, was you said something really, really special about, the kind of addictive cycle of pain and pleasure in going to end range of motion. You said that, um, you know, when your, when your mother was saying we needed to, we always needed to progress and go deeper in order to nurture the sensations we were chasing. And you said something like, “Oh yeah. And you have to go deeper because those, those, those receptors, uh, get um, what, acclimatized.” I don’t know what kind of language you used, but I was like, oh, you studied, you studied the neurology of this too, right? Like, you know, you’re, you’re looking at your, you actually have an analysis around what it means to be chasing a sensation by going farther into something. Uh, so that was pretty, that was a really cool moment. And, and to see that you kind of been on this journey together and, and yeah, it was cool.
There’s so much in all of that. I mean, I remember when my mom was going through this situation where she had this cyst and she thought she had the meniscus tear and whatever. Um, I started to really feel like at that point, like I had also been having some knee issues and I started to feel like that was almost normal. Like all of my friends who are all yoga teachers also had these same issues. And I think that was the turning point where I started to think like “Maybe this isn’t totally normal.” Yes. Lots of people have knee issues and lots of those people will never do yoga day in their lives like knee issues come from all kinds of things, but at the same time like the normalization of the injuries that so many of us were having in common. I think that was the turning point where I started to think, hmm, maybe we could be doing things differently.
Right. Well, there was a turning point in that actual interview that was really important for me where, you know, your mom said that with this knee pain and probably moving onto the description of her hip injury when she had gone to her colleagues and said, you know, Well A, what should I do about this? And they really didn’t have any answers except more stretching. And then B, she went to her colleagues and said, well, this is what my sports medicine doctor said about passive stretching and end range of motion and they didn’t want to listen to her. We started talking about the, this explanation that was given in the culture around the necessity of pain and the inevitability of the injury and how injury actually signified that your body was changing into something else or it was going to become more resilient or it was breaking down so that it can be reformed. And, and I said, “Okay, so was that a therapeutic belief or was that a spiritual belief?” And she said, “It was a spiritual belief that we thought was a therapeutic belief.”
And I think that sentence alone set me off on an entire like research jag, because I think that particular confusion is at the heart of, of so many of the things that you’ve gone, you’ve gone on to study and to, and to try to resolve. You know, it’s like there, there are these very entrenched attitudes around discipline and pain and struggle that have to do with some very old notions of what the body is. And you know, whether it should be denied or whether it should be cared for or whether you can use activity and even discomfort to purify yourself in some way. And then, you know, the therapeutic movement in yoga is going the other direction and saying, no, you, we kind of want to be more functional. We would like to use breath and movement and mindfulness to actually enjoy being alive instead of instead of, um, instead of, you know, using our bodies as some sort of like a test, a philosophical test, you know? Um, so yeah, there’s… And you grew up in all of those messages too, right? Like it must have been such a trip for you to start saying, well, wait a minute, wait a minute. What do I actually believe?
Yeah. I mean, when I really started to, when I start, when I stopped going to yoga classes seven days a week and I started going to the gym and I started learning from different people. I think I at that point started to realize like a lot of the things that I had grown up with, I wasn’t sure if I was really going to believe those things anymore. I mean, I feel like I, I grew up in this bubble of Ashtanga Yoga, but also along with that comes as like, I don’t know, kind of like pseudo spiritual practice thing where we all, I don’t know, maybe I’m not going to speak for everyone in my, in my crew, but I definitely feel like I grew up with the notion that you go to the studio really early in the morning, you don’t eat anything before you go there. You do this practice and everything in your life is going to be good and it’s very spiritual and you’re mindful and it’s all gonna work out. And there was this notion of like, you know, people could have like these opening kinda healing crisis events, which I think is what you’re talking about with these injury states and you know, that that was somewhat normal. And in some cases “just part of the practice” and part of the whole experience. And I also grew up, you know, where people would like go out and do like shamanic drugs in the frickin Don Valley. And that was also kind of normal. Like, my mom had friends who were, you know, going into the forest of Toronto, which is like not really a forest at all and like taking ayauasca and like hearing about that and that also seem to be this like healing crisis of a, you have to go do this thing and like puke your brains out. And I’m sure I’m sure some of the listeners who are listening are like really into that. And so I, I don’t want to speak badly because, you know, I’ve never done that, but it’s not really my thing.
But yeah, it’s like I grew up thinking that all of those things where just like a normal part of whatever yoga evolution and spiritual evolution. And now like looking back on that, it’s a bit crazy. It’s a bit nuts. And when I started to go to the gym and like hang out with people who had not grown up with that, I then I started to realize how weird the whole thing was and how weird a lot of those thoughts were that I had grown up with. And you know, just starting to look at movement practice in a completely different way. And yeah, I mean I think the intersection between like spirituality and movement is really interesting. I’ve interviewed a lot of people on the podcast and a lot of people who I’ve interviewed have said something like, “No, when I go to the gym I’m doing something different than when I’m doing my yoga practice.” But also I’ve interviewed lots of people who say “When I go to the gym and I lift weights, I’m having the same embodied experiences I would have doing yoga.”
You said so much there. And one thing that I want to pick out is you used the word “bubble” and coming into a different community as you start going to the gym presents you with different world views and different attitudes towards the body. But it seems like the primary one or the primary shift would have been away from this notion that human being ssomehow have to go through crises in order to improve themselves. I’m wondering as a 16 year old or even younger and a little bit older, I’m wondering — I know you’re supposed to be interviewing me — but I’m wondering what, what it, it, uh, like what, what you end up having to, to break through about, you know, what you believe about yourself and the body in order to like take this very positive, “I’m going to build strength in these ways and I’m going to become an enjoyer of movement in these ways.” You know, you’re not, it doesn’t sound like you’re chasing crises anymore.
Yeah, I mean I think at some point you realize that you don’t have to punish yourself with movement or anything to improve if you want to improve and you know, like you can be enjoying this whole thing. And I think that when I moved from like more of whatever yoga mentality to like going to the gym and doing different types of movements, I realized how much, building strength in the body I think does more than just build strength in the body. I think it develops confidence and gives people their power back as opposed to the other method that I had been involved in, which was like, kind of like breaking people down and taking their power away from them and then they will follow the leader more and more.
Well, you know, it’s, I, I’m so glad that you brought that up because one of the things that I did notice, you know, meeting you when you were 16 and then, you know, probably once a year or every couple of years after that up until up until recently, is that people develop and change and you know, there would have been a natural developmental arc to, to your life regardless of what you did. But you know, you became strong. You became — what I did, remember what I there, I remember there was some turning point where I thought, and I think maybe it was when we did that event at your mom’s house, uh, and you stood up and you said, “Look, yoga people, yoga movement is like this percentage.” You made like a little pinchy gesture with your fingers, “this percentage of the available movement on the spectrum of possible movement, uh, and we, let’s just get straight about that. It’s a very limited vocabulary, and we can do more things and the movement world is actually enormous.” And I remember you standing up and speaking in a voice that I hadn’t heard before and it really wasn’t the voice of “I’m going to do what other people tell me to do. I’m going to do somebody else’s sequence or I’m going to, you know, I’m, I’m going to submit or surrender to a healing crisis.” So when you say, when you say building strength also builds confidence, I could literally see that happen with you in a way. Or at least I had that impression.
And I think it’s a very powerful a story, especially given the gender demographics of Yoga, because, you know, with an 80 percent, women practicing population roughly globally, I think we really have to wonder whether like, repetitive, perhaps deconstructing and maybe, and maybe stress-building movements that exhaust us when we’re doing a low protein diets — I think we have to ask whether or not that contributes to the kind of empowerment that so many people say they want to get from Yoga. So yeah, that’s a fascinating transition. I don’t think that yoga, the Yoga postural vocabulary has been about strength building for the most part.
And going back into medieval history, it certainly wasn’t about becoming more functional. It wasn’t about becoming a better mover or being able to do your daily job better or taking care of your kids. It was about doing weird things, strange things with your body to experience eccentric sensations or perhaps esoteric sensations and, all of the metaphors around the movement we’re about, you know, I think you suggested it really not just breaking the body down, but pulling the body apart as though it contains something that needed to be released and you know, to move towards all of this strength training where we’re talking about pulling things towards the midline and creating, you know, central stability and, you know, being able to squat and do those wild pistol movements that you do, like all of that really shifts the conversation around what the body is for. And it’s super important and really, really interesting. And we’ve got to square it somehow with, with, well, “Are we still interested in yoga if we’re interested in all of these things?”
