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 in 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 slash branding of WAWADIA or my project. And 60 people showed up, and she was going to speak on her injury experience. I was going to give my initial research that was related to psychosocial dynamics of injury. And then we had also a sports medicine doctor who was going to come, and he was going to do a little bit of statistical analysis on who got hurt when and where and how. And Diane was going first, and she just did not follow the plan. That’s not really her jam.
It wasn’t unexpected, but at the same time, what she began talking about was really outside of what I felt the scope of my project should be. She started talking about the whisper network that she had encountered in the late 1990s that informed her that Pattabhi Jois was allegedly assaulting female students. And she described how that led her into a kind of crisis of faith and professional choices like how was she going to associate herself with a system where this was true? And the information that she had was credible. She told the story, and I was sitting there gripping my meditation cushion listening to her say it and thinking, “This wasn’t in the program, this wasn’t part of the deal.”
Yeah, sorry to jump in. But I remember when I spoke to her, she came to Brooklyn and I met her. And she came on the podcast and we talked, but she talked a lot more about actually ripping up her hip and then stuff that she felt was wrong with Ashtanga having to do with just biomechanics and stuff. She didn’t necessarily, we might have gone and don’t I really remember, somebody wasn’t the focus of our conversation at that time.
Okay. Here’s the thing and this is where I think you and I as media people in the yoga world have this interesting interaction. If you interviewed her after that event, you might have been the recipient of the fact that I had silenced her because what happened at the event was that we had planned to have it videoed. That whole first section was on video.
I saw it. I remember seeing some video of you guys doing that section.
You didn’t see the story she told though because I actually convinced her to drop it. I said, “Look, the story is uncorroborated, you’re not naming your source. I’m a little bit concerned about legal liability.” I had all of these great rationalizations for encouraging her to desist. By the way, we’re very close friends and we have talked this out since. And I have given her my sincere apology for what ended up being like about a six month to a year long contribution that I made actually to the silencing of this story because I really felt that the sex scandal genre was a kind of dumpster fire of controversy and confusion. And there are specific reasons that I felt that way but are not just personal.
Oh, I remember when we spoke last we were talking about the Jivamukti thing. And I just know that you have often used Facebook as a little bit of a litmus test for things, it seems to me. I could kind of understand why you were being super careful because that’s what people were always coming after you, that’s what people still come after you about in terms of just being too sensational and not sourced or whatever?
Right. That does play into it, but there’s something deeper to investigate there. And that is that I believed somehow that these two forms of harm were separated and separable that somehow the somatic dominance that Diane Bruni and then, of course, the nine women who came forward for The Walrus article are describing in terms of assault is of a piece with attitudes of somatic dominance that are registered in the tissues. I wanted to really pull those apart. But I think, and I also began to realize that the discussion around injuries in yoga was so charged because there was this underlying theme that wasn’t actually being addressed. It’s like, why are we so upset about repetitive stress injuries and why are we really trying to figure out what the best way of doing Trikonasana is?
It seemed to be carrying a lot more than, “Okay, let’s improve our technique when we’re doing spin class.” It was fraught with not just the expectations of therapy and spiritual equanimity, but also it was fraught with I believe this unspoken set of grievances about how we had been taught or how we had been held in the community. I think by the time Diane got to you, she had already sort of been taught by somebody who’s like you, which it was me that this really isn’t the time or place to talk about this stuff. And it was so strange is that all of the arguments that I presented to her were a kind of hyper rationalized version of the arguments that had buried or made people’s responses to that infamous video of adjustments inconclusive. That video popped up for years-
I remember seeing it, I remember seeing it.
Remember what people would say, they would say, “Oh, we don’t actually know what he’s doing.”
It looked bad, but I didn’t trust it because it’s just an out-of-context clip on the internet. I wouldn’t damn somebody on an out-of-context clip on the internet because I don’t trust that.
Right, there is that. There’s the credibility of the technology. But then there’s also when there’s the acknowledgement of what’s actually happening in the physical contact, it’s like, well, these encounters are taking place in the intense and well-defined parameters of long-term teacher-student relationship or guru student relationship. These are advanced practitioners, they know what they’re doing, they know what they signed up for. Obviously he’s touching men and women in the same way, actually obviously he’s not. There was this endless, endless round of equivocation that I really think infected me, it poisoned me in a way to such an extent that I was looking through my emails yesterday to try to figure out when the video started to really catch my attention.
And it was my friend Carol Horton in 2013 who sent it to me. And she said, “Have you seen this thing? It’s really awful, it’s disturbing.” And I wrote back to her, and I saw my reply and it said, “Oh, yeah, I’ve seen it. It is awful.” I don’t know if I change the subject or, I don’t know. It’s just I didn’t follow up on it. And I think what was going on was that one of the things, one of the many things was that in the absence of there being audible voices, it was just too easy to equivocate over the imagery. And for the longest time I thought, well, nobody’s spoken out about this, but I was actually wrong.
In 2010, Anneke Lucas published a blog post that she just reissued in 2016, it had disappeared because the website, you probably remember it Yoga in New York City.
I do, I remember. The problem was is when [Maya 00:14:26] was a problem, but I remember there was the whole thing going on with Yoga for New York and they were trying to regulate the teacher training programs. And we raised money and got lobbyists and actually stopped that. I was one of the first times that that kind of happened. And in the meetings that we had for Yoga New York, this issue came up in those discussions. But I remember being at the time feeling like it was a distraction from the other issue.
Right. And that’s the horrible, it’s this unintentional sort of fog of neglect and rape culture and kind of just low expectations that really delays and delays, and delays the story coming out. Anneke publishes this thing in 2010, she clearly says I was groped this way, this is what it felt like, this is how I confronted him two days later. You can go back and you can find her post. When you put this up, I’ll put it into the comments.
