I obviously think it’s really important to illuminate abuse in spiritual communities. It’s as important as advocacy work for any survivor group. Abuse survivors hold up the mirror.
And yet in the shadow of climate chaos, is it visible? Is it efficient? Is the scope broad enough, and scalable? Are venal spiritual communities worth the attention while entire nations operate as cults, and are pushing others into the sea?
What does it mean when you’re doing good work — the work you’ve made, trained for, the best work of your life, perhaps — in a culture based in economic and privilege excesses that both accelerate and will be wiped out by climate chaos?
Most projects of substance, whether undertaken alone or in groups, take five years. A graduate degree, a book, a training curriculum. Reviewing and reforming standards at Yoga Alliance. Five years is also one predicted window for seeing the first ice-free Arctic summer, which may provoke a methane tipping point, and then an exponential temperature rise.
Even if you had the personal, family, and community resources to switch paths and apply your intellectual and moral capital to climate mitigation, at this point you would run out the clock training yourself into competence. For most of us, it would seem, that path is not feasible.
Must we be satisfied with going to marches, when political activism has proven almost entirely ineffectual?
“The market tends to see short-term gains and discount long-term effects until the political structure has been modified by that success.” — Brett Weinstein, quoted by Catherine Ingram in this stunning essay.
How many of us have heard of or can even conceive of engaging in Decisive Ecological Warfare? People have been talking about it for 15 years, and it hasn’t happened to any scale. Why? I for one am just too compliant or privileged to put on a mask and sabotage industrial sites. If a literal gun was pointed at me, I would do it. But I’d have to be convinced I wasn’t alone, or that there were more on board than whoever showed up at the local anarchist meeting. I would have to see above-ground support for underground warfare. Of course, waiting and seeing is the problem.
But this morning I felt a window open. I’m not sure if I’m simply trying and succeeding at making myself feel better. But here it is.
A climate chaos landscape will be a literal assembly line for cults. It’s one reason why I didn’t jump in to hardline environmentalism in 2008 or so, when I first started reading Deep Green Resistance. I went to a few meetings, but they had that edge I was trying to heal from. I could see that the scene was extremely vulnerable to charismatic alarmism. I’d been there before. I walked away, because I wanted a normal life. Well, the joke’s on me.
But now it’s come around again, undeniable. With children to remind me of it with every plan for the future, every request for a toy or a trip I want to give them, and then grit my teeth as I do, caught between loving them and feeling their world burn. (Dear Lego company: please don’t try to fool us by producing your bricks from plant-based materials. Production itself is the problem.) At moments I can feel an authoritarian grip rise in my throat: I want to scare them with everything they don’t understand so that I can feel like something is in control, even if it’s only my own hypocrisy. So there it is, right in my kitchen: the foreshadowing of shitty leadership.
What happens when the bias towards apocalyptic cultism meets the apocalypse? We’re going to need massive stores of community health to not make die-off roll quicker than the climate coerces. Yes, we’re going to need resilience in infrastructure, and skills of self-sufficiency. And these can all be easily destroyed by toxic group dynamics.
Given that the horse of my career has left the barn, it seems like the task is to re-orient not its content but its scope and purpose. As in: looking at yoga culture reform as a training ground for more general anti-cult education. Maybe if you run a teacher training, this is a useful reframing suggestion: maybe you’re not minting yoga teachers so much as facilitating learning and adaptation in a community primarily dedicated to not destroying itself. In a 2011 essay, I proposed that yoga studios could become true community hubs if they hosted social services. Perhaps holding space for collapse awareness group meetings is part of this. What is restorative yoga actually for, in the big picture?
Some of what I’m saying here is as much about self-soothing as it is about altruism. Writers often write out what they struggle to do in the smaller and unseen moments of life. When it comes down to it, it’s the unseen that will count. The only preparation for chaos that’s feasible for most of us may have nothing to do with our formal careers. Let the oligarchs monetize the apocalypse.
So how do you say “the ultimate infrastructure is love” without this becoming another useless meme or starting a superficial social movement? But it’s true. The one feasible practice may be simply to foster secure relationships, to know what it feels like to love but also have boundaries, to care for our traumas and the traumatized, to be inspired by integrity before charisma, to develop trust and forbearance so that if and when we go hungry our worst impulses are somewhat mitigated.
You have to hide the Easter eggs for the children, even when you don’t know if there will be Easter eggs next year.
It was Brian Culkin who first got me thinking in socio-economic terms about modern yoga. He talks about yoga as the de facto religion of neoliberalism: preaching individualistic empowerment through flexibility, adaptability, leaning-in to challenges, self-reliance, lowering expectations for structural support and change, and creating facsimiles of community where real communities used to be. Later, my thinking was bumped along by an amazing essay by Lavrence and Lozanski on how Lululemon, especially in earlier days, wove these themes into its athleisure fabrics and stitched it all up with random orientalist clichés.
Along this trajectory it became clear that yoga infrastructure was inseparable from urban gentrification. I remember Diane Bruni telling me how much rent Downward Dog had to pay for its two-studio space in Toronto’s Parkdale in the mid 2000s. It was something like 10K/mo. She said that making that rent in the summers was touch-and-go. I was shocked: this was Toronto’s most popular/lucrative yoga space, and they were just hanging on? Moreover: this was their second home.
They had moved west and down-rent along Queen St. from their first space on Spadina, which was in a building that used to house garment factories. So the studio itself owed its birth to the shuttering of manufacturing in Toronto’s downtown core. They practiced in the rooms that used to make the clothes that they practiced in. Downward Dog was actually featured by Naomi Klein in the first pages of No Logo, who gives it as an example of who and what moves into a North American urban space when jobs get shipped to the lowest-paying labour market.
I’m willing to bet that the majority of iconic early urban yoga studios have a similar history. That’s what gives them their forlorn beauty: large empty spaces with exposed brick and plumbing and refinished b-grade hardwood floors, often stained with machine grease, now a patina, or fabric die. When they were manufacturing spaces, all of the aesthetic elements were signs of frugality: now they indicated rawness or authenticity. This didn’t even have to be urban: the first studio I co-owned was in Baraboo Wisconsin, pop 12K. It was in the former cafeteria space of a shuttered engine coil factory.
These are spaces in which people used to make things. Now the product is the aspirational self.
Downward Dog couldn’t afford the rent hike in the old Spadina building, so they moved out to the edge of the gentrification wave sweeping west into Parkdale. Who moved into their old space? A dot-com, of course! And then, like every studio in the gentrification landscape, DD had to diversify its product, always anticipating the next overhead rise.
The pious love to complain about runaway commercialization in the yoga industry, as if teachers and studio owners were uniquely greedy or venal. What they miss in a cloud of unprocessed shame is that it’s also a function of survival in a post-material, post-labour, service economy-centered world. I’ll bet that if someone runs the data some day, it will show that the growth curve of teacher training programmes and niche classes (pre-and-post natal, kids yoga, and now yoga for trauma survivors) maps perfectly onto the rise of overhead for yoga spaces.
The industry is not only filling consumer needs, it is creating programming to fill and pay for increasingly expensive spaces, owned by hedge funds. Another bet I’d take: the proliferation of 500-hour YTT programmes historically begins not only after the first waves of 200-hour YTT grads emerge between 2000 and 2010, but also in conjunction with the expiration of 5-year leases. When studio owners considered whether to sign on for another 5 years at a steep rent hike, many figured they could make it work by creating even more programmes in which people could “deepen their practice”. “Deepening their practice” became correlated with “managing my debt load.”
The globalization/commercialization/complexification of modern yoga (and Buddhism, etc.) is not some sign of moral decay so much as a feature of globalization itself, which outsources both slavery and trash to the most marginalized while making those at the centre feel as though they are living a reasonable and ethical life. As you sit in retreat and meditate on When Things Fall Apart, you can enjoy some real psychological benefit. But you can also be really effectively closing your eyes to where and how things are *actually* falling apart. This reaches peak irony if you do it in Costa Rica.
While the world is catching fire, Gen Ys and millennials are asked to increase their levels of self-inquiry and self-work in an increasingly precariat landscape. Their efforts to pay off student loans with gigs and side hustles mute all kinds of news from the Global South, where their clothes are made, and Greenland, where the glaciers are calving. They use credit cards to pay for time on the hamster wheel of self-inquiry and self-improvement while their consumption of self-inquiry / self-improvement products is expanding their carbon debt.
It’s not like the yoga world has accelerated the carbon crisis, but it is poignant to consider that in the crucial decades in which something could have been done, an entire generation of liberals was encouraged to spend money on self care in environments designed to give the impression that everything was fine and the only real problem was mental hygiene.
My job, made-up and largely accidental, can be really demoralizing. You pull on the Jois thread, or the Manos thread, or the Trungpa thread, and so many things unravel in your hands, to the point where you can wonder what is left. It seems endless.
And yet maybe — because it’s happening now — it’s also predictive.
Perhaps the ongoing collapse of spiritualities in the neoliberal era is a microcosmic sign. Theodora Wildcroft has shown that the sociology is expressing a profound shift: everything we relied on for authority and authenticity in modern yoga culture — historical beliefs, medical/scientific beliefs, moral beliefs — is in crisis. Aren’t these the same beliefs that on a macro level have kept industry and capital flowing? Hasn’t the entire culture been telling itself that its history is justified, its technology is salutary, and its morality is assured? On the basis of what? Temporary positive returns for the privileged?
The story of late capitalism itself carries a yoga overtone: that everything can infinitely rise and expand and converge in oneness. But the promise of globalized orientalism through yoga wellness and Buddhist moral rectitude is showing its cracks. Perhaps the interlocking crises Wildcroft describes, catalyzed mainly by women sick of abuse and betrayal, suggest that the yoga world on the whole is a canary in the broader coal mine of the world.
If yoga and Buddhism promised us a more connected and beneficent world, it did so in conjunction, functionally and psychologically, with the oneness and convergence promises of globalization. Survivors of yoga and Buddhist groups are telling us how those promises have been emptied out, and what we must now do to repair things. They share a voice with climate refugees, the bees, and sea coral.
Listening to survivors is actually a survival test.
A few have already started to murmur it.
Quietly, because it feels sacrilegious, or too soon. And of course there was beauty, identity, and deep attachment. There was a gilded crown of thorns.
Yet everything moves so quickly. Both fire, and the vow to rebuild the past.
The vow is not to rebuild the deep past of primeval forests or oral culture. Nor to rebuild the Museo Nacional in Rio, nor sacred indigenous sites the world over. But to rebuild what it has meant to be European, French, and Christian. Or the dream of such things, circa the industrial age.
Because there is no other time to speak the truth about having no time, some voices are saying:
We all live in a burning cathedral, together. It’s much older than 800 years. Can we see the flare in Paris as a microcosm?
Watch the spire collapse. You can feel its internal strength turning to cinders. For a moment, the fire itself seems to offer support. There’s a pause. Perhaps prayers are also keeping it aloft. Then it leans, and you know it is falling into ash.
It’s just like watching the Ilulissat Glacier calve. The same quivering pause, before mass movement that starts with imperceptible splintering. But the scale is vast. They said it was like watching Manhattan fall into the sea, all at once.
When the ice falls, the water rises. The charred spire flattens into the pavement at a new ground zero. Waves of sorrow and hubris rise in displacement.
Notre Dame’s roof was a tinderbox of 13,000 trees, extracted from ancient forests. Hewn and raised with extracted labour into an alternative canopy, something better than the sky. To house relics, to validate relics, to hoard wealth, to symbolize material and spiritual empire, to tighten the tension between mystery and certainty, to inspire awe and fervor, to enshrine the names of powerful men, to worship the family unit from which all hymns flow and which all of this industry exploits, to freeze female bodies into statues of objectified melancholy.
It’s what male desire and power do. It’s what those of us who can do, do: accumulate value into magnificent burn piles, which for a few centuries can represent and rationalize the noble effort. So few of us see who or what we are stealing the raw materials from. I cannot recall paintings of medieval deforestation, nor of gold mines in French colonies, nor of whatever Vichy meeting preserved Notre Dame from the Luftwaffe.
It’s not just an accumulation of wealth and aspiration, but of an attention that makes so many other things invisible. Some are pointing out, respectfully, that black churches are burning every week. Or that the dazzle of rose windows can distract us from who has been violated beneath them.
Of course there is a vow to rebuild. Because the scale is conceivable. In a great tradition, neo-feudalists can step forward to perform magnanimity. Don’t ask what they were doing with their 300M Euros yesterday.
The government will be invigorated by a reunification project. It will find common cause once again with captains of industry. Perhaps the yellow vests will be pacified, or even pitch in.
The cathedral will be rebuilt, with gusto and relief, because we cannot rebuild the Larsen Ice Shelf, nor replant the Amazon. Rebuilding will return us to the productivity we know, displacing an anxiety we cannot confess to any priest.
How will this not bolster white supremacy? From Moscow, Putin has offered to send elite carpenters. The subtext, tweeted a thousand times, is that Europe must band together to preserve itself from the refugees of the global fire it set alight.
They will pour more concrete, forge more steel, and harvest more trees. They will create and consecrate a simulation of the past. The completion date will be set for after the Paris Agreement deadlines. The finished project may feature holograms.
I grew up Catholic, in the age before climate chaos. I was taught to believe in God before I learned to listen to the world. I spent many hours in spaces that sought, with colonial affect, to mimic the grandeur of Notre Dame. I lit candles, gazed at the pierced heart, meditated on the vaults. I blinked at the statue of a nordic St. Michael skewering an African Lucifer with his golden lance. I played the pipe organ and sang soprano, and then tenor.
It was a troubled home. When I first visited Notre Dame in my 20s, I could feel its damp foundation. This was where I was from, but I didn’t feel at rest. I went through periods of fantasizing myself as a prodigal son, accepted once again. It never lasted. I loved my elders with a subtle disorganized attachment.
I’m certain I remember sitting in front of a Madonna and Child in Notre Dame, wondering What would she think of all this?
I wonder if I’ll see images of her again, with molten lead and charred latticework at her marble feet.
Despite itself, sometimes the old patriarchal literature captured a treasure. The scribes of Luke hinted at Mary’s foreboding. That she felt the fate of her strangely aware baby. That he would be murdered at a young age by priests and bureaucrats for suggesting that humans could take a different path. For some quip he would make about lilies in the field putting Solomon to shame.
The sculptors carve her holding him close, not against the elements, but against a civilization that builds its gorgeous prisons around them.
We can feel her warmth, and that nothing else matters. The roof needs no repair for this love to persist. She’s used to living in sheds. She’s used to not knowing when the end will come.
She would ask us not to rebuild, but to redirect. But she knows no one listens to her. She is Our Lady of the Extinction. She holds the baby, and every fear, and every moment of tenderness we muster. She treasures up all these things, and ponders them in her heart.
Inspired by this essay by Catherine Ingram.
The moderators at r/ShambhalaBuddhism kindly invited me to do an AMA on March 20, 2019. Here’s my opening comment, followed by the questions and answers that I worked on for about a week prior to the event. I’ve edited slightly and left out secondary exchanges. The whole thread can be found here.
Two things off the top:
Firstly: I’ve worked on these answers throughout the week, as they’ve come in. The reports from An Olive Branch were released yesterday. I’ve scanned them but not in enough detail to better inform my answers where appropriate. If it’s useful, I may return to these answers later to add citations from the reports. On first glance, it’s clear that the reports offer compelling evidence for what many Shambhala survivors have been saying for about a year now: that the organization’s dubious claims to spiritual lineage are eclipsed by the shadow of intergenerational trauma and abuse. Shambhala members are going to have to start asking whether the former was a fiction that functioned to cover over the latter.
Secondly: a comment on positionality. Predictably, my credibility has already been targeted by a meme, published Saturday by #oceanoftruememing on Instagram. It’s so strange and goofy that I’ve made it into my Facebook profile picture.
The meme is incoherent, as I’ve come to expect from cult apologists, who are not to be blamed for not being able to think clearly.
It makes me out as a critic of hierarchy, but suggests I can’t be trusted because I don’t have the proper credentials. Therefore: if I was higher on the credential hierarchy, I’d be more trustworthy as I criticized hierarchy. Erm. No amount of sadhana will make this make sense.
If you pull hard enough on this thread of fixation that high-demand group members have with credentials, you’ll wind up at an intractable knot of anxiety about whether anything they themselves have been taught is valid or useful. The yoga and Buddhism worlds are wracked by authority crises: this is not an “unfathomable” mystery, given the prevalence of cults. It’s a lot easier to attack whistleblowers than to look seriously at the foundation of your beliefs and commitments, than to begin to imagine how deep a deception might go.
oceanoftruememing is correct: I. Have. No. Credentials. Why? Because I lost six formative years of my life in cults, and about a decade after that recovering from them. I’m sure I could have been an academic. But while others were doing grad school in Religious Studies departments that taught them to study cults as “New Religious Movements” instead of social dominance hierarchies, I was living in them. That’s where I work from. So for the record: I am not a dharma teacher, a meditation guide, a psychologist, psychotherapist, or an academic. I am a cult survivor who has spent about a decade trying to recover and research and understand what happened to me and so many others. And I’m privileged. My cult-related stress disorders did not inhibit my work and personal life as much as those suffered by many people I know.
Question 1: Is there any future for Shambhala?
Do you think there is any future for Shambhala after such institutional betrayal has taken place at the highest levels of the organization?
Is the future of Shambhala to simply dismantle it and go elsewhere for spirituality, or as some have begun, to engage a reform movement divorced from Shambhala International and engaged in a thorough critique of its founder while continuing its methods?
What role does Naropa University play in all this, given that they have divorced themselves from Shambhala several years ago but still have many overlapping people involved in both Shambhala and Naropa, and that Naropa was founded by Chogyam Trungpa?
Thank you for referencing the work of Jennifer Freyd, which is invaluable in this context. You can read about her research into institutional betrayal here.
Freyd’s preliminary findings on institutional courage are here.
The first thing to say in response to this big question, as well as every other on this page so far, is that survivors of institutional betrayal should be at the front of the line to answer. If they aren’t, the question may encourage a bias towards preservation instead of reform or dissolution. It may draw out answers that prematurely focus on repair instead of reparations. I’m not a survivor of Shambhala institutional abuse or betrayal, so the very structure of this AMA has me speaking out of turn. But I have been personally victimized by similar groups and so I’ll speak with a qualified solidarity that can say:
If spiritual organizations with abuse histories truly listened to their survivors, they would actually learn a thing or two about the actual spirituality the organization has failed to convey.
I believe that no-one in the world knows more about the possibility and danger of spiritual language, concepts, and yearnings than the person who understands that that most precious part of themselves has been manipulated. Yoga scholar Theodora Wildcroft says that trauma survivors are the canaries in the coalmine of the culture. Narrowing her metaphor, I would say that survivors of spiritual abuse are the canaries in the coalmine of the spiritual endeavour. More than anyone, they know where the lies are, and isn’t the whole point of spirituality to stop lying to ourselves?
Okay. So what can be preserved? Throughout the crisis communications, Shambhala representatives have consistently relied on the assumption of shared values, practice goals and emotional affect amongst community members as a fallback source of reassurance. They do this by continuing to silence survivor’s voices with their own concerns for institutional continuity. Simmer-Brown provides consistent examples here. This single line from her recent post should win a gold medal for genteel selfishness:
“And now, the conduct of the Sakyong that has surfaced is definitely threatening the future of the terma.”
Note the passive construction “that has surfaced”, which avoids naming or crediting survivors who spoke out. Note the implication that the real victim of Mipham Mukpo is not the women he assaulted or the Kusung he bit and battered, but the content she is paid to teach.
Beyond Simmer-Brown’s convolutions, apologist blogs, newsletters and comments have been steeped in the rhetoric of faith and connection, even as they address a growing realization of deception and criminal neglect. Many hold up Trungpa’s era and intended legacy as a source for potential renewal. They haven’t been listening to Leslie Hays.
Apologist language functions for some people as a familiar and reliable buffer against the unthinkable: that the organization is and was fatally flawed from inception, and that only a veneer of lies and platitudes has ever held it together.
But I’m not sure how transparency, let alone reform, would be possible without at least thinking the unthinkable.
All Shambhala members have to now grapple with the question of what exactly Chögyam Trungpa had to offer beyond a charismatic mirage of care, confounded by addiction and trauma-related mental illness, and punctuated by interpersonal violence. Today’s Shambhala members have to ask what Trungpa’s most prominent followers were actually supporting, beyond their idealizations of him, the contact-high they got from his grandiosity, and, tragically, their likely addiction to the disorganized-attachment-loop chemistry of seeming love and actual danger flowing from the same presumed caregiver.
When the hagiographies of Diana, Hayward, and Midal are fully deconstructed, what will members conclude about one of Trungpa’s root liturgy coming out of a beer-soaked “retreat” in Bhutan, his phallic “Ashe” stroke revelations being fuelled by cocaine, and his teachings on “spiritual materialism” belied by arguably the most materialist display of pageantry in New Religious Movement history? How will they read Leslie Hays’ forthcoming account of Trungpa “channeling” the mythical kings of Shambhala to help him with daily decisions about regalia design and table manners?
