by Dr. Jess Glenny, Rev. Jude Mills, Dr. Theo Wildcroft
We are a coalition of elders in our communities of practice, who identify as neurodivergent and/or as survivors of trauma. We call on you – the ‘wellness’ and ‘embodiment’ communities – to bear witness, to take personal and collective responsibility, and to commit to moving forward for the healing of ourselves, our communities, and those who have been damaged by the misuse of power; by individuals, structures, and institutions that claim to be promoting wellness. We also ask that this healing extends to those who have misused their power, for without the healing of all, there is no healing. This is a heartfelt prayer, invocation and invitation to you – the ‘wellness’ and ‘embodiment’ communities – to ask some difficult questions, and to move towards radical personal and collective change.
We have, in recent weeks, been bearing witness to the public ‘call-out’ of Mark Walsh and The Embodiment Conference, in the wake of much debated statements made by Mark on social media, that have been widely condemned as offensive.
We understand and wholeheartedly support the ensuing reaction of hurt, anger and desire for reparation that is being expressed in online spaces. However, we collectively fear that the public, social-media-fuelled fervour that builds up around these calls to action sometimes echoes the violence of the behaviours that we are collectively denouncing, and actually further harms those who have been harmed.
As people who identify as neurodivergent and/or as survivors of trauma, we simply cannot safely engage with this level of volatility. We experience this as a form of ableism that has repeatedly excluded us from spaces like The Embodiment Conference, and also from the online spaces where such events are debated and discussed.
Some of us have seen warning signs and refused any involvement with Mark Walsh from the outset. Others have had varying levels of professional and personal involvement and have subsequently decided to remove our support and to cut off our ties and involvement with him and his work, having experienced professional and personal emotional and psychological harm by our involvement.
Our experience predates but resonates with all of what has been currently reported on Walsh’s online behaviour. As survivors of trauma, and as neurodivergent practitioners, we knew years ago that we were unwelcome in Walsh’s space, and that the commodification of ‘embodiment’ it represents was built, in part, on that exclusion, and on the denial of our lived experience. We fully acknowledge the intersectional nature of such experiences, but equally acknowledge that we can only legitimately speak to our own experiences.
We are the ones who either were never invited to join the conference, or whose consciences would not allow us to sign up. In the wake of the online call to action, some of us with direct experience of Mark Walsh, have even been asked: why didn’t we warn people, and how are we going to help repair the damage? We have been asked to take ‘accountability’. The fact is, some of us did warn you, and you didn’t listen. Others who had relevant information to share weren’t consulted or even considered as relevant.
To be clear, we have not been silent; we have been silenced.
What we feel needs to be said however, is that this is not just about one person and one event. These same dynamics have been experienced by many of us, in many organisational contexts. Mark Walsh and his behaviours are symptoms of deeper cultural and systemic issues that are culturally normalised. These are the issues that need to be addressed for us to move towards healing of a situation that will, otherwise, continue to repeat . The fact is, we’re not sure that you want to repair anything that we are really invested in.
- That the structures and systems that promote, encourage and support charismatic leadership in the wellness/embodiment ‘industry’ are essentially damaging. Such leadership is not conducive to communities of collective responsibility. We call for a healthy scrutiny of such leadership, and of anyone actively seeking such a position. But more than that, we suggest that communities based on this kind of leadership model, are best avoided.
- That given what we intuitively know, and given research (among other issues) of: intergenerational, individual and collective trauma and harm; historical, structural and systemic forms of oppression; countertransference; attachment dynamics; interpersonal neurobiology; addiction and cult psychology; we appreciate that work at the intersection of soma, psyche and spirit may invoke particular risks and that such non-collaborative models may harm all, especially participants.
- That movements such as The Embodiment Conference are based on large-scale market principles that are, we feel, in direct opposition to the practices that they claim to promote.
- That the fact that such leaders are often white, male and heteronormative further entrenches us in shoring up the systems of power and abuse that many of us claim to denounce.
- That the existence of an ‘industry’ that seeks to commodify and profit from wellness and embodied practices by the engagement in large scale monetised events such as The Embodiment Conference, are essentially damaging to our practices and our communities. They create financial success and visibility only for those few who have already succeeded in creating a popular platform whilst doing so supported by the free labour of others. This echoes the worst elements of our economic systems and is damaging and toxic. From experience, we do not accept that ‘exposure’ actually works in practice, nor is it a legitimate form of remuneration.
- It has been pointed out elsewhere, but we feel it is important to reiterate, that many of the practices promoted in such events have their origins in indigenous sacred and ritual practice, and that the ownership and commodification of these practices by Western practitioners is at best problematic. Such commodification which often seeks to minimise, and in many cases deny, the cultural origins of a practice, may be felt as cultural violence.
- That such practices also seek to systematise and commodify the hard-won wisdom of neurodivergent people and of survivors of violence, and sell it back to us in a packaged format.
- That any event which seeks to merely platform marginalised voices rather than centre them with programming influence and choice, echoes and further promotes the colonial violence inherent in Western systems of power.
The flow of power is clear to us:
- Embodied wisdom accumulates in communities of care, formed by and held by survivors of violence, by people of colour, by queer people, by neurodivergent and disabled people (these communities often overlap, but have distinct identities that it is important to honour)
- Such wisdom accumulates not only in spite of, but in direct resistance to, our mistreatment at the hands of both medical and ‘wellness’ industries.
- Such wisdom allows us, in many cases, to recognise problematic tendencies in ‘wellness’ and ‘embodiment’ cultures. And for many of us, the triggering that results means that engaging in those cultures can itself be a form of violence.
- Our warnings about such tendencies not only go unrecognised, ‘wellness’ and ‘embodiment’ cultures continue to funnel power and prestige into these dynamics, enabling dominant and predatory figures to extract our wisdom, to package it and sell it in ways that are actively harmful to us, and to others.
- When the behaviours of charismatic individuals become too problematic to ignore, you – the ‘wellness’ and ‘embodiment’ communities – look to us to step into those same arenas and either make peace with our aggressors or fight them on their terms, in arenas and on platforms that you gave them, in both cases in order to ‘save’ spaces that have never accommodated us.
We speak directly to you – the ‘wellness’ and ‘embodiment’ communities – and say:
- As survivors and neurodivergent people in particular, we have always known that you see us as broken, as childlike, as in need of your assistance.
- We must tell you in the strongest terms possible: Our healing, our resistance, has continually been extracted, systematised, corrupted and then sold back to us. This needs to stop.
- We put it to you that our inability to navigate your platforms, to rise to prominence in your arenas, is borne of our inability to tolerate your hypocrisy, and our incomprehension of your desire to be at the top of, or indeed anywhere within the structure of, this pyramid.
We would also really like you to learn from us about:
- Hypervigilance, sensory overload and what triggers really are.
- Negotiating communication preferences and sensory needs.
- Consent as an ongoing embodied practice.
- Stimming, the invention of ‘normal’ and the pathologisation of difference.
- The medicalisation of distress, drapetomania and the DSM.
Above all, we want to ask you :
- Why would you want to learn ‘authentic’ embodiment from people who may be doing nothing illegal, but who treat the people around them with varying levels of contempt?
- When will you learn that exposure doesn’t trickle down?
- When will you learn to believe people when they show you who they are?
- When will you learn that you cannot separate someone’s online voice from their personal values?
- When will you learn that the lack of accountability in your online spaces is built in?
- When will you learn that the real work, the deep work, is happening all around you – in care homes, in prisons, in secure units, in families, in communities, and above all, in relationship?
Everywhere where good people care for each other, learning to be together day in and out, there ethical and authentic embodiment is. Until you model your online spaces after the same grassroots spaces, nothing will change.
Until you slow down, until you stop handing power to those with great marketing skills and loud voices and no depth of practice, until you stop organising this culture like an industry, nothing will change.
In a decade or two of practice, we have watched you evolve: from seeking transformation in a one-day workshop of 200 people; to expecting it in a 2-hour webinar with thousands. There is no depth there.
We have already anticipated the kick back from this invitation. We have heard it all before, too many times, including the accusation of ‘weaponising’ our experiences. We are clear that such statements, peddled freely in online discussion spaces, are experienced as violently ableist and show little real understanding of trauma and neurodiversity. This is an invitation. It is not a call-out, it is not a command, it is not a confrontation, and it is not a fight. Like all invitations, you can accept, or not. You can place it gently on your mantelpiece and glance at it now and again just to remind you that it is a choice.
This is a once and for all statement in relation to The Embodiment Conference. We will be shielding ourselves from further aggression.
Meanwhile, we’re still working in our communities, for very little pay, but at least our hands are clean, and our hypervigilance is quiet. If you want to learn with us, we’re not that hard to find.
Offered in the spirit of healing for us all.
Rev. Jude Mills, MA, PGCert, Interfaith Minister, IYN Yoga Elder, Yoga Alliance Professionals Senior Yoga Teacher & Certified Trainer, yoga for cancer specialist, bodywork therapist, Certified Embodiment Facilitator. Autistic practitioner and advocate.
Dr Jess Glenny, IYN Yoga Teacher (Elder), C-IAYT yoga therapist, Registered Somatic Movement Teacher and Facilitator, Open Floor cert, PRYT cert, complex trauma specialist, hypermobility specialist, PhD. Autistic practitioner and advocate.
Dr Theo Wildcroft, PhD, MA, MA (Cantab), IYN500, Yoga Alliance E-RYT500, Lifetime honorary member BWY, accessibility specialist, consent advocate, co-founder of alt-ac.uk and Co-ordinator of the SOAS Centre of Yoga Studies. Survivor of CSA living with complex trauma, neurodivergent practitioner and advocate.
Jorge Arche Fernández
Comments are open only to receive added signatories. No comments will be printed, but names will be added to the “Supported by” list.
Due to the substantial risk of misreading here, please note:
The following analysis is extremely careful to stay out of ad hominem territory. I am not saying that Mikki Willis is intentionally emotionally controlling viewers. I don’t know him and only he can have insight into his intentions. It’s totally possible that he’s acting in good faith and with sincere desire to help. If that’s so, I hope the following feedback on his media output is helpful. My argument is not about Willis or Mikovits. My argument is that the spectacle generated by and surrounding Willis’s film can function in an emotionally controlling way.
There’s already been a lot of time and effort put into exposing the misinformation of Mikki Willis’s “Plandemic”. It’s a necessary start. Next up is considering the spectacle generated by and surrounding the film as a form of viral emotional control.
On the misinformation front: Snopes has this to say about star interviewee Judy Mikovits’s work and criminal controversy, and Dr. David Gorski, does a thorough breakdown of the film’s distortions. Dr. Jennifer Kasten focuses on Mikovits’s claims about masks and her denial that SARS-CoV-2 causes COVID-19. Someone has anonymously compiled a timeline of the available journalism here, and Derek Beres also offers a good untangling. Reddit is pretty rich as well.
