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.
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.
Talking with Carmen Spagnola about Attachment, High-Demand Groups, Responsibilism, and Grief (Transcript)
We talked about the intersection of aspirational and high-demand groups, getting over the guilt and shame of privilege-recognition, the somatic affect of charisma and how it leads to weird group habitus and the paradox of having to “market” things like community.
Carmen totally cracked me up when she described some of the well-intentioned jargon taking root in the deep ecology / revillaging circles she runs in. We talked about how highly evocative but undefinable terms like “grief-soaked” can brand a newly-commodified activism while also shutting down real-world convos. No, people probably don’t really talk like that. And when they do, there’s probably a little bit of trying-to-sell-shit-to-each-other going on. And loaded language is always a red flag for high-demand dynamics.
My favourite bits were when she asked me about how I stay connected to yoga practice while studying high-demand yoga groups, and how I manage rage and grief. This made me think about how I don’t actually know how well I’m taking care of myself — I mean, how would I? — even after all these years of yoga and meditation. Also it allowed me to describe how I have to split my brain in several ways in order to quarantine off certain things to get on with it.
I found the process of stumbling through answers to those two difficult questions was quite healing. Continue reading “Talking with Carmen Spagnola about Attachment, High-Demand Groups, Responsibilism, and Grief (Transcript)”
The outgoing “Kalapa Council” — the Board of Directors for Shambhala International — sent out a newsletter on Saturday. The newsletter was meant to clarify the role played by the Halifax legal firm, Wickwire Holm, in an internal investigation of possible sexual misconduct within Shambhala’s leadership, including the allegations against the spiritual leader of the organization, Ösel Mukpo.
The Shambhala investigation doubles up on the third-party investigative work of The Buddhist Project Sunshine, which has ignited a firestorm of controversy throughout the organization. Shambhala International has not denied any of the findings of the BPS, although a key leader has tried to discredit the motivations of the investigators, claiming they are staging an “attack upon the Mukpo family”. Continue reading “Shambhala Investigator Tells Sakyong Accusers Not to Talk to Anyone”
I was speaking with the survivor of a high-demand group. They described having been recruited by a family within the group that had offered them a job.
In time, the requirements of the job began to blend with the requirements of the group. Within a few months, the subject found themselves thinking that they were somehow still in the job, but had also become intrinsic to the centre of the group. This felt both special and strange. Ultimately they went on to suffer abuse at the hands of the group’s leader, from which they’ve spent the rest of their lives recovering.
In essence, the person I was talking to described being deceived, which is cult tactic 101. She showed up for a job, was asked to begin to interact with the group as an implied condition of ongoing employment, and was told that the group’s leader would offer her enlightenment. It wasn’t true.
They asked me:
So do you think that the family had planned all along to bring me in, and for those things to happen to me?
I could hear the tenderness of the question. Behind it was the terrible thought that perhaps this family, with whom they had bonded, had purposefully and callously betrayed her.
This was a question about evil.
I offered that neither of us could have a real clinical insight into the family. Even if we did, I said, it wouldn’t resolve the question of their intentions. We can never fully say why people do things, or whether they’re doing things in good faith, or with full agency.
I always find it easier, I said, to focus on impacts.
But the feeling of the subject’s question twigged something inside me.
There was a horror to it, a shame, a sense of claustrophobia. And contagion.
Can people really be so awful?
These are all feelings that also exude from the more common question that survivors ask. This would be the self-accusatory question: “How did I fall for that?” Or, “How could I have been so stupid?”
The self-accusatory questions show the internalization of the victim-blaming that fuels the wider culture. Which, in its most domesticated state, serves as the basic logic of neoliberalism.
It touches the root of a primal shame: Why did I deserve that?
Self-blame is bolstered by various legal, economic, and journalistic conventions that don’t have the tools (and perhaps don’t want them) to investigate the difference between consent and informed consent, or situations of trauma in which the fold response can broadcast false consent.
The things you said yes to because saying yes was safer than saying no.
Okay. So when this feeling of shame comes over the ex high-demand group member, here are two facts that cannot be denied:
1) They didn’t deserve it. Nobody deserves to be lied to and abused.
2) There are no predictors for why they got drawn in. There is no research to suggest there’s a particular “vulnerable type” who is more prone to recruitment. Nothing protects a person against deception. It doesn’t matter if you had an abusive childhood. (That wouldn’t be your fault either.) There are many people who have had abusive childhoods don’t wind up in cults.
Having wound up in a cult can feel like a personal failing. But it’s not. It’s more like having been infected by a virus.
According to Stein’s model of cult-as-disorganized-attachment-machine, part of the infected member’s condition is to believe that the source of the sickness is also the cure.
So let’s bring this back to the subject’s question: “Do you think that the family had planned all along to bring me in?”
That first, pragmatic answer still holds true: there’s no way of knowing.
But can we say anything else — something that sounds a little less like a shrug — to relieve the burden of having to ponder a terrible betrayal?
If we use the virus metaphor, perhaps we say that the subject got hired into a contagious environment. Perhaps the family didn’t even know they were infected. They were part of the group, after all, because they too, at some point, had been deceived.