So I know that you are a great researcher and I haven’t talked to anyone about this on the podcast yet. So I’m going to ask you, will you tell us a little bit about where this modern postural yoga comes from?
I think the brief story is that around the turn of the century, amongst a certain class of educated Indians who were also, anti colonialists, they were interested in fostering many aspects of culture and nation building that would contribute to an independence movement. And, you know, and some of those activities were outright revolutionary, but others were more about liberalizing education and, you know, modernizing institutions and introducing new public health practices. At a certain point, according to Mark Singleton, whose thesis is controversial, but I don’t think it’s really been challenged in any substantial way, in around the 1920s or 1930s, the influence of what was called physical culture as a practice of personal hygiene citizen empowerment to public health in various European nations began to make profound inroads influentially India, to the point where, you know, there were certain, you know, luminaries like the Rajah of Aundh, who, owned all of the books and the tools and the apparatuses of one of these famous bodybuilders whose name I forget who he was, a German guy. [Eugen Sandow is the name I was forgetting.] He was like one of the first sort of performance bodybuilders. And he would go on tours of India that were wildly successful.
And there was this interest amongst this class of relatively educated and somewhat westernized Indian reformers to find a kind of physical practice that could be said to be, indigenous, but also competitive or at least comparative with the physical culture movements that were coming out of Europe. And they began to turn towards a kind of cultural memory of what medieval Asana had been. Now, this is not to say that there weren’t awesome practitioners who were practicing run right up until the modern period, but they were doing in sadhu were communities that were generally apart from the mainstream population, and their physical practices were generally regarded as being weird or heterodox like — they were not practices for householders. They were about bodily experimentation and often they were associated with alchemy and magic.
And some key figures began to, I’m gonna, use the word “appropriate”, these older physical forms into this program of creating an indigenous and nationalized health practice that began to take shape as the group asana class. And there was a couple, there were a number of key figures in this. There was Sri Yogendra, a Swami Kuvalyananda, who began to research the effectiveness of postures from a biomedical slash public health perspective, but without a lot of, you know, good research tools. And then of course, the figure that is probably most important in all of this is Tirumalai Krishnamacharya who has a kind of mysterious background and biography prior to being hired by the Maharaja of Wodiyar or who of the richest men in the world at that point. His, I think his fortune, his personal fortune in modern terms is estimated at being at about 40 million dollars. He was so wealthy that when he went on tours like a diplomatic tours to Europe, he would take like entire orchestras of, you know, 50 musicians and dancers in order to accompany him. And he would like put his Rolls Royces onto his boats and stuff. He was amazing, a modernizer and philanthropist within Karnataka province. And he did all kinds of public works within Mysore. He did wonderful things like, you know, initiated public school for girls in the region. And he also at his palace, set up a pilot program for physical culture, projects that by which young boys, especially those who were financially disadvantaged or who were orphaned, could come and learn wrestling and weightlifting and gymnastics and also yoga.
So Krishnamacharya was hired to run the yoga room, but it was alongside these other disciplines, almost everybody that is responsible for why you and I are having a conversation right now, why your mother got into Yoga, why I got into Yoga, why there are yoga studios, almost everybody who is of any importance came through Krishnamacharya’s classroom from about 1934 through the early Forties. There is a little bit of controversy about when he actually ended. But, you know, these wouldn’t be Pattabhi Jois, BKS Iyengar, and a number of other lesser knowns. And then, and then he also taught Indra Devi, and I think that was in 1936 or so, and she went off from there after about three months of education and started yoga schools all over the world. Finally ending up in Hollywood would teaching people like Marilyn Monroe how to do shoulder stand.
The question that arises is, where did Krishnamacharya’s material come from? And the big debate is how much is old? How much is new? What was developed for the group class process? How much therapeutic knowledge did he have? You know, how much did he really connect his, practice of Asana with older and more well known philosophical traditions and practices within Indian wisdom culture? Those things are all sort of part of a raging debate now when people are looking back to the roots of the modern yoga movement to decide whether or not it has some bearing on the prior history of Yoga in India or some relationship to it. What I have focused on in my study is not about where the postures come from or their connection to the medieval period, but, I’d rather focused on the pedagogical methods that come to us from the Mysore Palace.
We know, unfortunately, from the accounts of Iyengar and Pattabhi Jois, that Krishnmacharya was, you know, not unlike or untypically of teachers of his generation, he was quite a disciplinarian and that he, like other teachers of his generation, liberally used corporal punishment while he was teaching the boys under his charge. And, you know, many historians have noted this, but nobody has really followed through on the implications of that, you know, BKS Iyengar and Pattabhi Jois , for example, learned how to do yoga, which we associate with openness and receptivity and softness and therapeutic value and, you know, becoming more loving and all of that — they learned their art within a very brutal environment, of both corporal punishment and an emotional abuse.
So my research pathway has been trained to try to trace how that particular dynamic becomes intergenerational. And is then correlated with some of the attitudes towards the body that show up when Diane asks her colleagues, you know, “What’s going on with my knee?” And they tell her, “You know, knee injury is just the way it goes. It’s not only for your spiritual benefit, but it’s also just part of the discipline. And if you’re going to be dedicated to this, then that’s what you’re going to go through.” So, that’s the arc that I’m tracing.
And then further beyond that, the next part of the story is how do people like your mom and you and, and Donna Farhi and Theo Wildcroft and Angela Farmer and you know, too many to name — Judith Lasater — how do they inherit tradition of authoritarianism and, you know, the glorification of bodily pain, and how do they overturn it? How do they turn it into something else? How do they inject it with their own values? How do they turn this thing that really used to be about mastering the body into, you know… what’s the primary value now in modern postural yoga? Trauma awareness, really. I would say strength building is one primary value. And then trauma awareness is the other. And these two values, you know, you’re a representative of one of them, if not the other, if not both. And these two values have emerged in response to this darker history. So that was a little bit long winded, but, but, that I hope that gives you your listeners a little bit of a doorway.
Yeah. So I remember when you had your first, What Are We Doing in Asana things at the house. It was very much about injuries and I felt that when you interviewed us that’s what we’re really focusing on and now it seems like you’re focusing on like the bigger picture and the cult like behavior and the, you know, years of abuse that are finally coming out and like, why does that happen? Why were these people put on these pedestals? Why did nobody say anything? I’m so curious like how that natural progression started to happen.
Well, it wasn’t natural in the sense that people like your mom had to like, really give me a yank to swing me around. You know, you probably remember from that meeting — I just, I just told this story to J Brown as well — but, you know, we, at the gathering, there were 60 people there and our plan was to, you know, speak about injury in yoga practice and your mom opened was an account of, what a senior, Ashtanga teacher had told her about Pattabhi Jois assaulting students for years on end. And you know, you might remember that the room was absolutely silent. You could hear a pin drop. I was gripping the corners of my cushion, listening to her, because it wasn’t in the plan. And my thought was “This is really a rabbit hole that we’re going down here.”
And I think the discussion around safety with regard to Asana, is a relatively easy one to have, but this is a lot deeper. What I came to understand was that was that, you know, the injury question within modern yoga practice is really not as important as the power imbalance and the abuse question. People get injured doing all kinds of physical activities. They get injured because they’re unaware, they get injured because they’re addicted to sensation. They’re injured because they drive themselves forward out of a sense of inadequacy. That’s just across the board. It happens in an asana class and it happens in spinning class. But, but you know, when your mom tells me about this injury to her hip and she tells me about the betrayal she feels, with regard to the lack of advice that she got from her peers, you know, how she just didn’t feel supported and she wanted to try to change the practices in her business. But you know, the business actually wouldn’t let her. She was… there was such an anger driving this story and it really wasn’t the anger of, “Oh, I got injured while I was training.” It was an anger about something else. It was an anger, it felt like it was an anger about how she had been treated.