Any one of these rebuttals renders Willis’s film an incoherent mess. So how does it have such a hold on so many? Psychology Today posted a good rundown on some clinical mechanisms. Experts in conspiracism, educational deficits, the paranoid style in American politics, the backfire effect (in which arguing facts actually provokes a retrenchment of fictions) and social media filter bubbles will all have useful data and frames for understanding it.
My survivor and independent research history is in the field of emotional manipulation networked around charismatic male leaders in neo-spiritual groups, so that’s how I’ll contribute. It’s not a complete view, and it’s only one of many.
From my perspective, the shape of the Willis/Plandemic spectacle becomes clearer when his film is juxtaposed with his post-film-release FB selfie video. (You can scroll to it below.)
Plandemic provokes panic, terror, and outrage.
But the selfie video — a hypnotic but also menacing sermon released less than 24 hours after the film — offers emotional oversharing, intrusive caregiving, and soft apocalypticism.
The film provokes hypervigilance, but then the sermon soothes, quasi-explains, and entrances, positioning Willis as a spiritual guide. This rhythm and confusing contrast can create a bond in which viewers run for comfort to the person who terrified them.
This is a feedback loop unlikely to be disrupted by facts.
We also know that the film is a trailer only: the terror arc of the cycle will return, though we don’t know when. The uncertainly itself elevates the stakes, and likely the cortisol.
In the field of cultic studies, such a rhythm is understood as one driver of disorganized attachment and trauma bonding. The cult member is actively confused by the proximity of danger and care. The leader’s main impact is not to communicate content, but to forge an exploitative relationship through that confusion, which can only be resolved by staying.
In an internet spectacle such as this, the reward is emotional attention. (It’s beyond my scope to speculate on the ramifications: for instance, how much this slice of emotional exploitation will impact public health communications.)
Essential to this framework is the idea that the Willis/Plandemic spectacle is not mainly about Mikovits, Big Pharma, or COVID-19. Willis isn’t a scientist or a science journalist. He’s from the entertainment industry and produces wellness and spirituality media content.
This means, unfortunately, that there may be little ground on which to debate the epidemiology with Willis and those who are deceived by the film, because that’s not the subject matter at hand. The spectacle parasitizes the complexity and stress of the pandemic, and uses it as a front. The Willis sermon makes this clear, as it contains almost no reference to the claims made in the film.
Another angle: the film engages with COVID-19 in the mode of what philosopher Henry Frankfurt calls “bullshit”, in which the speaker is less invested in the truth of what they are saying than in the attention they win for saying it. In this paradigm, even negative attention (think debunking) can constitute a win for the bullshitter, because it reinforces the visibility and importance of the bullshit.
Bottom line? With Willis/Plandemic, we’re not just dealing with misinformation, but with intense relational feedback loops that colonize emotional attention and centre male charismatic leadership so it can offer an antidote to the same anxiety it provokes.
I don’t personally believe the cycle can be broken by evidence-based refutations that on some level humiliate the person under this spell. You can’t help a person in a trauma bond by telling them they are stupid.
But perhaps you can model what consistent and secure love and care actually look like. Neither begin with misinformation.
Here’s the sermon. Below I’ll make a few observations on the charismatic mechanics, aesthetics, and innuendo of Willis’s sermon before the transcript.
oo:oo: The framing and ring-lighting is near Renaissance-quality in terms of definition and radiance. The head-tilt is saintly/iconic, as is the transfixing gaze.
00:02: If the viewer notes that the speaker’s eyes aren’t actually red, what will they do with the dissonance?
00:17: By this point we have instantaneous, presumed, intrusive intimacy. The sermon does not present as a media event: it is a private and personal conversation. In my research on charismatic leadership, many interview subjects report the paradoxical phenomena of the speaker speaking to countless people, while seeming to forge a private connection. Some of this is amplified by the webcam medium, but it’s also played up with direct 2nd-person address. As the sermon finds its ultimate/totalistic theme, the diction shifts to first-person plural. The viewer is invited to merge with the speaker. The sermon is about something ultimately important, communicated in close intimacy.
01:38: Note the meta-narrative, which positions the sermon as distinct from media manipulation, and makes it seem as though Plandemic is not itself terrifying content.
3:30: Here, one of the most traumatic narratives in popular culture [Epstein] is co-opted, incoherently, to connect the pandemic and public health responses to it with organized pedophilia. This recalls the innuendo made by an anti-vax group comparing vaccinating children with raping them.
5:25: The speech reaches its high-stakes peak with a messianic/sacrificial promise, followed by very long intrusive eye contact and then a dare to join in self-sacrifice, followed by a pacifying walkback. The rhythm of intensity and relaxation provides a microcosm of the terror/care superstructure. The incoherence here is rising to the level of confusion induction, through which the viewer may experience a collapse of critical thinking.
7:12: “Your fear of losing is what’s causing the loss that we’re all experiencing right now” may as well be a line out of The Secret, which Willis’s production company promoted. The conclusion swells, quietly, towards full apocalyticism.
My eyes are puffy and red because I just had a really fantastic quarantine cry. If you haven’t done that yet. I highly recommend it. Very purifying, very clarifying.
So much so that I’m compelled to say something to you. Just to you. So if you’re scrolling, a lot on your mind, multitasking and doing that thing we do, I ask that you stop just for a moment, take a pause and if you can’t, maybe pause this video and get back to it later.
What I want to talk to you about in this moment is the cheerful subject of death about our fear of death, your fear of death, my fear of death and the way that it stops us from doing the things that most need doing right now in this time and this incredibly critical, precious moment. The window of opportunity is open in a way that it never has been before. We have technology at our fingertips that we’ve never had before. We have the world’s attention in a way that we’ve never had before and the entire human organism is awakened, aware enough to know one thing, something’s not right.
We all have our own different ideas and opinions of who to blame. What’s the blame? But we know that something’s not right. But what stops us from speaking out is this fear that’s been wired into our psyches, generations of media manipulation, just wiring the brain to be so fearful, so controllable, and it’s through fear, the weapon of fear that we are controllable.
We can be fully antiwar, but all they have to do is to convince us to some foreign leader is threatening our existence and we suddenly say, strike. Fear is one of the only things that has us completely drop our morals, our standards, what we know to be right and wrong. But this fear of death has gotta be addressed. We have to really take a deep look at our fear of our own mortality. What I saw this morning was that we love this life so much. The intrinsic impulse to be alive is so fierce and intense that we avoid everything that threatens our life, which we should, but we sometimes extend that to allowing our voices to be silenced, to allow us to be stopped from holding accountable those who are the real threat to our survival.
There are people, let’s get beyond conspiracy theory and beyond all the conditioning that we’ve had to just accept the idea that there are people on this planet that are so greedy, they will destroy millions of lives for their gain, for their gain of money, of control, of power. We’ve seen them through our lifetimes. We know they exist. We know the Jeffrey Epsteins of the world exists, that that forcing children to engage in sexual, devious sexual acts and have their lives and their hearts and spirits ripped out all for a little bit of profit and control. These people exist and they exist on all sides.
This imaginary sides thing that we’ve created, they’re men, they’re women, the Republican, the Democrat, they’re everything. They’re out there and what I see online so much of is good hearted citizens who care, unwittingly fighting for these wicked forces and that’s part of the mind control. We actually fight for big pharma. I see so many messages from obviously from mothers and fathers who care and they have no idea that they’re fighting for the profit. Here is a big pharma and the only way that kind of insanity can occur is through fear.
And so the declaration that I’m making in this moment right now to you, to the world is that I love this life so much that I am willing to die for it. Are you?
And no. I have never and will never be suicidal. This is about being willing to let go of all things. For the doctors out there that are listening to this who are on the fence, knowing in your heart what has been happening in your industry, knowing that your oath to do no harm has been violated and you’ve been forced to violate that off and you’re on the fence afraid to be criticized by your peers, afraid to lose your job, afraid to lose your status, your license, your house, your car, whatever it might be. It is time to rise above that fear. Two years ago, my family experienced the biggest gift we’ve ever been given and that was, we lost everything, everything in the California fires, and that was the greatest gift we ever had. Letting go of everything so that we could focus on what matters. And that is each other, our families, our lives, every human cell. And this organism matters.
So what are you willing to lose? Because you’re, you’re holding on. Your fear of losing is what’s causing the loss that we’re all experiencing right now. The loss of our health, the loss of our freedoms, the loss of our voice, our ability to speak truth into the world. So I stand here right now making a declaration that I’m willing to die for this life, for life itself, for you. And when we all stand up, unlike the all the holistic doctors who have suddenly been suicided because they spoke up one at a time or maybe three at a time. But when we speak up as a mass together, there’s no stopping us.
So I invite you to do what I did this morning, which is to take some time to yourself. Pray if you pray, meditate. If you meditate, think if you think whatever it takes to get to that deepest core of that fear of dying and find the strength, that warrior strength in your heart to rise above that, to understand that life isn’t worth living if it’s not lived with freedom and good health and happiness and love and connection. They have divided us mentally for decades. This latest move has now divided us physically. We are socially distanced, dividing us from each other and from ourselves, from our nature. We’re shipping synthetic drugs and things that addict our family members and kill the organism that gives us life, a very organism that gives us life and to deny all the incredible intelligence and food and medicine that comes from the ground itself, from this incredibly beautiful planet that allows us to this day, despite our mistakes, our errors to live here on her, for the love of her, for the love of life. I’m willing to die.
At about ten days into social distancing — and improvised homeschooling — this tweet sailed across my feed:
I laughed, but it hurt.
We have an almost-4 year old and a 7 year-old at home. Last night the provincial government sealed up the parks and beaches. The boys haven’t been within six feet of their grandparents for weeks. Yesterday, everyone over 70 was asked to self-isolate.
Parents are on their own these days. It’s one thing to not have access to child-care. It’s totally another to not be allowed to have any, or to get any from extended family. Every family, in every configuration, is on its own island of togetherness and aloneness.
It’s challenging, and we’re meeting it — to the point of it being a transformative experience in some ways. Relational peace and resilience is an incredible privilege. And I know we’re a thousand times luckier than so many. Anyone who is parenting solo now, or exposed to substance abuse or domestic violence — my heart just dies. When the vulnerable are isolated, the veneer of nuclear family safety and its independence cracks.
Back to the tweet: I’ve never, to my recollection, said anything so intrusive and insensitive as what wittyidiot reports to any of my non-parent friends.
But I sure have felt it.
And when I recognized myself feeling it, and I realized it felt off, I took a look at where that feeling was coming from.
On my generous and gregarious side, there is, without a doubt, some inexpressible joy that parenting has filled me up with, to the point that my prior life feels unrecognizable and haunted. And I wish I could just share that with everyone. But on my narcissistic side, there’s a part of me that wants non-parents to validate my choices with their bodies. I want them to share my stress — as if they didn’t have their own. If I were to speak wittyidiot’s quote aloud, I would be speaking from that voice.
wittyidiot’s burn is on point. Whoever said that to him, intentionally or not, was inflating a selfish and defensive need to the point of trumping basic manners towards the many reasons, chosen or not chosen, for not being a parent.