For decades, the smartest talking heads in the room have spun these facts into rationalizations for crazy wisdom. That’s not going to wash anymore.
Similar questions came up all the time in my discussions with Ashtanga practitioners about how to deal with or understand the abuses of Jois and what they mean for his method and those who enjoy it.
Here’s an ugly example of how intractable the problem is: one of Jois’s survivors (Karen Rain, who is emerging as one of the most prominent voices of reform in the yoga world) suggests that Jois may have rigged the series of postures — supposedly sacred and ancient — so that the women practicing them would be in more vulnerable positions more of the time. In other words: this physical liturgy, to which all kinds of mystical benefits are attributed, might actually have emerged so that he could assault more women.
Let’s think about that in Vajradhatu or Shambhala terms: what part of the neo-Buddhist liturgy that members have been practicing might have come from Trungpa’s own obvious need to benefit sexually and financially from his followers? What aspects of that liturgy were then used to serve the silence required by that abuse? In this world, what is Vajrayogini sadhana really about, folks?
This leads to your last question. The influence of the front organizations that legitimize Shambhala as a secular/humanitarian institution MUST be fully studied. Hannah Arendt wrote that the front organization is any seemingly legitimate business, publishing house, or academic institution that provides social cover for the totalitarian group. They often function as “transmission belts” for recruitment, i.e.: you’re not going to get the explicit Shambhala download as an undergrad at Naropa, but hey, here’s someone passing out flyers for the next Warrior Training. It’s just a few blocks away.
Naropa has to be studied as a front for Shambhala. So too does Shambhala Publications, because although they loudly state that they are not technically related to Shambhala International, their entire back catalogue is the Trungpa & Co. library.
Assessing the overlaps between the group and the fronts will take a long time and several PhDs, if anyone is brave enough to supervise the topic. But it’s important, because the impact of entire disciplines like “contemplative psychotherapy” (emerging from Trungpa’s dubious ideas around exposure therapy, but which has of course developed since then) are pervasive in new-age therapy culture. I’d love to see data on how many people graduated from Naropa in CP and then went on to counsel how many people in the apolitical Shambhala values of nurturing sadness, disappointment, tenderness, openness, and many other dispositions that are ill-equipped to form firm boundaries, resist abuse, and foster structural analysis.
A former Ashtanga person asked me in an interview: “How do we avoid throwing the baby out with the bathwater?” She was wondering whether the revelations of institutional abuse in the Ashtanga world meant that she had to abandon her beliefs and practice?
After the thousandth time hearing that question, asked with such pain and sincerity , it suddenly occurred to me that the baby isn’t the Ashtanga series — or the Shambhala curriculum or the Scorpion Seal. The baby isn’t the posture, the mantra, the visualization, mandala, the kusung, or the Kalapa house help.
The baby is you.
You are the baby, and if you had a nice bath for a while that’s because you enjoyed the water. But if the bathwater is now dirty, it’s time to get out and dry off. The baby is the goodness you came with, not the “basic goodness” propagandized by the cult as its proprietary content.
But then there’s a darker aspect to consider relating to false attribution of value: maybe the baby embodies the privilege you came with.
If you had a good experience in the cult, how sure are you that it wasn’t a continuation of the male or white or class or intellectual or academic privilege you’ve enjoyed all your life, now framed as spiritual virtue?
To what extent did the cult tell you what the culture at large was already telling you — that you’re special and deserving and smart and can save the world through the goodness of who you naturally are?
Maybe one of the reasons that cults really like to recruit middle-class educated people is because their sense of entitlement can easily be transferred over into the spiritual domain, while their relative sense of invulnerability will blind them to the trauma the cult is causing.
I can’t prove this, but I’m willing to bet that many of those who emerge from a cult feeling mostly unscathed are coming from backgrounds of privilege. And as they reintegrate into the larger society they will hold the party line familiar to every apologist for the middle class: Everyone’s fine, things unfolded as they should, lessons were learned, I still have my 401ks. But if you have PTSD, you don’t say these things.
Question 2: Shambhala and neoliberalism.
I know you’ve touched on this in some blog pieces but speaking a bit theoretically, I wonder what conclusions you’ve reached about if or how yoga and meditation play a role in the property-ization of everything (and especially the body/mind) under neoliberalism.
I think you might be referring to these notes:
I’m not that up on “property-ization” as much as “privatization”, but I’m sure they’re intrinsic. It’s an enormous topic; I’ll try to keep my remarks focused.
IMO, Shambhala’s liturgy and metaphysics present a sophisticated turn on neoliberal spirituality, in which every answer to every structural issue (if it is ever raised) is reduced to the need for enhanced self-improvement efforts.
It’s sophisticated because it inverts the typical consumer affect, and makes members and potential members believe that it’s not about consumption. Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism is a best-seller, after all.
Lululemon dictates tyrannical happiness. Shambhala advocates immersive melancholy. Chip Wilson wants you to lean in to your triumphant self-actualization, while Pema Chödrön, perhaps in echo of Trungpa’s own radiant depression, invites you to lean in to your brokenheartedness.
They are parallel in the sense that the product of both is neither data nor material good, but the reimagined self. They are parallel in that neither provide, nor even gesture at, a structural analysis of health and wellbeing and what prevents it. Both offer pictures of “enlightened society” without analyzing power. Citizenship in both costs a lot of money.
Neoliberalism, like the cultic, is rooted in lies disguised as empowering paradoxes, such as:
The world is one, but you’re on your own, and it’s all up to you.
Abundance or basic goodness is freely available, but you have to actualize it personally, and if you don’t, screw you.
The specific Shambhala takes on these paradoxes include preaching ephemerality while maintaining a fetish for material accumulation and preservation. Or appealing to a pre-Buddhist shamanistic eco-world of coherent oneness (dralas), while offering no publicly visible support to environmental or indigenous causes.
I’ve often wondered whether creation-stage Tantric visualization, as taught within Shambhala and other neo-Tibetan groups, is pathologically ill-suited to a culture that wants us to believe in limitless growth and the myth of the uninhibited individual. It’s a spirituality that wants us to prepare for Tantra by “driving all blames into one”, and then fantasize it by dreaming of a glittering palace or refuge field. What’s the overlap between mandala visualizations and commercials for Sandals resorts?
Shambhala’s neoliberalism is additionally sophisticated in that Trungpa left an elaborate, though symbolic, bureaucracy which seems to yearn for the orderliness he may have never experienced himself internally. (This is a familiar theme: charismatic leaders often seem obsessed with acquiring the exact conditions they cannot fathom having themselves.) So on the surface, Shambhala seems to offer an institutional framework, a structural analysis of human behaviour and relations. But this is confounded by the persistent reversion to personal practice as the baseline of Buddhist participation and identity. It looks like a kingdom, but everyone is all alone.
The relative absence of institutional support or accountability in Shambhala seems to be unconsciously rationalized as a comfort with “groundlessness”. Lack of care is conflated with a kind of desirable altered state. If you’re sufficiently sad and tender about the suffering of the world as it is concentrated and microcosmic in the group itself, you’ll apparently be fine.
Gilles Deleuze has the opposite take: that the gaseous and unrooted quality of transnational late capitalism is dissociative and homeless. So it’s almost like Shambhala took the basic psychosomatic dissociation of the age and tried to rebrand its depression and anxiety as insight into the heart.
They were too smart to make it look too idealized. They don’t use the language of Lululemon to sell you meritocracy and self-responsibility and the idea of an invulnerable body. They’re going to tell you to invite in your sadness, your woundedness: take ownership of these ungraspable things, meditate on them until you are resolved that the world is a melancholic but beautiful place where you can pay to nod off to sad haiku.
To speak to an earlier point, this is not a spirituality of resistance or revolution, even though it sometimes appropriates that very language. Meanwhile, the most basic orderly precepts for Buddhist living in any historical sense — the very precepts that would provide moral anchoring — are nowhere to be found. Buddhists aren’t supposed to drink, right? Does anyone remember this when they get nostalgic over the years-long frat party that was Vajradhatu?
So if you feel that you float alone through this globalized datascape, blown about and disembodied by the winds of marketing and banking, Shambhala seems well-equipped to catch you, love-bomb you, and say, Lean into that confusion and overwhelm, that’s where your treasure lies. I wonder if this is like using an opiate to overwhelm dissociation.
Question 3: How do we talk to each other?
I often feel very uncomfortable within the expressing my feelings and vision about the current situation with Shambhala and the Sakyong.
How could we avoid hurting each other ? How could we stay out of schism and polarization while still maintaining our intuition, critical intelligence and integrity towards our dharma practice?
Wishing us all love, clarity, liberation and inspiration.
Such a hard question. I hope my answer conveys the empathy I feel when I read it.
To start, I think group members have to take care with the first person plural. “How could we avoid hurting each other?” doesn’t identify who the “we” is. The sad fact is that group members have vastly different experiences based upon privilege and abuse exposure. Let’s consider also that people enter and leave groups along different timelines and arcs.
One of the things that high-demand groups do really well is to get members to use the first-person plural, to reinforce the notion that everyone is doing the same thing and feels the same way. They don’t. And often they have neither the opportunity nor language to share their differences. The group doesn’t want them to, and enforces a monochrome view through the elevation of jargon which is never fully explained. In a way, the abstract premise that experience is unitary and shared within the group is reinforced by unquestionable yet entirely vague terms like “basic goodness”. Everyone is supposed to nod in unison, but are they sharing meaning?
Alexandra Stein (a hero of mine) has this to say about the fractured “we” in the cultic organization:
“Contrary to public perception, the key experience of membership in a totalist group is one of isolation, not community or comradeship. The follower is isolated from the outside world; he or she is isolated from an authentic relationship to others within the group – allowed only to communicate within the narrow confines of the groupspeak and rigid rules of behavior; and, due to the dissociation that is created, the follower is also isolated from his or her self, from his or her own ability to think clearly about the situation.” (Stein, A. 2017. 21.)
What about polarization? I believe polarization is inevitable not only where group members have already been triply-isolated as Stein describes, but where the stability of the organization has been built on a shifting set of divisions between those who (consciously or not) enable abuse, and those who suffer it. The schism has already happened, but it hasn’t been visible, because the survivor’s stories have been suppressed. I don’t see any way around conflict when we’re talking about trying to reckon with crucially different experiences of the same organization. I think it’s incumbent on those who (think they) have benefited from a group to take a seat when the survivors of that group begin to speak. Patience is required. As painful as it is to listen to stories that stir waves of disillusionment, no real resolution will come before those stories are heard.
Oftentimes well-meaning members will use their training in “right speech” or “peacemaking” to pre-emptively call for unity or cohesion. I think the task there is for the peacemaker to really ask what the cost is of trying to dodge that discomfort, trying to prematurely mend open wounds. What’s so pernicious about Shambhala jargon is that it weaponizes even this language of leaning into discomfort to promote some kind of post-cognitive blur. Some have figured out how to turn medicine into poison through overdosing.
It also pays to reflect on how the manipulation of spiritual virtues often plays a more active role in silencing victim’s stories to begin with. When I was maintaining Michael Roach’s version of the Tantric vows I was asked to confess to myself any negative or even doubtful thoughts I had about him, six times per day. In that world, merely thinking that something was off in his relationships with women half his age was punishable with a kind of psychological torture. In cases like this, the sense of “we” being all on the same page, or all in this together is coerced.
So how to maintain integrity? This might sound strange but perhaps a diversification of views and expectations is a good place to start. That might mean adding more diverse values to your excellent wish list of “love, clarity, liberation and inspiration”, such as: renewed agency, permission to feel rage, ability to demand accountability, and the opportunity to receive resources.
Question 4: Dharma and social justice.
What affiliation/experience do you have with Shambhala?
How would you characterize the relationship between dharma and social justice?
What advice do you have for those in this community who are reeling from their experience in Shambhala and may feel like they’re de-programming from a cult experience?
I went to a Shambhala programme once at Karme Chöling, and Shambhala literature and members were always hanging around my own neo-Buddhist cult (Michael Roach).
The programme creeped me out. I remember feeling stiff and thinking that it was compulsory to sit up straight and affect a Mona Lisa smile. The liturgy was intensely theatrical in a way that I now associate not with artistry or even magic, but rather false self-ery and defensiveness. I was more attracted to the cult of Michael Roach at the time, maybe because it felt more hippy, less institutionalized. Perhaps it was a timing thing: Roach in those days felt more like Vajradhatu than Shambhala — but inverted, so that faux puritanism was the value, instead of libertinage.
But the groups shared metaphysics and practices, so I’m familiar with what Shambhala members are doing when they do sadhana and keep samaya. The basic neo-Tantric visualization of an idealized world that includes and transforms everything is familiar territory for me. I now recognize that it is extremely vulnerable to bypassing.
I don’t see any concrete and actionable relationship between “dharma”, as practiced by people in Shambhala, for example, and social justice. Obviously the skills and values of social justice as developed from centuries of resources by BLM and #metoo workers, for example, are only nominally foreshadowed by medieval or ancient Buddhist ethics. Nobody who earnestly and effectively practices social justice today got their tools from the Vinaya, from Shambhala, or Rigpa, or Michael Roach, or Pema Chdörön, or Jack Kornfield, or Michael Stone. They got those tools from feminist and subaltern activists who have built a mountain of value largely invisible to the mainstream. Following in the great tradition of new age plagiarism, content producers in modern global Buddhism and yoga are now pilfering that work.
I’d go further and say there’s a real danger in conflating dharma with social justice. One alarming thing that’s coming out of the Shambhala crisis communications right now is a kind of “wokewashing”, where a seemingly newfound concern about racism or colonization or misogyny or patriarchy is being used to deflect, abstract, and change the subject from more obvious issues of institutional abuse. Of course Shambhala and every Global North organization should tackle its white supremacy issue, but there’s no excuse for doing that at the expense of delaying the creation of a reparations fund for people who have been abused in the organization, for example.
Sorry: you don’t get to bypass the stories of Buddhist Project Sunshine with trending virtue-signaling designed to make your donors feel like they’re on some progressive moral high ground.
Having said all of this, there are POC activists in or around Shambhala who really are bringing the goods, and they’ve been doing the work for a long time. They are not virtue-signaling, but virture-generating. I don’t know much about Rod Owens, Angel Kyodo Williams, and Professor Smalls, for example, but it’s clear that they and others are adding immeasurable value to the de-cultification process by showing how it’s intersectional with anti-oppression discourse and the decolonization work that would start to unravel what it means, for example, for Shambhala to have commodified and gentrified Tibetan culture to the extent it has.
There’s something dharmic about Shambhala turning to POC wisdom leaders during a crisis, but also something a little strange about asking them for guidance through a largely white mess. I’m concerned that white liberals find it a little too easy to perform deference to POC activists or indulge in feelings of contrition and piety that avoid the nausea of the cultic. Yes: the issues are all connected, but the wisdom of POC activists shouldn’t be used by cult people change the subject. Isn’t this just another theft?
As to your last question I want to state clearly that I am not a trained therapist and I’m not giving out personal advice. I can, however, share thoughts from my personal experience, my beginner’s understanding of cult analysis literature, and from what I’ve gathered from hundreds of interviews with high-demand group members.
If an ex-member of Shambhala is using the language of cult recovery, that might be a positive first step. Cult recovery discourse can be invaluable for learning about undue influence and restoring agency.
But it also can be cold comfort. Literally. That’s because there’s a large clinical chunk of it that was developed in the early days of the Cold War, and then amplified in the anxious aftermath of Jonestown.
The best support an ex-member can use to supplement the literature is that of secure and trusting relationships, especially with family, if possible, and friends who know them outside of the group context. This can take a lot of work, especially if the group caused or encouraged alienation from family or former relationships. Many groups actively seek to destroy the intimate relations of members.
Remember all those supposedly “crazy wisdom” stories of Trungpa or Tom Rich having sex with whoever they pleased? And now Mipham Mukpo as well. That criminality is never just about narcissistic predation and domination. When the victim of clerical sexual misconduct is intimately partnered at the time, the betrayal that occurs when they are seduced or coerced into sex with the leader also functions to damage or sever the powerful emotional bonds that can serve as a safe haven against the demands of the group. Controlling sex — whether forcing people to have it, or depriving people of it — is cultic tactic 102. (Deception is 101.) If the group can dominate and control the most vulnerable part of your somatic relationality, the eros that dates back to nursing and cuddling, it’s got you.
Securely attached relationships formed outside of the group can provide valuable reality-checking, exposure to language beyond jargon, and emotional expression beyond the group’s legal sentiments. No resource on this is better than the work of Alexandra Stein. If you go to her website she also does qualified recovery counseling. Rachel Bernstein is also excellent, and her podcast IndoctriNation is a powerful resource. You can also call her office at 818-907-0036 for an appointment.
Question 5: How do we heal?
What do you suggest for people that left Shambhala already?
How can we unclutch from it?
Depending upon how long you were involved, the ties can go super deep. In some cases it’s not just the ideology or the practices or even the relationships both real and fantasized with leaders that have to unravel. It’s also major life choices, marriages, career moves, choices to have children or not. There can be huge financial commitments and repercussions.
It’s not just members unclutching from it sometimes, but members figuring out how to get the claws of the organization out of their flesh.
As above, I’ll reiterate that forming or repairing relationships to people outside the group is so helpful.
Also I’ll add that some of the “clutching” — if you feel you’re doing that — can be correlated with cognitive injury. If you’ve been speaking and hearing the “loaded language” (Lifton) of the group for years, your capacity to think and imagine independently might be limited. I’m not a neurologist obviously but it seems clear that is not just a habit or bias in many cases: it’s seems to be an actual form of brain damage. If you’ve ever listened to a group apologist continue the same tape-loop of jargon despite tons of new information coming their way and thought: “They must be insane” — you really might be on to something. Indoctrination is no joke.
In Take Back Your Life, Janja Lalich has a lot of good material on what helps with cognitive injury. Simple things like reading newspapers, listening to NPR, noticing when you use a group term and using a thesaurus to come up with an alternative.
It’s all a lot of work. And the fact that you have to do it might give rise to resentment. Cultic dynamics steal your time and energy and creativity. They destroy families and life savings. It’s valid to be enraged about that.
Question 6: Shambhala and Diamond Mountain.
What do you see as the main points of similarity and difference between Michael Roach/ Diamond Mountain and Shambhala? Can you speak to the question of where it is important to distinguish a given group’s particularity from the ways in which it fits into a larger or more universal dynamic? Thinking of a recent discussion here about The Guru Papers.
Kramer and Alstad really broke the code with that book. If anyone hasn’t read it, please do. They managed something really difficult: they wrote in purely theoretical terms about desperately real modes of manipulation. They didn’t work journalistically to name names, yet they managed enough detail to keep it riveting.
Cult analysis literature provides short and snappy tools for seeing patterns.
However, models are not people, and people will resist being squeezed into them. Rightly so. It doesn’t work to say “All these groups are the same.” Much more effective to say: “We can see similar dynamics at play at Diamond Mountain and in the Kalapa Court.” Don’t give apologists the opportunity to say: “They’re tarring all spiritual seekers with the same brush.”
What I try to do is to maintain a double view. Zoomed-out, the patterns shine. Zoomed-in, the details speak to unique landscapes of yearning, hope, and disillusionment. Those details are super-important for those recovering from the group. Like the peculiar artifacts of a dream, they illuminate how the pattern played out, how it made sense at the time.
On the level of the pattern, we can say that both Trungpa and Roach deceived their students in similar ways. They maintained pretenses of lineage and historical cohesion, even though they were relentless innovators. They hid their power plays over students behind Tantric justifications. Both bricoleurs, they freely borrowed and remixed from incoherent sources. The only coherence they offered wasn’t theirs; it was provided by the mass transference of their followers.
On the level of detail, the differences are significant, and may speak to the types of followers that each were able to recruit. Trungpa’s Buddhist cred was infinitely more plausible, though inflated by the idealizing orientalism of his followers. Roach’s apparent fluency in Tibetan and self-reported monastic training gave him some street cred, but the orientalism of his followers was aspirational: I loved Roach not because he was mystically Eastern, but because he had somehow become mystically Eastern. He traded in his blue jeans for the robes he wound up defaming. Trungpa seemed to have gone in the other direction: leaving his robes behind for a bizarre mashup of Warhol and Downton Abbey. Roach retreated from the postmodern, even as he spun a syncretic web. Trungpa overtly embraced and perfected pomo sensibility.
The details are endless, and endlessly fascinating. And they give a lot of grist for the mill of apologists who want to say that every situation is absolutely unique, and that No! Of course the BITE model doesn’t apply here! Religious studies people can do this too, though they are generally exercising the type of scholarly generosity geared towards preserving respect for religious sensibilities, as well as access to interview sources who might be insulted by cult analysis language.
Finally, we have to consider that no group is monolithic or hermetically sealed, and that clinical categories might persuade us otherwise. I often speak to the issue of what “Ashtanga Yoga” is (that we can sensibly speak of it as having structural patterns and features comparable to those in other groups) by referring to the maps of California during wildfire season. Think of the subculture as the whole state. It’s not all on fire, and it is possible that when the fires have passed that the unburned patches will be the immediate source of renewal.
Question 7: Lineage, enlightenment, trolling.