And that was a real big clue to me, is that, you know, in the online discussion that has surrounded the, the injury problem in Yoga, I think a lot of people would notice or resonate with the fact that it’s incredibly contentious and, and passionate. I mean, have you seen this? It’s like people are really, really like, charged about, about how their hamstring was injured in a particular class and, and they’re really upset about being told to do headstand, and then winding up with neck pain. And while these things are… Certainly they shouldn’t happen and, they feel unjust and our education should be improved, I started to understand that the feelings that were underneath the data were really about betrayal. They weren’t about, you know, normal and expectable injuries. They were about “Somebody was supposed to be taking care of me here and they weren’t.”
And the most obvious and loudest expression of that becomes clear when we encounter revelations around Pattabhi Jois, who is regarded as a Guru and yet he is sexually assaulting women in class on a regular basis. And because that story can’t be told because of silencing and rape culture and all of that, I started to understand that the passion that was driving the injury conversation was actually a way of expressing a deeper pain, a deeper pain that couldn’t yet been named. It couldn’t be out in the open. And the fact that it couldn’t be out in the open is just borne out by the fact that, that, you know, it took three years for me to find enough on-record testimonies and get consent from all of those people, all of those women to publish them. It was really, really hard.
And so I think the injury discussion is, masking something else. And transitioning over to looking at that directly, it was really difficult. Because I just didn’t want to, you know, I thought that I wasn’t, I wasn’t…
Okay, so in my history, I have been in two yoga-related cults and I really wanted to believe that the mainstream yoga culture that I was involved with, through people like your mom and, and, my teachers who were influenced by Iyengar, I wanted to believe that those mainstream yoga cultures were free of those influences and mechanisms and dynamics. And so I just didn’t. I was like, “I’ve been here twice before. I refuse to believe this is going on here.” That was one of my attitudes, the other attitude was, I just didn’t want to… I didn’t want to open such a mainstream can of worms. Like, you know, Ashtanga Yoga is so incredibly influential, worldwide.
I wanted to start the Walrus article with, the sentence, the first sentence was actually, you know, over 30 million people or approximately 30 million people in the United States alone practice a style of yoga that is inspired by Pattabhi Jois…. They changed it to millions of people because we couldn’t quite verify or they, they, they didn’t feel that my extrapolation of the numbers was accurate or could be substantiated. But the point is, it’s a hell of a lot of people.
Everybody who’s practicing Vinyasa, Flow, Power: this all goes back to that little room in Mysore. The clothes that are worn. It all goes back to that little room in Mysore. The notion that you are sweating intensely in contorted postures and, and, and having a blissful experience maybe or a painful experience that you can frame is blissful — all of that goes back to that little room in Mysore. And so when I started to really contemplate, “Oh, is this what you’re saying about this little room in Mysore? Is this what these people are describing? Is that really true?” I thought, “Oh, it’s too much to bear.” And so yeah, I just resisted going there for a long time. It did not come naturally.
Yeah, I mean it definitely feels like a much bigger thing. It seems like to say that a style of movement is physically injuring people like is unfortunate, but it doesn’t seem like that big of a deal. But to say that, you know, the person who was responsible for this style of movement has actually been highly abusive to a number of his students, you know, that definitely casts a different light on the whole organization and I think that to tackle that, you know, you’re going to have a lot, a lot more people who are potentially going to support you and then potentially going to fight against you.
Oh totally. Yeah. And, and this is where on the most reactive pole of the response spectrum, there’s a claim: “Oh, that guy is out to destroy Ashtanga Yoga. And it’s a very interesting claim because on one hand it’s completely absurd. Like I, I have good friends who practice, I remember practicing with your mom and I know what people got out of it… I don’t personally choose to do movement practices that are injurious to me, but I don’t have a problem with people choosing to do that. People’s bodies are their bodies and if they really want to, you know, pursue this edge between between pleasure and pain and test themselves and explore extreme sensations, all the more power to them. Literally I am an advocate for freedom.
But on the other hand, on the other hand, if suddenly the method and the community that communicates that method is implicated in a cycle of abuse, and some very basic principles within that method, like the principle of an adjustment itself has now become muddied by the question of
“Why was he doing that? Was he doing that to help people or was he doing that to gain access to them? Was he doing that to abuse them? Was it a mixture of both? How can we tell that apart? Did he teach his students to adjust in the same way that he did? Have some of them gone on to become assaulters themselves? Is there a correlation between that?”
That opens a huge, huge problem and it becomes very, very difficult. I think for some devotees is to really ask this deeper question of: does Ashtanga yoga exist without the influence of this man?
And so when they say “You’re trying to destroy Ashtanga Yoga,” on one hand it’s like, “No, you do whatever you want. That’s absurd. Don’t give me that power. That’s totally grandiose as well. I couldn’t do that.” I’m trying to, I’m trying to question abuse.
But if you think that there’s something abusive wrapped up foundationally in your practice or method or community, yes, that’s a problem you’re going to have to face I think. And, I also… but I don’t say that flippantly. Like I also want to hear from people and platform people who are talking about how to do that. You know, how to take those elements out of the practice culture that they found really valuable and really, really elevate them in contexts of explicit consent and bodily empowerment. Um, and so yeah, it’s definitely charged and, and I think I could sense how problematic and inflammatory this would become a in those early moments listening to your mother speak that night. Uh, and I just wasn’t ready. So I edited that part of her talk out to my shame and, and you know as she might’ve told you, we’ve patched that up. I’ve apologized for that and you know, we’re good friends and you know, I hope I can be as supportive of her work as she has been with mine. But um, yeah, it’s opened up a huge set of questions.
I think another thing that’s so interesting is I have told, obviously I’ve told many people over the course of my life that I’m a yoga teacher. I teach yoga and oftentimes, especially with people who like don’t know very much about yoga at all, I always get this question that follows, which is, well, “Did you train in India?” Almost to mean like, well you’re not really like the real deal yoga teacher unless you’ve trained in India. And I mean my mom had known about this abuse that was happening in Mysore like my entire life. And so as I was growing up as a young person, it never even occurred to me to go there. I was just like, ugh, “Why would I go do that after like what my mom has told me?”
And I think that, you know, obviously that information is not in the mainstream and maybe even if it was, I don’t really know what people would think, but it’s almost like as a yoga teacher, if you. And especially like as someone who was practicing Ashtanga Yoga and like teaching it a little bit. Like if you weren’t going to Mysore you weren’t really the real deal. But at the same time no one really understands why you’re choosing not to go to Mysore. And even if they, I mean, I’m sure lots of people knew about what was happening and still send their students there and, and still recommended that people go, you know, it seems like a little bit problematic.
I would say yeah, this is where we get into, I think, whether or not the language of cult analysis begins to apply because, you know, the senior students who are sending their students to Mysore, if they have knowledge of the abuse, then they are implicated in furthering it and enabling it. But then also, you know, we have to look at really carefully what was the social benefit of them doing that? Did that help them in their own, in their own communities? Did it further their connection to the Jois family? Did it mean that they were more apt to host the family when they came on tour? That sort of thing.
There’s a whole sort of network of potential social values in allowing that abuse to be silenced or to be kept silent. Um, so yeah, that, that becomes really complex, but you bring up this really interesting point of, well, you know, I didn’t want to go because it was obvious that wasn’t something that I wanted, But uh, I also couldn’t and say, well, Hey, I didn’t want to go. That’s a real mess. It’s a difficult position to be in.
And I mean I felt like on the one hand, so my mom had known a couple people who had gone and had this really negative experience and come back and told her and then she told me. And to some extent you almost feel like if it didn’t happen to you or it didn’t happen to someone really close to you, like you heard it from them, then it’s like, “Well, is this really happening? But I’m pretty sure it is.” But at the same time there is this feeling of like, you don’t want to be the one to say something in the event that is not true. It’s, it’s just this like, I mean, it’s further perpetuating the whole thing and further protecting the whole organization where like, something is wrong. You have this gut feeling that something is wrong and still you don’t want to say anything.
Right? So, so here’s where the statistics on false reporting become really, I think important and there’s a little bit of data around it, but, you know, the best numbers I think that are accepted right now or somewhere between only four and eight percent of claims of sexual assault and rape are false. So you know, the gut feeling is, is usually right, especially if there is news, especially if there is stuff coming through the whisper network.