The tweet also points out that the sentiment of “the greatest joy” is, when spoken aloud, disingenuous. When the shit hits the fan, it goes silent. Shouldn’t being a parent be “the greatest joy in life”, for better or worse? Yes, it should. Unless what the parent is really saying, in a passive aggressive way, is: “When are you going to take on the same stress that I have?”
The inflated parent is forgetting, of course, the stress of loneliness, or of building a chosen family, of miscarriage, or moral and political conviction, or simply other work in the world.
They’re also failing to anticipate just how much worse the stress of parenting can get, to the point of that unforgivable thought: that they wouldn’t wish it on anyone.
For me, the last time this issue popped out of the collective unconscious and into the memosphere was from the other side, when that “Lady No-Kids” cartoon by Will McPhail made the hetero-normie rounds:
I laughed then, too, but it didn’t feel clean.
I especially didn’t feel comfortable that the target was a non-parenting woman, contrasted with the mature mother pushing the stroller and herding the 4 year-old. It deepened the misogynistic double-bind of “You’re either frivolous, or responsible for everything.”
Happily, it looks like McPhail evened out the scales with a follow-up:
Gender aside: McPhail illuminates the bald fact that through lack of experience or imagination, the non-parent can be blind to their privileges of time and relative autonomy. And if they flaunt this, knowingly or not, or make assumptions about what their friends who are parents can and can’t do, it can be frustrating.
Or worse: for some it might provoke a grief — shameful because it’s not easily admitted — for a former life, or for choices that could have been. There are now 15K in the “I Regret Having Children” Facebook group.
The first time I clued into this tension was when the priest who was the principal of the Catholic school where my mom worked asked the staff to take on a bunch of extra tasks as though they would be giving up happy hour. I remember my dad grumbling, “Father So-and-So needs to wash some diapers.” I was young, but I understood that this wasn’t just about the work itself. Dad was talking about the kind of work: we don’t float above anything when we’re up to our elbows in crap. We don’t sit in cathedrals in contemplation. We don’t do yoga vacays.
But McPhail’s exaggeration leaves a sour taste. The heteronormies are buttoned-up. Lady and Lord No-Kids are obviously silly.
The problem with the caricature — maybe part of its purpose, in fact —is that it conceals the more stark challenges to parenting as an existential identity.
I have anti-natalist friends who say outright that it’s immoral to have children, given the imminent timeline of ecological collapse. It’s hard to argue with them. I have feminist friends who say that we just don’t have enough justice to allow for parenting partnerships — especially if they are hetero — that are structurally equal. It’s hard to argue with them. I have anti-capitalist friends who pinpoint the heteronormative family as the heart of consumerism, masquerading as love. I have climate collapse friends who say: “There’s no problem in the world that can be solved by bringing more people into it.” I know birth-striking millennials, melancholic but resolute.
All of these folks have good points. None of them are following geese around while not wearing pants. If you were to feed them wittyidiot’s line, “When are you going to have children?”, they would hear: “When are you going to conform to your gender identity? When are you going to accept your fate? When are you going to just admit you’re a producer and a consumer, just like everyone else? When are you going to get down in the shit with us?”
But there’s a lot of ways to wash diapers, and everyone has a fate. Many of these same non-parents are masters of the “chosen family” structure, which binds together those thrown out of the nuclear shelter, or those who had to flee. It’s not all extra yoga and non-fiction. They’re the ones who often have more time to volunteer, reach out by phone, share their baking, or take on an extra therapy client, pro-bono. One anti-natalist I know is spearheading vegan food distribution for the homeless in Santa Barbara. He’s committed to never having children, but he works as hard as I do, or harder feeding people he’s not bio-responsible for.
Here’s something else I’ve noticed: many of the most influential eco-prophets of our time — the “doomers” who can say what others are afraid of saying about tipping points and mass extinction events, for example, and how close they are — are non-parents. Do they have less to lose in speaking the truth? Conversely, many of the most prominent boosters of green capitalism or Green New Deals, or the belief that there are political or technological fixes for collapse — are parents. I think there’s a connection between the biological hope of parenting and maintaining a politics of progress, even when the cold hard math is all wrong.
So far the lockdowns are shining a blinding spotlight on certain differences between parenting and non-parenting life. But what if we looked for something else?
In previous lives I’ve lived on several sides of this divide, albeit in my white, male and hetero way. I’ve been single (obviously), and I’ve step-parented for seventeen years, and now I’m partnered with two young boys.
As a stepfather I was devoted and committed. But I was also resigned to always being on the bio-responsible periphery of more central relationships. The buck never stopped with me. There were years in there where I didn’t think I would be a parent in what I conceived of at the time as a more meaningful way. I’m not saying that step-parents can’t have or feel exactly what bio-parents do — if that can even be generalized — but I didn’t, not quite. Part of that may have been my own emotional avoidance, but a lot of it was circumstance
It did however give me a powerful experience of simultaneous inclusion in and exclusion from the most privileged unit in our culture: the nuclear. This, along with other life circumstances — like being recruited into two cults in which family life was present but ambivalent to the point of being devalued — meant that I also socialized on both sides of that divide.
Back then, I had friends with children and friends without. Childless friends who were happy that way, and those who weren’t. Friends who had taken vows of celibacy that suited their introversion. Friends indoctrinated into celibacy who were quietly raging. Friends who grieved miscarriages and not finding the right co-parent. Friends who felt the clock run out. Friends who knew that having a lot of sex partners wasn’t conducive to parenting, and they weren’t about to change. Friends with children who talked about it, too loudly and defensively, in the way that wittyidiot skewers in his tweet. And also friends with children who were overwhelmed, depressed, terrified that they were passing on their trauma to their kids.
Later, when the stars aligned and I did become part of the nuclear club, I was rudely awakened to the fact that I might not continue to have that same connection with friends without children. The first volley was fired by a good friend at the time. When I told him my partner was pregnant, he ghosted me.
It really hurt. But it made sense. We never got to talk about it at the time, but my guess is that he was betting I wasn’t going to be as available to him, and so he cut his losses.
He was right. No more two-hour lunches, spontaneous cafe chinwags, or hanging out after events. He’d probably seen it happen with other friends: that tunnel-vision-descent into worry and expectation and rearranged values in service to the imaginary baby, but on a functional level can feel pretty narcissistic to the person who can’t share it.
And what a paradox. Expectant-parent worry puts you in a place where you really don’t want to be disconnected from anybody important to you, and yet it is exactly this narrowing vision that can drive key people away as if you had a virus.
At the same time, I felt myself being recruited into a new club. Men who were already fathers smiled at me with a mixture of fatigue, recognition, pride, and schadenfreude: “You won’t regret it,” but also “You won’t know what hit you,” and “See you on the other side.”
And the weird thing about that club? Its impersonality. For me, it feels more symbolic than embodied. I’ve noticed that the men seem to nod at each other more than converse. We share that peculiar nuclear alienation: we belong to families that are largely hidden from each other, but we also share an abstract social power.
Much of the abstraction is a function of time. The demands of the nuclear arrangements that we have — artifacts of patriarchy and capitalism — simply don’t allow for the same levels of sharing time between equals that often characterizes non-parenting or pre-parenting life. Add to that the fact that parenting seems to shunt many families into social funnels determined less by shared interests than biological circumstance. In the meeting places — playgrounds, schoolyards, gyms, instead of parks and cafes — there’s less talk about life in general than about life with children.
And this must make us very narrow-minded at times to our non-parent friends. We don’t have time. Or we don’t share the same timeline. It might also make some of us angry, in that wittyidiot passive-aggressive way.
My gut says there’s some intrapersonal confusion as well: when the parent is trying to communicate with the non-parent, they might feel they are looking back into a life they remember. It’s not true. They’re looking at someone else. Some whose path, with a slight shift in perspective, can be an object of admiration, simply because it is so different.
I don’t have any big “Can’t we all just get along” ideas. The exchanges that wittyidiot lampoons and McPhail exaggerates should obviously just stop, or be kept private.
But there are a few public behaviour things I think we can agree on, especially on social media. That is if you care enough about this particular tension to help build a culture in which parents and non-parents empathize with each other. And especially if your social feeds contain a mixture of parents and non-parents.
IMHO, parents should really own that it’s tempting to use their children to self-object all over Facebook. To use them to show how busy or stressed or fun or woke they are. Or to hide behind. Beyond the massive consent issues involved in using your kids this way — something that non-parents may be more attuned to and put off by than we know — there’s a difference between recording and performing what happens in one’s life. The more one does the latter, the more abstract parenting becomes for everyone. Our relationships need less symbolism, not more. And if you’re a heteronormie, you may be contributing to conventional narratives that continue to bury other experiences.
If you know non-parents who are lonely, maybe text them? Explain your time is limited, but that you’re thinking of them?
And non-parents: pandemic lockdown might not be the best time to post pics of yourself in bubble baths or meandering diary entries about how bored you are. If you know parents who are struggling — reach out to them, maybe? You could read a book to a friend’s kid over Zoom. It sounds small, but it’s extraordinary what even a half-hour of relief can give.
Maybe it’s also for you. Imagine that book you read to that kid over zoom contributes to their ability to concentrate and focus, and that they take that skill and develop it to the point where they’re able to intubate you smoothly when you need ventilation during whatever pandemic hits us in 20 years.
As for me, I’ll continue owning my feelings and softening my judgements. I don’t know what life I would be living if I wasn’t parenting with my partner. But I trust there are men out there who are living non-parenting lives with integrity, supporting the world in amazing ways I cannot.
And maybe one or two out there will see that I’m trying to work on unknotting a primal jealousy of parenting: to fantasize that someone will take care of you unconditionally when you become a baby again. I’ll admit it: I regularly visualize my deathbed, and imagine my sons on either side, holding my hands. The stories starting to pour in from Italy and Spain of parents dying alone fill me with longing and terror.
But something tells me a fantasy that rides on a notion of the care to which parenting entitles me won’t soothe longing, nor overcome terror. I want to fantasize about fostering a future of care for everyone.
Here’s a slightly edited and updated collection of some recent Facebook posts on the “But Kundalini Yoga Works!” meme that’s floating around in the wake of the KY/3HO abuse crisis, prompted by the publication of Premka: White Bird in a Golden Cage: My Life with Yogi Bhajan, by Pamela Dyson.
My aim is to address a recognizable tension: the cognitive dissonance of trying to process the fact of Bhajan as an abuser against the deeply felt experience that his techniques were healing, or even life-saving. In the cult literature, these seemingly irreconcilable facts are described as, in some cases, deeply intertwined.