She said it on the podcast, she came on the podcast long before the #metoo thing happened. We talked about it the last time she came on. And I remember, and guess because she also told her personal story, which is also so mind glowing. And then she also mentioned that, but I guess it just at the time seemed so crazy. What’s interesting to me right now is I think we share something in that. You’ve been interviewing people as have I in a sense. And doing that and then going back and observing yourself and your behavior when you’re talking to people about these things, which is just sort of a natural for what we’re doing. [inaudible 00:16:11] anything or whatever, reveal stuff.
I always talk about it on the podcast, and you see, “Oh, crap, look at that,” in yourself. And I do think that that’s been happening for me a lot recently. And that’s what I was talking about on the podcast this week, that trying to address these things as someone who’s starting conversations often means having to do it in yourself and failing sometimes or something.
Oh, I think that’s a huge part of it. I can tell you for sure that getting to the point where I could actually listen just did not come naturally to me. And it really took the patience of people like Diane Bruni who when I’m talking to her about, I don’t think that releasing that part of video is a good idea if we want to keep the focus on safety in asana practice. And she’s like, “But you know what I’m saying is true?” And she looks at me with this face where she’s half exhausted, half disappointed. And I’m like, “Yeah, and what am I supposed to do about it?” And there is the problem right there, it’s like you immediately sort of jump into what you think should be your problem-solving mode instead of just better listenership.
And that was a very hard lesson that I had to learn. And it was really out of those conversations with Diane that I started to pursue the stories. I reached out to Anneke, Anneke put me in touch with Marisa Sullivan. Marisa Sullivan put me in touch with Maya Hammer. Maya Hammer was Diane Bruni’s student in Toronto. And then this sort of web, this network emerged. And all I had to do was to re-associate myself with the awful sensations that I felt while watching that video and to not push them to the side, to not say, I don’t want to deal with that or I don’t know what’s going on there because I was nauseated when I saw that video.
I am not the victim of sexual assault, but I am a victim of male violence and I know what somatic domination feels like in my body and I had a sense of what generally was happening in the depiction of that physical contact. I did not put it together with, oh, this may well be predatory behavior.
Well, it makes me think a little bit of what I think it was Theo wrote recently, might have even been, I think it was Theo when she was just saying that listening to the realities of this, nobody wants to do it. It feels so terrible, and I know I keep bringing it up on the podcast and then just kind of budding it off because, oh, my god, because I want to talk about it because I think we need to. But it feels so horrible so you avoid it.
Right, right. There’s a couple of things, Theo Wildcroft, I’ll put the link to this one too. I published a little thing where I just quoted from a conversation she and I had over Skype about how the story of the trauma survivor is actually contagious. We feel that we will be infected by it, we feel that it will change our world, it will have to change our perspective on everything, on how everything works together, on what right and wrong is, on who’s in control, on whether or not something is good or something is bad. And the deeper sense of infectability, I guess is that you might begin to reorganize your own memories in a different light. There might be some reframing that you’ll have to go through if you hear Karen Rain describe something that sounds pretty familiar but you didn’t think of it that way and then, oh, no, is that something that you have been carrying in some unconscious way as well?
And Karen Rain is a wonderful example of the type of voice that is so hard to listen to because she has zero fucks to give. She has no social capital to win or lose within the yoga world, she has been 20 years metabolizing her experience. I want to take that back, it’s not that she has zero fucks to give, it’s that she is able to speak outside of because she cares very deeply, actually. I know that about whether or not this continues or whether or not it can be improved or healed. Where she has nothing to lose is in the social capital department.
Yeah, I was going to say, I think when you first said what I took was that she doesn’t have any professional skin in the game.
Not at all.
To me, that’s sort of why I have kind of looked to her and I had a chance to talk with her because she’s in that video. And everybody who got into Ashtanga in the early days knows that video. It’s the icon of Ashtanga coming to [inaudible 00:22:10] something, and she’s in that. And we all recognize other people from that video who went on to have these yoga careers.
All five of them.
There you go. I didn’t even know that offhand, but she didn’t go on to have a yoga career. And this is why, and now it’s coming out.
And it’s not just didn’t go on to have a yoga career, she couldn’t have a yoga career. I think this is a very important thing to draw out, of those six people, Karen was one of them, her name was Haberman then. And then we have Tim Miller, we have Chuck Miller, Maty Ezraty, Eddy Stern, Tim Miller and Richard Freeman. And all of them went on to have life long to this day careers in the broadcast of this method. And then we have somebody who completely vanishes. I had been aware of the video and then when I was actually visiting with and interviewing Elizabeth Kadetsky in New York City in maybe 2015 or so, she said, “You should try to get in touch with Karen because I learned Ashtanga from her in New Jersey in the early 2000s. And she had a lot of interesting things to say about her experience in Mysore, but I think she’s changed her name.”
And then I had to do this detective work to find her phone number and then call her up out of the blue. And her outsidership to this entire industry is so perfect and yet, it’s so radioactive. And I think that’s why it is extraordinarily difficult for anybody to even consider inviting her onto a panel or has she done any podcasts anywhere. There’s been a couple of public meetings on this particular issue. And as far as I know, she has not gotten many invitations. And it’s because the actual voice of the victim carries something that must be addressed, it cannot be equivocated, it cannot be turned into a photograph or a video that can be reinterpreted. The person is standing right there and they’re telling you exactly what happened and they’re telling you exactly what would help them.
And it’s no mystery anymore, you can’t stand there and you can’t say, well, I wonder what they want, I wonder what would be good or I wonder what we should do about this going forward. All of those somewhat self oriented concerns just have to dissolve actually.
I hear that. Having had a chance to speak with her and have that exact conversation with her, I felt like it had a big impact on me. I know that that has affected how I’m having the conversation a lot. And I guess trying to sort of think of the other side of the conversation in terms of why she’s not getting invited, I’ve had that conversation a little bit with some friends. And one of the things that someone brought up which I thought was maybe a valid point, maybe not is that I think people are a bit afraid because even when I was talking to her, I said a stupid thing or two and she was very sweet and gracious to help educate me. But it was touchy and I guess people don’t necessarily know that she would want to be on those panels, but you got to ask to find out I guess.