But this problem of “I didn’t hear it directly” is something that I heard from senior students all the way through this research, all the way through preparing this article. You know: “I did hear about that, but I didn’t have direct knowledge of it. I didn’t see it directly. I didn’t…” And I think there’s a lot of things going on there. There’s the person who is saying that is appealing to a kind of sense of epistemological honesty. Like, “Because I didn’t see it directly, I can’t say that it’s true, so I’m not gonna say anything,”
But they would do that in relation to the video of adjustments, right? They’ll see it, they’ll see it happen and then they’ll say, “Well, I don’t know what those practitioners would say about it.” Or “I don’t know what, you know, they’re obviously advanced students and they probably have, you know, a good longterm understanding with Guruji about how they’re going to be touched and so on. And you know, it looks like he’s touching men and women in the same way. And so I really can’t. I’m really not in a position to judge.”
Well that, that unwillingness to be in a position to judge, as you say, it reinforces or encourages, it continues to enable the behavior and it’s based upon one primary unwillingness, which is: Why does nobody reached out to the victims to ask them what happened? Like how long does that video have to be out in the world before somebody tries to track down one of the women in it? How long does Anneke Lucas’s blog posts have to be up about being assaulted by Jois in New York City in 2000 before somebody reaches out and asks her, “Can you tell me a little bit more about that?”
How many, you know — you actually have to go out and do the work in order to really say that you have investigated it. It’s not good enough to sit back and say, “Well, I heard this thing but I can’t verify it.” You know, if false reporting is between four and eight percent, the real, the, the ethical response is: “Well, I heard this thing and I went out to try to find out if it was true.” That second part takes a lot of guts. It takes a lot of resolve because what it ends up doing is it ends up automatically isolating you from the group because nobody else is doing that, for one.
But also as soon as you go out and you start looking for the victim’s voice, and you start listening to it, you’re going to get a completely different picture of the community that you belong to. And that might be very fearful. It might overturn a whole bunch of things that you have, you know, thought about it or you’ve assumed about it. You may not want to find out. And this is where my friend, Theo Wildcroft’s notion of contagion is really important, I think is that, is that the closer you get to listening to somebody like Karen Rain, the more questions you have to ask about what you were involved with, the more you will feel that her experience will almost infect your own and cause you to ask questions about what you’re actually doing. So yeah, it’s, it’s hard to make that leap from “Ah! I can’t really tell,” to: “Yeah, I’m going to find out. ”
And I think that it’s just, it’s also showing us how kind of backwards we have been about assault in general. Like even as a teenager hearing those stories. My first response was like, “Well, I’m not sure if it actually happened.” As opposed to like, “Why don’t we just believe the people who say it happened?” Like that needs to turn over because if you say that false reporting is between four and eight percent, like that’s a huge percentage of accurate reporting. And why are we not just jumping to the conclusion that of course this person is telling the truth. And of course this, this is actually happening.
Can I ask you a question about this though because I think your listeners and everybody would really benefit from hearing more about that moment when you hear it from your mom, and she’s telling you who I assume because you know, there’s many, there’s many things that she’s telling you…
She is being protective. She is telling you about, the less radiant and positive nature, the industry that she has brought you into and, and that you’re part of. But when you have the response that “I’m not really sure if it happened.” I’m wondering what was at stake for you in that? Because I imagine if you, if you had just believed her, wouldn’t you have had to have had a whole different conversation with her about how you were going to proceed in relation to Ashtanga?
Yeah. So I think there’s a couple of things. I think that on the one hand I did believe her because I then always had this idea of like, “Oh, why would I go there if this thing is happening?” Like even just the potential that this is what the environment is like there. I’m not going to go. I think on the one hand I did believe her. And then on the other hand, I mean, oh my goodness, I think now it feels like, “Well if you knew that this was happening, like why are we all still toeing the party line? Why on the website does it say that we’re practicing this thing that was taught by this guy who’s like doing things that are, that are not really cool?”
But at the same time it’s like, I don’t know, I’m not really much of a historian or a researcher, but I feel like to some extent most of our civilization and culture is built upon mass systems of oppression and abuse. And so are we going to abandon the whole thing? Like it widened so much further. I’m like, “Okay, so this thing is happening with a stronger yoga. Are we going to abandon it because this has been happening. And then if we abandon that then it’s like everything…”
Right? I think you’re saying something so like really concise and, and precious about the moment of disillusionment where… and I get, I encounter this response a lot like you know, “Let’s make sure that we don’t throw out the baby with the bathwater. What would we have left? Are you trying to destroy Ashtanga Yoga?” And, and I would say that I would say that like as an emotional response, that is like a really necessary, a healthy and normal response to the problem, the problem being: “Oh, I have been involved with something that has caused harm to others and possibly to myself but I’m also deeply enmeshed in it and it’s part of my livelihood and my entire social life revolves around it. How am I going to extract myself from it without feeling totally amputated or without dying in a way?”
I think everybody goes through that. I think everybody goes through that. And that’s why I think, I think the language of cult analysis is really crucial too, because everybody who’s part of a high demand group, if they are heading towards the door, if they are beginning to exit it, they’re going to feel groundless. They’re going to feel like they have nothing left to them. Um, and this is why I really liked the work of Alexandra Stein who says that the most successful transition from within a high demand group to outside of it is really facilitated by other relationships. So, you know, you kind of hinted at it a little bit in your story about how you went from practicing yoga six days a week to starting to hang out at the gym and talking to other people who had different ideas about the body.
And so it’s not like the baby went out with the bathwater. The baby started swimming in a new bath, right? Like you were finding value in a Ashtanga Yoga. And then there were these, you know, dysfunctional or toxic elements to it and you moved into a different set of relationships and self perceptions and maybe you took some of the yoga with you and maybe you left something behind. But, but that, that immediate, “Oh my God, what’s going to happen now?” is just going to be. It’s going to be a moment in time that people just go through and hopefully they will be able to see that with transparency, with self study, with outside sources of support, with different tools. They will… their lives will continue. They will probably reorient themselves towards Ashtanga yoga in some way. If they want to create a really safe environment, they’ll get really specific about that if they also want to keep an association with a Ashtanga Yoga.
So there’s a lot of teachers right now like Sarai Harvey-Smith and, and Greg Nardi and Jean Byrne who are kind of revisioning Ashtanga Yoga with consent cards and with, you know, switching up the sequences and with all kinds of ideas of student empowerment. But they have retained something. It’s like, it’s like they have taken the, the whatever they found most valuable from the practice, the intensity, the breath, the notion of sequencing, the silence, the drishti, all of those things that they loved and which — I understand that love — and they have, and they have lifted them up out of this other context in which all of those things actually functioned as grooming mechanisms for abuse.
You know, because the bodily intensity, um, you know, can break down people’s resistance to critical thinking. The drishti can make people not look around and the rest of the room and see what the guru is doing to other people. The Ujjayi breathing can be, can put you into a trance state in which you don’t really register the pain that you’re experiencing in a reasonable way. And so all of those are really precious aspects of Ashtanga Yoga can be reframed towards empowerment.
But it takes transparency. It takes you, you know, I don’t think you get there without looking directly at, “Oh, you know, there was a real problem here.” And, and, and then really negotiating what you loved about it anyway. And maybe having a little bit of faith that those things can be lifted up and out and, and shared with others without the abuse.
And so where do you see the Ashtanga culture moving from here? So I, you know, I never went to Mysore. I was practicing with Ashtanga teachers in Canada and the United States and those teachers I was working with like were exceptional. And to my knowledge there was no abuse going on and it was always very positive learning experience. And so I think that just because someone is an Ashtanga teacher doesn’t necessarily mean they’re, you know, practicing in community in a negative way. And where do you think it’s going from here?
Yeah. So, so this where in the book that’s emerging out of this article, I want to finish with, I want to platform the voices of leaders within the community who have responded to these revelations in the most progressive and productive way. But I can see I’m going to miss some of course, but, uh, you know, I’ve named a few already. Um, I really think that….