Maybe Kundalini Yoga Techniques Are a Form of Social Control
“A group or movement exhibiting great or excessive devotion or dedication to some person, idea, or thing, and employing unethical manipulative or coercive techniques of persuasion and control (e.g., isolation from former friends and family, debilitation, use of special methods to heighten suggestibility and subservience, powerful group pressures, information management, suspension of individuality or critical judgment, promotion of total dependency on the group and fear of leaving it), designed to advance the goals of the group’s leaders, to the actual or possible detriment of members, their families, or the community.”
— West, L. J., & Langone, M. D. (1986). “Cultism: A conference for scholars and policy makers.” Cultic Studies Journal, 3, 119-120.
Maybe Kundalini Yoga Works through Trauma Responses
The second phase of a trauma response is dissociation: “detachment from an unbearable situation.” As previously described, in this state, both physiological states of hyperarousal and dissociation are activated: internal energy-consuming resources are simultaneously on full alert at the same time as the person is dissociating to try to shut down and conserve these resources. Imagine the toll on the body that this two-fold unresolvable process must take. Eventually, dissociation – freezing and giving up the failed effort to escape – comes to dominate. Along with giving up the struggle to fight against the group and the fear it has generated, the dissociated follower comes to accept the group as the safe haven and thus forms a trauma bond. This moment of submission, of giving up the struggle, can be experienced as a moment of great relief, and even happiness, or a spiritual awakening.
Maybe Kundalini Yoga Works Because It Carries the Domination Affect of Yogi Bhajan | a note on Gurmukh’s Abuse Crisis Statement
This thought began to form in response to reading Dyson’s book and some testimonies on the Premka page about how Bhajan dominated everyone’s lives through a grandiose ideology that required constant material attention: a thousand different tasks, rituals, protocols, attitudes, gestures.
“Dominated” is the key word here. “Dominated” in the sense that no one else had time or space to have their own life, their own reality, their own feelings. One of the hardest parts of Dyson’s book for me to read was where she quotes Bhajan repeatedly saying things like: “You must be like me,” followed by pages on pages of Dyson discovering that her own identity had been suppressed, supplanted, negated, and that she had to find it again.
Domination was the root of the religion. Daniel Shaw details the granular level of how this might work in his masterful work Traumatic Narcissism: Relational Systems of Subjugation. His erudite psychoanalytic appraisal of the Bhajan-like figure — in his case Gurumayi of SYDA — shows a person who is terrified of anyone around them asserting their own agency, for then the world and and others in it would no longer be theirs to control. It would feel like a mortal threat.
Dominate in order to control, and do it completely, passionately, sleeplessly — or else you will die. I’m familiar with these themes from studying cult leaders.
But the possibility that they are baked into the very content and method of Kundalini yoga itself was made much more clear by Gurmukh’s post yesterday. Many have noted this quote in particular:
“Between the flu and the allegations, from the center of my being I choose Joy. This is sincerely all that I can do. I stand for Joy. My platform is Joy. Joy is the opposite of fear. Fear breeds more fear. Joy breeds more Joy. In my choice I choose to teach Kundalini Yoga throughout the world, God willing, until my last breath.”
Look past the white saviourism of the journey, the conflation of a virus for institutional abuse, the bypassing. The hidden-in-plain-sight message here is domination, albeit disguised in an emotive language of emotion that is coded maternal, receptive, and surrendering.
Come what may, this faithful practitioner will exert their will to Joy over all reality. No other emotion or perspective has the right to exist. With Joy she will cancel Bhajan’s critics. No one else — and obviously not survivors — will be referenced. Everything emanates from the centre of their being… and what emanates is Kundalini yoga (as taught by Yogi Bhajan), and she will colonize the world with it. This virus-infested, allegation-ridden world, teeming with orphans who will be Joyful when they are visited by the bearer of Joy.
So when I see people talk about how much Kundalini did for them — especially in totalistic terms: “It transformed my life” — I wonder about how much domination is wrapped up in that: domination of intuition, of one’s past, of trauma, of appropriately negative responses, of questions and doubts, of reasonable desires to wear jeans or drink wine. I wonder how much success in practice is generated by dominating the unwanted or disowned parts of oneself. And on the professional level: how much domination does it take to suppress bad news, to enforce cognitive dissonance, to make sure one’s buzz doesn’t dim and one’s brand isn’t tarnished, to be able to stare questions down from the mountaintop.
I don’t doubt that it helped many people. Pressure and encouragement can do that for a while. The question would be when and how helpfulness crosses that threshold into domination.
However Kundalini Yoga Works, It is Aided by “Bounded Choice” | Looking at Snatam Kaur’s Crisis Statement
Janja Lalich is a cult researcher whose work has been very important to my own healing. One of her most illuminating concepts is “bounded choice”, and it helps to explain just how difficult it is for a high-demand group or cult member to see their way clear of the insular ideology that has functioned to narrow their world.
Briefly put: “bounded choice” is the condition of having been trained to believe that everything that happens in the group, or that the leader does, or that is taught or produced by the group, is for some ultimate good. This means that everything becomes grist for the salvation mill. If the practitioner falls ill because of dietary restrictions, they’re being taught to detach from the body. If they are left impoverished, they are being taught about the maya of worldly wealth. If they are forbidden to marry, they are being taught the virtue of renunciation. If they are forced to have an abortion, they are being taught to give up on the wheel of life.
Bounded choice allows the leader and the group to continually move the goalposts so that the member is never able to convincingly say: “This is wrong. This doesn’t work.” It also does the crucial work of never allowing the group to be challenged by any external information.
The interpersonal examples above are fairly easy to spot when you get the hang of the idea. What harder is the subtler aspect of bounded choice, which is what is at play in Snatam Kaur’s invocation that all KY members should recommit themselves to chanting the mantras as they try to make sense of revelations of abuse in their group.
In Kaur’s view, the mantras are held up as all-good, all-saving, primordial, and sacred. It’s unthinkable that they were ever used to deceive, to baffle, to love-bomb, to dissociate, to hijack critical thinking in favour of bursts of serotonin. It’s inconceivable that they’ve ever been used to enforce a premature repair or forgiveness following abuse. And yet the cult research is filled with examples of techniques of hypnotic trance, contact high, pleasure/pain disruption, and nervous overwhelm that function to break down resistance and increase compliance.
Kaur’s statement can also be considered through Jennifer Freyd’s lens of institutional betrayal. One part of her theory says that when abuse victims are asked to appeal to the institution that enabled the abuse for relief, or to its content or methods, retraumatization can occur. A basic lesson is: don’t expect healing from the institution that traumatized you.
Here are some thought experiments that might help show that for some group members Kaur may be offering yet more bounded choice, even if she believes she’s offering relief. These are examples of bounded choice compounded by institutional betrayal. They also express a conflict of interest: the group continuing to promote itself as the solution to the problem it contains.
1. A man has just disclosed that a Catholic priest abused him when he was a child. The news shocks the parish. A well-meaning member suggests that everyone — including the man — bond and heal by going to church and reciting the rosary.
2. A woman has just disclosed that Harvey Weinstein raped her. The news shocks Hollywood. A well-meaning member suggests that community gather for a ceremonial showing of Shakespeare in Love.
3. A woman has just disclosed that Ashtanga yoga founder Pattabhi Jois regularly sexually assaulted her while in class. The news shocks the community. A well-meaning member suggests that everyone bond and heal by practicing the Primary Series.
4. A woman has just disclosed that Bikram Choudhury raped her. The news shocks the community. A well-meaning member suggests that everyone bond and heal by continuing to practice Choudhury’s 26 postures in 104 degree heat
5. A man has just disclosed a lifetime of institutional abuse within the Shambhala Buddhist community. The news is shocking. A well-meaning member suggests that everyone bond and heal by reaffirming their dedication to the Tantric kingdom of Shambhala.
Une ex-disciple du swami Vishnudevananda révèle une décennie de mauvais traitements, faisant éclater une crise encore en développement au sein de yoga Sivananda.
Publié pour la première fois sur GEN par Medium.com, le 27 janvier 2020
Traduit par Nahida Alam
Si vous souhaitez soutenir le coût de cette traduction – et éventuellement des traductions dans d’autres langues – veuillez envisager de faire un petit don ici.
La photo ci-dessus est une gracieuseté de Julie Salter. Elle montre Salter dans les années 1980, lorsqu’elle travaillait comme assistante personnelle de Kuttan Nair, également connu sous le nom de Swami Vishnudevananda.
Tôt le 10 décembre 2019, dans son sombre et modeste appartement de briques rouges, Julie Salter, 63 ans, s’est assise à un bureau spartiate devant un écran bleu rayonnant. La boîte de dialogue affichait neuf paragraphes qui ont mijoté plus de deux décennies depuis qu’elle a quitté sa position au sein des centres de yoga Sivananda – un réseau global d’ashrams et de centres de yoga autrefois enraciné dans l’évangélisme yoga hippie, mais maintenant célèbre pour le tourisme du yoga et la formation professionnelle. À 5 h 15 du matin, elle a cliqué « publier » sur un témoignage d’abus sexuel et psychologique commis par le fondateur du groupe reconnu comme un saint.
« Avec toutes les éloges sur la biographie autour de Swami Vishnudevananda et de son héritage », écrit-elle, « avec tous les vœux nostalgiques, les croyances, les projections, et en pensant au “bon” qui a été fait, faisons aussi face, au moins, un peu aux faits restés dans l’ombre… ». Salter affirme que ces 11 années manque de sommeil et de surmenage pendant lesquelles elle a été l’assistante personnelle de Vishnudevananda, jusqu’à sa mort en 1993, et l’ont rendue malade et dépendante. Elle a dévoilé que le guru prétendument célibataire avait «abusée » sexuellement d’elle pendant trois de ces années – et cette honte, ce secret, cette peur et son sens du devoir lorsqu’il est devenu gravement malade l’ont gardée à son service jusqu’à ce qu’elle « soit trop brisée pour même savoir comment partir ».
Alors que la publication de Salter est devenue virale dans les heures qui ont suivi, elle a joint la plus grande vague de l’activisme #MeToo dans le monde du yoga qui a éclaté à l’automne de 2017, lorsque Karen Rain a dévoilé que le défunt fondateur du yoga Ashtanga, Pattabhi Jois, l’a souvent agressée sous le prétexte de faire des « ajustements ». (Rain a raconté son expérience pour Medium l’année suivante, et 16 femmes ont maintenant témoigné à titre de survivantes de Jois). En 2019, Manouso Manos, un enseignant chevronné dans le monde américain de Iyengar, a été sanctionné par l’organisation professionnelle de sa communauté après qu’une enquête ait prouvé qu’il avait agressé sexuellement des étudiantes pendant des décennies. Un mandat d’arrêt pour le pionnier du « hot yoga », Bikram Choudhury, a été lancé il y a plus de deux ans pour ne pas avoir payé un montant 7 millions suite à un jugement contre lui pour harcèlement sexuel et congédiement injustifié de sa directrice d’entreprise.