A, you have to ask to find out. B, you’re going to make mistakes. C, if you show good faith and you say, “Yeah, there is obviously something here that I have to learn,” then 9 times out of 10 people in Karen Rain’s position, if they have the energy on that particular day are going to probably respond to that earnestness and say, “Yes, well, out of my desire to help other victims or to improve the culture in general, here’s what would be helpful.” And I can say now that the number of mistakes that I made in communicating with Karen was really almost … Sometimes I wonder about the amount of patience she had with me actually because I don’t have her experience. And not only do I not have her experience, but I have never encountered somebody who’s been able to … There are many people who can do it, but this is my first personal encounter with somebody who can speak so clearly to the facts and to the effects and to the meanings.
I’ll tell you about one thing that I did was when we were going back and forth in our interview process, and that was long, it took place over about a year and a half actually. And there’s is development story to that too, which we’ll describe in a future interview, she and I. But at one point, she decided she was going to make her me too statement and we were talking about that. And I was asking her how she felt and things. And then in the wake of making that statement, I began tracking the responses. And we were discussing the responses, and one of the things that she was very clear about with me was “I am triggered by seeing his photograph. That has a negative impact upon my nervous system, it makes me feel in these ways, that’s very hard for me.”
And what did I do when I was giving her reports on how people were responding in their blog post? I kept sending her just links to people’s blogs where Jois’s face is right at the top beaming. I don’t know how many of those I did before she said, “You’ve got to stop doing that.” I think when she initially said that, I didn’t even know what she was talking about. There’s a level of otherness to that experience that I just couldn’t grasp and so I made mistakes. And it’s really in making those mistakes and having them pointed out through the patience that she showed that I feel I’ve been able to go to college or something in-
Oh, I feel like just trying to have the conversation has been a huge education for me. And it does seem to go beyond how much of the more recent revelations and the reasons that we’re listening to it maybe in ways now that we weren’t before are just because of the #metoo phenomena.
I think it’s integral. When Karen describes why she wanted to make her statement, she says in this forthcoming interview that the #metoo movement came and she said, “Well, I know that I have been sexually assaulted by somebody famous and I have to do my part.” There’s a paradigmatic listening shift that in the yoga world has its own crisis and conflict. In a way, the #metoo movement has had this profound effect on yoga culture so far. But at the same time, it has also encountered particular resistances that are related to the narratives that yoga people like to tell about themselves.
Nobody looked to Harvey Weinstein as a benevolent grandfather who is also a spiritual master. Being disillusioned about him is not so painful, everybody knew that the guy was off and cruel. There’s this extra layer of cognitive dissonance and idealization and mystification that #metoo has to break through. I think it’s happening in a unique way in the yoga world. And in some places, it’s taking a little bit longer than it should, but it’s definitely happening.
Well, that goes a little bit back to me where we started in the sense that if you start out trying to figure out why you’re hurt, you’re doing all this yoga practice and that you manifest chronic pain, which is what happened to me. And you start to examine why that is and maybe even you start a project called What Are We Actually Doing in Asana because of that. And then you first look to some technical things and you can identify things that you think might be it like maybe triangle pose is a problem. You’re trying to find some technical things that you think may be the answer. But when you examine deeper, as you said at the beginning, getting into these conversations with Amy Matthews and Peter Blackaby, you’re like, “But wait, is that really the reason?”
And when you start to look at it, it really comes back for me to something that you threw out there and it’s a term that I think is kind of an important term, this term “somatic dominance”. I think of it in two ways, there’s sort of the somatic dominance of the way a certain teacher and student relate. But there’s even a somatic dominance against my own body.
Right. Well, I think those two things are inseparable actually, that the self relationship, the self objectification, the struggle with one’s own body in some way has got to be an internalization, and who knows which one comes first of the dominant pedagogy that one engages. And yeah, I think that in a way, that’s the core theme of the WAWADIA project. And it was really these stories of criminal acts, of boundary transgressions, of sexual assault and harassment that made the wider theme of dominance as it plays out in subtler ways, in non-sexual ways, but ways that are equally expressive of unequal power dynamics. That’s really the core. And it’s one of the factors, I think it’s one of the factors that contributes to the silencing of personal experience.
I used to go to Diane Bruni’s classes, but I was never in a Ashtanga community and I never practiced Mysore style. And I don’t think I would have tolerated adjustments for very long, although who knows? That’s the thing about being inducted into a system of influences that you really can’t predict what you’re going to accept depending upon what you’re told about it. But having not had that experience, when I imagine what it must be like to spend years every morning six days a week really placing yourself into the hands of the person who will mold you into the shape that you can’t quite attain yourself, that is enormous.
That has to have such profound effects upon other ways in which you would relate to that authority figure. And I think it goes along too with the general report of the silence within the culture. Now, this is not unique to Ashtanga, but the number of people who have described being in those practice rooms and not having time to speak openly with the teacher about how something felt or to give them feedback or to tell them that they were hurt or to speak with them after class or to have tea with them or whatever. That kind of deep, involved, close, intimate, claustrophobic almost somatic space in which a very powerful set of sensations is being negotiated, it’s not really given to stepping back and having a conversation.
You would have to reorient your entire way of communicating with that teacher in order to step back and say, “Hey, can you tell me a little bit about what you knew about Pattabhi Jois and his relationship to his women students?” In order to do that, you would have to completely reorient yourself somatically towards the person you were speaking to. I think that the whole sort of landscape of one body expressing power over another or offering itself as a gateway to another’s experience that they can’t attain themselves, that’s both the root of to me, the WAWADIA project now, but also it’s the sphere of influence that circulates out from the difficult, the terrible stories detailed in The Walrus article.