Question 1: “Lineage”, “Enlightened Society”, and “Enlightenment” were these big-word justifications for much in Shambhala. Still we can see that the interim board is keeping loyal to SMR because he is the only Shambhala lineage holder.
Q1 part 1: My view on enlightened society is pretty negative, I think it was never something that was really happening in Shambhala and was primarily a justification for lots of misappropriated funds and labour. What are your thoughts on “Enlightened Society”?
Q1 part 2: Lineage I am feeling ambivalent about. I think the general idea is that the teachings are to come from a legitimate source that somehow can be traced back to Padmasambhava or the Buddha, therefore not made up, and also to ensure that the teacher had proper training and education in real Buddhism. I guess going forward I would still like to believe that the teachings are connected to the Buddha or Padmasambhava in some way, and that the teacher was well trained, but I have also seen it used as an unjustified appeal to authority. It has been very dissapointing to see “lineage” used to justify continued loyalty to an abuser, to justify covering up the abuses to begin with, and used to legitimize this teacher who is now obviously not embodying any of the qualities the org projected of him. It has also been used to value SMR over the well being of the average member. I don’t quite understand some of what you have said about “post lineage”. Could you explain how you think people should navigate the balance between trying to find someone who’s teachings and training come from a decent source versus the attached baggage and magical thinking that have come along with “lineage”?
This lineage thing is very tricky because we have the 16th Karmapa who claimed that Trungpa was a Mahasiddha and then Penor Rinpoche who claimed that Mukpo was Mipham. Now Penor might be easier to dismiss because he made several other questionable “identifications” such as Steven Seagal being a Tulku. But nearly everyone in Tibetan Buddhism treats the 16th Karmapa as a super enlightened being. Michael Roach was denounced by the Dalai Lama but we see that Trungpa and Mukpo have not been. For many this might lend some legitimacy to their “lineage”.
Q1 part 3: As for Enlightenment. Do you believe it is a real thing that a person can achieve? If no, why? if yes, what do you think it is and how do you think people can achieve it?
Sorry that is a very long and involved 3 part question. If you can’t answer the following in addition to the above that is ok. Most interested in the response to the above.
Question 2: Another question I have, and if this is too personal feel free to not answer, is that you probably receive a lot of hate from various loyalists from various cults. Does your partner ever worry about this? Has this ever resulted in negatative in-person confrontations or threats via mail?
I appreciate what you have done very much. The analysis you’ve offered has been very helpful in me understanding the dynamics at play in Shambhala. Thank you for putting yourself at risk for the benefit of others in this way.
Question 3: Before the Kusung report some people were dismissed as being racist for their “excessive” anger towards SMR. Shambhala also had many classes followed by Buddhist project sunshine about power privilege race and gender but was not talking directly about its own monarchy and guru dynamics. You’ve documented that this happens in some abusive yoga groups as well. Would appreciate any insights you have Into this.
Q1 part 1: “Enlightened Society” sounds like what Derrida would have called a “transcendental signifier”: a term with strong emotional valence and social power, but very low definability. I think the fact that you’re puzzling out what it means to you, even though it is a ubiquitous term in the culture, and presumably you’ve been contemplating it for a while, shows that it is used more to communicate power and manufacture consent rather than to share information and care.
Q1 part 2: A solid history of lineages in global Buddhism is beyond my education. So too is the political landscape within which the endorsements fly. But I do know that terms like “lineage” and “tradition” can be a manipulated concept for the reasons you describe: to historically validate an innovation. In the yoga world, and in Ashtanga particularly, the Sanskritic ideal of “parampara” has been weaponized to consolidate social power within the Jois family, though they present no evidence of preserving anything beyond the innovations and business model of the late patriarch.
She applies the concept to the yoga world in describing how three pillars of vertical authority have all been contested to the point of crumbling:
- We now know that historical claims made by yoga entrepreneurs are mostly overstated.
- We now know that medical claims made by yoga entrepreneurs are mostly overstated.
- We now know that claims of moral or spiritual authority made by many yoga leaders are bankrupt.
In this landscape, Wildcroft asks — how to people find and validate practice? Through communities and peer networks. We’ve moved from siloes to rhizomes. We’re learning from each other. AMA on reddit is a good example of that.
Q1 part three: I don’t feel my personal opinions about enlightenment are that interesting, tbh. They also change with my mental health circumstances!
Q2: Thank you so much for asking. I have been defamed consistently for over three years. Here’s the most recent example, presented through a rebuttal made by my publisher:
Forget about what this attack claims about me. When the defamatory statement says that my book on Jois “adds nothing to the conversation”, it effectively erases the voices of the sixteen women Jois assaulted who offered their stories to the book. It’s saying that because my credibility is in question, so too are the stories of the women.
Thank you especially for asking about the impact on my partner. That’s extremely thoughtful. No one has asked me that publicly before and it gives me the chance to say that while cults of course wreak havoc in the lives of individual members, their effects radiate outwards into family and community life. In a few weeks I’ll be hosted alongside Alexandra Stein for an event in London presented by the Family Survival Trust — a non-profit dedicated specifically to supporting the family members of cult victims.
The families and friends of whistleblowers are likewise targeted in circles that extend outwards. In our own circumstance, one of the worst examples of this is provided by a certified Ashtanga teacher who has suggested that I write about abuse in the yoga industry because it’s my kink, and has harassed my wife online and via email. I don’t want to speak for my wife’s experience, but generally I can say it’s been difficult for her, and that she left social media in part because of the hostility.
In at least two cases I have lost employment over trolls harassing my hosts. Additionally, my colleagues have been targeted as well, guilty by association with me.
Personally, the attacks have taken a toll on my physical and mental health. It’s been so constant and casual that for years I failed to identify it as cultic abuse. Defamation and harassment are odious and illegal. I’m not disclosing this for sympathy but to show a little bit of what’s at stake for whistleblowers. It’s far worse for survivors.
Q3: “Wokewashing” is a real thing. I hope I’ve said enough above!
Question 8: Why can’t dharma communities help their victims?
Why are yoga and meditation communities so powerless to help people who have been harmed by those very same communities?
I think we must ask whether practice techniques can fix the problems they often serve to bypass or cover up. The fact that leaders like Simmer-Brown ask Shambhala members to “keep practicing” while offering no concrete policy initiatives that centre the testimonies and needs of Shambhala survivors is a big clue as to how this works, and what the priorities of high-demand groups and their leaders actually are. No part of the Shambhala curriculum helped mitigate the abuses of Trungpa and the alleged abuses of Mipham.
Modern yoga and Global Buddhism are vast industries that presume to offer physical and emotional care for practitioners. They are self-professed wellness and healthcare platforms. Yet neither are regulated, and with the exception of the smartest Yoga Therapy practitioners, neither employ tools like scope of practice or informed consent.
No high-demand group wants to admit to its failures of care, and that would be the first step in helping those it has harmed.
A last point here, extrapolating from Jennifer Freyd’s work, is that it might actually be a good thing that survivors of institutional abuse have to seek outside the group for healing and redress. Her research shows that asking the institution that abused you or enabled abuse for help might be retraumatizing. We see this in the stories of the women Larry Nassar abused being additionally betrayed by his employers when they sought to take action. I’ve seen this retraumatization happen up close as people who Pattabhi Jois assaulted have sought acknowledgement from senior Ashtanga teachers and have either been ignored, patronized, or co-opted into a false reform discourse.
Question 9: Performing vs. modelling reform.
Several teachers that remain in Shambhala seem to have stepped away from teaching Shambhala Buddhism and are instead teaching some mix of Buddhism and social justice (ostensibly to reclaim some legitimacy?) Yet, they still remain under the Shambhala umbrella. What do you make of this?
I hope my comments on wokewashing above are helpful.
I don’t know which teachers you’re referring to, but nobody who cares about transparency or spiritual care should regard Shambhala content or networks as a resource to be scavenged but as a liability to be mitigated.
Two women who Pattabhi Jois assaulted over long periods of time — Karen Rain and Jubilee Cooke — are about to post a groundbreaking article about what survivors of abuse in spiritual communities need. One of the stunning but also obvious things they suggest in it is that if you were educated in a method or community with an abuse history, your shingle is stained, and you really ought to consider upgrading your training with an organization that has taken care of business.
You should be able to show the public how you have acknowledged, understood, and sought to repair the harm and injustice of the school you rely on for validation, if that’s what you’re doing. I also take this to mean that if you come from an organization that has acted out intergenerational trauma under the guise of “tradition” or “lineage”, then I’d like to see your training in trauma care from a legit educational institution before you start offering meditation retreats. Deal?
Some examples for perspective:
- If you made money running the recording studio where R. Kelly cut hit tracks, I want to see your workplace sexual harassment policy.
- If you made your name in US gymnastics as a trainer, I want to know whether you’re a mandated reporter of child sexual abuse.
- If you’re a Catholic deacon, nun, or priest, and your job has anything to do with children, I want to know who you’ve made yourself accountable to outside of your clearly criminal church.
Can we imagine justifications for NOT doing these things? Of course. People will say: “But I still produce sick music, bro!” “But I have a good track record in helping gymnasts overcome injury.” “But I know the gospels really well, and they offer relief and guidance for all mankind.” In the yoga and Buddhism worlds, the justifications are the same: “But the holy dharma! I teach the holy dharma! People NEED the holy DHARMA!”
But who cares what you love to do, and how do you know what anyone needs? I want to know that you’ve nailed down the basics of not abusing or enabling abuse.
We’re getting to a point at which virtually everyone who has professionalized in yoga or Buddhism has to reckon with the fact that large parts of their education come from a new age equivalent of Oral Roberts University, and their teaching certificates are like degrees in creationism or faith healing. The question now is: are they going to bury that, or get square with it? It took me ten years to come out as a cult survivor in my bio note, ten years to own that I learned some of what I learned from sociopaths, and to show what I was doing about that. I was hiding from that history because of a reasonable shame but also for a terrible reason: I didn’t want my professional image to be obscured by illegitimacy. And yet: what was I building that profession on? Shame is an appropriate personal response to recognizing your cultic recruitment. But it is not a responsible professional disguise.
Sometimes I wonder whether the tyranny of happiness and good vibes that can turn the yoga and Buddhist worlds into Stepford conventions are actually a reaction formation against held secrets. “Look at us! Everyone’s fine!” Smile smile, blink blink.
There are countless people now in this same conundrum. How will they get clear on the identity and autobiographical crisis of owning a cultic past? I think the transparency statement will soon become the new personal inventory amongst yoga and Buddhism teachers. If it doesn’t, how will future practitioners be able to trust what they learn, and the relationships they learn it through?
Here’s where we get into the problem of secondary harm. When yoga and Buddhism teachers aren’t clear about where they’re coming from, they can radiate deception outwards, causing damage and wasting people’s time. I wrote about two examples of that here:
TLDR on the article: one of the examples shows how two Women’s Studies professors did months of fieldwork on a yoga service programme in NYC and concluded that the programme “has inspired a confidence that a feminist-informed social justice orientation to community engagement emphasizing ethics of care, commitment, shared power, and mutual political vision is indeed possible.”
So what was the programme? It was “Urban Yogis”, run by one of the Jois family’s staunchest representatives, someone who has done nothing to address the abuse history in public, even while he continues to professionally associate with the Jois brand. Did the scholars know about the abuse? No. They were deceived by omission. So let’s think about how many undergrads, especially women, will read that article and get all excited about the feminist values of Ashtanga Yoga. This is not to say that positive reform isn’t possible, but at this point the premise is absurd and abuses people’s time and emotional energy.
Question 10: Do dharma groups attract the vulnerable?
It seems to me that Buddhism, Yoga and other “alternative” religions and therapies naturally draw a lot of people with a history of suffering, abuse and general ill-adjustment to society. This is very risky, because on the one hand traumatized and ill-adjusted people might benefit a lot from those traditions, but on the other hand they might be easier targets for abusers and charlatans. Also, they might add a lot more neurosis to organizational dynamics than “healthy” people. How can a sangha be welcoming to those in need, but at the same time not be compromised by the neurosis they potentially bring into it?
(I did my best not to be offensive here, but English is not my native language, so it is difficult to appraise how some words might be triggering.)
I think you did really well with a very sensitive question.
I’m imagining you know it’s sensitive because focusing on the mental health profiles or prior histories of abuse victims is irrelevant when we’re seeking clarity on criminal acts committed against them. It can easily veer off into victim-blaming territory. Also I must make clear that there is NO evidence in the cult research that suggests that there are solid predictors for who is recruited. Recruits come from all socioeconomic and educational backgrounds, and likely from a wide range of scores on the ACE. The people I was with in the two cults I was in came from all over. Racial diversity was low (which has led me to wonder about where and how cult dynamics intersect with race) but every other category was extremely diverse.
That said, I think we can find a sensitive way to acknowledge the fact that group members are often recruited at points of “situational vulnerability” — after having moved, after an illness/divorce/accident, between jobs or careers. Also, anecdotally, especially in the US, there is a high degree of antipathy towards conventional medicine and therapy, given the predatory costs. I’m wondering whether future research will show that yoga and Buddhist groups attract higher-than-average numbers of people with untreated mental health issues by promising self-regulation in markets where citizens are deprived of health care. Of course that research would have to measure the positive effects against the negative. But if we’re talking about the negative impacts being on the overall culture of the group, however, that would be additionally difficult to analyze.
Question 11: The “guru” is out of scale.
Do you feel we are in a unique moment with regard to the worship of celebrity? In other words, what sort of cultural or societal antecedents and trends interest you in this whole affair?
I feel like that’s a very broad question but maybe I can pull on one thread that pops out in relation to cultic dynamics in global yoga and Buddhism.
The postmodern transnational spiritual leader that emerges in the mid-late 20th century (lots of factors involved here, including the 1965 Immigration Act in the US) seems to have only an imaginary connection to prior forms of spiritual leadership indigenous to South Asia. I can’t see how any of the intimate protocols that governed premodern guru-shishya bonds or samaya vows could survive the scale made possible by first cheap print and then cheap international travel, and now online virality. Cultic groups manipulate the nostalgic/romantic/orientalist appeal of that intimacy and deceive members into believing it’s on offer. I’ve heard people describe having “personal” relationships with Amma, Sai Baba, Gurumayi, Pattabhi Jois, Mooji, Trungpa, Mipham Mukpo, Sogyal Rinpoche, Michael Roach, Adyashanti, Byron Katie.
This is delusional. None of these people are thinking about you when you’re not there. Or even when you are. It’s not reciprocal. And if they’re “traumatized narcissists” to use Daniel Shaw’s term, they actually exist by erasing you.
One of the women who Pattabhi Jois assaulted repeatedly and who offered her incredible story to this book had this to say:
“I’m not even sure he knew my name. I didn’t get any sense that I was an important student that he was transmitting something to. That was not the experience. It was more like I was a piece of ass in an open position that he could dry hump. That’s what it felt like to be the receiver, and then the chorus of interpretations of that morphing it into something else, as a special thing, was just incredibly confusing for me.” (PAAIC, p.4)
In neurological terms, any leader who has more than 150 followers would find it impossible to have the kind of full and rich communication with each of them that I imagine any kind of “traditional” samaya would demand. Our brains aren’t built for more. Check out “Dunbar’s number” for more on that. Beyond 150, the leader will begin thinking symbolically and generically about students, rather than personally. Any buffer against them treating students as objects is weakened. I wonder if that’s why so many of them look glazed over: if there are too many of you, the celebrity leader can’t even see you when you’re standing in front of them. They dissociate to avoid the barrage of attention, to become anonymous amongst the anonymous masses. The icing on the cake is when group members interpret that blankness as some sort of altered or mystical state.
In some cases, however, deception regarding bonding can comes from the top, and it’s effective. I remember the first “private” meeting I had with Michael Roach, which meant that it was with him and his “sangyum” (they didn’t use the term) who was about half his age. It was the only time I remember him looking me in the eyes. That brief contact seemed so precious that I built a one-sided bond out of it that survived the fact that he never met my eyes again in three years. Everybody spoke about Roach as though he was so accessible, approachable, close. That would only ever have been true for a shifting handful of people who surrounded him constantly, working day and night.
All that said, I don’t in any way want to foreclose the possibility that smaller-scale, more intimate, perhaps more premodern learning relationships still exist in global yoga and Buddhism, and that they work well, and actually fulfill the promises carried by the indigenous (and still sacred to many) terms “guru” or “lama”. That’s not my experience nor my research focus, so I don’t know a lot about it. But I hope if those learning contexts do exist and are functional that the students who benefit from them step up and describe them in accessible ways, because of course we need good modeling.
Question 12: Success stories?
What examples of best practices for ethics, accountability, and atonement can you point to / describe for teacher authorization and organizational governance that could serve as a role model for a reformed Shambhala to aspire towards?
This is beyond my scope if we’re talking about global Buddhism It’s really a question for Professor Ann Gleig, who specializes in this area, and who might be a good AMA guest.
In the yoga world, Kripalu is often held up as having made a decent re-organizational recovery after sacking Amrit Desai, but more research needs to be done there. I’ve heard that the dynamics weren’t entirely horizontalized, which makes sense: I think it’s extremely hard for any charismatic model to flatten out without simply expressing a routinization of what came before. Everyone who is primed for leadership in a charismatic or high-demand setting will have gotten there through a certain amount of mimicry. When there’s a power vacuum at the top, who’s ready to step in?
The most interesting story going on in yogaland right now pits alleged sexual predator Manouso Manos against his lifelong peers in the Iyengar Yoga National Association of the United States. I wrote about it here:
TLDR, from the end of the report:
“IYNAUS standing firm and posting their statement in the face of [legal] intimidation [from Manos] marks an extraordinary moment in the history of modern global yoga in which an older paradigm of top-down leadership is firmly challenged by public-service models of governance and accountability.
“It might be the clearest and most public example yet of what yoga scholar Theodora Wildcroft has identified as an increasingly visible shift into a “post-lineage” era, in which practice and accountability are negotiated and nurtured by peers, rather than dictated and avoided by charismatic personalities.”
Most of the yoga world has utterly failed to even approach reform with integrity. In the worst cases, schools like Jivamukti have used quick-fixes like offering consent cards for adjustments while cynically positioning themselves as leaders in trauma sensitivity — not long after settling a sex harassment suit against one of their teachers.
I reported on that here:
Recently, Jivamukti co-founder David Life was on FB musing about how Jivamukti is only using them “as insurance against litigation”, because “litigation is the issue in the States where abuse is a testy issue.” Well, he should know.
So what we have is something even worse than apathy: organizations pretending to do the work as they brand-wash. Just think of what they’re stealing from those who spent more than a decade trying to say: “Hey look, consent cards should be a thing.”
Sorry I don’t have better news here. I just don’t think organizational reform can truly come from within dharma organizations that have abuse histories related to power that were covered over by dharma-content. Outside influences are crucial, and the best ones on the horizon might have their impact as yoga and mindfulness work moves into the public health sector, which will prompt new levels of professionalism and accountability.
I realize many are worried about McMindfulness, secularization, and the bureaucratization of practice, but my question for them is that if dharma organizations can’t ensure public safety and accountability to the same degree that psychotherapy colleges or public schools can, do we really have a choice? If all the Acharyas and Shastris had been mandated reporters for sexual abuse from the 1980s onwards, would Shambhala be in the position it’s in now?
Question 13: Academic insight, academic collusion.
Can you say anything about how “academia” shapes your own position and the manner in which you are received by others, including negatively? I can’t help but notice that you are in some very productive dialogues with some interesting academics who share your overall view but that some other academics associated with some of the organizations or cults you have criticized/critiqued have received you negatively. Maybe also relevant to speak to the seemingly contradictory roles of Simmer-Brown as both a scholar subject to peer-review while also an “acharya” in Shambhala.
As a twice-dropout, I’ve been awfully blessed in the yoga world by the scholarly generosity of Theo Wildcroft, Mark Singleton, Jason Birch, Jacqueline Hargreaves, Jim Mallinson, Andrea Jain, and others. They answer long and surely irritating emails from me on a regular basis and really embody scholarship as public service. I couldn’t have done half of what I’ve done without them.
But the academic/practitioner dual identity can pose a lot of problems when the person is involved with or belongs to a high-demand group. That can have true cultural impacts at certain scales: see above for notes on Naropa as a front organization for Shambhala International. In the example of how the efforts of two academics were manipulated by omission into boosting Ashtanga as a feminist practice, we can see out even scholars outside of high-demand groups can be impacted.
In terms of individual cases, you bring up Simmer-Brown. I too would like to know how exactly can someone bound by samaya also be bound by peer-review? Is it a matter of switching hats? How can there not be a conflict of interest that deprives her academic students of critical distance? I understand that the insider-outsider debate has been dealt with in detail in Religious Studies over the decades and that many have developed past that dichotomy. But the split remains plain when group members gain social power within the group, in this case academically, and then function to legitimize the group to the general public.