Les amis et collègues de Salter de partout dans le monde ont rejoint plusieurs discussions Facebook pour rappeler son service infatigable et non rémunéré au sein des centres de yoga Sivananda, et exprimer à la fois leur peine face à son histoire et leur soulagement qu’elle ait finalement été capable de la raconter. Puis, d’autres femmes ont publié des témoignages à propos de Vishnudevananda.
Lucille Campbell, 65 ans, a commenté la discussion en écrivant qu’elle avec eu des « relations sexuelles » avec Vishnudevananda dans les années 1970, et qu’elle connaissait plusieurs autres femmes à qui s’est également arrivé.
Pamela Kyssa, 62 ans, a écrit dans la discussion que le guru l’a violée en 1979 dans une retraite au château de Windsor, en banlieue de Londres. Elle était allongée sur le plancher de la chambre de Vishnudevananda après qu’ils aient pratiqué des positions de yoga ensemble, puis il s’est « placé au-dessus de moi de façon inattendue, a baissé mon pantalons de yoga, » a-t-elle écrit. « Cette sensation d’être hors de votre corps, lorsque vous êtes ramené à la réalité par le son du réveille-matin… c’est ce que j’ai ressenti… hors de mon corps, le réintégrant avec lui au-dessus de moi ».
Né Kuttan Nair dans l’Inde rurale en 1927, Vishnudevananda a été un catalyseur du boom mondial du yoga dans les années 1960s, propulsé par des célébrités. Il a rencontré les Beatles avant qu’ils ne rencontrent le Maharishi. Il a donné des conseils de respiration yogique à Mohammed Ali avant l’un de ses combats contre Frazier. Il a écrit un manuel de yoga best-seller et a parcouru l’Europe et les Amériques, accumulant les disciples et les dons pour la douzaine (et plus) de centres de retraite et de méditation qui ont été établis sur son parcours — de Montréal à Madrid, de Munich à Montevideo. En 1971, il a été surnommé « Le swami volant » après avoir piloté un Piper Apache peint avec des couleurs psychédéliques de Boston à l’Irlande, dans une quête pour résoudre les troubles d’Irlande du Nord. Son plan était de « bombarder » l’hôtel de ville de Belfast avec des pamphlets. Il a cueilli Peter Sellers à Dublin pour l’étape finale. Puis, il a volé pour répandre des pétales de fleurs au-dessus de la ligne de front de la troisième guerre indo-pakistanaise. En 1983, il a volé avec un ultra-léger au-dessus du mur de Berlin. Il a voyagé avec un « Passeport de la planète Terre », fait par lui-même : date de naissance : « immortel », yeux : « intuitifs ».
Altruistes ou non, les coups de publicité de Nair et ses occasions de photos auraient pu être considérés comme grossiers si ce n’était sa célébrité. Retournons en 1949, dans l’ancienne oasis de Rishikesh où Nair a été initié à titre de moine et obtenu son nom religieux du swami Sivananda, un héros charismatique du mouvement moderne du yoga indien. Nair est rapidement devenu le directeur de toutes les classes de postures de yoga de Sivananda et, en 1957, il s’est aventuré vers l’ouest, armé de sa propre version mémorisable des enseignements de son maître : « La santé est la richesse, la paix d’esprit est le bonheur, le yoga montre le chemin ! ».
Le message de bien-être de Nair a attiré des enthousiastes vers quelque chose qui semblait plus holistique et traditionnel que la gymnastique spirituelle qui fusionnera éventuellement avec l’aérobic et la culture de la gymnastique pour dominer le marché du yoga. Il a résumé les énoncés religieux de Sivananda en « Cinq points du yoga » : un ensemble complet d’exercices « appropriés », de respiration, de relaxation, de régime alimentaire (strictement végétarien) et de pensée positive. Nair a aussi renforcé son authenticité en imposant de vieilles règles monastiques dans ses nouveaux centres cosmopolites. Tous les résidents devaient suivre un horaire strict de dévotion et de « karma-yoga », une forme de travail non rémunéré devant mener à un état d’altruisme.
Nair semblait particulièrement fidèle à la célèbre obsession de Sivananda pour la vertu spirituelle de rejet du sexe. « Le célibat complet », insistait son guru dans un livre dédié sur le sujet en 1934, « est la clé maîtresse pour accéder aux royaumes de la béatitude élyséenne ». De la même façon, les débutants dans les ashrams de Nair devaient s’engager à l’abstinence. Ceux qui sont restés ont fait ce sacrifice pour la vie, scellé par une initiation rituelle et un nom spirituel. Nair est même allé jusqu’à purifier l’histoire du yoga, censurant sa traduction d’un célèbre texte médiéval sur le yoga afin que ses pratiques sexuelles ésotériques demeurent secrètes.
Les cercles autour de Salter, Kyssa, et Campbell ont évolué depuis leur époque des lignes de téléphone fixes et du courrier postal. Maintenant, en témoignant sur Facebook, elles sont visibles ensembles instantanément. Elles sont soudainement reconnectées par un média dans la désillusion d’une nouvelle génération.
En quelques heures seulement, leurs publications ont attiré deux autres témoignages de femmes dans leurs trentaines, accusant l’un des étudiants avancés de Nair de harcèlement sexuel et d’agression. Thamatam Reddy, 53 ans, connu dans les centres de yoga Sivananda comme « Prahlad ». Il voyage à travers le monde et dirige la formation des enseignants de l’organisation, qui coûte environ 3 000 $ par personne. En racontant leurs expériences durant des interviews, les deux femmes décrivent Reddy les harcelant pendant qu’elles travaillaient gratuitement dans les ashrams Sivananda.
Un courriel envoyé par Communications Avenue, une firme de relations publiques de Montréal représentant le conseil d’administration de Sivananda (constitué de dévots de Nair, incluant Reddy) a reconnu avoir reçu des témoignages en 2011 et 2017, similaires à ceux publiés à propos de Reddy.
« Nous désirons préciser que nous avons des politiques et des procédures bien établies pour traiter les allégations de mauvaise conduite », dit le courriel, donnant le lien vers une page de politique. Alors que le conseil d’administration de Sivananda a dit dans un nouveau courriel qu’il a commencé à créer un politique d’anti-harcèlement dans les années 2000, une recherche dans les archives Web semble démontrer que le texte relié à la mauvaise conduite sexuelle ne fut publié qu’en 2019.
« En ce qui a trait aux allégations faites par Julie Salter sur Facebook », dit le communiqué, « nous espérons être en mesure de nommer sous peu un enquêteur indépendant ».
Six semaines après la publication de Salter, le conseil d’administration a annoncé avoir engagé l’avocate montréalaise Marianna Plamondon pour « enquêter sur les allégations faites par Julie Salter et deux autres plaignantes ». Contactée par téléphone à Montréal, Plamondon a confirmé avoir reçu des questions par courriel à propos de l’étendue de l’enquête, à savoir si ses conclusions seraient rendues publiques, et pourquoi les membres de Sivananda avec des plaintes contre l’organisation voudraient parler avec une avocate engagée par l’organisation. Plamondon a refusé de répondre durant l’appel. Dans un courriel de suivi, elle a écrit « Je ne ferai aucun commentaire à une tierce partie que ce soit sur le mandat que j’ai reçu ou sur le progrès de l’enquête ». L’enquête, écrit-elle, est limitée aux « allégations qui ont été faites par trois plaignantes à propos de swami Vishnudevananda ».
Le conseil d’administration n’a pas contacté Salter, ni Kyssa, ni Campbell à propos de l’enquête proposée. La dernière fois que Salter fut contactée fut en 2007, lorsqu’elle a reçu une lettre la menaçant d’une poursuite en diffamation.
Lucille Campbell a rejoint la communauté en 1971, à l’âge de 17 ans, trois ans après la mort de son père, durant une période où elle se sentait « toute seule dans sa vie », comme elle l’a déclaré dans une entretien. En 1974, elle était devenue la directrice du centre Sivananda de Vancouver. Cet été-là, le centre a organisé une retraite dans la campagne. Un jour, dit Campbell, elle a ouvert la porte du chalet de Nair et l’a vu en train d’avoir une relation sexuelle avec une personne membre du personnel.
« J’ai fermé la porte », dit-elle. « J’étais totalement figée. J’avais 21 ans. J’étais encore très jeune. Puis, durant la méditation il m’a dit combien j’étais douée et tout. Je me suis figée, je n’ai jamais parlé de cela à personne ».
Peu après, Campbell a prononcé le vœu de renonciation et de célibat pour devenir un swami. Elle méditait et pratiquait le yoga deux fois par jour, faisant des exercices de respirations profondes, et travaillait gratuitement.
« Ma méditation était très centrée sur Swamiji parce qu’il est le guru et que les écritures disent que le guru est Dieu. Mais j’ai alors eu une étrange expérience de lumière que je ne comprenais pas. Et Swamiji a réalisé que je l’avais eue aussi, parce qu’après la classe il m’a dit que j’étais une étudiante avancée ». Campbell a dit que le compliment l’a encouragée à attribuer la lumière brillante à Nair. « J’ai pensé qu’elle avait été transférée depuis le guru ».
« Alors, j’ai naïvement été lui donner un massage. Je n’ai jamais été forcée, mais tout à coup, c’est devenu du sexe oral. Le fait qu’il n’ait pas éjaculé m’a déroutée. J’ai pensé qu’il ne le faisait que pour faire monter sa kundalini (un terme de yoga désignant une forme d’énergie spirituelle mystique). C’était peut-être un type de yoga tantrique ou quelque chose ».
Rien de cela ne fut discuté ouvertement, dit Campbell, mais ses lectures de l’époque l’avaient exposée à une vieille idée d’alchimie : que le yogi mâle qui était impliqué dans une activité sexuelle, mais « demeurait abstinent » pouvait d’une certaine façon sublimer la puissance de reproduction en une extase spirituelle, menant à sa « renaissance ».
La deuxième fois que Nair lui a demandé des faveurs sexuelles, la réponse de Campbell portait l’écho de ses méditations antérieures. Elle a quitté la chambre enveloppée d’une grande aura. « J’avais l’impression de marcher dans la lumière ».
Puis, Nair a demandé du sexe pour une troisième fois. Campbell savait que c’était mal et elle a refusé. En 1975, dit Campbell, trois femmes l’ont approché pour mentionner des incidents sexuels avec Nair. Deux des femmes, dit-elle, avaient prononcé des vœux de célibat. Elle dit qu’une de ces deux femmes a décrit son implication dans des activités sexuelles de groupe avec Nair, disant que c’était « amusant ». La troisième femme était alors mariée et elle a quitté l’organisation immédiatement après que le guru lui ait fait des avances. Campbell se rappelle le nom spirituel des deux femmes, mais ne voulait pas dévoiler leurs noms ou identités pour respecter leur vie privée.
« Il y a un point où il y a un dégoût extrême, » dit Campbell, « cela m’a pris un certain temps avant de partir, mais je suis partie ».