Well, I’ve been thinking about what you’re pointing to a lot because I just had this conversation with Scott Johnson. And he and I are kind of the same generation where we didn’t go to India and meet the gurus and have a direct connection to them. Our teachers were the Westerners who went and did that. I didn’t have any, I don’t know. The picture of Pattabhi Jois was up on the altar and I was just sort of taught to revere them as the living masters. But it was sort of secondhand through my teachers. But my teachers, at least the ones that I went to, they didn’t set themselves up in that same way with me.
They may have had a certain, I said it on the podcast that the in is the teacher rather than the in being things that that teacher taught other people or something. There’s sort of this difference. I want to come back to what you’re saying because it goes back to the connection between why doing really hard assists and popping someone’s hamstring connector relates to sexual abuse in the space, this idea of somatic dominance. And even in some of the Ashtanga teachers I’ve been speaking to who don’t have this direct connection to Pattabhi Jois as their guru, they still have learned to do these assists. Even like when someone’s in paschimottanasana and they lay on top of them on their back, some of them aren’t crazy trying to pull your leg behind your head.
But when I spoke to these very thoughtful Ashtanga teachers who I think are being incredibly thoughtful, Scott and Sarai, they’re really tackling these things. But when I asked them specifically about this, I asked Sarai, “Do you still do that?” And she said, “I will if someone wants me to, but I do them in a different way.” But she could hear in her voice there’s this question of that. There’s a consent often given to them to lay on their back when they’re in paschimottanasana but that dynamic of teaching is sort of what we’re talking about. I don’t do that anymore, I don’t put my weight on anybody like that anymore because of this sense of dominance to it even if someone wants me to do it in a way.
For me personally what I’ve come to in my own practice and why I do it, it’s not the space where someone could have a conversation with me. I guess what you’re saying to me, they connect. I am there after-class and if you want to talk to me about whatever, that’s what I’m most interested in actually.
I think that there are so many things going on with the squish that you’re talking about from the practitioners that I’ve spoken to. Some students will develop relationships with teachers where that is a moment of deep, sweet intimate connection that feels safe because they’ve built up a field of trust between them over a long period of time. And then some people feel as though it’s something that they have tolerated for a while and some people didn’t like it at all and they gave boundaries. There’s a whole spectrum of responses. But the basic sort of principle of whether or not there’s a transparent conversation around affirmative consent and why it’s happening, why it’s happening. Is it really that the student is being helped into a deeper expression of the posture or is what is happening that a certain type of intimacy is being communicated and that is richly appreciated by both the student and the teacher?
And if it’s the latter thing, there is nothing illegal about that. However, it’s something that should be discussed openly. It should be transparent, it can’t be hidden underneath the sphere of mysticism or “This is the way the parampara does it” or “This is what Guruji did.” It really doesn’t matter that some people really crave that contact, there’s nothing wrong with that. What’s wrong with it is whether or not the reasons for that craving are fully exposed and whether or not they can be interrogated without shame, without guilt, whether they can be fully discussed. And I think this is why it’s a really contentious conversation within the community because the reality is that that physical contact is deeply, deeply nourishing.
And then in the absence of transparency around it, people discovered that the line between that physical contact and a kind of grooming for assault is very difficult to find. And that is a very, very threatening. It’s a very shaky ground I think for the people that I’ve spoken to to be standing on. and I really admire folks like Scott and Sarai and Greg Nardi and his partner Juan in Florida and Jean Byrne in Australia figuring out how to negotiate all of that because it’s rough. It’s like people want contact and yet contact has to be safe. And safety comes through transparency. And transparency comes through honesty about what the thing actually is.
Well, that’s the word I was going to use, transparency because I think a lot of these assists, they have been held up until now with this air of magic. And you know me, I’m an advocate for magic when it comes. But I adopted certain things, I remember standing on someone’s back and pushing my way down to give them cracks. I used to do it all the time to people, people loved it. I think of it now and I shudder. But that’s what teachers did to me, teachers did it to me.
But you think they loved it?
People would ask me for it, they’d be like, “Jay, please, will you stand on my back? Jay, will you stand on my back?” A teacher had done that to me, I liked it and I did it to other people. But I guess there’s sort of this idea that the yoga teacher knows something that you don’t. And that means that you would give over to them because they’re somehow going to do something that you wouldn’t be able to do or know how to do on your own.
Right, right. And think about the vulnerability of that being an embodied ritual where the actual posture that the teacher knows more about than you is the thing that they’re going to put you into that you can’t get into on your own and that you might not be able to get out of on your own. Immobilization actually is a key feature of that moment. And, of course, that brings up all kinds of notions of surrender and trust. And the question for me is, does the yoga world, never mind Ashtanga, does the yoga world have anywhere near as intelligent a conversation around the issues of immobilization, trust, sensation, pleasure and pain as, for instance, the BDSM community does.
Yeah, you brought it up. And I saw that talk with that woman whose name I don’t remember, maybe you know her name.
Tiffany Rose, my friend in Red Deer had a great interview with my friend Daniel Clements who’s in off of the coast of British Columbia, but I think he’s in Japan now. Yeah, that’s where it’s at. I am not a BDSM practitioner, but I am astonished by the richness of the discourse that that community has developed not without its problems, not without its own predators of course. But the richness that community has developed around these interpersonal interactions that are designed to provoke sensation in dyads. That’s what it’s about. And if the yoga world can learn something from that, I think that’s amazing.
I guess it brings me a little bit when we talk about learning from this and what we’re hoping to have happen by making people have to taste this stuff. It’s interesting to me that since I’ve been putting out some of these episodes, the kind of responses and comments and conversations that are happening, they’ve often been kind of surprising to me the way, I mentioned this week, people don’t see the same things or hear the same things that I hear. It goes back to what we talked about when we talked about your personal experience, I don’t know, did you listen to this podcast series called Dear Franklin Jones?
No, I haven’t but I know quite a bit about Bubba Free John, Adi Da, Franklin Jones.