Can scholarship even cover over the most important data at hand? Let’s consider Holly Gayley’s scholarship (this is not an attack on her person) on “Sangyum”, for example, in this paper (Religions 2018, 9, 179; doi:10.3390/rel9060179):
Gayley provides a well-researched review of the concept and practice of the “secret consort”, beginning with premodern sources, ostensibly relevant against the backdrop of contemporary abuse scandals. Gayley spends a fair amount of space reporting on Sogyal Rinpoche’s abuse (not her word) of the tradition, but only has the following to say about Trungpa’s engagement of it. Trungpa remains the spiritual head of the community she teaches in from a mixed position of devotion and scholarship:
“In North America, Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche (1939–1987) was unique in naming seven women as sangyum, who served as his companions and personal representatives toward the end of his life. They remain respected members of the Shambhala community, given prominent seats at events and addressed with the title Sangyum before their names. In addition, Diana Mukpo, whom Trungpa Rinpoche married in England after disrobing in 1970, received the title Sakyong Wangmo, a royal designation from eastern Tibet. Still today, she and several of the sangyum teach advanced trainings in the Shambhala teachings based on terma that Trungpa Rinpoche revealed in the late 1970s. The public nature of these contemporary women’s roles—from Tsering Chödrön to Diana Mukpo—has given them a stature that illicit trysts, tantric or otherwise, do not. Nonetheless, by their own accounts, the role is not an easy one to navigate.”
But Trungpa didn’t just “name” them. He seduced many into sexual relationships of questionable or no-consent, including Ciel Turzanski, reportedly at or before the age of 15 — same age Diana was when they first had sex. “They” do not all remain “respected members”. Ciel is deceased and Leslie Hays hasn’t attended events for years, and more recently she’s been ostracized and defamed for describing the abuse of her spiritual “marriage” to Trungpa.
So what’s going on here? How does this research and historicization and academic gentility contextualize and normalize a crucial aspect of the very group Gayley has ethnographic access to? Was it part of Gaylely’s scope to interview any of these women? If not, why not? As teaching staff in Shambhala, and based in Colorado, I can’t imagine that Gayley wouldn’t have access to those interview opportunities. The timing is so important if unintentional and unlucky. The publication data says it was submitted in April of 2018, but Leslie Hays starts disclosing her experience on Facebook before it was published in July.
I’m careful here to say nothing about Gayley’s character or intentions but rather to point at the impact of a paper like this: that is flattens her own community into a textual artifact rather than a living network. I hate that I have to give that disclaimer, but ad hominem is so normalized in this landscape that people do it, see it, and feel it everywhere. I think it has something to do with the intimacy of the content. We’re fighting over what we love, and how we have been betrayed.
So there’s direct scholarship, generated from with the group, which provides a cover of legitimacy for the group. But I also think we also have to consider the influence of other academics who lend abusive organizations credibility — and this is weird — whether as apologists OR reformers.
Here’s a post I wrote about a social sciences prof who publicly attacked Ann West, whose sexual assault complaint against Manouso Manos has forced him to his knees and his oversight organization into a whirlwind of reform. The prof uses academic and social justice language to claim that West is in part driven by white supremacy. The prof, Manos, and Ann West are all “white”, although West’s heritage is Roma.
The TLDR here is that it doesn’t seem to matter how well-trained someone is as a scholar or whatever: the cultic will override it, and force the weirdest things out of their mouths.
Totally different example: how does Associate Professor Shanté Smalls (St. John’s University English) drop all of the rules of academic rigour to drag me in the comments on that meme? How is she using the legitimacy, if not the responsibility, of her scholarly position to discredit an outsider’s analysis? I don’t care if she psychoanalyzes me or calls me mediocre or a parasite, or the Bernie Sanders of white Buddhism, which is pretty funny. I’m interested in her disinterest in the facts about someone who is interrogating the spiritual organization that she’s teaching seven trainings for this spring.
Professor Smalls writes that I’m using my moment to be opportunistic. She mocks me for having been in the cult of Roach. She speculates that I’m writing about Shambhala because I failed to “heal” Roach’s community.
The facts are that it’s neither shameful nor discrediting to have been in Roach’s cult. I broke the Roach story in 2012, and because I haven’t been part of his cult since 2000, it’s not mine to heal, which an absurd demand. My “opportunism” has covered Shambhala, Rigpa, Iyengar Yoga, Anusara Yoga, and Asthanga Yoga all in the same way. It’s like calling a weatherman opportunistic because he says: “Hey look there’s rain.”
I feel this is important because the power Professor Smalls holds as an academic competes with that of Simmer-Brown — even though they might be anathema to each other — as the remnants of the Shambhala demographic figure out who has moral and intellectual authority and who to listen to. I believe they deserve care from scholars who don’t make things up.
That said, Professor Smalls is totally right that I and every other white person has to do the work of dismantling white privilege as we dismantle the cultic. They are connected, and I look forward to what she has to say about that in the future.
Above all, transparency about positionality is key. Because it’s not just academic-practitioners who can fail to be clear about the hat they’re wearing. The confusion can run the other way as well, with non-academic practitioners and teachers learning how to adopt academic language and mannerisms to such an extent that their students are very confused about their training. In the worst cases, this contributes to deception.
When I met Michael Roach, his apparent fluency in Tibetan was really impressive. I think the consensus generally is that his language skills are legit, and that he really did accomplish at least some of the memorization work demanded of Gelugpa training, even if he wildly exaggerated the time he actually spent enrolled at Sera Me monastery. I’ve also heard legit Tibetan scholars speak highly of his ACIP work in preserving texts. However.
But was he really a translator? If so, how exactly did he turn Prasangika philosophy into a prosperity and “spiritual relationships” gospel? I’m not stupid, and I was earnestly impressed by what turned out to be a performance of competence in Tibetan Buddhist philosophy and culture. When he had to move on to the yoga world to gather recruits, of course he published a translation of / riff on Patanjali. When I was in his group, we all believed he was a Sanskritist as well. He’s not.
This kind of overreach takes more benign forms as well. My late friend Michael Stone was a compelling commentator on Buddhist and yoga ideas. I’ve met a number of his students who believed he was a translator as well — that he was reading in Sanskrit and Pali and even Japanese. He wasn’t, but I don’t remember him ever saying aloud: “I’m not a Sanskritist, so I’m relying on what this real Sanskritist is saying here…”. And I think that added to the pressure I believe he felt in having to be exceptionally smart or accomplished, and we all know now that pressure was the last thing he needed.
Question 14: Cancelling Vajrayana?
Do you see anything of value or worth preserving in Vajrayana Buddhism as a whole?
I don’t think anyone is going to cancel Vajrayana. In global terms, it’s a strange, compelling, beautiful, problematic part of Indo-Tibetan heritage. But it still has indigenous practitioners. I certainly don’t think global consumers disenchanted with what may be its bastardization through cultic groups get to decide what it’s worth. They’re free to walk away from it as they came, as seekers, but also consumers.
If they are still under undue influence, however, they are not free to walk away. And this I believe highlights something important: that while Vajrayana’s power systems might be easily exploitable by the cultic, they are not necessarily cultic per se. One useful axiom from the cult literature is that the content of the cult doesn’t matter: the power patterns do. That’s why religious, political, psychotherapeutic, business and athletic cults all operate the same way. As Cathleen Mann told me: I don’t care what you believe as an adult. I care about how you treat others.
I’m fairly sure that the Vajrayana practitioners of Howell, NJ, with whom I took samaya vows binding me to Khen Rinpoche Lobsang Tharchin were mostly well-served by meditating on his nature as inseparable from that of Vajrayogini. I’m sure it gave them some relief in life, and I never got the sense that the group was anything more than devotional and nerdy and had a relationship of mutual respect and support with the Mongolian refugees that KR was sent there to serve. Michael Roach came out of that environment, but I don’t have any sense that he was taught to deceive or control others there.
I do have a Julian Jaynes-level question about the premodern vs. contemporary neurological makeup of the practitioner — especially with regard to irony and skepticism. It seems to me that premodern Vajrayana has to be in some way predicated on a nervous system that tends towards credulity. I’m not sure how I could have grown up in the 1970s and completely abandoned the rational materialism, feminism, and postmodern theory of my formative years to remain a steadfast devotee of anything, even though it gave me relief for a while. So I have questions about how other people do it. Lyotard’s famous definition of the sentiment of our age is “incredulity towards metanarratives”. What could be a larger, bolder, more grandiose metanarrative than the Shambhala mandala? Who is more of the modernist Great Man of History than Trungpa, according to his press? He is a hero, a titan of singular and unique achievements that can never be replicated. He is divine in that sense.
I’ve seen some devotees circumvent the credulity problem with comments like “chanting is good for the Vagus nerve”. Yes, and so is reciting Shakespeare or rapping along to Digable Planets, I’m sure. There’s a lot more going on than sound and rhythm.
What do you have to do to your brain to believe all this in a sustained way? I understand believing in it for a while as an antidote to postmodernity. I remember the relief of the contact-high I got from Michael Roach’s self-certainty. But I really wonder how credulity in the Vajrayana vision — the primary requirement of creation stage practice, as I understand it — can be sustained without the application of strategic dissociation. Because the world just isn’t Vajrayogini’s mandala.
Question 16: How to talk to true believers.
I have had a lot of conversations in recent months with “true believers” (people who remain loyal to the teacher or teachings they cherish in spite of all the evidence that they are members of a dangerous cult). It’s a little frustrating sometimes, because their blind spot seems so obvious to me. The trouble is, you can’t just say to a person, “Look, here is your blind spot,” because that puts them on the defensive and the conversation goes downhill from there.
What techniques have you developed to engage such people, without making them feel like they’re under attack? What signs are there that there is just no use, that the person is not ready for the conversation? Is there a way to end it gracefully, without hard feelings? And what about the openly aggressive trolls who are not interested in conversation at all, but who merely want to shut you up– Any insights on dealing with them?
Such a hard question. To reiterate some points from above, it really seems to depend strongly on the strength of your prior relationship to the person, or on your capacity to present and model secure attachments. This is punishingly difficult online. It’s often chaos.
I try to make distinct strategic choices. I’ll communicate differently based upon whether I really am trying to forge a relationship or whether it feels more important to speak truth to power in public. When I engage the latter, I try my best to stick to the facts at hand. At this point, ex-Shambhalians or reformers have extraordinary documentation to cite, and cite, and cite. It’s always less provocative to point at evidence rather than confronting the emotional jargon directly.
I’d also say that there’s a strong possibility that whoever you’re talking to has been traumatized by the group, whether they know it or not, and that they’re defending a wound, or a gusher of shame and humiliation. They may not be defending the group so much as trying to push down the revelation of a personal tragedy that might feel like it will wash them away. If they’re attacking you, it might be because they feel they’re dying. With that in mind, gentleness is always helpful, but you may not be able to manage it. I’m sure as hell not.
It’s also really valuable to look at whether the language of critique you are using is accessible, or whether it shuts the group member down. I’ve got a section in my book that goes to some length to describe the liability of using the word “cult” in conversation, given how shameful, isolating, othering it can be. Here it is:
Those broader dynamics are often referred to with a popular but problematic term. The word “cult” is not only imprecise: it can be inflammatory and marginalizing. Even lifelong cultic studies researchers are conflicted about using it. In certain quarters, it might itself be classified as a form of “loaded language”, employed to dismiss entire religious or political groups out of hand.
Lalich and Landau provide a list of helpful synonyms for “cult”. They describe concerning groups as “high-demand”, “high-control”, “totalistic”, “totalitarian”, “closed charismatic”, “ultra-authoritarian”, and “self-sealed”. The term “self-sealed” is related to Lalich’s work on “bounded choice”, which she uses to describe an environment in which every occurrence is interpreted to suit the needs of the group or its leader. “When the process works,” she writes, “leaders and members alike are locked into what I call a ‘bounded reality’ — that is, a self-sealing social system in which every aspect and every activity reconfirms the validity of the system. There is no place for disconfirming information or other ways of thinking or being.” (Lalich, Janja, and Madeleine Landau. 2006. Loc 226, 665.)
The notion of “undue influence” is another useful framework. Undue influence is a legal concept dating back over 500 years, applied to assess whether a contract formed between a person with more power and a person with less power is truly consensual. As we’ll see, non-consent is a core theme of the Jois event. Throughout this book I’ll alternate synonyms for “cult” to soften any impression that we’re speaking about a precise phenomenon. We’re not. We’re talking about patterns and relationships. (PAAIC, 14-15)
Question 17: Mainstreaming critical thinking.
Hi, first I want to thank you for doing this work. I’m a political economy student and yoga teacher (conflicting) and did a research project on race/class/gender inclusion in yoga (and yoga under capitalism/patriarchy) and your articles were very valuable to me. Any advice for someone looking to lead a discussion group on these topics in a studio setting?
I’m hoping to make it to Portland for your upcoming training, are you open to having people only come for a portion of the training?
Thoughts on cultural appropriation (or maybe you can direct me to talks you’ve already done on this BIG question)?
And tied [a] great question [from above], is there a way to keep teachers and studios accountable while allowing them to operate as a business under capitalism? Seems the values of yoga conflict with the status quo. How to treat yoga as a commons while valuing teachers for the work they put in?
Thank you for the kind words. I’m fresh out of marketing advice for this content! I just try to foster strong IRL relationships with studio owners and YTT directors and work from there. But the industry is contracting. At the same moment that critical content is emerging the workshop economy is collapsing. Sometimes it looks like the webinar is a good avenue, but that too is very competitive landscape. But in straightforward pedagogical terms, I think the material is best served with data that frames the questions clearly and then Socratic exercises for nurturing diverse answers.
You can come to anything you want, just run it by the host!
Cultural appropriation is really another AMA, I feel. In yoga, Andrea Jain is a must-read, and Susanna Barkataki’s Honor Collective Project offers a number of really great perspectives. Try to be wary of white virtue-signaling in this area, especially when it comes from people tied to high-demand yoga groups that claim they’re preserving indigenous practices. See if there’s evidence for that.
Yoga under capitalism is a paradox, and another huge question. And as I’ve mentioned above the only positive pathway forward wrt accountability might lie in the demands of professionalization into public health and education sectors.
Question 18: Separating the teacher from the practice?
A dialogue I’ve encountered a lot lately when talking about sexual misconduct is that the leader is separate from the practice. Ex) Satchidananda’s translation of the Sutras is still valuable despite his misconduct. Or Ashtanga is still a valuable practice despite Pattabhi Jois’s sexual assault.
Seems like every school of yoga has been involved in some power or sexual misconduct, can a practice really ever be separated from its founders?
I hope that the first answer, up top, esp the baby+bathwater remarks, is useful here.
One enormous problem with separating practice from founder is this so often relies on a fiction regarding the ancientness of the practice itself. Practices associated with charismatic leaders bear their psychosomatic echoes. When you practice Iyengar Yoga with one of his senior students, you literally feel his body — not just his method — in yours. Can we really separate out the authoritarian by-rote pedagogy of Bikram from the somatic echo of his dominance over other bodies?
Practices are practiced by people. People communicate them. They don’t float above people in the ether, and stay there when the people are sleeping or dead. If you were a direct student of Trungpa who still thinks that he was some sort of supernatural person, you’ll likely feel that in your tissues. If you don’t believe that, ask yourself what it would feel like to have Larry David record the audio book for Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism. Or Gene Simmons.
Whatever yoga is, whatever Buddhism is, I don’t see how you can pluck it free from the relationships through which it is communicated.
Question 19: Does practice make you a better citizen?
I wonder if you can say something also about Thich Nhat Hanh as good example (or not) of the fertilization of dharma and social justice?
No, I’m afraid I don’t know much about TNH or Plum Village.
In the abstract, I think with any community my first question is whether or not there’s a presumption that practice is coherent with or supportive of particular political values. Be Scofield pretty much slam-dunks this as false, arguing that whatever sublime/unitary experience that the practice values cannot be reliably channeled into any specific political position not dictated by the surrounding culture. This is how we get Zen warrior monks and Nazi yogis. So I tend to think about dharma practice and activism not as mutually exclusive but as unreliably linked. The best personal answer I have is that practice enables resilience in the face of dread.
I addressed some of these points here:
Question 20: Dialoguing.
Is there a pubic figure within the broader world of mindfulness, meditation, yoga, etc with whom you would be most interested to do a public dialogue? Roach?
Ha, that’s unlikely.
It’s a great question, because it makes me see how I’ve divided (or the investigative journalism practice of the past 3 years has divided) my world up into colleagues that nurture me with questions, and then people I want hard answers from. I can think of a bunch of people I’d love to interview, but I’m not going to telegraph the names!
Outside of that binary, I think it would be cool to sit with Ganesh Mohan and ask him about his take on the Krishnamacharya legacy. Or to sit with Lama Rod Owen and talk about the intersections of the cultic and racial and gender injustice. Or to talk with Donna Farhi about the under-researched feminist arc in modern yoga history that attempts to reclaim agency.
Question 21: Heteronormativity.
Do you see a relationship between Hindu/Tantra heteronormative values of “sacred masculine/feminine” and how that has been used to suppress women and sexual assault scandals today? Is Yoga inherently patriarchal? Tied to other questions, do you think “sacred masc./fem” energies pose any value as a metaphor? The more I dig the worse it gets. These are big, would be happy just to have suggestions of other authors to look into.
If you haven’t read Roots of Yoga by Mallinson and Singleton, it gives the slam-dunk answer on cultural and historical misogyny in Hatha Yoga. TLDR: it’s patriarchal.
You’re totally on to something with the heteronormativity of the legacy, although we should be clear that there are nonbinary devotional forms and all kinds of gender trouble in the Puranas. But are these aspects well appreciated in the global marketplace? I don’t see that, and my gut says that that is because the heteronormative aspects of Tantrism, for example, allow otherwise liberal Boomers and even Gen Xers to backslide comfortably into a binary familiarity. They get spiritual permission to be conservative. Think about the gendered symbology of Ayurveda, for instance, or whether “goddess” culture is an orientalization of a throwback vision of being able to perfect all “feminine” (especially nurturance) roles at once.
I’ve done a lot of podcasts, but this one is different. Tiffany and I have known each other for many years, and we were able to record at her dinner table with the Edmonton winter held at bay outside the window. I was exhausted and just off a plane but that somehow helped make me focused and relaxed and a little unguarded. Also, Tiffany doesn’t fuck around. Thanks for the all the hard work you do, Tiff, and for your friendship.
Here’s the recording, which is episode 2 on her new series with Elliot Kesse. You can support their work here. I’m posting a cleaned-up transcript below.
Welcome to Where’d My Chakras Go? A yoga podcast for the rest of us, with Elliot Kesse and Tiffany Rose. So I am here with Matthew Remski and Elliot is not able to join us unfortunately, but we will be discussing some of the topics that Elliot had requested. So maybe Matthew can just tell us a little bit about yourself?
Sure. Thanks for inviting me Tiffany. I’ve been teaching or I guess involved in yoga since about 2003, and that followed two three-year stints in yoga related cults. And how that happened is a long story, but coming to yoga itself was really wrapped up in trying to recover my sense of agency and autonomy after those experiences of control — of social control. And that really started with being able to feel my own body as my own, being able to feel my thoughts as my own. So I plunged right in.
Also, I’d lost a lot of time in my late twenties and early thirties, wrapped up in these two cultic organizations. The yoga industry was booming when I got out and it seemed like a fortuitous fit and, there was a training that I could go to and there wasn’t a yoga studio in the little town that my ex partner and I were living in at that time. So, things just seem to fall into place to put me in this strange position of studying a lot of yoga and then beginning to teach it a little bit too early, but in a very intensive way. I started out with 25 classes a week or something like that. There’s a lot of people who ended up doing that in the early 2000s I think.
I eventually continued to study in subject areas like yoga therapy and Ayurveda and more esoteric subjects like Jyotish or Vedic astrology and palmistry and the spatial arrangement thing called Vastu. And that was all really enriching in my life. I’ve continued on from there, but it’s really taken me about 10 years to swing around to recognizing that the primary value that I found in this to begin with was tools to access some sort of internal sense of constancy or agency, and capacity to feel like a single self and that’s been really important to me. And then it’s also directed how I’ve begun to look at how systems of social control developed within yoga environments as well. I think a lot of your listeners will probably know that I do a lot of work on yoga and Buddhist cults now in my writing. So that’s a little bit about me.
So you live in Toronto and you have two children and you’re married to Alix who is just starting to move into her own practice and the boys are both in school now, so this is kind of a transitional time for you as well, hey?
Right. Yeah. Alix is starting her psychotherapy practice and supervision as you say, the boys are both into school, little Owie is only in preschool. He says “pee skoo”. Then I’ve got this book coming out in March and I have no idea what’s going to happen after that because there’s going to be a lot of people I think who appreciate it and there’s gonna be bunch of people who really hate it. And I think it’s going to bring my engagement with yoga training work into a different area because up until this point I’ve been doing YTT modules in or facilitating YTT modules in history, philosophy and culture. But I think especially the conclusion of this book is going to put me into the zone of — or at least I’d like it to put me in the zone of — starting to talk about community health and, and safer spaces. Not just in terms of affirmative consent or informed consent or all of the amazing anti-oppression work that I’ve been exposed to and I’ve started to learn about, but also in terms of how do people actually form relationships in yoga and Buddhist communities, and what’s the role of charisma, and how do you know that you’re in a bounded-logic group, and how do you know when you’re being asked to do things through mechanisms of undue influence, and how do you know that the person’s actually giving you care instead of trying to control you? Those are very pressing questions to me because the last, especially three years of work that I’ve done in the writing and journalism that I’ve published have all focused on that in various yoga communities.