The main difference between the subject and the family that hired her may have been that the family had incubated the group virus for long enough that they themselves were contagious in their daily actions. They may not even have recognized they are symptomatic.
My point is: wondering whether recruiters are evil shares space with the victim-blaming impulse. Both depend on the premise that personal agency — and therefore, the capacity for informed consent — remains intact in relation to a cult, even though the cult runs on deception. Both depend on the premise that personal choices are the prime movers of cultic involvement and action, rather than a kind of social contagion.
A good metaphor gives us space for working on the questions of the heart. But as much as cult-as-virus idea might relieve the survivor of self-blame — and, if they want to go there, the traumatic conviction that they were betrayed — it has a hard limit. A virus does not excuse criminal activity.
And, as an amorphic, amoral, depersonalized thing, the virus shares characteristics with the chaotic and naturalistic forces of “karma”, by which criminality has so often escaped scrutiny and accountability in yoga and Buddhism groups.
But if we don’t take it too far, there’s another reason to like the metaphor. It might let us think of cult awareness education as a kind of vaccination programme.
Reading a good cult analysis book is actually a lot like getting a sharp pinch in the arm. (Here’s an amazing bibliography.) It stings, burns, maybe swells a bit. You know the vaccine contains tiny bits of the virus itself, suspended inertly in the medium.
Every good cult book I know has been written by someone who had to develop their own antibodies.
So: a few regular, highly-researched shots in the arm. It should be enough arms to offer herd immunity to those who don’t have access to the information. It’ll be good to keep up to date, and pay the experts to watch for mutations.
On Saturday, August 4th, senior Shambhala International teacher Judith Simmer-Brown gave a talk in Boulder as part of a series called “Conversations That Matter”. The title was “Caring for Community,” and it was structured around a set of slogans called “The Four Reliances”, which are meant to help Buddhist practitioners separate out mundane and spiritual concerns.
In this context, the slogans were offered to help Shambhala practitioners in particular renew their commitment to the group’s ideas and practices, in the midst of continuing revelations of abuse within the group itself. They advise the practitioner to see immediate and obvious circumstances — and their interpretation of those circumstances — as ephemeral (or at best instrumental to a higher purpose) and to develop a depersonalized, non-judgmental, and non-verbal devotion to the group’s content.
The “Four Reliances”, featured in several Buddhist texts dating back to the first century CE, are:
- Do not rely on the personality or individuality of the teacher. Rely on the Dharma teachings themselves.
- Do not rely on the literal words. Rely on the meaning of the teachings.
- Do not rely on merely provisional teachings. Rely on the definitive or ultimate teachings.
- Do not rely on conceptual mind. Rely on the nondual wisdom of experience.
The presentation series is hosted by the group’s flagship Center, founded in 1970 by Chögyam Trungpa. Simmer-Brown’s talk was livestreamed for members of the public who registered via the Zoom platform. I registered under my own name, and recorded the event. No copyright notice or privacy request was posted.
Appropriating a popular concept from trauma-recovery discourse, Simmer-Brown explained that her talk would offer “foundational things that we need to know in order to be resilient practitioners.” In the Q&A that followed, she suggested that such resilience could be nurtured by the activities of the very group that had caused the trauma. “Our confusion and pain,” she told one questioner,” might drive us more deeply into practice.”
The appeal from group leaders to double down on group practice in the face of group abuse is a common theme in the crisis responses of yoga and dharma organizations. When the news of Pattabhi Jois’s decades of sexual assaults on his women students began to go mainstream, a common insider response was to repeat Jois’s most famous aphorism: “Practice, and all is coming.”
As the Shambhala foundations shake, many devotees are likewise relying on beloved sayings of Trungpa, such as: “The essence of warriorship, or the essence of human bravery, is refusing to give up on anyone or anything.” (the recent remarks of Susan Piver, as well as Pema Chödron’s 1993 and 2011 responses to Trungpa’s own abuses. Continue reading “Judith Simmer-Brown to Distraught Shambhala Members: “Practice More.” (Notes and Transcript)”A similar theme grounds
(With thanks to Karen Rain for her editorial suggestions.)
In this Triyoga Talks podcast (transcript excerpt below), Jivamukti co-founder Sharon Gannon is asked about why the Jivamukti New York flagship studio has started using consent cards. Gannon throws the question to studio director Jason Morris, who takes the opportunity to present some rebranding talking points.
For Morris, Jivamukti “has been a safe haven” historically, and offering consent cards is a way for the brand to continue to be safe, and to be “at the forefront” of the conversation on consent.
This is a revisionist stretch.
In 2016, JYS settled a sexual harassment lawsuit against lead teacher and trainer (Gannon was also named in the suit) in 2016. In an interview, the plaintiff in the suit suggested that a culture of implied consent in relation to adjustments was a factor in the harassment.