Campbell enseigne toujours le yoga à Montréal, mais est allergique à la mystification qui a donné à Nair autant de pouvoir. « Les hormones et les neurotransmetteurs », dit-elle, lorsqu’on lui a demandé comment elle comprenait maintenant l’aura et la lumière qu’elle a ressentie en sa présence. « On ne comprend pas tous les effets des émotions sur le cerveau ».
Avec des histoires comme celles de Salter et de Campbell dissimulées dans l’ombre, l’organisation de Nair a projeté pendant des décennies l’image d’une marque fantastique par son réseau de centres de méditation et d’ashrams qui offrent des vacances de yoga. À la Yoga Farm de Grass Valley, Californie, les visiteurs peuvent marcher dans le « Labyrinthe du miracle de la paix » ou passer la journée au spa, badigeonnés d’huile pour un massage ayurvédique. Le complexe des Bahamas sur l’île Paradise est un centre pour les vedettes en tournée et les ashrams d’Inde produisent cohorte après cohorte de diplômés avec le très lucratif cours de formation des professeurs de yoga (plus de 45 000 diplômés depuis 1969). Le portrait béatique de Nair, souvent plus large que nature, a toujours dominé l’espace des temples partout dans le monde, et les brochures distribuées au personnel, aux invités et aux étudiants citent des prières invoquant son nom.
Mais cela n’a pas toujours été facile pour l’image publique de Nair. Dès le début de sa mission, des fissures ont commencé à être publiquement visibles dans la sainteté, le collectivisme et la renonciation aux plaisirs matériels. En 1971, des adeptes ont emmené Nair en justice contestant ses plans d’hypothéquer le centre de l’organisation au cœur de Manhattan pour payer des améliorations à son avion privé. Une lettre mise en preuve dans le cas de la Cour suprême de New York montre que ses adeptes l’ont accusé d’abus sexuel sur une étudiante nommée Irene. La cour a rejeté la plainte.
« Cette sensation d’être hors de votre corps, lorsque vous êtes ramené à la réalité par le son du réveille-matin… c’est ce que j’ai ressenti… hors de mon corps, le réintégrant avec lui au-dessus de moi. »
En 1974, la journaliste canadienne Marci McDonald a visité le quartier général de Nair dans les Laurentides pour rédiger un profil. Son titre cinglant faisait écho à la phrase célèbre de F. Scott Fitzgerald à propos des riches — « Swami Vishnudevananda Is Not Like You and Me » (« Swami Vishnudevananda n’est pas comme vous et moi ») — et son texte a détaillé une scène d’hypocrisie spirituelle et d’obéissance psychologique. On voit Nair essayant de grandiosement montrer une posture d’équilibre précaire sur un bras, pour simplement tomber, n’étant évidemment pas en assez bonne condition physique. Nous admirons les voitures de luxe à sa disposition, nous l’entendons déclarer qu’il est trop éclairé pour être attaché aux richesses et nous rencontrons Gopi et Shyamala, deux jeunes assistantes, méfiantes et épuisées, accourant pour essuyer le lait renversé de son gobelet.
McDonald termine son article avec une scène de sa dernière soirée à l’ashram. Sur le chemin de retour vers le dortoir, elle rencontre une femme, trébuchant, pieds-nus sous la pluie. Dans ses pleurs, elle a crié « Swamiji, comment avez-vous pu ? » McDonald réalise qu’il s’agit de Gopi. « Découverte, elle devient soudainement silencieuse, je prends ma couverture pour la protéger. », dit McDonald, « Elle reste là, blottie sous un arbre, seule sous la pluie ».
Jointe par téléphone le mois dernier, McDonald s’est rappelée ce moment effrayant. « Tout dans mon esprit suggérait un abus sexuel », dit-elle. En se rappelant Gopi, qui est morte depuis, elle nota, « j’ai tout fait sauf dire à voix haute que je suspectais qu’il avait abusé de cette jeune femme ».
Mais ce n’était pas l’époque du #MeToo. « Je n’étais pas surprise que Gopi ne se confie pas à nous », dit McDonald, « J’aurais même été surprise si elle avait dit “Oh, il m’a fait une chose terrible. Nous devons aller à la police.” J’y serais allée, mais cela aurait été exceptionnel à cette époque si c’était arrivé ».
« Je suppose que ma façon de me lever contre l’injustice était d’énoncer ce que j’avais vu et de laisser les gens se faire leur propre idée ».
Julie Salter est arrivée aux quartiers généraux de Val-Morin, au Québec, pour la première fois en 1978, un an après avoir joint sa communauté à Tel-Aviv et quatre ans après la publication de l’article de McDonald. Elle est arrivée durant une sorte de grande époque, avec l’ashram plein de swamis et de programmes. Mais en 1982, Salter dit que le personnel avait été grandement réduit, poussé à l’épuisement, et certains adeptes semblaient aux prises avec des problèmes mentaux. Nair lui-même semblait négligé et sujet à des épisodes de dépression. Un végétarien toute sa vie, avec peu de gens autour de lui pour préparer la nourriture du sud de l’Inde qu’il aime tant, il était souvent réduit à manger des sandwiches au fromage, du riz au lait et des boîtes de pois pour survivre. Il était atteint de diabète et souffrait beaucoup. Salter ressentit un grand instinct maternel envers lui.
Cette année-là, Nair lui a demandé d’être sa secrétaire personnelle. Il l’a installée dans sa petite maison avec un ordinateur pour dicter des lettres pour ses lieutenants à travers le monde et un livre, qu’il ne publiera jamais. Les heures étaient interminables. Salter dit que Nair n’avait « absolument aucun biorythme ». Il restait debout toute la nuit, demandant du thé ou de la soupe, faisant une sieste d’une heure ou deux, puis se levait à nouveau pour passer un appel international. Ajoutés à cela, Salter voyageait fréquemment à l’étranger à ses côtés pour prendre des notes.
En 1983, Nair a commencé à demander à Salter de le masser et, à un moment donné, il lui a demandé de s’étendre à ses côtés sur le plancher après le massage. « Mais je ne comprends pas, Swamiji. », lui a-t-elle dit. « Yoga tantrique », a-t-il répondu.
« La ligne était franchie », a écrit Salter en 2005, dans des notes personnelles revues par GEN. La ligne demeura franchie pendant trois ans. « L’absence de limites… non-fondement… obéissance comme je l’avais entendu enseigner dans cette tradition “spirituelle”… les limbes qui pourraient être les miennes si je rompais avec le professeur… J’avais entendu les enseignements disant que de désobéir ou rompre avec le guru était l’équivalent d’un suicide spirituel ».
Salter a vu son rôle d’assistante de Nair s’étendre malgré le fait d’être dégoûtée, descendant en spirale vers la honte et la culpabilité. Elle a décrit « des rôles profondément confus — comme étudiante, comme secrétaire, souvent comme mère, certains diraient fille, et “partenaire” sexuelle — bien que “partenaire” ne représentait pas vraiment ce qui se passait ».
Son sommeil était réduit à quelques heures par nuit. Elle survivait avec du jus de fruit et des biscuits lorsqu’elle travaillait ou qu’elle était au téléphone. Elle a développé des problèmes digestifs et d’autres problèmes. Une fois, Nair lui a crié dessus pendant des heures après qu’elle eu mentionné qu’elle était fatiguée. Une autre fois, dit-elle, Nair l’a giflé après l’avoir faussement accusée d’avoir une relation avec un autre employé. L’agression a laissé des marques. Elle se rappelle avoir dit à une collègue que les marques étaient dues à un accident.
« À plusieurs occasions, j’ai songé à partir, mais je ne l’ai pas fait », écrit Salter. « Mon niveau d’épuisement était très élevé pendant plusieurs années, avec de longues heures de travail et de l’insomnie, combinées au le poids du secret ». Un jour, elle a dit par téléphone, « Je sentais la peur émanant très fortement de moi ». À une autre occasion, elle dit « J’ai entendu mon cerveau “se briser” ».
Au fur et à mesure que la condition de Salter empirait, la dépendance de Nair envers elle augmentait. Elle s’affairait pour garder son insuline sous contrôle, pour lui administrer sa dialyse lorsqu’ils voyageaient entre l’Inde et le Québec, pour traduire ses discours brouillons après qu’il ait eu un accident vasculaire, pour le traiter après qu’un accident de voiture lui ait perforé un poumon et brisé le cou.
« Je me rappelle qu’il disait constamment “Mon cou me fait mal, ne me quitte pas. Mon cou me fait mal, ne me quitte pas. Mon cou me fait mal, ne me quitte pas”. Comme un petit enfant dit à sa mère ».
Le premier événement des centres de yoga Sivananda auquel a participé Pamela Kyssa fut une fin de semaine de jeûne, dans sa ville natale de Londres, en 1979. Elle avait 20 ans à l’époque. Elle a décrit avoir été « bombardée d’amour » par des membres du groupe — un terme utilisé dans les études de sectes pour la tactique de recrutement consistant à couvrir les nouveaux venus d’attention et d’affection pour créer des sentiments d’endettement et d’attachement instantanés. En moins de quelques semaines, Kyssa avait abandonné ses nuits dans les clubs pour déménager dans le centre de l’organisation situé à Londres. Nair est venu en ville pour donner leurs mantras aux nouveaux venus — une prière personnelle à être récitée constamment, pour purifier l’esprit de toute autre pensée. Il lui a aussi donné le nom de « Padma », ce qui signifie lotus. Kyssa a abandonné tous ses vêtements à la mode de Kensington Market pour adopter la tenue jaune d’une novice.
Lors d’une retraite de groupe au château de Windsor, Nair l’a appelée pour lui demander de le masser, ce qu’elle a fait pendant deux heures, après quoi ils ont fait des postures de yoga ensemble, terminant dans une posture de relaxation.
Lorsqu’elle a réalisé que Nair était au-dessus d’elle et commençait à la pénétrer, Kyssa se rappelle avoir dit « Swamiji, je ne veux pas être enceinte ! »
« C’était au lieu de dire “Lâchez-moi” », a dit Kyssa dans une entretien. « Ce qui m’a déconcertée fut que ce viol ne fut pas violent – pas comme m’épingler sur le sol, me frapper ou quelque chose du genre puis déchirer mes pantalons pour s’imposer en moi ou quelque chose du genre. Je suis un peu gênée d’avoir 62 ans et de réaliser maintenant que c’était un viol ».
En 1981, Kyssa travaillait au Sivananda Yoga Ranch dans l’état de New York. Un membre du personnel supérieur l’a convoquée pour qu’elle lave Nair, disant qu’il était malade et avait besoin d’aide. Alors qu’elle séchait ses pieds après le bain, dit-elle, il a tiré sa tête vers son pénis. Elle a tiré sa tête pour se libérer de son emprise. « Je l’ai regardé intensément avec rage », dit-elle par téléphone. « Je suis sortie. Je réalise maintenant que c’était un acte de pouvoir. Qu’est-ce qu’il pouvait bien vouloir ? »
L’année avant la mort de Nair, Kyssa est allée à Val-Morin pour le Nouvel An, déterminée à parler au guru. Elle se rappelle que Salter était debout aux côtés du guru pour traduire ses paroles (Salter ne se rappelle pas de la rencontre). Kyssa fut frappée par la condition de Salter. Elle semblait être « une petite rate épuisée et noyée, que Dieu bénisse son cœur », dit Kyssa.