I’m bringing it up because I literally just finished it this afternoon before I got on with you. And for people listen who don’t know what it is, basically, Adi Da who I’ve heard about forever, the same we heard about Osho. There was that big documentary. But the series is by a man whose parents, he was born into it, his parents were in when he was a boy and he was in it. And when he got old enough too, he actually believed and practiced. And then at 16, they left. And he started going through this process through the podcast series of kind of unraveling he loves Adi Da and he also has to face that … He ultimately comes to I was in a cult. And he never thought of it that way. But through the course of the podcast, he comes to that.
I guess my question is, and I can hear people in the back of my mind right now when I bring up the word cult when we talk about Ashtanga yoga. It’s sort of like, how much is there cult-like behavior and how much of it is a cult or is there a line or where is the line? Because sometimes it feels a little bit like that when I try to have conversations about this.
I’m really glad that you brought it up because it’s a discourse that I’m pretty familiar with being a two-time cult survivor myself. And it’s also highly radioactive. And I think it’s because there’s some fundamental misunderstandings about what a cult is and who cult members are. Cult members are you and I who become deceived by systems of influence. There are no predictors of who joins an organization that is deceptive and that begins to control their emotional labor or their finances or their ideas or their friendships or their relationships. People who I lived with in the two cults that I was in came from every walk of life, every level of education, every type of psychological background, every form of trauma or happiness that would be available in the whole menu of human experience.
Anybody is susceptible. And once you get that, once you get that the actual clinical psychology data on cult membership is not about who the people are but what the organization does, then the guilt associated with the word, the griminess, the shitty feeling that people get when they have to ask themselves, “Oh, was I in a cult?” All of that begins to lessen, it doesn’t disappear. But I can say from personal experience and from speaking to many, many other cult survivors to begin to understand that you did not join a cult but rather as Cathleen Mann says, you delayed leaving an organization that misrepresented itself to you. That begins to lessen the burden and allows you to pull back and look at, “Okay. Well, what were the mechanisms here that allowed for this system of influence to operate and then at the highest levels, for it to abuse people? What are the mechanisms there?”
And they’re pretty clear. Going right back to the fundamental research of Michael Langone, the three sort of building blocks of the cultic organization are deception, dependence and dread of leaving. And deception is however the first step. Going back to what you said about how adjustments were presented to you as a younger Ashtanga student. If you heard that, “Oh, this is the way we traditionally do it.” If you heard the sense that the adjustments had some sort of history to them. If you wondered why the teacher was touching somebody’s perineum and you discussed it in a group and somebody said, “Oh, that’s the Mula Bandha adjustment.”
All of those responses, those rationales, they are all deceptive. We know now from the scholarship that there’s no real pre-modern precedent for adjustments in yoga practice prior to the Mysore Palace. We know that there’s no such thing as the Mula Bandha adjustment that at best it’s a euphemism, at worst, it’s a rationalization that contributed to this feeling that something else was going on than what was actually going on. And what was actually going on was more properly termed sexual assault. But there was this veil of explanation over it that began to spread into other area. If we just take the Mysore narratives as an example, there’s this word used parampara to describe the method and the teaching lineage of Ashtanga yoga.
Now, that literally implies at least in medieval tantric terms that a teaching technique or a spiritual transmission was passed on for over multiple generations over centuries from one person to another, not generally through family lines. To call Astanga yoga a parampara, which is now a term that second-generation Jois students have picked up and started to use themselves to refer to how they relate to the Jois method, that is deceptive. It’s not true, it begins to create sort of mirage of importances and mystique and very attractive spiritual aspirations that people want to engage with, but they don’t have factual basis.
The entire origin narrative of the primary series is dependent upon the existence of a book that nobody has seen called the Yoga Korunta, which apparently was found by Krishnamacharya in 1929 in the Kolkata library bound into a copy of the Yoga Sutras. And the word within the culture is that terms like “vinyasa” come from that book to describe the harmonization of movement and breath. And then if you talk to Sanskritists who actually look at the literature they say, “No, there’s no pre-modern usage of vinyasa that works that way.” And these Jay, they might seem like niggling academic details. But what ends up happening is that a kind of phantom city is constructed out of idealizations and deceptions.
And when I say deception, I don’t mean it’s intentional. People can repeat these things because they like how they sound or because it gives them a sense of hope or validity or aspiration or something. But the … Go ahead.
Let me jump first saying, what I want to say is that when I point to what you just did, the research that you’re pointing to about how some of these origin myths and some of these things that we’ve thought of as coming from the ancient wisdom but were kind of maybe invented by charismatic men along the way. When I point to that kind of research that’s being done often by academics, by some people there’s this knee-jerk reaction to it as this baseless attack. To me, it goes back to what I said before, even in my conversations with Ashtanga teachers. Sometimes I have a conversation with an Ashtanga teacher, doesn’t sound like I’m talking to anybody who’s exhibiting cult-like whatever. But other times I’m talking to someone and when there’s an over defensiveness about the conversation, that’s when I start to feel that.
I guess, I’m just sort of wondering it seems to me that often what legitimizes what you’re doing is this connection to some idea of ancient lineage. It’s kind of what we said before to be able to let it come into question means de-legitimizing something that’s really important to you.
And I think it puts people in a very emotionally tenuous position, and I think it’s very painful. People wind up having to resolve a lot of cognitive dissonance. But the thing is that it’s only really problematic, and here’s where we cross over into the threshold of cult analysis. Human beings can believe whatever they want to believe. It doesn’t matter whether they believe that their practices come from unicorns or whether Krishnamacharya got a download from Nathamuni. None of that matters, there are plenty of mythopoeic believes that do not end up fueling abusive organizational structures. There’s no solid correlation between belief and behavior.
The thing that is really good to focus on, and I think this also depersonalized cult discourse in a way that might be helpful is that let’s forget about whether or not the Yoga Korunta is true, let’s talk about whether or not we are willing to create a sphere of deception in which the real asset of the student, the real commodity that we’re going for is credulity. And because if we can get people to believe things, then will they believe me when they come to me and they say Pattabhi Jois just sexually assaulted me and I can tell them, “Oh, well that wasn’t sexual.”