Okay. One problem with using the language of cult analysis is that a people hear it and then they believe that, somehow there’s a hard line between being in and out it’s not really like that. It’s more like there’s a, there’s a very vibrant and magnetic and radiant center to the organization and then there are layers of association that move outwards in kind of like you know, an onion-type fashion and the people who were on the outermost layers — and I would say that that’s where you were actually, you know, it’s like your association was not to the center. It wasn’t too, you know, you didn’t look to the Jois family for your validation. You probably got maybe one or two layers closer to the center when you go to, you know, Richard Freeman and study with him or he comes to Toronto and whoever else that you studied with. You might’ve encountered other practitioners that were closer in towards the center. But you probably stayed on the outside of it.
And on that outside, we really have, you know, the probably the highest amount of benefit that the culture and the teaching offers to people, you know. People don’t necessarily have to engage with the toxic social dynamics that are pulling people in towards the center.
But the thing is, is that in a way, even Downward Dog as a yoga studio functioned as what, you know, a number of theorists would call a front organization for the center, in the sense that people would learn the method, they would hear about Pattabhi Jois. They might get fascinated by learning more, and they might be motivated to go to Mysore.
There’s a way in which being on that outside layer is not entirely benign, but it’s also where people can either plunge further in or they can just stay where they are. And I would say that, the really positive future of Ashtanga Yoga will be comprised of people who were on the outer layer and who learned the techniques and didn’t really have to engage in the toxic social dynamics. And also there will be leadership from people who are close to the center who made their way out and who say, “No, this is not what was valuable about the practice, the devotional aspect, the, the hierarchy, the dominance — that was not what I was actually wanting for my life. But I really do love the postures and the sensations of the breath work. AndI’m going to try to make something creative out of that.”
And I think that’s already happening. The Ashtanga world is decentralized enough that there are people who are already doing that work. You know, I just spoke with Matthew Sweeney, and, you know, he’s kind of been on that outer layer for the last 15 years and he’s cast a critical eye towards the center. And when I asked him, you know, “So what, what are the essential things that you value about this method that have nothing to do with these toxic dynamics that are being revealed right now?” He talks about those, those somatic tools, breath and movement together as some sort of modulation between intensity and ease, some sort of connection towards the Yamas and Niyamas, developing a focal point, the value of, of regular concentration practice, I mean, pretty basic stuff that really does not rely upon a kind of fealty to a set of commitments to the center of the organization.
And so in a way, you know, you asked where do you think it’s going to go? I think it’s already, it’s already gone. It’s already gone. And I think they will, the voices that express independence, and, but also love for the techniques, I think they will continue to develop the future of the community. I think a good reference here would be the work of my friend Norman Blair in London who published a wonderful essay that maybe we can maybe we can link for your readers.
What’s the essay called?
Oh, it’s called “Ashtanga Yoga Stories.” Cool. Yeah. Uh, the subtitle is “delights, insights and difficulties.”
Great. We will link to that in the show notes for sure along with all of the other resources and people who you mentioned. This has been such a pleasure. Matthew. Thank you so much for doing this with me.
Yeah, thank you Kathryn and I’m so happy to talk to you. It feels like some kind of circle is being completed. I mean we, you know, we met what, 12 years ago and, and, and, and there’s, there’s so much that we’ve shared on sort of parallel tracks. It’s really good to meet this way.
So for anyone who wants to get in touch with you or see some of the work that you’ve done, how can they do that?
Just my web site is my name, Matthew Remski .com. And people can also find me on Facebook and I’m, I’m happy to take any questions and, and respond to any emails I try to get back to everybody.
Awesome. All right everyone. Thanks again for tuning in and as usual, if you want to get in touch with me, you can do that on my website, which is Kathryn Bruni, Young .com, or on social media. Under my name. Thanks for listening. Everyone.
Image: myself and Diane Bruni at the #WAWADIA event on May 29, 2014. I refer to this event in the interview. The write-up and (unfortunately) butchered video is here. I love how Diane is looking at me here, trying to figure out how full of shit I am.
Thank you to J. Brown for having me on his podcast, as part of his series about current news in the Ashtanga world. You can also tune in to his talks with Kino MacGregor, Scott Johnson, and Sarai Harvey-Smith.
Here’s our talk. Resources and transcript (trimmed of intro/outro) below.
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.
Hi, how are you?
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.
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?
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.
Yeah. You know what, you mentioned two and a half years for your son and-
Almost two, he’s going to be two on May 17th.
Well, we last spoke, the last time you were on the podcast was May 2016.
Oh, my goodness. Was he born or not?
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.
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.
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.
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.”
“Art is useless because its aim is simply to create a mood. It is not meant to instruct, or to influence action in any way. It is superbly sterile, and the note of its pleasure is sterility. If the contemplation of a work of art is followed by activity of any kind, the work is either of a very second-rate order, or the spectator has failed to realise the complete artistic impression.” – Oscar Wilde, letter to young artist
“What’s the difference between the ‘functional mover’ and the productive citizen?” – Theodora Wildcroft, via Skype
In this highly polished Iyengar tutorial, the instructor is obviously hyperextending her knees. She leans back, exquisitely, into her ligaments. She rests there for an appropriately penitential interval. Distended and refreshed, she eases out. The students follow suit. Continue reading “The Sublime Uselessness of Old-School Asana”
“Honestly, I don’t know whether what I’m teaching is yoga anymore.”
If I had a dollar for every time I heard this sentence from the fantastically skilled yoga teachers I talk to in North America, I’d be able to afford the rent on a yoga studio in a gentrified neighbourhood.
But seriously. There’s a pause after they say it. Something between fear and equanimity hangs in that pause. Continue reading ““Am I Even Teaching Yoga Anymore?””
This essay first appeared in Yoga International: thank you to Kat Heagburg for editorial help.
You’ve probably heard a number of translations for the haṭha part of haṭhayoga.
“Forceful” is commonly cited. Others prefer a more esoteric take: they say that ha- and -ṭha stand for “sun and moon,” or “inhale and exhale.” They propose that practice is aimed at the integration of opposing forces.
According to yoga scholar Jason Birch, the esoteric translation is probably a later addition to the early literature of haṭhayoga. “Forceful” is the older meaning.
But what kind of “force” were the originators of haṭhayoga describing?
Birch writes that the hugely influential 19th century Sanskritist Monier Monier-Williams, along with other European Indologists of his era, “confounded haṭhayoga with extreme practices of asceticism (tapas) that appear in the purāṇas” or epic literature. Together, they put forward the notion that haṭha implied the force of violent exertion or self-mortification.
Traces of this meaning elide with the “no pain, no gain” heroism of the modern fitness era—and with the notion of moving, or being pushed by teachers, toward the “edge” of tolerance—usually at the end-range of a joint’s motion. The edge is typically viewed as a potential threshold of revelation, perhaps because its shadow is the threshold of injury.
But as Birch carefully points out, the consistent refrain of the early haṭhayoga manuals is that if practices are done śanaiḥ, śanaiḥ —”gently, gently”— spiritual awakening will inevitably occur. In other words, with enough gentleness in your practice, you’d be forced to wake up. Continue reading “The Problem of Pain in Yoga”
An earlier version of this article first appeared in Yoga International.
The 2010 publication of Yoga Body: The Origins of Modern Posture Practice, marked a watershed moment in the history of global asana culture.
What was the big deal? A writer equally committed to research and practice produced a work of academic scholarship so rich, accessible, and interesting it quickly broke into the non-academic reading lists of enthusiastic practitioners and top-shelf trainings in the English-speaking world.
Mark Singleton’s book sparked countless conversations about the meaning of social authenticity in a practice meant to reveal personal authenticity. It revolutionized the genetic view of yogic transmission – in which instructions are handed down unchanged across generations and postcolonial boundaries – with epigenetic considerations of cultural, historical, and technological influence.
It showed that yoga is not an artifact, but an organism, and that its teachers may be less guardians of the essential than they are curators of the useful. Continue reading “Mark Singleton Responds to Critics Who Didn’t Want to Understand His Book”
Heyam dukham anagatam.
(Pain that is yet to come can be avoided.)