So you’ve kind of had this sort of archetypal position in Yogaland as like the evil sort of villain that just picks apart everything that’s good, and things that everybody loves, you know, you’re just there to shit on it. Did that happen intentionally or was it just sort of, did it just sort of evolve?
Well, I think, I mean to me, thinking critically about one’s internal life and how one consumes spiritual ideas is a form of spirituality. I think we — I don’t want to speak for everybody — but it seems to be a common thread that we take our spiritual aspirations really seriously, and to the extent that we do that, I feel like it’s really good to interrogate where they’re coming from and what kinds of wishes they’re fulfilling within us and what they make us more receptive to and what they make us more blind to. So I’ve always felt in the critical work I’ve done around yoga and injuries or the difficulty in telling apart trance states and dissociative states in meditation or how smiling and seemingly beneficent and communities can really hold these daggers of betrayal — all of that work to me has actually been a form of spirituality.
Because I think that one recurring pattern in my life is that when I learn something, it’s through some type of disillusionment. I don’t think that’s necessarily true for everybody, but I think it’s underrated. I think disillusionment as a growth process actually underrated. The trick is (and this is where I think I fall down and where people, perhaps people who are critical of what I do don’t get enough from me) which is that disillusionment really has to be healed by some form of re-enchantment. And so I’m working on that part, but it’s hard because all of my critical work is also wrapped up in the wounds of having been a cult survivor.
And so trying to find the pathway between criticism and productivity can be a real challenge, but it’s something that I think I want to keep working on for sure. I feel responsible to that. When people engage in my work and they feel depressed or more cynical or low, that’s a burden for me. It’s a burden for them! But I think it poses a responsibility. It gives me a responsibility. I don’t want to shy away from that.
I used to have this like almost-avoidant and dismissive attitude of “Oh, well, you know, I can just describe a problem and if you don’t like it then, you know, suck it up.” But that’s not where I’m at anymore. I think being in a really supportive relationship makes me understand how that can’t be where I am anymore. Trying to do well by my sons makes me understand that I really don’t want to be there anymore. I do want to do more to look at positive solution-seeking.
Is it you that says, are you quoting somebody that says something like enlightenment is the end of… what’s it?
I think maybe what you’re pointing to is that I had a teacher who gave this, I think probably eccentric etymology for “moksha”. He suggested that the first part of the compound word was shared with the name of Mohini,one of the divine feminine figures who has said to distract the yogi from — in this very misogynistic system of course — distract the yogi from his other-worldly concerns. And then the “ksha” is related to space element. And so his really beautiful explanation… I don’t know how other Sanskritists would find it, but he used to say that he thought of moksha as being “the end of infatuation”.
And leaving two cults was about two different types of infatuation coming to an end. Understanding that the bodily autonomy and, the real blessing of newfound interoception that I got from asana when I first started… really began to slide over into a kind of anxious ableism. When I realized that that was true, that was another end to infatuation. There was an infatuation that I had with physical capacity or even a capacity to sense things internally. You know, I think interoception is wonderful, but it can also be fetishized as, as some kind of core anchoring thing that will always bring you into the present moment and solve all problems and stuff like that. But it’s just another faculty and it has its uses and then it has its abuses as well.
And in fact, like for someone like me or people who have extreme chronic pain or maybe body dysmorphia or things like that, intense focus on interoception can sometimes be damaging, right? It can be harmful for people to feel like they’re trapped in their sensations or like they have to be tied to those internal sensations or else they’re not practicing yoga.
And that’s, and that’s a harder story for you for you to tell. I think it’s a lot easier — what I’m saying about interoception as being this wonderful grounding or agency-enhancing thing is a common yoga narrative. And then along comes Tiffany and says, “Wait, wait, wait a minute, wait a minute! When I go inside and try to find relaxation or peace or security and internal sensation, maybe I find the opposite. Maybe I just don’t find that at all.” And that in itself is a breaking of a kind of infatuation to just have that statement out there somewhere that, “Wait a minute, not everybody has that. Or not everybody does that. Or not everybody works that way.” It breaks this illusion that we’re all starting from the same place or that we all share something irreducibly in common. I think it gets us out of thinking that what we can share is an ideology instead of what we can share is a relationship where we’re actually continually learning about things that we just can’t understand about each other.
Doesn’t that make teaching harder though?
Like when there’s no common bond that we can kind of preach to. Then Actually have to start teaching in relationship.
And for people who maybe are closed down to relationship or maybe even like you were saying that closed down to a relationship to themselves. It makes teaching yoga a lot harder. I think
It does. It’s certainly harder to describe. It’s harder to market. It’s harder to feel evangelical about.
Well, there’s no flashing lights with that, you know?
No, there isn’t. This is a weird thing. I mean, when we hear the hopeful, hope-laden in statement in yoga culture or literature or marketing, we’re hearing two things. We’re hearing something earnest and yearning from the perspective of the teacher who’s marketing or the student who’s consuming. But we’re also hearing the potential for a kind of aspirational bypass where we’re somehow asking ourselves or other people to do and accomplish and feel more than they are able. And that brings up the whole problem of what happens when they don’t.
Do you think that…. I’m just kind of thinking this out loud, like, because I think that there’s so many teachers who are really wanting to do right. They’re really wanting to feel like their classes can be inclusive of everyone and that they are accessible, right? But with the current way that yoga is consumed in North America, it’s really difficult to remain profitable if that’s your livelihood and not sell hope. Right? So how do you, how do people who are really trying to be trauma-informed and inclusive and accessible, how do they compete with the evangelical, hopeful Lululemon crowd?
Yeah, I don’t think they compete. I think they offer something different which is: if there’s hope on offer, it’s the hope of, of inquiry or curiosity or a period of time out or a period of care or nurturance. I don’t see how they’re going to compete. I mean in a way, they’re antithetical so they can’t compete.
I think part of what we’re talking about is how can people make livings. And I think that when I consider what I know about your story and the story of so many other people who do this really sort of a in-depth trauma aware and non-commercialized work, I think of how I’m seeing this growing divide structurally between commercial and public service models. Where I see a hopefulness not in terms of marketing marketing solutions, but hopefulness in terms of the possibility for people like you and your colleagues for perhaps making more of a living over time or a better living over time is in the increasing movement of yoga into public health circumstances where the funding is assured because the population is known to simply benefit from what’s being offered.
That’s what I see with the work of people in the Yoga Service Council. And a little bit in the Accessibility Yoga Movement as well, that people are getting really good at, or better anyway, at figuring out where to pursue public funding rather than private commercial, consumer-based funding. So I’m very interested in that and that change in that movement.
One of the really great experiences that I had with you this year was at the Accessible Yoga Conference in Toronto. We had the privilege of presenting on a panel together there and you and I sat in on a session together at New Leaf foundation and I remember halfway through it, we were sitting beside each other and I was kind of a curled up in my chair and I had my knee in my chest and I was rocking a little bit and I remember you looking over at me and saying. “This is really good, hey?” And I remember thinking like, yeah, I feel very comforted. I’m like almost like rocking myself. Like I just feel very safe and comforted.
And that kind of work that they’re doing, I found a lot of hope in that and it was something that I hadn’t really been exposed to until then and just listening to them speak about the work that they do and the way that they approached it really gave me hope for yoga. Did you feel that way when you were listening to them?
I totally did. And I think it’s not just because of their content, which is top notch — because their content is not that much that far off from yours and it’s not going to be that much far off from anybody in yoga service. Where I find the comfort in just meeting people like that is in seeing how they have learned to approach the public infrastructure for support and to carve out their niche in it. And, I don’t know the New Leaf people personally that well, but that support is something that I know is a huge part of everybody who’s deeply invested in yoga service throughout North America is really trying hard to work on.
I was really struck sitting at the Yoga Service Council conference I think two years ago and I was speaking with a woman named Mayuri. I think her organization is called Little Flower Yoga and she trains teachers how to give 20, 30 and 40 minute yoga classes to grade school kids and she works in Manhattan. I think her partner is a public school teacher and so they’re sort of networked in the school system in a way. And she not only developed her training and by knocking on doors got her programs and her teachers into eight or nine public schools, which took three or four years, and they were able to pay out of discretionary spending for that. I think that’s how her business got going and I think she’s set up as a nonprofit as well. But she taught herself all how to do that, coming out of a non admin or nonprofit background. But the thing is there was one point at which, I think last year, Deblasio, the mayor of New York announced through the education department that they were making $20,000,000 available to the boroughs of New York public schools for wellness programs that would include yoga and mindfulness sessions or something like that. And so who’s on the phone the next morning, knowing who to call to get in on that funding is Mayuri. That is so cool because now she has networked her… she’s going to be able to leverage all of these teachers who she has trained into a new field that in terms of public money is still only being funded to a drop in the bucket. This has nothing to do with commercial yoga economics at all.
And yoga people are not in these circumstances having to worry about overhead or any of the things that you just went through with your studio over the last several years. So when I going back to sitting with New Leaf, the comfort that I feel is these people had figured out how to interface with the public health world. That means that comes with responsibility. That comes with “I’m going to have to have informed consent policies for all my workers. I’m going to have to have trauma informed training. I’m going to have to have good HR policies. I’m going to have to have all of these things that the commercial yoga world is totally shit at, and they’re just going to have to be a matter of course, and people are gonna have to be trained to a certain level that will allow them to be accountable to their public health positions.” And it’s like, it’s just a totally different world. And so I feel very, I feel very — it’s not what I’m professionally doing, but just as an observer and as a cultural critic and as a somebody who does journalism of this stuff sometimes, and I’m really fascinated to look at how that’s working.
I’m just going back to the conference. You gave the closing address for the conference and I had to jump on a bus to get to Montreal so I didn’t get to hear it, but I did watch the video. And I think I cried, which is really hard to get me to do so. But I think one of the things that really touched a lot of people in that address with you talking about how you too will one day become disabled. And I’m wondering if you can share a little bit about that.
Jivana, and — I’m a little bit embarrassed that I can’t remember the activist’s name that he cited in his presentation during the conference, but it’s somebody famous I think in California who was at the center of the disability rights movement from maybe the seventies or something like that — I think his one of his statements was, “It’s not like you’re not going to need these services. We’re all in this together.” And it’s kind of like a more visceral and material framing for all of the old ascetic and Buddhist realizations around mortality, old age, sickness and death. So there’s picture of the guy in his wheelchair saying, “You’re going to be somewhere like this.” And and then I was in his class a little bit later and,
Jivana’s class right. And I think he asked us to, — he’s got this great way of, “Let’s see how you can do Tadasana or a mountain pose, but, imagine that you need to have your full body in contact with a wall. Or let’s see if you can do tree pose on a chair. And he’s got all this amazing teaching around, “What is the posture actually? If you have an internal visualization of it, and that’s meaningful to you, is that the posture?” All of these ways of picking apart an ableism that is so pervasive, it’s invisible to people like me who, you know, I don’t see myself as being physically disabled.
So there was one point where I just burst into tears because I realized that he was giving me an end-of-life practice, or a later-on-in-life practice or something like that. He was actually preparing me for something in a way that nobody had ever prepared me for in a yoga class. When I got into yoga and I was doing asana obsessively, it was more like, “What secrets does this body hold that I can stretch out of it? And how can I break this open to find what’s inside?”
And Jivana’s doing something different. He’s like, “What’s already inside that can be felt and accepted as your condition or what your condition will be when you’re perhaps not able to stand or you’re not able to see or you’re not able to feel all of these things that you associate with yourself.” So there’s something very profound about that and it just kind of like, it added to this row of dominoes that have been falling around me or within me around what it means to not see your own privilege.
For me, that started with, I don’t know, several years ago. Actually, it came up this morning as well because I arrived here in Edmonton at 9:30, which meant that I had to leave the house in Toronto at 3:30 in the morning. And several years ago, Alix my partner said that she wanted me to take a cab to the bus stop we live in. We live in a neighborhood where if you want to catch the bus to the airport — like the bus that costs $3 instead of paying 60 bucks to take a cab at that time — you know you have to walk through a kind of lonely patch. And it’s a little bit of a sketchy area. And actually there were just two shootings this past week in the area. And so a couple of years ago, I was going to take one of these trips. I was probably coming here and she said, “Can you just take a cab to the bus stop?” And I was like, I was insulted. And I was like. “No, I’m not gonna, I’m not gonna.” I got all proud and huffy and stuff like that.
It took this argument, I’m ashamed to say, to break through this layer of absolute unconsciousness around what it actually meant to be female and in a body and in this part of the city, and thinking about walking at that time of night. And it kind of like overwhelmed me. I was like, “Oh, you live in a totally different world than I live in. And I haven’t seen that before. And I have to start taking care of that. Like I have to start taking care of you. Not in a paternalistic way, but taking care of the fact that I don’t even understand how much benefit I have here.”
It’s funny because I stayed with you during the conference and I, one night I went out and I was up until midnight and I had to navigate my way back to your house and I remember you asking me because I walked from that bus stop to your house and it was about midnight or 12:30 and I remember you asking me if I felt unsafe and I said no. And I thought about that and you know, I think probably what that is, you know, as a trauma survivor, I tend to feel safe in unsafe situations and unsafe in safe situations. So for me, I just kind of…
It can be scrambled, right?
Yeah. I puff myself up and put my head down and just walked to your house without even giving it a second thought. But, you know, it didn’t probably even occur to me that I might be putting myself at risk or in danger or that I should have maybe taken a cab or something like that. I just wandered through the streets of Toronto by myself.
Yeah. And like me asking you that and me asking you that comes from… I mean, it’s funny because there’s a potential for paternalism in there too, right? Where I’m going to be protective towards Alix or towards you as a guest and maybe over-compensate in some way and so these questions about empowerment and equality that come up. But really listening — I think the main point about privilege is just really letting it sink in: that we live in different worlds. And that was one of the first big things that, that I think really started to, it changed my spirituality in the sense that like the infatuation now that I am interested in ending or interrogating in myself is the infatuation that I have with forms of privilege that I can’t even see.
Because that infatuation — not understanding what it means to be male, or male-identified, not understanding the advantages of being white, not understanding the advantages of being considered to be able-bodied — that those are all barriers to empathy and communication and activism. Because they make a person feel like that the world is just, should be okay and navigable by everybody.
And so I’m in Jivana’s class and this, this other sort of penny dropped which was, “Oh, I’m not looking at the world as… I’m looking at the world through ableist eyes, and I’m doing that in physical terms. I’m doing it in psychological terms. I’m doing it in cognitive terms. And if I can stop doing that or if I can, I can start questioning that a little bit, I’m going to see and invite others into, or I’m going to see other people a little bit more clearly and I’m going to be able to care for things a little bit better or at least I’m going to make fewer boneheaded remarks. I’m going to cause less harm and that’d be a start.”
So we talked a little bit about disability and the, the Accessible Yoga conference, and one of the things that we talked about before we were recording was — and Elliot talks a little bit about this too, as someone who is physically disabled — that oftentimes there’s this binary around disability where we think of disability only in terms of physical disability. And one of the things that I try to talk about is how we can be disabled in other ways, right? I think when talking about internalized ableism and how we don’t always see how, how people may be disabled in certain ways or how we might have blind spots. One of the blind spots I think that I see a lot in Yogaland is around people not really understanding neurodivergence. I think you don’t really speak about this very often, but I know when I did an Ayurveda training with you, you shared about in your twenties something that happened to you, that you kind of realized that there was some neuro divergence in your life. Do you mind sharing about that?
No. Not a lot to say except that during a period in my early twenties of real emotional stress and alienation and probably like — I think I’ve been undiagnosed clinically depressed at several points in my life and it was just never in my culture or it wasn’t in my toolbox to seek out therapy. That wasn’t part of where I came from. So, that’s why I think I remained undiagnosed. But yeah during a period of really severe stress, I had a series of really explosive seizures where I lost consciousness for fairly long, I don’t know how long, but fairly long periods of time. And they were physically violent enough that I would wake up on my or I came to on the floor of my apartment with like the bookshelves toppled over. So something had happened or I’d be physically injured in some way.
And I went for testing and there was nothing found so I did whatever the EEG tests that were typical. They did a sleep deprivation test and things like that. The neurologist who saw me felt the things were, that the experiences were anomalous or they could be stress-related. But one thing that emerged out of that was every once in a while, like I sort of like go back into, I’m thinking about or researching how people experience seizures because one feature of what I experienced was that — or at least the way I narrativized it was that — the physical sensations were associated with some sort of mystical experience.
So I was in university then for religious studies, I was reading all kinds of mysticism. I was in classes where I got my first exposure to yoga philosophy and Buddhism and other things. And I think Tantric thought as well. But the story that I had ready-made for me to apply to these physical experiences I had was that something transcendental was happening to me. And so after that period, my fascination with things religious and spiritual just seemed to increase, as did my obsessive writing. And so there’s this weird thing which I haven’t been diagnosed with but seems very resonant. It’s called Geschwind Syndrome. And I think it’s a subset of a particular type of epileptic condition where — and I should say just right upfront that I haven’t had seizures for a since that period, so this is really going back 25 years now — but I think they flipped something in me or they turned something on… Geschwind Syndrome is marked by not just the seizures, but two very clear characteristics. One is hyper-religiosity, but it’s not the type of hyper-religiosity that is devotional. It’s a hyper-religiosity that is simply intellectually interested in religion. And then the other thing that people with Geshschwind Syndrome have or typically present is hypergraphia or endless writing, obsessive writing. And that’s certainly very resonant with me.
Because you’ve described yourself as almost addicted to, writing.
Sure, for sure. Yeah. Because, for various reasons, that’s also been like a way of internally parenting myself when I do various types of writing. So not all of this is like this. I can write pseudo-academically or whatever and I can write in a kind of reporting format. But when I really need care, my instinct has always been to write about something. And what’s fascinating is that as soon as it begins to appear on the screen or the page in front of me, it’s almost like a hologram. Almost like like there’s a person there that I am dialoguing with and who is caring for me enough to listen to what I’m saying and faithfully reproducing it.
Alix actually told me about this thing DW Winnicott says, which is that sometimes a person can turn to their intellect for care. And that’s certainly been true for me for writing. So it’s a very hard thing to describe except that when I get into the flow of it, I don’t feel like I’m alone. However I have to be alone to do it!
And so that makes — I struggle with accepting care from other people because I’ve developed this really sort of iron-clad way of doing it for myself internally and that all intensified after the seizure experience. The other symptom that, or thing that people with Geschwind Syndrome present with is atypical sexuality, and that doesn’t really resonate with me, but often they say two out of the three things is good. So that’s been interesting to me.
I want to learn more about that so it can be more transparent about that because I think that if my writing becomes more prominent or you know, if this book does really well or something like that, I want to be really clear with myself and with my readership that writing is not just a profession or a skill for me. It has a therapeutic aspect to it. It has a compulsive aspect to it. And that means that I have to take responsibility for dumping on other people when I write and you know, you can have the kind of avoidant hand-wiping attitude of “Well I’m just gonna produce my content and people can do with it what they will.” Or you can say “No, if you do something that’s compelling and people follow it, then you have responsibility towards them.” And so yeah, I wanna learn more about that part of myself which is so large, it’s hard to see.
One of the things that, that I hear a lot when I talk to other yoga people about you is, you know, I think it comes out of intimidation to be honest. People are intimidated, by some of the big words that you use when you write. But there’s a lot of like, “Oh, he thinks he’s better than everyone,” or “He thinks he’s smarter than everyone,” or “He’s so negative or judgey. And certainly like, you’re probably one of the smartest people I’ve met. But I mean, I don’t personally find you intimidating. But I’m wondering, and somebody asked me this about you. Somebody asked me a couple of weeks ago like, “I wonder why Matthew didn’t become a cult leader?”
Some people say that I have!
Some people say that you have, some people say that —
I’m like: “Show me the people.”
Where’s the money? Well, I mean, I think some people think because, you know, like myself and some of some of our other friends that we have in common will come to your defence when you’re being dog-piled on for things. I think that we get accused of being Rembots or that we’re in the cult of Remski or whatever. But like because you kind of have the brain that you do. I mean, it certainly isn’t out of the realm of possibility that you could have at one point created some kind of a cult if you wanted to.
Yeah, you’re totally, you’re totally right. Okay. So, so the first thing that comes up when you, when you asked that is that I stopped doing classes that I was… Well, I mean, a lot of things happened that ended up closing up my last studio that I owned in Toronto with my ex partner. Like the main thing being that the relationship ended. I ran courses in Ayurveda and I had a small following and there were a lot of people who really liked what I did and… But there was also… I would do, Ayurvedic health education appointments, for which there’s no licensing or no accountability structure. And it was only when I started to go to psychotherapy myself that… then certainly when I met Alix and she comes from a psychotherapy family and she was going to start studying psychotherapy herself, I was like, “Oh a regulated industry means that there’s a huge interpersonal training component that really should be in place before you’re visiting with people alone and talking with them about their diets and their relational lives and all of the things that come up in Ayurvedic health education.”