The 2012 book Yoga Assists: A Complete Visual and Inspirational Guide to Yoga Asana Assists authored by Sharon Gannon and her Jivamukti co-founder David Life does not contain the word “consent”, nor any substantive discussion of power differentials in teaching. The book is currently on sale in their shop. Continue reading “Jivamukti Yoga Claims Position “At the Forefront” of the Consent Card Movement”
Just over a year ago, eight long-term students of Sogyal Lakar (known as Sogyal Rinpoche) sent him a letter that is still shaking the foundations of his “Rigpa International” corporation. The letter from “The Eight” accused him of decades of physical, emotional, psychological and sexual abuse of students, a “lavish, gluttonous, and sybaritic lifestyle”, and degrading the image and meaning of global Buddhism. The accusations have not been denied. Lakar has retreated from public life, and RI says that it’s investigating. Whether this will result in transparency and restorative justice remains to be seen.
Khyentse Norbu (Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse) comes from a decorated family of Tibetan Buddhist teachers, and is said to be a “Rinpoche” — a reincarnated “precious one”, born to carry perfect and rare teachings forward from a primordial source. Norbu is known for engaging his cosmopolitan global audience with pugnacious erudition, pot-stirring books, and a flair for documentary filmmaking, in which he was reportedly tutored by Bernardo Bertolucci, who he met on the set of “Little Buddha”.
Norbu shares a global stage with Lakar as a popular teacher of Tibetan Tantric Buddhism (Vajrayana). Accordingly, his students asked him to comment on the accusations against Lakar. A month after the letter from “The Eight”, he obliged by posting a ten thousand-word essay that was shared over a thousand times on Facebook, and lauded by his students around the world as a nuanced defence of Vajrayana’s abiding magic and the unorthodox but salvific bonds it promotes between teachers and students.
“Defence” is perhaps not the right word, however. The essay spends none of its time on the accusations. Rather, it sermonizes on the glory of the Vajrayana process, and laments the poor education of those who claim to be hurt by it. The Eight, Norbu argues, must have known what they were in for as Vajrayana students. They should have had “superior faculties” that would have allowed them to transform the perception of Lakar’s abuse into a belief in his spiritual care. These faculties should have been further cemented by the students’ “samaya”, or psychospiritual commitment to Lakar. The essay reminds readers that for Lakar’s students to break samaya by not framing all of his actions as beneficial condemns them to aeons of literal hell. Continue reading “Tantric Trolling, Tantric Fixing: Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse’s Posts on Clerical Sexual Abuse”
A source forwarded the following email, sent by a Shambhala leader to volunteers and residents at Vermont’s Karmê Chöling, the Buddhist retreat centre founded by the organization’s “root teacher”, Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, in 1970.
The email follows up on a group meeting of volunteers and residents to discuss whether the portrait of Ösel Mukpo, now accused of forced confinement and sexual assault, should be covered or taken down from the altar in the staff shrine room. The letter indicates the same questions are being asked about the photographs of Trungpa.
Core teaching content is delivered in Shambhala shrine rooms, as well as group liturgies, ceremonies, and empowerments. These events often involve generating deep feelings of love and devotion towards group leaders, and the teaching content. At this moment, shrine rooms throughout the organization are surely fraught spaces for many members, who may suddenly feel they are sites of personal and institutional betrayal.
What is at stake in this discussion is whether those who have been sexually assaulted (statistically one in four women who enter that room), along with those who bear other traumas, will be asked to meditate in a space presided over by the image of a credibly accused assaulter. Because the staff shrine room altar is the focus, this is also a workplace issue.
I’m posting it below with a few brief notes in red because I think it might be useful for members to track in real time how cognitive dissonance emerges and is managed by power structures at crisis moments in yoga and Buddhist communities. I believe if members can be supported in seeing this clearly, recovery time will be hastened. Continue reading “Shrine of Devotion, Betrayal, or Indoctrination? An Internal Shambhala Email, Annotated”
A Disorganized Attachment Legacy at Shambhala: Brief Notes on Two Letters and a 1993 Interview with Pema Chödrön
On Sunday, a unknown number of unnamed “Women acharyas” released this unsigned letter. The acharyas are a group of Shambhala International leaders, empowered by their current head, Ösel Mukpo, to represent the legacy and teaching content of the organization. Their letter responds to a call for action from members outraged by revelations of continued institutional sex and power abuse in their community.
Mukpo stands accused of sexual misconduct by three anonymous women whose voices have been recorded by Andrea Winn in her Project Sunshine report. He has posted a vague admission of guilt. Winn’s work has pried opened an unhealed wound carved out by the abuses of Mukpo’s father, Chogyam Trungpa, and his lieutenants. Those stories are still coming to light, and they are unbelievably savage.
Insiders will be able to better parse out the likelihood of whether this particular political constellation of “acharyas” is equipped to understand the dynamics within which it is embedded and strong enough break out of them. I don’t pretend to have any insights on that. I hope I can, however, point out a key characteristic of crisis communication that does not bode well in the present, and which has deep and influential roots in the past. Continue reading “A Disorganized Attachment Legacy at Shambhala: Brief Notes on Two Letters and a 1993 Interview with Pema Chödrön”