Yoga Sutra II:16
On June 14th, Kino MacGregor posted a photo to her 782K Instagram and 264K Facebook followers. She’s in hero pose, her hands in prayer, eyes closed, on a beach. Fans would find it an uncharacteristic shot. There’s no floating movement implied, and her body is small against the wide-angled azure sky and placid sea. Her caption gives insight into the image, and why it seems to chafe her feed like an internal tear:
Yesterday while I was helping a student in Bakasana I heard a series of pops around my right hip. Then I couldn’t bear weight, walk or straighten my leg. After a visit to the doctor I still don’t have a complete diagnosis but it’s most likely a sprain of either the hamstring or the hip or both. Now the real yoga begins. I always say that pain and injury are the true teachers of the spiritual path and now it’s time for me to walk my own talk. There is a lesson is [sic] everything, especially the hard and difficult stuff. If this is a hip sprain and not a hamstring sprain then it will change my whole paradigm on what it takes to forward bend. If it’s the hamstring I’ll gain valuable knowledge on how to heal and rehab a hamstring sprain. Today’s #YogiAssignment is Wisdom. What is the wisdom that the biggest pain or obstacle in your life has to teach you? What wisdom have you gained from going through a difficult or challenging period in your life? Remaining equanimous with faith and patience through pain, injury and suffering is hard, but it is where the real inner work of yoga begins. Being strong in yoga isn’t about how long you can hold a handstand. It’s about how much grace you can contain when facing adversity.
MacGregor’s followers on Snapchat saw more of the backstory flash across their mobile screens that Saturday, and then disappear as if it had never happened.
“I put it all on Snapchat, because Snapchat doesn’t save anything,” she tells me via phone. Her enthusiasm is infectious. “I told everyone: ‘I’m at the Emergency Room. I feel like a drama queen!’
“But I knew I had to get it checked out. I had to teach the next day. I was really concerned about potential damage to the hip joint.”
The Emergency doctor in West Hartford, Connecticut, surmised a hamstring sprain and inflammation of the hip bursa, and suggested patience before proceeding to imaging. MacGregor went for acupuncture that evening at the studio she’d been teaching in for the weekend, did only restorative postures the following morning, taught another class while keeping her knee bent in forward folds, and then flew back to Miami on Sunday night.
On Monday, MacGregor saw a sports medicine doctor who took an x-ray that ruled out any hairline fracture, and suggested physiotherapy. On a walk that afternoon on Miami’s South Beach, she paused to take a photo of herself in Scorpion pose.
MacGregor’s physio is on staff at the Miami City Ballet. “She’s excellent,” MacGregor says. “She confirmed that my hamstring was pulled, but she didn’t think it was a serious tear. She said that my glutes were pulled. She checked my obturator and as much of the deep-six as she could, and she felt that they were all a little pulled.
“But then she checked my sacroiliac joint and found that the whole right plate of the sacrum had shifted and my right hip was raised, and there was a lot of compression. I thought, ‘That’s what all the popping was.’”
MacGregor has suffered yoga-related sacroiliac pain and injury in the past. It’s a common problem in the yoga world, and is widely believed to be exacerbated by seated and standing twisting postures.
“The therapist also said that there was probably inflammation around the joint capsule, and that maybe because of the impact, the head of the femur had jammed against the socket. She gave me a list of movements I should avoid, and a whole 20-minute therapeutic routine that I did with her that day. I’ve been doing it every day, before my practice. But I didn’t practice on Monday or Tuesday.”
On Tuesday, MacGregor saw her favourite massage therapist – “an energy healer who also does chiropractic adjustments” – who manipulated her sacrum back into what felt like alignment. “There were a whole series of clicks and pops around the sacroiliac joint, and these were really loud. Twenty-four hours later, there was a dramatic improvement in my whole hip area. The inflammation was down by 50%.”
By Thursday afternoon, MacGregor was back out on South Beach, having a photo taken of herself in Vasisthasana. Neither that post nor the Scorpion post make mention of the injury.
I remarked that in the Vasisthasana photo, she’s loading her injured hip.
“Yeah, but that’s a strengthening action,” MacGregor replied. “There was no strain on the hamstring. It felt good.”
I’ve interviewed more than a hundred yoga practitioners about pain and injury. The acute injuries are dramatic: a hamstring tears in the moment of a harsh adjustment, or a rotator cuff rips upon the impact of leaping into an arm-balance that uses the upper arm as a brace. But there are usually pre-existing weaknesses or stresses that forecast these events, which means that sports medicine doctors and orthopedic surgeons are typically conservative when it comes to pinpointing exact moments and causes.
Even harder to definitively source are the repetitive stress injuries that creep in below the radar. I’ve interviewed several women who have sustained labral tears, for example, which first present as niggling pinches in the groin and either slowly or quickly progress to shattering pain. Many of these subjects continued to practice as their pain increased, unaware that they may be deepening a tear. Some practiced with modification, some without, but most continued with a firm belief that whatever the pain was, practice would heal it.
Then there are injuries like MacGregor’s, which are yoga-related, but don’t literally occur on the mat. MacGregor was initially firm via email. “This isn’t a yoga injury that came from my practice. It came from the impact of a student falling into me while I was assisting her.”
But when a Facebook fan asked her during an online Q&A session: “What are your thoughts on how the intensity of the practice may have contributed to your injury?” MacGregor didn’t answer.
As we spoke, however, she opened up about borderline doubts, starting with her practice habits, and by the end, winding around to the value and impact of her YouTube channel.
I asked her about the public reaction to an Instagram she posted of herself in an “oversplits” position, with her front calf and bottom shin planted on opposing chairs, and her hips dipping into the space between them. The caption reads:
Got a new assignment today from Eugene: oversplits. He says that my hips have to eventually touch the floor. What do you think? How many month with [sic] that take? @beachyogagirl and I are snapping today–are you following our snap chat stories? Kerri caught more of the crazy things we did today. Snapchat: kinoyoga Leggings @aloyoga.
“People re-posted that picture and said, ‘That’s the reason for your hip injury.’ And I thought about it, and I thought gosh, well, I don’t know…
“I had to think about whether I was pushing myself too hard in my practice, and whether that had created instability in my hip joint.
“But when I started my practice, I was really unstable. I’m not a naturally strong person. Or naturally flexible. It’s more like ‘floppy’ is my natural state. And a little clumsy. So my main emphasis in practice is the avenue of strength. Even in a flexibility posture like oversplits, I’m approaching it from strength. So I’m training with this Russian circus guy – ”
“Is that ‘Eugene’?” I interject.
“That’s Eugene! I wanted technique for advanced stretches and arm-balances. And in the yoga world, there isn’t a lot of technique around. It’s more like, ‘Don’t do it’.
“But I know I’m gonna have to do it if I’m gonna keep practicing Ashtanga. I’m working on Kroukachasana, in the Fifth Series. So let me get some technique, the way to safely support my joints. So with that oversplits, Eugene had me engaging really intensely to support my body while I was there. He didn’t let me sit there and hang. He was focusing on how to build more strength around the joint.”
There’s no doubt MacGregor is strong. She floats between arm balances and planking variations with a post-human grace that seems aided by CGI. She seems – on film at least – to have achieved the perfect physical balance of firmness and ease described in the Yoga Sutras. But no one, including MacGregor, can know whether that alchemy is stable, and for how long.
Almost exactly a year ago, I reported on the right-hip-implosion of one of Canada’s first Ashtanga teachers, Diane Bruni. In 2008, Bruni tore the deep rotators off her bone in a seemingly-harmless wide-angled pose following a five-year-long regime of hip-opening, which was paradoxically recommended by her yoga mentors to treat her ongoing knee pain.
It took Bruni several years for her to come clean to herself and others about how she felt that a programme of extreme flexibility and spiritualized pain had dominated her practice and teaching ideology – and destabilized her hips by weakening her ligaments. “My livelihood depended on it”, she told me. “My studio was based on it.
“Before my injury, I used to say many of the things Kino says in the injury post and on YouTube,” Bruni writes. To illustrate, she sends me a link to “Yoga for Open Hips: Full Practice with Kino”. It’s on the Kinoyoga channel, which has 271K followers and almost 70 million views.
“I would say: ‘Notice the sensations. Notice if it hurts, it’s burning, or of it’s tight. Tell yourself it’s okay, practice surrender. Accept the pain, breathe into it. This will help you accept who you are.’