And I stopped doing those appointments because I realized that I did not know how to understand — or I started to begin to understand what was happening in things like transference and countertransference. And that happened through my own therapy, also, as I said with starting to learn about Alix’s world. And I realized that I did not know how to… there was nothing in the training in the yoga world or the yoga therapy world or in the Ayurveda world that I had encountered that really gave me a clear understanding of how to understand the power dynamics of the relationship of a personal meeting like that. And so I just stopped doing it because I realized I didn’t understand it.
So when I think about like why, if I’m a charismatic person and I have interesting and unique content, why I didn’t go forward and want to accumulate power or something like that socially with people in real life. I think about that. I think there’s something in me that said, “No, wait a minute, I’m over my head here and I don’t know how to do this.”
And there’s a lot of people out there in this world who also don’t know how to do this and they’re doing it and they’re hurting people, because we started to hear those stories as well. And so I guess the notion that I would manipulate people interpersonally just fills me with such dread and guilt and shame that that would be possible.
Can I tell you a story?
Yes, you can.
So the first time you ever came to my studio in LaCombe it was packed. So there was like, I don’t know, 30, 40 people in the room. It was all women. And LaCombe is this tiny little city in central Alberta and it’s I think the most churched community in Canada if I’m not wrong. And it’s also a guaranteed conservative stronghold. Anytime there’s an election, it’s always a conservative community.
And I remember watching you teach meditation to this room full of women, at the studio. We had just opened. I think we were maybe open for four or five months. And I remember watching the women were sitting down and you were standing up and you were talking about meditation and I just remember their faces watching you talk with…. they seem to be just full of like this weird wondering. It’s probably, they’ve probably never seen somebody like you before or interacted with somebody like you before. And I remember thinking after a while after they’d asked questions and you were talking about meditation and how to claim agency in your own body. I remember thinking, “These women are asking him for permission to exist.”
I remember being so blown away by that and wondering how you were navigating that because I’m sure you picked up on it and in some ways
And I wondered like, how is he going to navigate this? They’re asking him to just give them basic permission to breathe and like they don’t even know that they can breathe.
Right. And what does it mean to stand at the front of the room as a man? And have it be okay that you’re the person who’s going to do that. It’s just so…
That is so weird.
It’s so bizarre and it’s, I think it’s very unhealthy and I just don’t think it’s a good. I just don’t think it’s a good dynamic. There’s too many,.. like at that point, at that point, I can feel, I can feel the countertransference, right. So: Dude’s from the city. A totally different background from anybody I know. He’s gendered differently in some ways —
Yeah there’s some sort of femininity about him.
Right. So I know that there’s something new or odd or attractive about me and I’m like, and it just makes me uncomfortable, My immediate feeling is I’m uncomfortable and there’s a power dynamic here that is artificial or it’s overriding, not overriding but competing with whatever the basic content is of saying a few things about meditation.
So we’re running out of time, but I really want to get into your book and I really want to get into the other thing we want to talk about, but I wanted to, I want to kind of dive into this a little bit because this is something I’ve personally had to navigate because I was raised in a cult. And certainly male authority has more power for me than female authority.
And I think when you and I first met because we’re both cult survivors, I think there was a really strong pull that could have gone into countertransference for me anyways, I don’t know about, for you, but for me there could have been a really strong sort of like glomming on to you as some sort of, you know, teacher figure or something. And at one point there was something we were talking about, and I was asking you what you thought and I think you said, “You know, I’m just telling you this as your friend, right?” And I remember hearing you say that and thinking, “Okay, yeah, you’re right, like, this is just like two people sharing information. This isn’t you some kind of supernatural being telling me something that I needed to hear.”
I hope that like saying “friend” implied like equal.
Yeah, it did, it did, it totally diffused…
Because that can be a weird word too.
No, it completely diffused it for me and really brought me back down to earth and kind of cemented the relationship that I feel like I have with you. But I know that for me in certain circumstances, because those deeply ingrained patterns are so embedded that it’s almost impossible for me sometimes not to need that in order to hear something.
It’s tragic, totally fucking tragic.
It is. I had this dream one time that I was, I was an elephant in an elephant sanctuary and I really wanted to be out in the wild. And I remember the elephant me crying and wanting to be wild and having this realization that I had to stay in the sanctuary because I couldn’t survive in the wild. And like, that really spoke to me about, you know, I was born into dynamics, so my patterning is from birth and it’s so, it’s not so easy to untangle. And so my whole journey now has been, you know, what do I need to embrace and work with and what can I, what can I get rid of. And so when I, when I had that realization about you at my studio and I saw the way that these women were watching you, I had this realization that I’m this whole city that I was opening the studio in felt like an abusive relationship to me. It felt like an oppressive and abusive relationship where, and you know, I’m, I’m saying this knowing that maybe some of the people from my studio are going to be listening to this, that there were women in this community who had never experienced agency and who had never had the chance to really be in their own bodies and to make their own decisions. And I wonder, you know, with you saying, well, that’s wrong. I shouldn’t be teaching these people, but I wonder if there are things that you could say to someone like that that wouldn’t be heard from anyone else other than a man.
Yeah. I really don’t know. Like, it’s a really sort of prime example of privilege meeting an old paradigm that seems to want it or need it or something like that.
Well we talked about this a little bit when we talk about, the ways that people can go into practices that are harming and so like practices like BDSM where, where people are addressing their trauma through, through physical harm to their bodies or physical harm. Maybe harm isn’t the right word, but from hurting themselves. And how that, some people find that as a pathway to healing. And I wonder, you know…
Yeah — If there’s informed consent and if there’s all kinds of safety procedures and all that, right? I don’t know how to answer that question of what does it mean to be in the front of the room as a man with a lot of women listening to you very intently. And the dynamics that creates and echoes. I don’t have a personal answer for that except to say it doesn’t really work for me, and I’m not comfortable with it.
That said, I’m here in Edmonton, I’m going to facilitate a YTT module. It’s going to be mainly women in the room, but it’s going to be different because I’m not going to be teaching techniques or practices. I’m going to be giving basically a seminar in critical thinking. And so it’s not about instructing people towards their higher selves or giving them some sort of spirituality or pretending in some way that there was something inside me that is worth sharing. Those things are not really part of that kind of instruction. But I do know that leading a retreat for or like leading a group class in an 80 percent female practice population… I just don’t know how personally I would feel comfortable given everything that I’ve learned about sustaining those dynamics.
And so everything that I’m doing now is to try to move towards just offering a content rather than practices. And coming out of this book, I’m working on modules for community health. I’m thinking about going to, I guess it wouldn’t be graduate school because I didn’t graduate, but I don’t know, doing what I need to do to become a licensed counselor for people who are navigating their way out of cults. Because I’m doing that like a dozen times a week anyway and I’m doing it for free and I should be paid for it, but I also should know how to do it better, and not just have informal conversations with people. And so I’m just moving away from the charismatic power dynamic that is kind of at the center of how commercial yoga works and that is exacerbated by this structural sexism that you point out.
I mean that could lead into a whole conversation around men teaching yoga and what needs to happen around that for sure. But I’d like to finish off with talking about your book and maybe some cult dynamics in yoga land for sure. So: March, you’re book is going to be out?,
Yeah, March 14th. We’re in the thick of production whirlwind and there’s a thousand little details and decisions to be made along the way and we’re setting up online resources. And, there’s a workbook that is at the end of the book that I’m hoping will be a resource for teacher training programs. The book’s called Practice and All Is Coming: Abuse, Cult Dynamics, and Healing in Yoga and Beyond. And it comes out of three years of a tracking the stories of the survivors of Pattabhi Jois’s sexual assaults, which he got away with for 30 years because he was enabled, I argue, by a number of factors including including key cultic dynamics of information control and image management and rationalization and pyramid-like structures, where power just floats to the top and, you know, information leaks down to the bottom and get suppressed and silenced.
And feels like a good time. Like it took three years to do. And because I’m so personally invested, not in Ashtanga yoga, but in cult literature and cult recovery I didn’t realize until I pretty much finished the draft how exhausted it had made me and how much it had, caused my physical and mental health to deteriorate. I feel that slowly I’m recovering from that. And it kind of feels like an exciting time now because, there’s going to be a shitstorm when it’s released, but I kind of know what’s coming and I’m a little bit more relaxed into the decisions I’ve made around, how I’ve analyzed things and who I’ve called to account in the book and that sort of thing. So I’m feeling good about it and I also just don’t know what’s going to happen.
Yeah. Because there’s always kind of like the things you can’t really predict, right? Like your work over the last few years, you know, you’ve really kind of dug into exposing the unhealthy dynamics in Yogaland. And I think through that work and through the work of others that are less visible than you, like Theo and myself and other trauma informed teachers, we’ve seen this language and this movement become co-opted. And so it’ll be interesting to see how that plays out with your book as well.
Right? Well it will be. And what I was really grateful for in working with, with my editor at the Walrus, is that she really guided me through the nuts and bolts of creating a victim-centered narrative or a survivor-centered narrative. And that’s the most important thing about this book to me is that at the heart of it I’m learning to listen to what people like Karen Rain and, and Anneke Lucas and Marissa Sullivan and Jubilee Cooke have to say about their experience and really trying to grasp what it was like and how difficult it has been to hold it and to name it and to manage and to then disclose it and then to deal with all of the blowback.
And my editor also with Embodied Wisdom Publications has been excellent in helping me to really keep the book focused on a survivor’s voices. And that’s key because as we’ve seen in the last six months or so as people have tried to address… as the yoga world… I would say the yoga administrative or bureaucratic world has tried to address the issue of institutional abuse in yoga schools and amongst yoga teachers, they’re not inviting survivors to the table. In event after event, panel after panel, the people who are not invited are the people who actually have done the most work. And this was true back in March or something like that of 2018 when all of the luminaries of the world gathered for their confluence in San Diego. And they actually had a panel discussion on, “Well, what do we do now that we’ve realized that the leader of our method was a 30 year sexual predator?”
They didn’t use those terms, but they convened a panel where they basically discussed, “Well, what does this mean to us as faithful people? What does this mean to us as devotees?” They didn’t reach out to Karen Rain and say, “Can you come and tell us what we should do in relation to survivors of our guru’s abuse? We’re here and we’ve made our careers because we actually either turned a blind eye or enabled him.” They didn’t, of course, they didn’t do that.
There was a similar meeting in London where again, none of Pattabhi Jois’s actual survivors were invited to participate. It was a closed session, but Theo was invited to it and she reluctantly agreed, I believe, I think I can say that on her behalf, to be the person who was going to speak for survivors as the trauma-sensitive person. But you know, they had a Jois devotee on the panel. And it’s like — if you’re going to actually tackle it, you actually have to listen to the people who were impacted and you have to let them drive the story. Because where are you going to be otherwise other than in one realm or another of brand reframing or management or brand washing.
What my hope is that people will start listening to what Karen Rain says as being central to the narrative of modern yoga. That she has as much to say about what it means to learn about yourself and to deal with suffering and to deal with trauma and to understand what kind of support one needs as any yoga expert does. I just want to see people like people like her become the real community leaders. Having said that, I know that that’s not what she wants! I think what I wrote my book is that is that at a certain point people in Yoga culture will be more interested in what Karen Rain has to say about her experience in yoga than they’ll be interested in what Pattabhi Jois taught. And at that point, I think we’ll all be practicing more yoga actually.
Amen. All right. I think we’re done. Thank you so much. I really appreciate you being willing to do this. I know you’re exhausted and you need to have a nap. So thank you so much for your time.
I just had the pleasure of answering some interview questions posed by an old friend about the health care needs of ex-cult members.
Such a great topic. I talked about digestive issues and depression and how reading Harry Potter to my five year-old has helped me recover from the abject disenchantment of spiritual abuse.
It also made me remember a few other things, or see them slightly differently.
I came to yoga after my cult years (1996-2003), and quickly began to professionalize into it. It made sense: I hadn’t finished college, had travelled too much, didn’t feel settled or productive, wanted and needed to connect with people and show value, etc. Part of what worked about that is that it offered an alternative/unconventional pathway towards a job in which I wouldn’t have to answer for the lost years.
(As an aside: all this anxiety around yoga teacher’s education and “authenticity” is IMO heavily wrapped up not only in the fact that nobody’s in charge, but in the biographical havoc and shame that high-demand groups wreck on people’s lives. My gut says that most of those who accuse me and others of not having proper teachers — and therefore nothing worthwhile to say — are either covering up or spiritualizing their own cult abuse stories.)
The other part that worked was that both the practice and its professionalization seemed to grant a sense of agency and maybe even autonomy. Yoga culture wasn’t a cult, or at least I hadn’t run into specific yoga cults, yet. As a recovery zone, it seemed as wide-open as any new economy. Studios were opening with DIY pluck on the leading edge of gentrification, alongside art/design shops and digital marketing startups. There was a sense that the world was wide open and everything was material to excavate, and that the basic premises of psychosomatic exploration would yield private but shareable wealth.
I now understand this was a late crest on the Human Potential Movement wave, which began to roll in 70s. And I suspect that the neoliberalism that these movements both fronted for and concealed managed to capitalize on whole swaths of people who felt the need to escape systems of control. Yoga really did become the religion of neoliberalism, not just because it was commodified as the sign of freedom and spiritualized flexibility in relation to the precariat, but because it really did embody freedom for people leaving abusive constellations. In many cases, it made only bodily demands upon devotees. It felt “grounded” that way.
In my specific case, the post-cult need for autonomy, playing out in the yoga zone, meant that I had no instinct nor education towards the protection of indigenous sources or modes of learning. The basics of cultural appropriation — detach, reframe, commodify — were built into the globalizing economy, but also intersected with a personal need to have something of my own following years of being manipulated.
I now see what I was using and why and am doing my best to realize my own sense of unreality did not give me permission to plant a flag over real things from real places. Travel there, yes. Dialogue with, yes. Live “your yoga” as though you were the center of the universe, detached from global injustice and inequality? No.
My education in and fascination with Ayurveda allowed me similar leeway. A premodern self-care regime based on intuitive poetry gave me a sense of autonomy over a body that cults had taught me was disgusting or unreal. But it also protected me from the scrutiny of diagnostic medicine, which I subconsciously feared would force me to ask hard questions about whether in fact I needed more professional help.
I survived depressive episodes without self-harming, but I’m very concerned that the self-reliance expressed through these practices — itself a trauma-related response — can at times go too far, convincing people that the vata will eventually calm down with a little more sesame oil, or that everything will improve when Jupiter enters Aquarius, so long as you’re attuned to it and have merited the blessings of the transit, etc. People can really jeopardize themselves through shaky mechanisms of self-reliance, which aren’t really self-reliant at all if they rely on mystification.
When the yoga world showed its cultic ass to me, I really didn’t want to believe it. I really didn’t want to see what I saw on that video of Jois, or hear what I heard from students of Iyengar or Choudhury. I went so far as to shut down my friend Diane’s story of Jois’s assaults. More on that in the upcoming book.
Yoga was a zone of freedom, I insisted, and if people didn’t find it there, that was on them.
Oh yes, I really thought that, and not just from my layers of privilege, but from the perspective of not having digested the shame of having been in cults.
My response was out-of-phase. I was hearing cult abuse stories in my zone of cult recovery. I was angry about the contamination. But I got over it.
So now I’m wondering how much of the blowback that yoga cult victims get is not just generated by the cults themselves, but by the more general belief and marketing that yoga was the zone so many of us went to for agency — and, in lock step with neoliberalism, we had to believe in it to feel functional or even survive.
As a specialized subgroup, we yoga people were indoctrinated to blame the victim. We were under the illusion that we had autonomy, and that our healing could come from within ourselves alone.
What a joy that it does not.
I was honoured to be contacted by Giada Consoli with the following questions related to her graduate work on contemporary yoga culture. She is an Ashtanga Yoga practitioner and works as yoga teacher, naturopath and Bach Flower therapist in Rome, Italy. She has attended the Master in Yoga Studies at the Ca’ Foscari University in Venice. Some of this discussion will be included in her final thesis, which is titled:
How Yoga Ruins Your Life: Body politics, Dispositif, Counter-Dispositif.
(You can listen to/view a reading of this post here, on my Facebook author’s page.)
In my research on contemporary yoga, I’m analyzing the concepts of biopower and biopolitics, how power constructs and defines subjects, and how the body, as a social artifact, incorporates power dynamics but can also be a place of resilience and resistance.
I’m looking at the concept of dispositif, both in Foucault and Agamben, as everything in our life as modern consumers which captures, controls, determines and models our gestures, behavior, opinions, discourses.
My main question is if yoga can still have a countercultural potential, if we can consider it a tool of individual and collective liberation or if, as a consumer culture product, a multimillionaire industry, it is just another way to reinforce the status quo, another type of social control developed by neoliberal governments.
This is such a rich area, and I’m so glad you’re diving into it! I believe contemporary yoga can only benefit from more and better discussion about its most painful paradoxes, all sharpened by the fact that its growth arc and the rise of neoliberalism are inseparable.
As the sign of a globalized product with ever-more tenuous relationships to its wisdom roots, the term “yoga”:
- promises an equitable space of community gathering, yet too often spiritualizes continued class and racial segregation;
- promises a renewal of bodily agency, but too often delivers a more sophisticated form of objectification;
- promises empowerment through exquisite messages of inadequacy;
- promises authenticity but too often demands you perform it;
- promises self-inquiry, but too often delivers self-surveillance;
- can deploy a language of feminism to reinforce gender essentialism;
In short, the stretching and twisting too often embody the contortions of co-optation. The deep breathing can become a strategy for acclimatizing to stresses that yoga as a culture too often only pretends to resist.
In reading your fascinating intro, two definitional points come to mind straight out of the gate, which you’ve probably considered, so I hope you forgive me for making them explicit.
First I think we have to speak of “the body” under neoliberalism in the radical plural, lest we replicate its own false premise of equality. There are so many bodies. In neoliberalism we are constantly asked to believe in the even playing field of a fantasized freedom, where some idealized body, unmarked by race or class, gallivants through the duty free.
Lululemon published a blog in 2011, during their Ayn-Rand-and-yoga-pants campaign. They wrote:
Think about it: we are all born with magical machines, aka human bodies, able to think, jump, laugh and run . . . . We are able to control our careers, where we live, how much money we make, and how we spend our days through the choices we make . . . many of us choose mediocrity without even realizing it.
They use the plural, but they’re only talking about one body. The narcissistic body that believes it is everywhere and everything. This homogenization is crucial to be aware of in yoga discourse, which often uses notions of oneness as aspirational fodder.
This is only one of the ways in which the global yoga industry spiritualizes neoliberalism’s greatest lie: that all bodies possess equal potential and therefore are equally liable to self-caused failure and shame.
As white interlocutors, we have to foreground the fact that bodies of PoC, for instance, incorporate power dynamics and express resilience in ways that we aren’t able to imagine. The diversity and intersectionality of trauma loads would be another example.
Secondly, my personal and research background is in cult studies. I can’t help but to view neoliberalism as a macro-cult within which more tightly organized micro-cults flourish under the tyranny of aspirational charisma. All cults run on deception, and the deception of the macro-cult is that its leaders in deregulation tell citizens that they can be free if they gladly accept policies of economic and environmental coercion. As micro-cult leaders, Tony Robbins or John Friend tell students that they are free if they gladly undertake practices of indoctrination, which, paradoxically, can feel euphoric.
But — has anyone developed this stuff, consciously? Is there intentionality here? I don’t think so. I can’t see a conspiracy of governments or leaders to implement yoga or mindfulness practices as a means of social control. When you study cults you quickly realize that groups that want to concentrate power simply do whatever works. There’s a lot of trial and error involved. If yoga both expands and spiritualizes neoliberalism, there may be the cold calculations of a few sociopaths at play, but mainly it’s happening through the unconscious biohacking that comes from doing whatever we must to make ourselves feel good within a high-stress landscape, while disowning shame and responsibility.
The genius of neoliberalism is that it makes self-control and self-monitoring into a virtue because it really does offer — unequally and unpredictably — addictive doses of pleasure. It doesn’t need a puppet master: it teaches us how to pull our own strings.
Can we read yoga, in its current commodification, exactly as another kind of dispositif which trains and manages our bodies and minds according to the logic of neoliberalism? Most of all, do we have any counter-dispositif?
I’m more familiar with the term habitus, which I think is getting at a similar thing, but narrowed down to the felt sense. I understand it as somatic contagion. As in: what does it feel like, in our diverse bodies, to walk into a room filled with ballet dancers? Poker players? Rappers? MMA fighters?
When I close my eyes and imagine myself walking into a yoga room, I absolutely have an entrained felt sense that overtakes my body. I straighten up, I slow my breath, I soften my eyes into what feels like equanimity but might also be dissociation, with a touch of disdain. I want to feel and appear to feel as though I am self-contained and self-sufficient. I also really want to radiate humility, which isn’t very humble at all.
Beneath all of that poise is the memory of a threat: if you don’t perform well, you will be punished.
Iyengar’s Tadasana has inspired millions of people to stand taller. But it has done so, I believe, by resonating with and spiritualizing the anxiety of impending punishment. Many of us may be of that younger generation in which we do not have the bodily memory of the corporal abuse that deeply impacted his relationship with his teacher. But it’s in the air, nonetheless, sanitized to feel like it’s something we want.