There’s an interview that I’ll publish soon in a follow-up bit where a person who was there for not as long as Karen Rain but but almost describes being assaulted and going to her colleagues and being told preemptively, “Oh, that wasn’t sexual what he did to you.” Now, that’s a deceptive statement because it’s up to her to decide whether it was sexual or not. But it’s a deceptive statement that comes at the end of a long string of other statements that are designed to create a sphere of credulity. It’s not the first time that she’s been lied to. It doesn’t matter what the content of the lies are, what matters is that the individual is being induced into a system of influence and control and something is being extracted from them. That’s what matters.
And some of those deceptions, they’re happening in silence it seems to me.
Yeah. Tell me what you’re thinking about.
It’s sort of what we were saying before that in certain yoga practice rooms, there’s a certain air about it. I remember that expression silence is the best teacher. In that space, you’re set up for this somatic dominance dynamic.
You could be.
It seems to me. And then that’s why for me, it seems to me if you’re not going to have legitimacy because you’re connected to a particular guru or lineage tradition, the transparency and ability to have this kind of dialogue is the only thing that gives you any legitimacy.
Well, that’s a very good point. And I would say that it’s like on the other side of the fear, that, oh, maybe the Yoga Korunta isn’t a thing or maybe there were some exaggerations going on there, or maybe the series are not traditional in the sense that they’ve been changing every couple of years according to how many people have had to funnel through the shala. On the other side of this nauseating fear that perhaps you have been lied to, perhaps you have been deceived, I believe, possibly lies the liberation of transparency, lies the liberation of, oh, wow, it’s amazing what our desire drive us towards, oh, it’s amazing what the process of idealization tells us about ourselves, oh, it’s amazing how we can be vulnerable to manipulation. We really should base our service towards others upon offering protection and safety and safe spaces and trauma awareness.
Far from wanting to just having any animosity towards people’s yoga inquiry at all, for me, personally looking directly at this stuff is actually the source of my spirituality because I don’t see what else I can learn about it except how I am deluded. I don’t see what is more valuable for me to learn except where my blind spots are, except where I shut down Diane Bruni or I can’t actually understand what Karen Rain is telling me, or I don’t want to look at that video, or I want to maintain some image of wholesomeness that is actually fragile and tragic in a way because it’s not going to last.
Oh, I so appreciate that because if we were going to think of yoga as being about some kind of freedom or liberation or moksha, which I generally don’t like to frame it as. But if we were, my experience of freedom is very much connected to just not having any secrets. That’s where I feel that sense of I don’t have anything to hide, I can feel free to talk about anything. I don’t know. To me, is where the freedom comes. And I heard you say in that talk, you offered this definition of moksha that I thought was quite-
Right. Yeah, I said to Colin and Sarah that I had a teacher who gave, I think eccentric and perhaps unique etymology from the nirukta tradition or “what is not said” poetry of the Sanskrit technique where he described moksha as there was a way that he had of translating the roots, but the basic translation of the compound was “the end of infatuation”. And I feel like the process of disillusionment if I’ve been well supported, if I can reach out to reality in other forms, if I can find stability outside of my social bubble, if I can reach out and hold on to something else. And, of course, that depends a heck of a lot or almost entirely upon privilege, then I am able to survive the disillusionment process and perhaps even make it into compost. Yeah, the end of infatuation.
Yeah, the ending of illusions. And to me, that has to do with what I’ve been doing in this process of having the conversation like you described, it feels like practice to me.
Yeah, I feel the same way.
Well, it brings me to something because in getting ready to talk to you, I reached out to some friends of mine who don’t know you so well, who I’ve heard be a little critical of you because we’re friends and I don’t want people to feel like I was soft-balling you. I reached out to them, and it’s interesting because the line of questioning was really I think sometimes a reaction to maybe even your writing style sometimes more than content. But what it boiled down to for me, which I thought was kind of an interesting line of questioning and maybe where we would start to wind it down is it’s sort of about your practice because sometimes people accuse you of being this academic. But I remember from when I talked to you before, you were a yoga teacher, you had a yoga center, you did Ayurveda. You’ve had a whole history of practice. I’m curious about that, what do you practice now?
Yeah. I practice movement every day, sometimes on my mat, sometimes not. I generally sit every day, but I have to be really drawn to … I don’t even know what it is, by some internal ringing bell that says, “Okay. If you have time right now, you should sit down.” I go through the forums that I used to practice when I was in my full-on asana days occasionally. But I’ve also explored so many other different types of movement over the last couple of years that I’m sort of constantly playing and examining, but then I can have an almost nerdy aspect to that investigation that, I don’t know, starts the inner dialog in my brain about what is this action doing and is this functional movement? And what is that sensation actually?
When people ask me, “Would you teach asana again?” I always have to say, I really don’t know how I could. If I lived in Peter Blackaby’s town and he was giving a teacher training, I would probably go and do that. And maybe I would come out the other side and I would feel like I knew what I was doing.
Let me ask you something, when you are doing whatever you’re doing and it’s not like the forms that you learned back from your asana yoga teacher days and you’re doing other things that you describe, do you think of that as yoga practice?
Oh, yeah. Absolutely, absolutely. I think that if there’s the thread of self inquiry, if I’m looking into my sensations and into the pattern of my breath and I am watching the relationship between my breathing arc and my thinking arc and if I’m seeing how thinking is embodied, and if I can feel knots in the flesh related to knots in my psychology, then yeah, that whole holistic and non-dual conversation I think is happening. And if there’s pleasure and interest in that, so much the better. But then also sometimes it’s boring.
I like that, that’s a really good point.
And if it’s boring, for a while, I was like, “Why be bored?”
That’s true. Sometimes I think of boredom as a pleasure, sometimes.