“Now I wonder – what does that even mean?”
At time cue 9:25 of the video, MacGregor sinks forward over her thighs in a deep butterfly posture, and pauses in a passive stretch. “Feel that burning sensation in the hip joints,” she intones. “Nice deep inhale. Nice deep exhale.”
Bruni sighs over email. “I said all the same things.” She’s since left Ashtanga behind to learn and teach what she feels to be more functional and sustainable movement.
“I practiced and taught all these poses, which are totally inaccessible to most people. I learned the hard way. I hope I can help save at least one person the agony of my injury.”
It’s unclear whether this setback will shift MacGregor’s practice in a permanent way, or be absorbed into her brand narrative, or both. Early indications suggest that the media juggernaut that projects her yoga may make it difficult for anything but business-as-usual.
Since the injury announcement, Kinoyoga instagram has been updated with over 50 photos and videos of MacGregor in advanced postures. The hip-opening clip that Bruni sent me was published on June 29th. Some critics have speculated that all of these visuals must have been shot before the injury, and have continued auto-uploading without disclaimer or warning – perhaps to fulfill endorsement contracts – as if from a virtual studio where injury is impossible.
But MacGregor says that only some photos date from prior to the injury, while most were shot on the day of posting. For instance, on July 1st, several Kinoyoga platforms unrolled a “Back to Backbends” public challenge as part of a beta-stage collaboration with @beachyogagirl Kerri Verna. Fans are encouraged to post yoga-selfies that mimic a pre-set sequence, and to click into sponsorship sites.
MacGregor tells me that all of the challenge’s backbending photos and films were shot prior to the campaign’s start – within the two-week window following the injury. “As long as I stayed away from hip rotations, I was fine,” MacGregor says. “Backbending felt really good. Arm balances were fine. Straight-line handstands – good.”
MacGregor says that she didn’t want her media platform to reflect upon her injury while she was unsure about its status. Therefore, the regular posts continued.
“I really just wanted to figure it out, to go through it, and wait until I was on the other side of it,” she says. “I wouldn’t feel comfortable saying ‘This is the physical therapy I’m using to heal’, because I wouldn’t be sure of it. Maybe after it heals I could talk about my experience and the step-by-step postures and be able to say ‘This worked’. I’d want empirical evidence that it worked, rather than just sharing it and having a whole bunch of people mimic my process.
“So I couldn’t share the physical part of the journey, but the #YogiAssignments I gave with every post that week took the flavour of exactly where I was emotionally, spiritually, and mentally.”
Iain Grysak is an advanced Ashtanga practitioner and teacher stationed in Bali who I interviewed about a year ago for my project, because he emphasizes safety and moderation in practice. He seems to be one of those exceedingly rare advanced practitioners who reports no significant injuries.
“I have respect for Kino and what she does,” Grysak writes. “She gets a bad rap from part of the Ashtanga community because of her massive marketing and commercialization process. I have always respected the fact that she does it with integrity, by attempting to live the truth of what the practice means to her, as well as remaining in line with the current ‘tradition’.”
But as to the physical toll of MacGregor’s stated job of providing “a link between the pop culture of yoga and the more traditional lineage based spiritual practice,” Grysak expresses concern.
His basic contention is that this fiery method can be healthy and even therapeutic when practiced with supervision in conservative amounts. But he warns that even the most robust practitioners will hurt themselves if practice turns into a full-time profession demanding endless jet-setting, teaching, and demonstration – whether for digital consumption or “weekend intensive” formats.
“It’s not what the practice is designed for. It’s not sustainable. The striving – for deeper opening in Bruni’s case, or to give “inspiration” in MacGregor’s case – might lead people to take the practice to a place that it is just not meant to be taken if it is to remain a healthy technique.”
Grysak also says that the same teacher to whom MacGregor dedicated her recent book – Sharath Jois, grandson of Ashtanga founder Pattabhi Jois – actively discourages both the professional zeal and the mega-posture workshop-culture now par-for-the-course in the yoga world.
“Sharath is very opposed to overworking and speaks out against it regularly in Mysore. He admonishes people who go home after practice and continue to work on tough postures. He says asana practice should be done once a day, in the morning. I agree with him: get on with your life and wait until the next morning to do more asana!”
I asked MacGregor for a response.
“I would definitely agree. When I’m in Mysore, I do my practice, and then I go home and go back to bed. My body has been through a spiritual, emotional, and physical battle on levels I’m not even aware of. I’m like a soldier, no joke. I try to avoid talking to other people afterwards, because I’m in this sensitive, other world.
“But in Mysore there’s really nothing else to do. So after I sleep, the rest of the day is like ‘Do you wanna drink coconuts, or do you wanna go get lunch?’”
“I have to admit” – I can hear a sly grin over the phone – “when I leave Mysore, I’m a bad Ashtangi. It’s not possible for me to keep up that kind of intense discipline. I practice six days a week, but I do not kill myself. I practice in a calm manner that gives space to my body and how I’m feeling that day. I’ll do the practice my teacher has given me, but I will not force. I’ll give myself little outs. That’s taken me a long time to get to that chilled-out place.
“So I totally agree. I wouldn’t be able to sustain traveling and teaching and making a few videos in the afternoon if I was practicing like in Mysore.”
MacGregor has periodically faced doctrinal and pragmatic critique from within her subculture head-on. But she also faces scientific pushback from the wider movement-studies field. Opposition to the assumed benefits of flexibility-focused and repetitive-motion exercise is growing – most loudly against the passive stretching that might not be part of the Ashtanga method per se, but which MacGregor and others promote as preparatory for the deeply contortionistic postures of its advanced series.
Most of the biomechanics specialists, kinesiologists, neurologists and orthopedic surgeons I’ve consulted in my research are deeply skeptical of the borderline-mystical theories of stretching handed down through pre-modern yoga therapeutics. This new consensus is overturning popular notions of bodily alchemy that echo through sources ranging from medieval to New-Age to high-end-spa-speak.
Pattabhi Jois was fond of the adage, “With enough heat, even iron will bend”. But this new rationalist yoga discourse imposes clearer limits upon the aspirational body, insisting that muscles do not get “longer”, and pain is not an “opening” – except in a pathological sense. The primal dream of bodily transformation through “being worked into a noodle”, as Jois student Annie Pace described it, is being eclipsed by the simpler goal of enhancing a natural range of motion for functional movement.
Jules Mitchell, who works to incorporate the most recent data on the science of stretching into yoga studies, is unequivocal: “The yoga community has been dangerously obsessed with tissue distention,” she writes via email.
Interviewed for her blog by Ashtangi Tracey Mansell, Londoner Osteopath Jamie Andrews adds: “Prolonged exposure to progressive stretching can eventually lead to ligamentous laxity and joint hypermobility, increasing the risk of muscular injuries, ligamentous injuries, joint dislocation and reduced proprioception.”
But Pattabhi Jois wasn’t just referring to muscles and ligaments when he used the word “iron”, even though the body was his teaching instrument. For Jois, physical possibility on a gross level provided access to a subtler spiritual possibility. As almost all of his senior students recall, he was constantly speaking to the deeply conditioned wounds of the human psyche, clad in the iron of defensive self-concepts.
“Pain is good,” MacGregor quotes Jois as saying of the process that “releases” spiritual rigidity. If Jois’ terrifying postural adjustments are nauseating to the movement specialists of today, it’s in part because they don’t understand the premise that he was wrestling through stubborn tissues to get at his students’ souls.
With regard to the general meaning of the human body, Kino MacGregor is faithful to Jois’ path. In video and print, she speaks of using postures to “access” the hips, the interior space of the pelvis, the inner body, and the heart (not the cardiac muscle, but the emotional centre). For Jois and MacGregor, the body is a container to be opened and purified, and pain is a necessary sign of progress. “Practicing six days a week,” MacGregor writes, “accelerates the rate at which you experience the pains that purify weakness and stiffness, as well as the rate at which you experience the purified result of more strength and flexibility in the body and mind.”
I asked MacGregor how she and her students distinguish from the spiritually necessary pain that she seems to be describing in her book, and the pain that indicates injury. She affirmed the difference between acceptable delayed-onset muscular soreness and pain that is to avoided: joint pain, or pain within practice that makes the yogi wince.