How does it work? There’s a direct line from the self-protective / anal-retentive postural detailing of Iyengar — presented as “awakening every cell”, but carrying a distinct hypervigilance in relation to both home-grown and colonial violence — and the performance of self-worth carried out by someone like John Friend.
When Friend asked his students — many of whom became pyramid scheme members — to “open to grace”, this was to be embodied through spinal extension and a Mona Lisa smile. He was taking the lessons of his teacher, Iyengar, to the next level of performance and commodification. He made Iyengar All-American. He turned postural discipline into an emotional prosperity gospel for those who already had money.
Back to the intersectional piece for a moment: I’m fantasizing about all of these sensations in relation to walking into a white, dominant-culture, gentrified, commercial studio. The design, colour palette, and finishes are all shaping my body into a performance of self-worth.
But this is not the totality of the yoga space. I don’t feel this way when I enter a room of yoga people at the Yoga Service Council. They can slouch a bit and smile more broadly, and make warm (not intrusive) eye contact. I’m not queer or trans but when I am around my queer and trans colleagues I feel a tenderness overtake my body that I believe is emanating from the struggle and exhaustion and persistence that flows through their bodies. That melts my armour a bit. I say this knowing that their struggle has not been for me, but despite me.
And when I talk to women like Maya Breuer and Jana Long, they tell me about hosting the Black Yoga Teacher’s Alliance convention, and how it sometimes reminds them of gospel church. I haven’t been there, but I’m imagining that that is outside of my familiar, whiter space of sealed-off individualism. I imagine a lot more eye contact and dancing and smiling than I’m comfortable with. Some people smile so broadly and openly it seems to come from knowing that connection rather than power is the only thing we can really store up.
So yes, I think there are spaces of counter-habitus, if you’ll indulge my substitute term. These spaces are less commercial. They are made by people who needed to make them, and organically made them, as part of their resistance practice. Very clear examples are provided in the spaces that are anti-ableist (which may eliminate most mainstream forms like Ashtanga and its derivatives). Like, when you walk into Jivana Heyman’s room as he teaches Accessible Yoga, you are explicitly plucked out of the dissociation and bodily anxiety of the dominant culture and invited into a place where, as their t-shirts (designed by Amber Karnes) say: Outer ability ≠ Inner peace.
How can we challenge — if we can — the logic of neoliberalism from the inside out and experience yoga in a way that is different from the mainstream ‘face’ of the yoga industry?
I tell my YTT students to take less pictures, get trauma-sensitive training, and get involved with yoga service organizations. The basic message is that yoga is not something to perform or perfect so much as it is something to share.
“From the inside out” is a crucial phrase. It points us to what neoliberalism and its technologies function to amputate and deaden: interoception. In a world of spectacles and surfaces, we are asked to continually externalize. I think yoga is a charged practice in part because we know we’re supposed to be doing the opposite of what its visual marketing tells us it is.
In yoga as everywhere else, we are often being told we must look a certain way, arrange ourselves in a more orderly or symmetrical or correct fashion, display more flexibility or “openness” or vulnerability. These performances can be meaningful. They can move us. But at the same time we suspect that we should be doing it all with our eyes closed. We know we are performing something that bodies cannot show, but must show nonetheless in order to be believed or to be marketable.
There is tragedy in this conflict, and I think tuning into that tragedy is a real starting point. We’re in a performative culture, and yoga offers a rich vocabulary for either giving that performance gravitas, or tricking us into thinking we’re doing something special. In a way, I believe some of us are trying to gild the lily, to find spirituality in places where it goes to die. Perhaps after enough performance, and all of the stress injuries it causes, we have no choice but to turn inside.
Looking at the current yoga landscape, we find a kind of separation: the yoga industry on one side and those who want to distance themselves from it on the other. There is a growing discussion on the blogosphere. Many refer to a lost of authenticity and purity of yoga, others are striving to challenge the dominant power dynamics in the yoga world, making yoga accessible for marginalized and discriminated communities. I’m thinking about the work of non-profit such as Off the Mat, Into the World, Race and Yoga, Decolonizing Yoga, Yoga Activist …How do you read this situation? And what do you think about the connection between yoga and activism, yoga in service of social justice, does it work? Is it a real alternative?
Be Scofield, who founded Decolonizing Yoga, has argued convincingly that there are no dependable correlations between any spiritual practice and progressive, anti-oppressive citizenship, and further, that believing there are causes great social harm. I’m with her on that.
Yoga practice, however earnest, will only be earnest according to the practitioner’s pre-existing values and social milieu. Two equally earnest practitioners can easily think of each other as being garbage people. Ethics gleaned from several-times-removed translations of Iron Age meditation texts can never offer a stable morality for late capitalism. Neither pre-modern nor modern yoga explicitly teaches us about rape culture or white supremacy or deep ecology.
Moreover, look how easy it is for alt-right charismatics to infiltrate the yoga space with parodies of self-awareness or self care. Witness the rise of Jordan Peterson as a guru to many yoga bros, or how many yoga people go bananas when Marianne Williamson announces a narcissistic bid for the White House.
People ask: why is Scofield, a trans activist (among other things) interested in yoga at all in a social justice context? She’s a Martin Luther King scholar, and understands religio-spiritual organizations less as moral structures than as power structures. There’s embodied energy and money and privilege in the studio and service network. Yoga isn’t a force for social change because breathing deeply makes you suddenly recognize that Steve Bannon is a liar and the promises of populism are corrupt. It’s a force because it organizes money and time and attention. But administrators who want to mobilize that towards the common good have to stick their necks out by actively politicizing their spaces.
For me the real relationship between yoga and social justice is that the former gives me the resilience to undertake the latter. I was a really good yoga practitioner while still way more of a racist than I am now. Taking care of my internal ecology made it easier for me to learn about and engage with my white privilege. But that learning came from PoC activists, not from Patanjali.
As for the yearning for authenticity and purity, I believe we have to look at two things —
First: late capitalism hollows out anything that we would understand as original, from land use to inherited culture, and sell it back to us. When people long for authenticity and purity in a yoga practice, I believe that they are longing for a stable sense of self, something that can be trusted within, something they didn’t have to buy.
There are no authority or purity claims, no matter how loudly trumpeted, that can truly satisfy this ache. In fact, the louder a claim is performed, I believe, the more it conceals its doubt. It’s not an accident that the Kundalini celebrity who proclaims yoga to be 40,000 years old has to wear a jewelled crown while she’s saying it, ostensibly to feel certain about it.
Second: the yearning for authenticity and purity intersects very easily with nationalism and even fascism. That’s what we can detect with some of the Hindutva claims around the supposedly eternal and unchanging Hindu nature of yoga practice, as if Jains, Buddhist, and Muslims don’t practice. It’s tragic to see white social justice activists jump on board with this, thinking that they are supporting an inclusive or anti-racist politics. I believe their longing for something noble and trustworthy is being manipulated.
Looking closely at this relation between yoga and neoliberal ideology, it seems to me clear how yoga is sold as a technique of self-development, a tool of optimization of our capabilities. In this sense it risks reinforcing the neoliberal concept of selfhood: we are constantly pushed to be a better version of ourselves, we are obsessed with the idea that we can do more, that we can be more than who we are. Perfectionism and success are our daily mantra. How can we escape from that? How about if we raise the idea of failure for example?
Perhaps you’re not thinking of it this way, but my worry with the concept of “failure” as a restorative is that it can also be mobilized by neoliberalism as a temporary experience of vulnerability through which we are meant to find renewed strength. It’s demanded of us, in fact. So when we’re asked to “lean into” our tenderness or be grateful about things falling apart — as per Pema Chödrön — I sometimes feel as if disappointment and even trauma themselves are being stolen by the machine of self-improvement.
The crude form of neoliberalism says that failure is not an option. The sophisticated form, marketed to us by what sometimes sounds to me like a co-opted feminism, says that failure and tenderness is something through which we can find transcendent strength, not by resisting it, but by fully surrendering to it.
The only pathway out of this that I can feel personally is to relax — when it’s relaxing — into some kind of existential mundaneness. I recognize and accept my suffering, my mental health fluctuations, my trauma. I don’t brush them away, nor do I view them as opportunities to sell myself remedies or encourage others to brighten up. At times it feels like I’m valuing a state of normalized depression, but there’s something more real about this, and therefore more stable and comforting, than the bipolar oscillation of the culture at large. I say this all recognizing that being able to bear “normalized depression” is a mark of privilege that many won’t have.
Isn’t this pressure on the individual another way to cover institutional and political mistakes and deficiencies? If you are unemployed, poor, ill, whatever, they let you think that it is your responsibility because you made the wrong choice, and this is such a pervasive message. So even if we appreciate the work that yoga can do in service of social justice, challenging stereotypes and working on inclusivity, how can we address these questions on a political level? What can we do to get a real institutional response?
Part of the answer is to de-Americanize the conversation. I don’t know what it’s like in Italy, but I can tell you that the differences between US and Canadian yoga discourses are notable. Not on social media, but in actual classrooms and training venues. It makes sense that American Yoga is far more anxious — and therefore more evangelical — than what we have and feel in a country with universal health care.
The global yoga market and its media is dominated by citizens of a country that has forgotten the last shreds of expectation in relation to the common good. American yoga people literally have to practice harder and with more idealization than almost anyone else, because nobody is taking care of them in a structural sense.
I think this is why American yoga also has to tend towards the anti-intellectual: it lives in a place that makes no sense. And it generates a pressure that neatly overlaps with the survivalist mentality of entrepreneurs like Iyengar and Bikram, whose self-narratives both involve solitary recoveries from illness through their intensive yoga practice.
But the Americans also have some great non-profit yoga organizations that are actively attracting international membership. I mentioned the Yoga Service Council. And a lot of people don’t like the Yoga Alliance, and there’s a lot of history there, and it is not free of its American biases. But at the same time it holds enormous potential for facilitating a global conversation and sharing of resources.
Beyond that, there’s the regulatory discussion, which is currently also dominated by American yoga libertarianism, but which might come into sharper focus once it’s more widely acknowledged that virtually all yoga communities have unresolved histories of abuse. If yoga teaching becomes a licensed profession in the US or elsewhere, it will automatically begin to distinguish itself from neoliberal personal responsibility and move towards a more collective type of responsibility. This might not lead to overt politicization, but I can imagine that if yoga teachers were part of an American Psychological Association type structure — something with more heft than bling — they would actually feel a little more coherent in relation to social and political issues.
How can we rethink the concept of self-care and care for the others in the era of ‘the wellness syndrome’ where yoga is ‘the way’ to feel good and be healthy? Since yoga is a social practice, and as practitioners we reflect and incorporate the value of the environment in which we practice, how important is community and how the concept of care can be lived and experienced today in our community of practitioners?
It’s no secret that one of the most pernicious bits of propaganda that the wellness industry promotes is the notion that health is a personal concern and accomplishment. This is not true. There is very little space between herd health and personal health, no matter how much we bubble ourselves in technology or aseptic gentrification. I don’t think that mainstream yoga is a social practice, yet. Or at least it’s something that many people do together but alone. This is where the value of the non-mainstream communities discussed above comes into vibrant relief.
We have to be aware that late capitalism functions by commodifying literally everything. This includes concepts like “community” or “tribe”, which very often these days stand in for “branded market” or “downstream assets”. It doesn’t help when charismatic leaders promote what Kelly Diels calls the “Female Lifestyle Empowerment Brand” to manipulate social isolation as they build pyramid-style sales forces.
For me the antidote to this is to do hard self-inquiry into the question of why you want to be around people who are more like you than not. Can we find the daylight between community as “lifestyle choices our social status lets us make together”, and community as the “place where I actually live with others and our differences”? This comes up for me when I realize that I’m spending more time in yoga studios than in community centres, like the one where I play handball with men who don’t care about yoga. They care about their wages, strike actions, road works, and the schools their children go to.
In your work on WAWADIA you pose the essential question of ‘What Are We Actually Doing in Asana?’ Body and movement are key elements of the discussion. How can we live through the yoga practice an embodied idea of subjectivity. I mean, how do we shift from ‘the body that we have’ (the useful body that society require from us) to ‘the body that we are’? Can yoga work against a depersonalization of the body? And how can we experience, in the practice, a movement that is not staged, performative and finalized?
To repeat and rephrase a little, I’d say that trauma-sensitive discourse brings us back to interoception, and therefore away from visual epistemology, where being real means being seen. The trauma discourse makes sensation the reality principle.
Yes, yoga can work against depersonalization. But we have to be careful from at least two different angles. Trance states related to the Ganzfeld Effect or repetitive motions or chanting can actually lead to depersonalization or dissociation, especially for people who carry heavy trauma loads. In a way, this can work in favour of the dominant paradigm, as you suggest. Donald Trump is totally cool with yoga people checking out. After all, he depends upon his own people falling into altered states as well.
Secondly, depersonalization can itself be spiritualized as the out-of-body or transcendent gift of practice. In cultic systems, this is easily and often used as a gateway to compliance. Yuval Laor, who studies the evolution of religiosity, argues that when these moments of euphoria lead to sensations of “knowing everything” the practitioner may be gripped with awe, which, if it leads to fervour, can be easily manipulated.
I’m glad you’re talking about the “useful” body — and its discontents. Something to watch out for as the “functional movement” discourse gets more deeply embedded in the yoga world — for good reason, as it will increase physical safety — is that it might reinforce the notion that bodies are worthy or even sacred to the extent that they are productive and efficient.
This could be terrible for women and minorities. There’s a lot of people who don’t need to be more productive. They need to be seen and heard and respected as they are.
This functionality theme is also quietly opening up an entirely new front in the cultural appropriation debate, because the functionality of good citizenship was arguably not the point of the medieval traditions that helped inspire what Mark Singleton calls the “Mysore Asana Revival”.
Yoga today is mainly sold a way to ‘fit-in’, an easy self-help tool for spiritual consolation, stress-relief or increasing productivity, a mean to survive in our ‘automatic’ society. So does it still make any sense to talk about moksha, to talk about yoga as a personal and collective transformative practice? Do we have any space of resistance?
What I can add to the above comments is that moksha as a term does seem to have completely disappeared from contemporary yoga discourse. I know because I talk to teachers and trainees all the time. Perhaps it’s because taking it seriously presupposes beliefs in samsara and reincarnation. But I also believe that its disappearance is a mark of how the wellness aspect of yoga, and its seamless integration with spa culture, is a very effective way of erasing death and reinforcing the propaganda that life has no costs, or at least that costs can all be externalized, or paid for in goji berries.
However — has the drive towards moksha disappeared entirely? I don’t believe so. I don’t think we’ve changed that much. We may be better at medicating it away with technology and consumerism than previously, but my bet is that many people still crave some kind of ultimate release. And whether the term moksha is uttered or not, yoga spaces have the potential of encouraging contemplation on what it might mean or feel like.
Finally, which is your idea about the future of yoga? Where are we going? What do we need to work on both as individuals and as a community of practitioners and human beings?
At the risk of repeating myself, and suggesting that I have good answers:
I believe we need to work on trauma awareness, dismantling ableism, moving towards yoga service instead of the hoarding of private religion.
We need to flip “Practice and all is coming” into “Serve and be connected.”
We need to listen to the other, and do this in conjunction with listening to the estranged other within us, silenced by the tyranny of happiness.
We need to platform the voices that celebrity, privilege, and ableism have silenced.
We need to listen to how trauma victims have healed themselves — to the extent they have — and take note of what help they needed, what relationships were restorative to them. They are the canaries in the coal mine of the culture, as Theo Wildcroft says. They can tell us about the deepest patterns of life. They can help us realize, as Anneke Lucas points out, how we ourselves might be traumatized in ways we do not recognize. Of course we want to offer them whatever they need, because we suspect that we will need it too — if not now, than surely some day.
Thank you so much for these wonderful questions.
Why Manouso Manos Was Suspended: Meeting Notes and Internal Yoga Journal Communications from 1989/90
Recently recovered notes from a 1989 faculty meeting of the Iyengar Yoga Institute in San Francisco show that Manouso Manos publicly admitted to sexual misconduct and that fellow faculty members recommended he be suspended. Further minutes from a subsequent meeting show that the recommendation was accepted. And a letter written by Donna Farhi in 1990, addressed to Yoga Journal on behalf of the California Yoga Teacher’s Association, corroborates a 1991 article by Bob Frost in the San Jose Mercury News “West” Magazine. The letter describes more extreme misconduct previously reported.
These three documents contradict recent statements made by Manos’s spokesman to KQED:
A spokesman for Manos said the [San Jose Mercury News] West article was inaccurate, saying Manos wasn’t suspended but voluntarily left (he said he didn’t know the reason for his departure) and didn’t seek reinstatement but was invited to return. He also said Manos denied past and current allegations of sexual misconduct. He didn’t know why Manos hadn’t sought a correction to Frost’s article if he believed there were inaccuracies.
The faculty meeting notes show that a motion was tabled to suspend Manos indefinitely from all teaching responsibilities at the Institute. It passed. It was also recommended that Manos be removed from “Assessments”, “India selection”, and from his advisory role to the 1990 San Diego convention. Manos attended the first part of the faculty meeting and admitted to having a sexual relationship with a student over four and a half years. The notes record that Manos said he was seeking psychiatric help.
The faculty meeting notes line up with a May 7th, 1990 letter sent by the chairperson of the upcoming San Diego convention to a woman who had brought a complaint against Manos, alleging that he’d groped her breasts while she was in corpse pose at the end of a class in 1986. Bonnie Anthony, the conference chairperson, acknowledged that Manos had “a problem, much like alcoholism”, and was in therapy.
(Hover over to find the scroll tools at the bottom of the frame.)
The faculty meeting notes are here on pages 1 and 4. Pages 2 and 3 appear to be minutes from a separate meeting held an unknown number of days afterwards. The minutes record a community-wide meeting on August 8th at which the Board’s decision to suspend Manos was announced.
According to the minutes on pages 2 and 3, a number of Manouso’s students were present at the community meeting. “Some people expressed strong disagreement with the resolution passed by the Board,” the minutes say.
Almost one month ago, the Ethics Committee of IYNAUS dismissed a sexual assault complaint brought against Manos by Ann West. In their ruling, the committee sidelined these prior allegations against Manos because they believed West’s claim was unsupported, even though she offered corroborating witnesses.
Although there are no official records, the newspaper article and recent statement from IYNAUS shows that Mr. MM was sanctioned in 1992 for sexual misconduct i.e., “sleeping with his students” and the case was closed after he fulfilled the required sanctions including a public apology and Guruji forgave him.
In 2014, an ethics complaint was filed by a CIYT for using inappropriate language with sexual connotations during a class. Ethics Committee reviewed it and Guruji asked MM to apologize for using the inappropriate and offensive language.
The Ethics Committee noted this past history and weighed it within the context of the current issues. The past history would have significantly impacted the nature of sanctions if there were a determination of an ethical violation beyond reasonable doubt in the present case.
The first paragraph above contains several inaccuracies. The suspension was not in 1992, as stated in this letter from IYNAUS President David Carpenter. As reported by Bob Frost (in a feature, fact-checked investigation, not merely an article) the suspension began in 1989 for incidents that went far beyond “sleeping with students”.
It appears that the current Ethics Committee accepted Manos’s version of past events. “The complaint on me from the 80s,” Manos wrote on September 9th in response to the KQED article, “was for sleeping with my students. I am not and never have been a groper or molester.”
But a letter sent by Donna Farhi in 1990 foreshadowed Frost’s 1991 report that Manos was alleged to have repeatedly sexually assaulted women in class. It features detail not included in the Frost article.
The letter is addressed to Michael Glicksohn, the then-editor of Yoga Journal. Farhi, using her former married name of Schuster, wrote it in her capacity as board member for the California Yoga Teacher’s Association. In 1995 CYTA went on to publish the industry’s first comprehensive Code of Conduct for yoga teachers. This effort was spearheaded by CYTA Board member Judith Lasater, to whom Farhi refers in the letter. Yoga Journal was the publishing arm of CYTA until it was sold and rebranded in 1998.
By email, Farhi explains that Yoga Journal had decided to refuse to publish advertisements for Manos’s courses and workshops, not only because of the IYI suspension, but because CYTA members had received three separate letters from women in different cities who described being assaulted by Manos in class.
“My best recollection,” writes Farhi, “is that the Colorado Yoga Center was not happy with this edict and had complained to YJ, and this was our response to the complaint.”
It is not the full response, but an addendum that lists allegations made against Manos, including digital rape. It also raises questions about the legal standing of touch and sexual contact in yoga learning situations in relation to California state licensing requirements of manual therapies.
Farhi’s handwritten note at the bottom of the letter refers to Manos: “When asked in August ’89, ‘I deny nothing’.”
(Hover over to find the scroll tools at the bottom of the frame.)
On September 10th, the all-volunteer IYNAUS Ethics Committee met to consider an allegation of in-class sexual assault brought by Iyengar teacher Ann West against Advanced Senior Iyengar teacher Manouso Manos. They ruled to dismiss the allegation for lack of evidence.
Manos currently holds a seat on the Senior Council of IYNAUS. At least one of the Ethics Committee members is a long term student of Manos, enrolled in his three year Iyengar Yoga Therapeutics course.