Right. And sometimes it’s not, sometimes it’s connected with ennui and depression. And also if I’m able to feel other people better as the result of what I’m doing on my mat or on my cushion, then I feel like I’m doing yoga even though it’s not like I learned anything particularly from anyone that really made that connection solid. The yoga that I learned, the asana practice and breathing practices, meditation practice that I learned was really about individualistic self inquiry. And there was a sense that your life, your relationships would straighten out a little bit. But now when I can actually relax myself into the difficult conversation or the thing that I don’t know or the blind spot that I’m coming up against or some echo of intergenerational anger that’s playing out in my parenting, if I can do all of that, then I feel like I still definitely have my practice.
I like that. It integrates, it’s that direct connection between that time that you spend in practice and it having an actual application or something to you dealing with the thing that’s at the most forefront or whatever that’s in front of you. And very rarely for me is it about … And I guess it is physical, but often it’s more my direction in life and my relationships as you said, the way I’m relating to people. And I guess I’m wondering now how much has doing these interviews over the last years and hearing these stories and navigating all the stuff, how much has that affected and changes your practice along the way like?
Oh, it’s been at the heart of it really. I think that the selfish part of it is that I’ve learned about ways in which I dissociate, I armor myself, I don’t give positive regard to other people, I project or I fantasize or I transfer or I counter transfer. I’ve gotten to see all of those things. Yeah, I wouldn’t be able to pull those things apart.
Yeah. I guess they don’t really separate out for me either, gain, the podcast and the blog writing and trying to … In a way, to me, I think of it in the sense of almost I need to do it and I think that if we can say the word yoga community, which I’m hesitant. But I think we need to grapple with these things. If some of us don’t go first and put ourselves out there and make mistakes and have to deal with that, then it’s going to be harder for everybody to do it.
Yeah. And one thing I agree with you and one thing that I just want to sort of clarify is that in the midst of answering a question like how these interviews impacted you, I am sensitive to the privilege involved in listening to Karen Rain’s experience being part of my personal development. That’s not what it’s for. It was a very happy development that I feel responsible for paying back in some way. I think that you and I both in this particular arc, in this particular field can, I don’t know, in some ways have these encounters, these difficult encounters that we can ultimately turn around into some kind of spiritual or psychological benefit and not everybody has that possibility.
One of the things that Sarah Garden said last night was that she really liked how in the article the nine women who gave their testimony, the article turned around and showed how they were doing later on. And most of the stories were or the aspects to their stories that the article disclosed were all on an upward arc. Maya becomes a certified psychologist and Karen Rain heals herself through contact improv and dance. And Marisa Sullivan is doing all of these wonderful workshops, and Anneke is doing this fantastic prison work with yoga. And those feel-good stories, that feel-good part of the narrative, I think we want to be really mindful of because there’s a whole bunch of other stories out there, perhaps the majority of people who suffered abuse in yoga community and in relation to yoga methods where there isn’t an upward arc, where the life didn’t turn out well.
When there’s a positive story that arises out of adversity, we really want to remember, this is my firm belief that there’s a whole social matrix that allows that positive narrative to emerge. And that it’s really good if we’re not seduced by the notion even in small ways that somehow it all turns out for the best because I think in a lot of cases, that’s not true.
Well, I appreciate that and I’m glad you brought us back to the women in your article because I think that’s right. I may have fallen victim to some of the things that we were talking about even in the course of this conversation. But I really appreciate that you’re bringing me back to that and also to this idea that I know for myself, and I’m betting it’s true for you that the reason we’re we’re doing this is because we really want there to be healing. And we have our own relationships to yoga that have served us and we’ve seen it help other people, and we want there to be healing. And in order to do that, it feels to me that there has to be this transparency.
Sometimes I think when I get into these conversations with people, it gets to this back and forth and it’s like this who’s more intellectually, more morally superior than the other or something. And we lose this thread of why people are passionate about it. And you said another thing because it’s something I’ve been going through with the whole Kino episode and stuff. And someone asked you about it, and you made a really important comment. You said, “She said that she was conflicted about things,” and you take her comments in that context. And I think that’s important, it was important for me to hear it that as much as I can sometimes have a reaction and feel passionate and get upset where I feel like someone’s deflecting, these are really hard things. And people are grappling with them, and we have to do it in the spirit of like shared humanity or there’s no way we’re going to get through this in a good way.
Yeah. When I encounter statements that are problematic or controversial, I just have to reflect back upon my own divided intentions. You mentioned that, yes, we do want healing. To be completely honest, I’ve also had to negotiate the fact that I want revenge and that my need for justice is very much related to early streams of anger that I have worked in for a long time to try to understand and to try to unravel. And the paradox is that it’s driven me to this work, and it can also harm this work.
Revenge against who?
Well, it’s a long story.
Isn’t that what people are accusing you of sometimes, you’re taking that out on?
Yes, exactly. And they’re right, and a lot of time they’re right. They can feel it and I would say they have a good point. And every time I’ve been accused of this guy is an unhealed dude and he’s toileting on people, I’ve really tried to listen to that. I haven’t always been successful, but I have become more respectful of the paradox of the fact that you do not become an activist without, well, I think it would be very rare to become an activist and certainly not an activist journalist without having a personal need for some kind of justice. And the problem with that is that every story becomes about you. And what was so fortuitous for me, so lucky was to somehow find myself involved in this process where I could step out of the way and let these nine people speak. I really could step out of the way. Now, that didn’t come naturally to me.
Yeah, I was going to say the folks at The Walrus did you a big service I think because I’ve read all your stuff and this one, there was none of those moments where the alarm goes off and I go, “Oh, Matthew,” that little flourish of a language, you just know that’s the thing that everybody’s going to jump on. But it seems like this particular article was quite impeccably checked and sourced and there wasn’t that in there. And I haven’t seen anybody being able to jump on you for that in this one.