But the longer part of her answer detoured back to the ideal spiritual attitude the yogi should have towards the injury that’s already happened.
“When you’re injured, you have to ask ‘Am I really going to do Marichyasana C, or am I going to let my hip joint heal?’ In my case, I’m going to let my hip joint heal. Does that annoy me? Sure. But it’s my ego that’s hurting. So then that is the tapas. That is the real teacher. That’s more yoga than just going in and hammering out the asanas.”
The circular argument that MacGregor transparently makes is so hard to understand, it seems to validate the adage that yoga cannot be conceptualized. Pain is described as a necessary spiritual tool in a practice that claims to heal the body and ego and free the person from all limitation. But if you have too much pain, or the wrong kind, you’re courting injury. No-one wants that.
Or do they? If too much pain does injure the yogi, the bright side is that renewed focus upon bodily healing may hurt the ego as it contemplates its new limitations. This is ultimately good news, because, as MacGregor says, “the real yoga is the burning up of the ego”.
The more rationalist approach, larded with biomedical jargon and devoid of MacGregor’s poetic paradox, may never capture the hearts of truly devotional practitioners. Kinesiology doesn’t turn the body into a vehicle for spiritual lessons best learned through fire. Jois may have called his Primary Series “Yoga Cikitsa” or “Healing for the Body”, but his esoteric paradigm for health, quite distinct from contemporary biomedical goals, includes the capacity to commune with pain and to embrace the inevitability of injury as proof of the omnipresent Divine.
Senior students I’ve interviewed have insisted that the late Jois didn’t invite them into his shala to help them avoid the fear of pain and death, but to encounter it fully, and face it down with the same steady gaze and even breath with which he performed his ritual fire offerings every morning.
Neither the Kinoyoga YouTube channel nor The Power of Ashtanga Yoga carry disclaimers, warnings, or contraindications for the postures MacGregor teaches. I asked her whether if in the shadow of this injury she might consider changing this, or altering her instructions to offer more protection against the growing trend of joint destabilization. She’s tiptoed around the question before.
“Well I’m not feeling that great about my YouTube channel, to be honest,” she replied. “It seems to have become a place where men come to talk about about my feet or my butt.
“So I’m currently renovating it. I’m changing the focus to shorter, more friendly practice routines, and then a weekly video blog about what I think it means to be a yogi in the world.
“I have to admit I’m not a perfect teacher. I’ve probably made numerous mistakes, and left out key information numerous times. I don’t have any plans for adding disclaimers or contraindications, but I’d definitely consider that in the future.”
I pivoted to the issue of a different kind of safety.
“Do you think the trolling on your channel makes it an unsafe space for your intended audience?”
(There have been 12 million viewers for her video of Supta Hasta Padangusthasana, most of whom seem drawn over by the thumbnail from fitsploitation channels that produce soft porn faux-yoga for ad revenue. The clip has earned over 1500 comments, most of which are sexually harassing.)
“Gosh, I hope not. When some guy says I have sexy feet, I think ‘Whatever.’ But the mean-spirited stuff – the misogynistic and racist stuff – that’s part of why I’m renovating the channel. In the new videos I’m wearing leggings, speaking slower, and the angles are PG-13, 100%. The intention is to keep it mild-mannered. My hope is that one of these videos will become my most popular. That will mean that people are coming back to the practice.
“Would you consider deleting abusive comments and banning users?” I asked. “It might be another full-time job, but….”
“I would consider it, but I’m also concerned about the boundaries of free speech in a public forum like YouTube. But anything racist and misogynistic – I’ll keep an eye out for it with these new videos, and I’ll definitely consider blocking users who cross a line.”
Amongst MacGregor’s non-troll fan base, a few commenters on the injury photo have offered her friendly but imaginative healing advice. They tell her she should take raw garlic to battle the parasite infection that will now invade her hip. They tell her to be mindful of the effects of Saturn, or to determine which chakra is causing her acute pain. One dreamy supporter suggested that MacGregor discover which past memories were tightening her hamstrings.
But by and large, MacGregor’s following has flooded her channels with less intrusive wishes for a full recovery.
So have her esteemed colleagues in the Ashtanga community. Eddie Stern, founder of the iconic Ashtanga Yoga New York, commented by email, “I think it was very brave of Kino to post about her injury, and share it with her following.
“I hope that she didn’t do anything too serious,” Stern continues. “And I hope that her recovery is quick. She will probably gain some insights that she can pass along to her students and social media fans that they will perhaps benefit from.”
Elsewhere, lesser-known yogis riding the media wave that MacGregor has churned are also coming clean about the painful faultline between practice and performance.
Twenty-three year-old Instagram yogi Irene Pappas (@fitqueenirene, 476K followers), is now practicing with one arm only to protect her arm-balance-aggravated necrotic wrist bones, which may never be able to bear weight again. Another Instagram yogi, @blue_yagoo (21.5K followers), reports on being removed from her home via stretcher after tearing her trapezius muscle, following a period of intense practice.
She posts: “I was ‘listening to my body’ intently the same way I had a thousand times before, and I STILL assessed the situation incorrectly.
“The paramedic asked me how I got into my predicament as I was lying on the stretcher. I tried explaining the asana verbally, which only rendered confusion. So I showed him the photo.
“His eyebrows shot up. ‘Yep. That’ll do it.’”
photo of Kino MacGregor by Tom Rosenthal
So what happens when you publish a nuanced analysis of the safety of headstand and shoulderstand in global studio-based yoga culture, featuring the voices of five qualified commentators?
- You get a lot of views.
- You provoke a lot of emotions.
- Several classic ways of derailing an uncomfortable topic are instantly revealed.
- Emotions + derailments = repeat number one.
The response to “King and Queen No More?” was voluminous, spread over a thousand threads, and expressed in at least a dozen languages. It’s difficult to analyze, but in my own unscientific survey, the sentiments seemed equally divided.
On the positive side, many readers appreciated the biomechanical deconstruction of two iconic poses. They wrote of their reticence around their own qualifications to practice or teach them safely in group settings. They felt that the ambivalence of skilled anatomists on the issue of cervical load-bearing activity—whether it’s appropriate at all, as well as how much is appropriate, for how long, and for whom—meant that the poses are better left on the shelf, especially if alternatives are available. Finally: Many expressed relief that the very poses they correlate with their pain or injury are now drawing closer scrutiny.
On the other side, many commenters re-pledged their allegiance to the King and Queen, and wrote of their gratitude for the many blessings they bestow. Some decried the micromanagement of the discourse by posture-crats who are losing sight of yoga’s larger purpose. Some lambasted the specter of yoga-teacher-as-helicopter-parent. Some argued for personal responsibility over bubble-wrapping each student against the precious chance of transcending fear and limitation. In the end, many detractors settled on the permissive side of the risk/benefit question, unconvinced that the cautions of Miller, Mitchell and Theoret carried sufficient weight to justify Leena Cressman’s decision to remove the postures from her studio’s classes.
This was originally published at Yoga International. Thank you to Kathryn Ashworth and the editorial team there.
Framing the Problem
Leena Miller Cressman, my colleague at Queen Street Yoga in Kitchener, Ontario, recently posted an explanation for why the studio doesn’t teach headstand or shoulderstand, and why she has taken the further—some would say radical—step of strongly requesting that students not practice these postures in the studio space, even outside of class time.
Her reasoning goes like this:
- The oft-touted health benefits of the “king and queen” of asanas are not sufficiently supported by medical literature.
- Most North Americans present with device-induced forward head carriage, which heightens the risk of bearing weight on the cervical spine.
- Cressman’s personal experience of pain associated with these postures has convinced her that even high levels of yoga training (compared to industry standards) have not equipped her or her staff to adequately assess the spinal health of her students, or how to gauge the effects of these poses as practice proceeds.
- If the postures aren’t instructed in classes, her faculty can’t be assured that students who improvise them before, during, or after class time have any training at all.
- Inversion show-offism can either intimidate or encourage others to crave or try the poses, also without supervision. (This fifth point is not fully fleshed out in the post itself, but Cressman has confirmed her thoughts on it with me via email.)