The ruling, along with notes from that meeting, show that the committee glossed over past allegations against Manos. They questioned West’s perceptions of the incident, but found Manos’s explanation of his intentions plausible. One member suggested the committee punt the file to the Iyengar family in Pune.
The most recent allegation against Manos was first made public by KQED:
Ann West was performing an advanced backbend at a yoga workshop when her teacher came over and stroked her breasts and nipples, she said. He did it, she said, in a way “that could only be described as a caress.”
In the KQED report, yoga teacher Charlotte Bell makes a similar allegation, previously unreported, about an interaction with Manos in 1988. The allegations from West and Bell are similar to several others made in a 1991 investigative report by the San Jose Mercury News.
The meeting notes also document a previously unreported 2014 ethics complaint against Manos, “for using inappropriate language with sexual connotations during a class.” According to the notes, the Committee reviewed the incident and reported it to B.K.S. Iyengar, who asked Manos to apologize. Iyengar died later that year.
In 1990, Iyengar had pardoned Manos for actions later reported, or similar to those reported, in the San Jose Mercury News. This pardon reinstalled Manos at the Iyengar Yoga Institute of San Franscisco, prompting the resignation of several senior teachers, including Judith Lasater.
The four-member Ethics Committee dismissed West’s allegation primarily for lack of eyewitnesses. This was the standard of evidence despite the fact that the assault allegedly occurred in a posture in which class participants were all upside down, rolling back and forth on the crowns of their heads.
Committee members considered three pieces of corroborating evidence provided by West, but determined they were insufficient. (As in the case of the allegation brought by Dr. Ford against Brett Kavanaugh, the corroboration came from individuals West told about the alleged assault prior to taking formal action.)
The meeting notes show that committee members first decided that West’s allegation was unsupported, then reasoned that the reports of Manos’s misconduct from 1991 and 2014 were irrelevant.
“The past history,” they wrote, “would have significantly impacted the nature of sanctions if there were a determination of an ethical violation beyond reasonable doubt in the present case.”
It seems, however, that committee members weren’t clear on that history. They either didn’t read the 1991 report, or they accepted Manos’s denial of its findings.
The notes record that when asked about the 1991 report, Manos told the committee “The complaint on me from the 80s was for sleeping with my students. I am not and never have been a groper or molester.”
“Although there are no official records,” the notes echo, “the newspaper article and recent statement from IYNAUS shows that Mr. MM was sanctioned in 1992 for sexual misconduct i.e., “sleeping with his students.”
The committee is referring to a statement from IYNAUS president David Carpenter. The San Jose Mercury News article dates to 1991; Carpenter does not mention 1992. Carpenter also acknowledges that the earlier allegations included that Manos had “inappropriately touched students in class.”
The Mercury News report is more specific:
According to three separate sources familiar with the case, all of whom insisted on anonymity, Manos allegedly rubbed his pelvis against women students in a sexually provocative way as the women were doing yoga poses, touched them in private places during classes under the guise of pose adjustments, and asked certain women students individually into an institute classroom after group classes, where, behind closed doors, he performed sexually charged physical manipulations, and had intercourse.
The meeting notes show that although West’s allegation was dismissed, committee members tried to account for her experience. They appealed to a framework for sexual assault that relies upon speculating about the perceptions of the accuser and the intentions of the accused.
Committee chair Manju Vachher wrote in her ruling letter that “although there was insufficient data to prove that there was an ethical violation, we understand that while there was no intention of harm, actions can unknowingly cause pain.” To underscore the point she quoted an aphorism from Prashant Iyengar, son of B.K.S.: “What was taught (intended) and what was learned (received) are often two different things”.
The meeting notes refer to West’s “perception” ten times, and Manos’s “intention” seven times. According to the meeting notes, the subjective quality of the former made West’s allegation discountable to committee members, while the uncertain quality of the latter exonerated Manos in their eyes. “We do not have a direct or verifiable proof of his intention,” they write.
Experts define sexual assault as unwanted sexual contact with a person’s body. Many emphasize that the power differential between the two people is a key factor in assault. There are no standard definitions that rely on perceptions or intentions.
Having defined sexual assault through the framework of perception and intentionality, the committee then speculated on why West’s perceptions might be confused, and Mano’s intentions might be misperceived.
The notes speculate that West’s fear of Manos coloured her allegation, rather than being the result of the alleged incident.
One member noted that Manos “has ways of expression that can be offensive to some. [Manos] is a strong personality and students who don’t know him may take issue with some of his mannerisms, his way of expressing himself.”
“MM does have a strong teaching presence,” noted another member, “demanding the student’s attention to the practice. To [Ann West], this is interpreted as bullying and abusive and she states set her in a state of fear. This attitude would color how she interpreted his teachings and particularly any physical adjustments he made.”
Vachher’s ruling letter said that West’s allegation of sexual assault “highlights the complexities of a student-teacher relationship.”
One committee member suggested that to sort out this complexity, the committee should recuse itself, implying that Manos may hold it in low esteem.
“I think this needs to go to the Iyengars,” one member said. “My feeling is that [Manos] would benefit from council of those he holds in high regard.”
West says that she’s considering an appeal.
An abuse crisis will often force a high-demand group to show outsiders what they inflict on insiders every day: loaded language, self-sealed reasoning, leader idealization, grandiose claims and image management techniques. If the group must admit abuse, it will show its unique harm calculus, and every emotional bargaining trick in the book.
Nowhere is it all more visible than in the abuse crisis statement. Though offered as evidence for the wholesomeness of the group, it often provides key confirmation to insiders that they are, in fact, embedded or complicit in toxic dynamics.
The abuse crisis statement I’ll examine below was posted on Facebook in response to allegations of in-class sexual grooming and assault brought by Certified Iyengar teacher Ann West against Senior Iyengar Yoga teacher Manouso Manos. The allegations were made public in a September 8th article published by KQED and echo similar allegations made in a 1991 investigative report published in the San Jose Mercury News.
None of the allegations have been proven in court. Manos did not deny the allegations when asked by investigative journalist Bob Frost in 1991, but through a spokesman he is now denying all past and present allegations, according to the KQED report.
The statement below doesn’t come from an official Iyengar Yoga representative, but from a long-time Manos disciple.
On September 12th David Carpenter, president of the Iyengar Yoga National Association of the U. S. (IYNAUS), issued an official statement. Carpenter noted that Manos was at the time being investigated by the IYNAUS Ethics Committee. He omitted mention of the fact that at least one of the committee members is a long-term student of Manos, and that Manos remains a member of the IYNAUS Senior Council. Manos is headlining an IYNAUS event on September 28th.
In a September 19th letter, the Ethics Committee informed West that they had unanimously cleared Manos of the allegations. Their ruling cited a lack of eyewitnesses to the alleged assault, which West described as having occurred while everyone in the class was upside down.
The name of the disciple has been redacted, along with some details that might be identifying.
It is important to note, however, that the disciple is a tenure-track humanities professor. High-demand groups strongly benefit when members with high social capital and credibility in the outside world can be mobilized to defend it. In this case the group benefits additionally from the use of feminist positionality to exonerate an accused assaulter.
That the disciple is a seemingly left-leaning academic shows two things:
- The power of group propaganda to overwhelm seemingly any level of educational training and critical thinking.
- The power of group dynamics to weaponize seemingly any type of discourse against victims. Typically yoga and Buddhist groups weaponize spiritual concepts against abuse victims. Here the concepts of social justice are weaponized to shame and silence. The weaponization can form a painful double bind. The victim may not only be silenced by the concept but by their own desire to endorse it.
The statement appeared in at least two places on Facebook on September 19th, the same day IYNAUS cleared Manos. The following text is copied from one of those appearances . It is presented with analysis in red.
NOTE: The analysis addresses the statement and its implications, not the writer and her intentions, or her present views. The purpose is to explore communication strategies at critical junctures in the life of a group.
Crisis abuse statements are often later regretted, as the writer gathers more information from outside of the group and the “bounded choice” (cf. Lalich) of the group loses it hold on them.
NOTE 2: Using the tools of analysis that are applied to high-demand groups does NOT label either “Iyengar Yoga” or IYNAUS as a high-demand group, but rather can help identify places where high-demand mechanisms may be at work.
The analysis includes a personal anecdote from a class I attended with Manos in February of 2017.
To Ms. West and all in this community who are paying attention. Ms. West, Imagining what you have gone through with this weighing on your mind, I am sorry. I am sorry for what I have done as a community member to create an environment where this sort of stress could ever accumulate on you for any period of time.
This is a promising opening that suggests the disciple is familiar with listening and accountability practices such as those suggested by psychologist Jennifer Freyd in her research on “institutional courage”.
The inviting and progressive tone positions the writer as an ally. It also, however, sets the stage for a betraying obfuscation of the power dynamics at play.
I have been a serious student of yoga since [over a decade]. I started taking classes with Manouso in [over a decade]. I have taken at least [many] of his tri-yearly intensives in San Francisco since [almost a decade ago]. As a woman, I have experienced sexism and forms of sexual assault throughout my life. I know what rape culture is, I know what institutionalized party rape is and I know what a rape apologist sounds like. As a woman, I question when and how much to #metoo. Especially in a climate where reporting comes with significant backlash.
Here the writer bravely discloses her position as an survivor of past sexual assault, expressing allyship with West.
Ms. West, firstly, I care about your mental health. I do not wish to psychologically impact you in an unsafe way. Number two, white woman, learn how to be humble.
This incoherent paragraph, which betrays the proposed allyship, is key for understanding both the manipulative thrust of the statement and a common mechanism of high-demand group interactions.
Two sentences of presumed care — undercut by concern-trolling of West’s sanity — are followed immediately by an unexpected and improbable attack. As suggested in the anecdote below, this seems to mirror aspects of Manos’s own teaching style — and that of Iyengar’s before him — which can oscillate quickly between wrath and supposed care.
The juxtaposition and confusion of care and attack drive the formation of “disorganized attachment” bonds common within high-demand groups, through which members are caught up in a cycle of running towards the very person who harms them, in an anxious search for love. For more detail on this pioneering analysis from Alexandra Stein, see this recent article on Shambhala abuse crisis communications.
The attack sentence asks an alleged assault victim to be “humble”. Presented as advocacy for people of colour, it introduces the idea that by reporting the alleged assault to IYNAUS, West is using white privilege to grandiosely centre herself and minimize sexual assaults on women who are more marginalized. Is this what Christine Blasey Ford is doing?
West’s complaint to IYNAUS makes use of the stated purpose of the Ethics Committee. It is a paid member benefit, and does not inhibit anyone else from registering a complaint against Manos. Arguably, West might be using her privilege in such a way that inspires other IYNAUS members, of varying degrees of privilege, to also come forward. Whether this actually happens may have more to do with IYNAUS’s own inclusion policies and its valuation of whistleblowers (see Freyd, above) than whether individual women voluntarily refrain from reporting sexual assault because they are told they don’t have it that bad.
From my perspective, your position as a white American woman empowered you to construe a narrative that risks my health and wellbeing. I rely on Manouso for my life. He is my most steadfast and worthy anchor in human form. He holds a powerful lineage of healing and he has served as an honest and clear conduit for that information for thousands of students. As his student, you and I have been granted access to a very privileged space.
West is not American. She is from Britain and identifies as Roma, a marginalized ethnic minority in Europe. By email she says she “suffered from racial abuse from early childhood.”
Beyond this false assumption about West’s identity, the disciple deploys the first of many versions of Freyd’s DARVO (deny-attack-reverse-victim-and-offender). West’s allegation against Manos is positioned as an attack upon the health of the disciple.
However hyperbolic (no one relies on Manos for their life except perhaps his financial dependents) the disciple’s personal beliefs about the value of Manos’s teaching for her are a private matter.
Here however the beliefs cross over the private boundary to propagandize on behalf of the group, by repeating grandiose and deceptive claims about the method.
“Lineage” is a loaded-language term used throughout contemporary yoga marketing that implies an ancient heritage. This is a stretch in relation to the Iyengar method, which is at most only fifty years old and two generations deep. Usage of “lineage”, especially qualified by the phrase “honest and clear conduit” appropriates the South Asian concept of “paramparā” as a marker of legitimacy.
A subtext of paramparā is that “that information” it carries is presumed to be as stable and unchanging as Manos’s own devotion to Iyengar. Many senior students, however, acknowledge that the method is constantly changing. It may not be information that has been transmitted through Manos so much as the branded affect of charismatic authority, which can function by concealing as much or more information behind the veil of genius as it dispenses. The title of Manos’s current teaching tour implies that the guidance of a master is essential in this mysterious realm: “The Truth Is A Moving Target” (see poster below).
Claims of “healing” in Iyengar yoga are usually substantiated not by data but by the power of miracle or faith healing stories, such as the one Manos tells here (cue 24:00, video below) about the first time he saw Iyengar teach. Manos describes watching Iyengar treat the frozen shoulder of a woman by wrenching it repeatedly, causing her to scream. Because the woman gained shoulder mobility by the end of the class, he claims Iyengar healed her. He does not report on how she felt the next day, or six months later.
That you felt compelled to risk my relationship with my teacher because you received confusing pressure on your form that was not to your liking and that you couldn’t figure out how to not come back to the studio is upsetting to me and the community. Manouso makes very clear that if you cannot handle the climate of the room you should leave. If you felt sexually assaulted by Manouso, please try to figure out why. You sexualized several experiences that were not intended to be sexualized and you are now centered in a conversation on “The Open Secret of Sexual Abuse.” My question to you is can you understand how your need for justice impacts my need for justice?
The construction of “you felt compelled to risk my relationship with my teacher” (emphasis added) deepens the DARVO pattern by suggesting that West’s intention in bringing the accusation was to harm the disciple, rather than to allege a sexual assault.
The disciple then rephrases the report of the alleged assault to minimize it. The KQED article states: “Ann West was performing an advanced backbend at a yoga workshop when her teacher came over and stroked her breasts and nipples, she said. He did it, she said, in a way ‘that could only be described as a caress.'”
In the disciple’s statement, this becomes “confusing pressure on your form that was not to your liking.”
“Confusing” infantilizes West as someone not capable of correctly interpreting the chaste genius of Manos. “Form” is a loaded-language substitute for “body” or “breasts and nipples” that vaguely appeals to yoga philosophy, suggesting something illusory or of only relative importance. If West were mature, the sentence implies, she would understand not only the mastery of Manos’s touch, but that her body was insignificant.
Conflating the “climate of the room” with an allegation of sexual assault unwittingly sheds light upon the premises of coercion that have been normalized. Historically, the “climate” of such rooms has been one of vertical authority ascribed to the teacher, and implied consent ascribed to the student.
Despite the disciple’s opening claim of familiarity with rape culture, accusing West of not being able to figure out how not to come back to Manos’s class fails to account for the power differential at play in the professional implications of severing ties with Manos, a Senior Council member of IYNAUS. It also fails to account for the possibility of the well-known phenomenon of trauma bonding.
Other victim-blaming statements are clear. West is accused of feeling assaulted, instead of being assaulted and reporting it. West is told to sort out that feeling. She is told she “sexualized” Manos’s actions. The disciple also claims to know Manos’s intentions.
Sexual assault is not defined by the assaulter’s intentions, nor even by the interpretation of the victim. It is, rather, defined by what actually occurs between two people: non-consensual sexual contact with or penetration of a victim’s body. Many experts emphasize that the power differential between the two people is a key factor in assault.
Similar arguments were used to deflect and minimize approximately 30 years of in-class assaults committed by Pattabhi Jois.
Manouso is a very serious yoga student and teacher. Thank God, because he is often in charge of scores of people who have or have had serious physical injuries. Manouso guides entire classes to perform micro surgeries on their deepest injuries. In [more than a decade ago], I was told by my physical therapist that I should own to the fact that I might not ever do a backbend again. I met Manouso and have been doing backbends ever since. In 2011, my doctor said that he would not recommend a physical therapist to me since my spinal condition necessitated surgery. I did backbends this week…all because of Manouso. This is not purely a physical achievement. Manouso’s yogic technology is extensive. He manages emotional fields. Internationally, people in pain tell Manouso about their problems. Manouso consistently shows up to emotionally and physically manage more students than most people will ever consider managing. He is a dedicated and fearless leader and servant of yoga.
Again, the disciple’s personal reports of healing are matters of private belief. But the propaganda continues here with inflated generalizations and a conflation of personal anecdote with universal value.
“Manouso guides entire classes to perform micro surgeries on their deepest injuries.” Iyengar discourse is particularly fond of appropriating medical terminology. This goes back directly to Iyengar himself, whose Light on Yoga is filled with unsupported medical claims and who in later years taught “Medical Yoga” classes.
Praising the value a member received from a group in order to invalidate the suffering another member experienced in the same group has been called “I Got Mine-ism“.
“Manages emotional fields”. Anecdote: the one class I attended by Manos, and the only time I met him, was at his “Abode of Iyengar Yoga” in San Francisco. He personally invited me after I requested an interview. I was upfront about my interests, writing that I wanted to ask him his thoughts on how Iyengar and Jois reported suffering physical and emotional abuse at the hands of T. Krishnamacharya, and on the fact that Iyengar went on to verbally and physically assault many of his own students. I also said that I wanted to follow up on whether he had anything to say about the 1991 article about him.
Manos opened the class by introducing me and then verbally assaulting me for about five minutes in a loud shouting voice. His complaint centred on my exploration of somatic dominance in Iyengar’s teaching.
There were about fifty students in the room. Those I could see (I was near the back) sat bolt upright and absolutely silent. When he finished shouting, I began to respond. He cut me off and commanded the class to chant OM. Everyone complied. Then he put the class into savasana and led us through breathing techniques.
I had just been verbally assaulted and felt hyperaroused and paralyzed, but I wondered about the “emotional fields” of everyone else in that room, which Manos was willing to impact by venting personal vitriol on a stranger. It was afterwards, through the work of Stein, that I recognized the juxtaposition of fear and supposed care in the room, and its correlation with trauma bonding.
As I left the room at the end of class, a woman touched me on the arm. “I hope you had a great class,” she said, beaming and hopeful.
“Well, with a welcome like that…”. I started out sardonic, but trailed off as her face darkened.
“It’s just that he is a hero to so many of us,” she said, moved. “And we want you to love him as much as we do.”
I understand you feel victimized and I hate that for you. I hope that you can try and understand that as a woman in America, you are surely victimized in many ways by a sexist system. However, I also need you to try to understand that as a white woman in America, your privilege allowed you not only to ruminate for years on the location and pressure of an incredibly wise and seasoned yoga instructor’s adjustments, but also to center your story without adequately assessing the impact it has on others. Manouso students all over the world are dealing with way bigger problems than those you have alleged against Manouso. Do you understand that your allegation of inappropriate groping risks my relationship with my teacher? He may now be less inclined to adjust me, a petite woman with large breasts. He may also decide the stress of teaching his American classes is more than he cares to handle. Do you understand the gravity of ramifications you have potentially set in motion by your inability to cope with your PTSD? You and I are now linked in ways we were not before. Any absence on his part as as a teacher that occurs because of you will land on me and other students who may be worse off than you. Can you acknowledge that? And the power you have here?
“Manouso students all over the world are dealing with way bigger problems than those you have alleged against Manouso” is meant to dismiss an allegation of sexual assault through harm calculus.
The balance of the comment furthers the DARVO groove. West’s reporting of harm is framed as privileged, harmful, endangering to other students, potentially depriving them of health. West is made out as selfish for reporting her experience. In what might be the cruellest comment of all, West is castigated for not being able to “cope” with PTSD.
The open secret of sexual abuse happened to young men in the Catholic Church and men of color in prisons and women on college campuses across the nation. Women and women all over the world are being severely raped and beaten right now. Sexual abuse has also happened in the yoga community. However, there is not an “open secret of sexual abuse” in Manouso’s classroom. Rather, there is a caring and conscious community of healers and yoga nerds who are human. If what you found looked different than this to you, I invite you to explore that further by asking what in your history led to your current comfort with victimhood.
The fact that many Iyengar students have been unaware of the 1991 article means that there is by definition an “open secret of sexual abuse”.
Obviously her fellow disciples are human. The odd use of the word implies that the discussion concerns everyday foibles. High-demand groups have many caring and conscious members. This has nothing to do with how they constellate around power, or how they can be indoctrinated to normalize abuse.
The paragraph ends with a psychologization of “victimhood” as an attitude. This erases the legal meaning of “victim”, which in this case would apply to a person who had been assaulted.
I congratulate my community for having a platform for women to come forward and to discuss all the messiness that comes with a sexist society. I am upset how quickly people are to take sides on a topic where they do not have intimate knowledge one way or the other. I am honored to be a yogi among you and I am so glad that we can hold that the dynamics of power and sexism are very complex. Indeed we all need skillful action moving forward.
The statement ends as it began, with a veneer of openness, but this time larded with self-congratulation that extends to the group. It’s unclear what “platform” she’s referring to, as West was asked to keep her communications with the Ethics Committee confidential.
After completely ignoring West’s side, labelling the allegation as “messiness”, and describing Manos in near-divine terms, she criticizes “taking sides”.
After completely shutting down West, she claims to be holding complexity along with the group, allowing her to identify as a “yogi”.