Kyssa a demandé à être seule avec le guru et se souvient que Nair a chassé Salter d’un geste de la main. La première impulsion de Kyssa à le voir aussi diminué fut de s’excuser pour avoir entretenu de la haine à son égard pendant tant d’années. Mais elle l’a également confronté.
« Cela fut très difficile pour moi de vivre avec ce qui est arrivé et je n’avais personne à qui parler. Ce ne fut pas correct que vos ayez agi sexuellement avec moi ».
« Il m’a interrompu et a dit “Je ne me souviens pas ! Je ne me souviens pas !” Il a continué de le dire avec assez de force ».
Rapiécer son histoire après toutes ces années est une bataille, mais Kyssa croit que c’est essentiel. « Je suis totalement pour la cohérence et le fait d’avoir de l’incohérence en moi est un immense compromis », dit-elle.
« C’est vraiment important de se maintenir dans la vérité. C’est la seule façon dont vous allez guérir ».
Lorsqu’on lui demande par téléphone si Nair l’a déjà remerciée pour ses années de service, Salter marque une longue pause.
« La seule chose dont je me souvienne », dit-elle en douceur, « c’est quand, à la fin de sa vie, il a dit : “Parce que tu as pris si bien soin de moi, tu seras prise en charge.” »
En 2004, Salter a commencé à communiquer avec ses anciens collègues du conseil d’administration. Elle en avait de grosses difficultés financières et une santé fragile, et a tenté de demander une forme de pension ou une compensation de l’organisation.
La personne-ressource au sein du conseil pour cette correspondance fut Mark Ashley, 57 ans, connu dans l’organisation comme Srinivasan, et directeur du Yoga Ranch. Sur plusieurs échanges, Ashley a aidé à arranger une rencontre entre Salter et des membres du conseil et a exprimé l’espoir que les « malentendus » puissent être réglés. Cela ne s’est pas produit.
Salter a retenu les services d’une société d’avocats de Toronto pour défendre ses intérêts. En juillet 2007, Danny Kastner, un stagiaire de la firme, a écrit une lettre au conseil d’administration de Sivananda en son nom. Kastner a grandi dans la communauté, participant à un camp d’été pour enfants à Val-Morin au début des années 1990.
Kastner se rappelle la lettre détaillant les 22 années de travail non rémunéré de Salter et aussi mentionné que le swami Vishnu l’avait fréquemment agressée sexuellement et qu’un certain nombre de membres du personnel supérieurs le savaient.
Un brouillon de la lettre obtenu par GEN disait aussi qu’après avoir quitté l’organisation Sivananda en 1999, sans l’approbation du conseil, Salter fut diagnostiquée d’épuisement, de palpitations cardiaques, d’insomnie et de dépression. Et elle rappelait que deux ans auparavant des négociations avaient mené à une offre brute de 300 $ par mois pour Salter, jusqu’à l’âge de 65 ans. La lettre proposait un montant forfaitaire de 600 000 $, pour éviter une poursuite publique.
« Il m’a interrompu et a dit “Je ne me souviens pas ! Je ne me souviens pas !” Il a continué de le dire avec assez de force. »
Par téléphone, Kastner a expliqué que le montant forfaitaire proposé fut calculé pour fournir à Salter une maison et des fonds pour le son maintien. « Je m’attendais pleinement », a dit Kastner, « que l’explication de la détérioration de la santé de Julie, après avoir rappelé ses sacrifices pour l’organisation — qui fut bien au-delà des sacrifices attendus des adeptes — j’étais certain qu’ils viendraient aux discussions dans un esprit de compassion selon les principes enseignés par l’organisation ».
Mais le 27 août 2007, Salter a reçu une lettre de la part du conseil d’administration du bureau montréalais de Stikeman Elliot LLP, une firme d’avocats reconnue pour ses poursuites agressives. La lettre rejetait les demandes de Salter et déclarait que son travail pour l’organisation Sivananda fut volontaire et « motivé par ses croyances et sa foi personnelles ». Elle dénonçait les plaintes de Salter comme étant « frivoles » et « inappropriées, agressives et injustes », mentionnant qu’il semblait douteux que Mme Salter soulève la question 14 ans après la mort de swami Vishnudevananda.
La lettre se terminait par une menace : « Nous nous réservons le droit de prendre tout recours approprié en diffamation contre toute personne que nous considérons appropriée afin de protéger les droits et la réputation de Sivananda et de swami Vishnudevananda ».
Ce court échange légal fut suffisant pour faire taire Salter et protéger le conseil d’administration de l’organisation Sivananda de la colère de sa congrégation pendant 12 ans. Mais maintenant, avec l’appui du mouvement #MeToo derrière elles, les réponses en lignes à la publication de Salter révèlent une communauté mondiale soudée comme une famille prête à soutenir les siennes. En quelques jours seulement, un groupe public et deux autres privés furent créés sur Facebook comme canaux d’évacuation des frustrations et des plans de réforme. Des membres de longue date ont rapidement commencé à parler de la possibilité d’une action collective contre l’organisation pour fausse représentation de l’image de Nair et de son héritage.
Le sentiment était immédiatement révolutionnaire et démontrait que plusieurs étudiants avaient pris à cœur les enseignements d’abandon de soi et d’altruisme. L’activisme semblait aussi être renforcé par les forts liens formés par le bénévolat et par les programmes de formation notoirement austères de l’organisation Sivananda.
Au cœur l’unité de Sivananda était l’expérience du camp d’entraînement quasi militaire du cours de formation des professeurs de yoga de l’organisation. Sa structure de 200 heures a fourni la feuille de route pour les formations de yoga à travers toute l’industrie. Son intensité est un milieu fertile pour l’endoctrinement, l’attachement à vie, voire les deux. Pendant quatre semaines, les participants sont réveillés à 5 h 30 du matin, se pointent à 6 heures avec leurs devoirs avant les chants du matin et le sermon, puis sont menés vers des séances de yoga à 8 heures, travaillent à la cuisine ou font du ménage jusqu’à midi, puis assistent à des cours — dont certaines sont des documentaires sur Nair. Il y a encore du yoga dans l’après-midi et la journée se conclut avec un sermon de soirée. Deux repas végétariens sont fournis.
Pour Lara Marjerrison, 49 ans, qui fait du yoga au centre Sivananda de Toronto depuis 17 ans, l’horaire brutal du cours demandait que les étudiants se supportent entre eux, résolvent leurs conflits et apprécient l’idéalisme de chacun. « Nous n’avions pas la possibilité de nous en aller », a-t-elle dit par téléphone, « Je me rappelle clairement regarder la grande salle de yoga et voir cent postures sur la tête parfaitement alignés, magnifiques, et l’harmonie qui émanait de cette vision et de chaque personne dans la salle et combien nous avions changé. C’est quelque chose que je n’oublierai jamais. Pour moi, c’était un microcosme de ce qui est possible dans le plus grand monde. Si nous voulons rester les uns et les autres. Cette paix est possible si nous pouvons juste nous asseoir dans l’inconfort de nos différences et communiquer entre nous avec respect et dignité, reconnaître ce qui fait mal, reconnaître ce qui nous effraie ».
« Jaya » ne veut pas que son vrai nom soit utilisé par peur de possibles répercussions. Elle a pratiqué au centre Sivananda pendant 20 ans, et elle croit que la hiérarchie du groupe est maintenant son talon d’Achille. « La structure d’autoritarisme vous fait sentir comme un mauvais enfant à l’école, », dit-elle au téléphone, « et parce qu’il y a plein d’autres mauvais enfants avec qui vous vous entendez, vous êtes retourné vers cette forme de folle transgression infantile et euphorique. Nous rions comme des fous à propos d’un swami en particulier. Nous l’appelions Darth Vader, avec sa coupe de cheveux et ces lunettes, à cause de sa rigidité ».
Les tours pendables faisaient partie de ce qui ramenait toujours Jaya. « Mais maintenant, », dit-elle, référant à la crise Salter, « ce sont vraiment de mauvais traitements. Nous le savions, car nous voyions comment ils traitaient certaines personnes du personnel permanent. Leur autoritarisme nous unissait et nous les tenons responsables en tant que groupe ».
La publication de Salter est apparue un mardi. Le vendredi suivant, le conseil d’administration de Sivananda publiait un communiqué prenant acte du témoignage, faisant allusion à leurs politiques et procédures et demandant à toute personne avec des allégations de les envoyer par courriel à Communications Avenue. Pendant la fin de semaine, les fêtes de Noël prévues dans de nombreux centres dans le monde ont été annulées et remplacées par des « satsangs » ou conférences qui aborderaient la nouvelle et permettraient des questions. À Toronto, les personnel aux réunions portaient apparemment des t-shirts disant « Unis nous vivons ; divisés nous mourons ». Un membre a reporté sur Facebook que le nom et le portrait de Nair fut retiré des chants matinaux aux locaux de Val Morin.
À New York, Ashley (qui a aidé à négocier les débuts des griefs de Salter en 2005) a ouvert la réunion de soirée avec un récit hagiographique des vertus de Nair, allant jusqu’à citer Nair lui-même à propos des dangers du pouvoir, de la corruption et de suivre un guru.
« Il y a maintenant plusieurs accusations qui sont sorties. », a dit Ashley, selon un enregistrement audio de la rencontre qui fut publié en ligne. « Je n’ai aucune idée si ces accusations sont vraies ou non. Ce n’est pas à moi de le dire. Je crois que si swami Vishnu était ici, il dirait “Ceci est vrai, cela n’est pas vrai” et il serait le premier à s’excuser, et je ne peux m’excuser pour quelqu’un…. »
« Il n’y a absolument aucun moyen que je sache cela, et je ne connais personne d’autre qui le sache à part peut-être les personnes qui étaient là. Et même pour les personnes qui étaient là : après 35, 40 ans, le discours change. »
Le reste des 90 minutes de la rencontre a consisté en un groupe de membres — principalement des femmes qui ont mentionné des décennies d’expérience dans le groupe — bombardant Ashley de questions sur ce que le conseil d’administration savait de l’expérience de Salter et sur les processus de responsabilisation que l’organisation allait suivre.
« Je crois que c’est tout simplement trop facile de publier quelque chose sur Facebook » a relancé Ashley. « Les gens partagent certaines de leurs expériences et cela devient un procès, un juge, un jury et c’est de la folie ».