Yeah. I’m grateful for that, that kind of firewall that’s provided. But I’m even more grateful for the lesson that I learned through that editorial process and others, which is it’s the paradox is you’re driven here by a sense of justice, you have a passion for it and you cross over the threshold and you really have to leave that at the door. And I think the article is largely a result of my being helped to do that. And now the problem that I think I’m going to have to face next is that I have to cross back over that threshold outside of the mainstream feature article mode. And if I go farther with this material, which I intend to, I do have to bring back the analysis and the personal positionality. And I have to be able to say, “Okay. Along with this evidence, here is my research input, my observational input into where this story goes to next.” And I think that’s going to be interesting to navigate.
And I know just in our conversations, there’s a lot more in the research that you’ve been doing over these years and it does seem like there’s bigger works coming. This was just a little bit of something that came up and maybe because of recent and current events with me too, but it does seem like all of this is leading to much larger works. I was one of those people who helped finance WAWADIA a few years ago, and I’ve heard people express little grief. Maybe we could give a little update. I think I’ve been privy to conversations with you and been learning, and I think people have on Facebook been learning from the project as it’s been happening. But I know you’ve got plans for stuff to eventually come out. Where are you in that process?
Yeah. I sent out a too late update to all of the crowdfunding supporters. I think the day that the article was published, I said basically this is, and I put the same statement I think on the WAWADIA page on my website. and I basically said, “This is why this project is late is that it took a left turn into the investigative and into the interpersonal dynamic of toxic pedagogy.” And now that that has been covered, that data has grown. The backstory on The Walrus article is that it was accepted for publication in December and it took basically five months. And during that time, I continued to compile data, I continued to research.
And what I thought was going to be the second chapter in a book called Shadow Pose as my agent has been flogging throughout North America for the last year is now too large to fit into that book. And it’s got to become its own book, but its own book really dedicated to the industry itself and presented as a case study for how abuse can happen within a yoga community, how it can be enabled and how it can be prevented. That will be the first volume of the WAWADIA project, which is now going to be at least two volumes long. The second volume is still called shadow pose as far as I’m conceiving it. The book on Pattabhi Jois is 180 pages in manuscript form right now.
The second book is still at its 300 pages that it was before with the Jois material extracted or at least reduced. And it’s going to be a much more generalized alternative history of the modern postural yoga movement that describes the movement from somatic domination to trauma sensitivity. That’s the basic arc, how did that happen? Who were the major figures in that? And how did the trauma-sensitive movement arise in response to realizations around somatic dominance in the yoga world in general?
Well, I think that final note you just made is sort of where we’re at.
I think that’s the story, yeah.
That’s where we’re at.
Right, right. If there’s a short way of describing the arc of the last 50 years, we have gone from somatic dominance to trauma awareness.
And practice is reflecting that.
And practice is reflecting that. And modes of teaching are reflecting that. And that’s the story that I’m trying to tell not in an academic sense, but in a kind of interview fieldwork sense that focuses on key figures like Donna Farhi is a key interview subject for that book because she begins her career in the Iyengar world and spends eight years there and then has to leave. And she goes on to create her own thing.
Well, I guess there’s one last little tidbit that I got from your talk last night that is maybe the perfect note for us to end on at least in my mind, which is this story that you told about the older woman and the younger woman next to each other at a Pattabhi Jois practice. Do you know which one I’m talking about?
I do. Did you want me to just-
I want you to tell it again even if people heard it because there’s a lot more who are going to listen to this and maybe saw that Facebook Live thing. And to me, it really kind of encapsulates what we’re just saying, maybe just tell it again if you don’t mind.
Yeah, sure. One of my interviews was with a senior Jois student, and she’s probably in her late 50s now, she might be in her early 60s. And she went to Mysore several times, she was thick in the Ashtanga community in her home state in the US. And somewhere in the early 2000s, Jois came back on tour to California and was in one of these big gym environments and there was a couple of hundred people there or something. And she shows up, and she’s maybe in her early 50s then. She rolls out her mat and there is a woman in her early 20s who rolls out her mat beside her. And when Joyce comes in, he walks around and he greets everybody. And he recognizes the older woman, and he says hello and greets her.
And then as he passes on in front of the younger woman, the younger woman says, “Oh, hello Guruji, I have this problem with my back,” she names some condition, some injury or vulnerability. And she says, “I would rather not be adjusted today.” I’m interviewing the older practitioner, and she’s recounting this story. And when she gets to quoting the younger woman, her voice fills with indignation. And she says, “What kind of nerve does that young woman have? Who does she think she is? She’s going to come into this room and demand that the Guru not touch her? That’s why she’s here, why did she even come?”
And it was this kind of stunning moment for me in the interview recognizing this deep generational divide that the older generation is expressing indignation over the younger generation asserting agency over their bodily autonomy. And I just thought it said so much. And it said so much about things also changing naturally and organically and without a lot of effort too. There are tremendous efforts on several fronts. But in other ways with a thousand different little cultural movements, it is gradually becoming unacceptable for one person to exert somatic dominance over another. I’m trying to bring the way that happens into focus.
I really appreciate it because I do think there just has been a huge change. Even among people who haven’t been saying this previously, I’ve been hearing them say it where, yeah, in the past, nobody ever asked. And now, it’s not cool to touch somebody without asking.
Right, right. Figuring out how that happened and trying to tell that story clearly, I think can only strengthen the values that are being expressed. That’s what I hope to go on and do. And I kind of dodged, “What’s your publication schedule?” I’m kind of negotiating figuring out exactly when this first book will be done. But I do want to say that I hope within a couple of weeks, I’ll have a firmer answer.
Fair enough, fair enough. I for one don’t mind. Again, I have a friendship to you, not everybody has that benefit. I know you’ve been working on stuff. I know you didn’t just take the money and run.
There were no vacations.
No, you’re working hard on this stuff. I hope that in this conversation we’ve done some of what we were just saying in terms of these conversations being yoga practice and finding these ways forward.
Well, thank you.
Oh, no, Matthew, thank you. It’s been great to talk to you, I’ll be in touch. I think this is going to post in two weeks, I’ll let you know for sure. All right man, take care. And yeah, it’ll be ongoing.
Okay, yes, have a great day.
All right man, take it easy.
“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.)