Il a tenté de conclure le rassemblement sur une note de conciliation. « En ce qui concerne votre traitement », dit-il, « cela est très douloureux pour nous tous. Si vous avez des blessures personnelles qui sont survenues en relation avec l’organisation, je ressens beaucoup de peine pour vous pour cela et le fait que les choses se sont produites et si elles n’ont pas été résolues, nous aimerions tout résoudre ».
« Le conseil d’administration n’a pas du tout permis la corruption. Tout ce que le conseil d’administration sait, nous agissons. Lorsque nous ne savons pas ce qui se passe, alors nous n’agissons pas. »
Ashley a terminé la réunion en dirigeant le groupe dans un chant de om. Il n’a pas répondu à une demande directe de commentaire.
Les deux femmes qui ont publié sur Facebook que Reddy les a harcelées sexuellement ont réitéré leurs histoires dans des entretiens. Elles ont toutes deux demandé à ce que leur nom demeure secret, l’une citant des craintes de confidentialité alors que l’autre craignait des représailles de l’organisation. Les deux ont décrit que Reddy les a harcelées pendant qu’elles faisaient du karma yoga, pendant les formations qu’il dirigeait dans des ashrams de deux pays différents.
Une femme a décrit comment le harcèlement a mené à des accolades et attouchements à répétition alors qu’elle était seule, à nettoyer le temple. « Il ne n’a pas demandé “Est-ce que tu me veux ? Est-ce que tu m’aimes ?” Non, il venait simplement et le faisait simplement ». Elle dit l’avoir fermement repoussé lorsqu’il a explicitement demandé pour du sexe.
« Je ne veux pas que ceci se continue », a dit l’autre femme. Elle a décrit comment le Reddy camouflait son harcèlement sexuel en apparence d’offre de conseils spirituels ou de physiothérapie dans les rencontres privées avec les étudiants, qui sont principalement des femmes « Mon intention en rendant cela public est de changer ce type de comportement », a dit l’une. « Cela signifierait que cette personne démissionne et obtienne de l’aide appropriée ».
« Ce sont vraiment de mauvais traitements. Nous le savions, car nous voyions comment ils traitaient certaines personnes du personnel permanent. Leur autoritarisme nous unissait et nous les tenons responsables en tant que groupe. »
Les deux femmes ont dit avoir transmis leurs plaintes aux responsables de Sivananda, elles ont été référées à une avocate de New York nommée Lanny Alexander comme un genre de médiatrice pour l’organisation. Une femme a dit que Alexander l’appelait à des heures bizarres, lui demandant de prouver ses allégations et, éventuellement, disant que si la femme ne comptait pas intenter une poursuite il n’y avait rien à discuter. L’autre femme a refusé de contacter Alexander. Aucun des témoignages n’a apparemment été pleinement enquêté par une organisation ou une compagnie associée avec le conseil d’administration de Sivananda.
Ashley a identifié Alexander durant sa présentation de New York comme une étudiante dédiée de l’organisation qui a géré des plaintes pour « les 15 dernières années environ », mais qu’elle ne jouerait plus ce rôle, car elle était « trop proche de l’organisation ».
Communications Avenue, la firme de relation publique a confirmé dans un courriel qu’Alexander travaille avec l’organisation pour développer et promouvoir des politiques de harcèlement sexuel et « a aidé dans des enquêtes d’allégations de mauvaise conduite sexuelle » pour les centres de yoga Sivananda. Dans un courriel de suivi qui demandait si Alexander avait une formation spécifique en matière de sensibilisation aux traumatismes, Communications Avenue a répondu que l’organisation « se fie à d’autres professionnels externes en relation avec l’aide psychologique et traumatique ». Lorsque a été demandé qui étaient ces professionnels, un porte-parole a répondu « Je ne crois pas que ce soit approprié que je vous fournisse cette information ».
Alexander n’a pas répondu aux questions à propos de sa relation avec les centres de yoga Sivananda, de sa formation professionnelle ou sur comment fonctionne le processus de griefs.
Les semaines qui ont suivi depuis le 10 décembre n’ont pas été faciles pour Salter. Dans les retombées de sa publication, « Mon corps est entré en mode de réponse de stress intense », a-t-elle dit. Elle a décrit être fiévreuse, incapable de dormir, ni de manger, perdre ses cheveux. Lentement, par contre, elle gagne de la force, soutenue par son partenaire, allant faire de longues marches hivernales et se tournant vers des activités réconfortantes et manuelles comme le tricot et le crochet.
« Je veux un endroit sûr où les gens sont écoutés, pas rejetés, ou traités comme jetables. », a-t-elle dit. « À un autre niveau, c’est comme “Fais avec cette histoire !” Je ne suis plus vraiment intéressée par ce groupe spécifique de yoga ».
Pour Kyssa, l’ouragan d’activité en ligne a été épuisant. Mais elle décrit aussi le processus de reprise de contact avec d’autres survivantes et de parler clairement à propos de son passé comme une sensation d’un « film qui commence en noir et blanc, puis la couleur arrive soudainement. »
« C’est tout un effet de retrouver ton énergie familière », a-t-elle dit. « Je pensais que j’étais simplement vieille. Je veux dire — je suis vieille. Mais ce qui arrive c’est cette forme de vitalité familière qui parcourt à nouveau mon corps. De moi. C’est fantastique. C’est fantastique ce qui arrive ».
Matthew Remski est un professeur de yoga et un écrivain vivant à Toronto. Si vous avez des informations que vous voudriez partager à propos de votre expérience avec les centres de yoga Sivananda, vous pouvez le contacter à [email protected].
Matthew Remski est un professeur de yoga et un écrivain vivant à Toronto. Si vous avez des informations que vous voudriez partager à propos de votre expérience avec yoga Sivananda, vous pouvez le contacter à [email protected].
Si vous souhaitez soutenir le coût de cette traduction – et éventuellement des traductions dans d’autres langues – veuillez envisager de faire un petit don ici.
1. It’s Not Just Men
In YTT groups, I introduce the theme that the last century of global yoga has largely run on the fuel of “somatic dominance” by which teachers assume possession and authority over student’s bodies, and the body itself is an object of surveillance and discipline that must perform its virtue.
In discussion, most groups rightly dive into truths about male violence, male charisma, bullying, and sexual assault.
So then I trouble the gendering of that story a little by showing clips from this Jivamukti class from 2014. Check out the teacher’s entrance into the space after about 20 minutes of fawning speeches.
Take a look at that bowing sequence. You can’t see the whole room but I assure you everyone is bowing right back in this parody of Tibetan monkdom. I know that’s where it’s from because they started the bowing thing after teaming up with Michael Roach over a decade ago. But he never took it that far. The teacher seems to be making intrusive eye contact with every person in the room; Roach never bothered with that. (Maybe he didn’t have to, being male and 6’+, 200+ lbs.)
After I show the clip I ask:
What would it cost you socially to be in that room and not mirror the teacher with the bowing thing?
What would it cost you to chew gum, slouch on your mat, blow a fart, or yell out “Hey, are we getting started yet or WHAT”?
People get the point. They know they would feel way out of line, which is another way of saying that they’d feel controlled.
What I believe the teacher is doing here, unconsciously but habitually, is establishing a coerced “habitus” (via Bourdieu, very nice intro video below), or rules of somatic behaviour or ethos for that space.
Right from the beginning of class, there is a contagious way to be there. It’s sophisticated, because it looks like respect, surrender, and even gentleness. And the teacher and some students might even feel all those things deeply and authentically. But the impact is that the people in that room who show strong buy-in for what she’s doing are now under her somatic influence.
And so when, inexplicably, she lies fully on top of women at 1:57 and 1:58 or sits right down on the thighs of a woman in supta virasana at time cue 1:11:50, and gives a lecture about not finding fault in others, it’s just par for the course. Implied consent, and intimacy conflated with care.
If there’s a next stage in examining somatic dominance in Yogaland, it might involve seeing how it translated, in cycles, between generations and across genders in the 1980s and 90s, how it could be coded to express female strength and empowerment (even though it was an overflow of male violence), and how this further impeded survivors of Jois, Manos and the rest from being heard.
2. What Does Somatic Dominance Feel Like When You’re Doing It?
How would you know if your somatic dominance circuits were turned on? I’m sure it feels different for everyone, but here’s how it felt for me.
I’m using the past tense, not because I’m totally over it, but because it’s very easy to remember how I did it when I was teaching active yoga classes, which I haven’t done since about 2014. I also remember having to stop teaching in part because I was becoming more aware of my somatic dominance tendencies.
I remember distinctly crossing over a threshold into the teaching space. It could have been in the parking lot, at the front door, or in the lobby. If the studio was particularly modern and sleek and minimalist, the feeling was more acute: in some way the bare lines and white walls and flower arrangement were contagious with a kind of meticulous aesthetic attention that called perfection out of my body. I remember holding my breath more, standing up even more straight, feeling my skin glaze over with smooth hardness.
In some ways I’m describing basic somatic defensiveness via grandiosity, and I would have felt a degree of these things when stepping into any professional environment. If there was a suit involved it would have started at home with subtle fretting over how crisp my collar was going to stay on the commute — the collar signifying my armored skin.
But what made this particularly yoga-related was that as I was both holding my breath and puffing myself up, I was also aware of the pre-verbal tape-loop of all of the Iyengar instructions that were then embedded in my back-brain. In other words: I was turning basic social discomfort and self-defensiveness into a somatic virtue — a sign of transcendence over those very things.
I never met Iyengar but I’ve heard enough and I’ve met enough men like him that my gut says there were threads of intense social awkwardness and maybe even shame that the demonstration of asana mastery helped him overpower.
So the first somatic dominance is over myself. How does it pivot to take power over others?
Of the thousands of students I encountered in my classes, I’ll imagine here someone generic: male or female doesn’t matter. As soon as I instinctually identified that this person was NOT as erect as I was, I remember turning towards them and subtly doubling down, both trying to model something, and encouraging them to mirror me. I remember now with some shame the sense of gratification I had when they did mirror me, either then or in the class, and I understood it then as a good thing: that I had inspired a new confidence. But perhaps what I did in some if not many instances is that I procured a kind of compliance, and the gratification was not from having given them something, but from having their mirroring of me make me feel better about my own strained efforts to achieve comfort and dignity.
And the irony is that the person who came in slouchy or melancholic may well have been far healthier than I in their psyche-soma. If they were feeling crushed and drained of dignity that’s one thing — and I assumed this was the case for everyone — but if they were just being themselves in somatic honesty, and were able to do that because they were less bound to our systems of self-objectification, I actually disrupted that out of a projective need for bodily validation. I created a problem were there was none, and I called it yoga or mindfulness, and I got paid.
All of this took place on a subtle level that created a nameless power dynamic that normalized the standard adjustments I then went on to apply, without clear consent or even the notion of what clear consent would mean or how it could be affirmative or informed.
One more thing about how stealthy this was. We used to say “strong and soft”, which I suppose echoed the old “sthiram sukham”, and gave me at least a sense of somatic continuity with an ancient nobility. I still appreciate this double instruction, but I think it can nurture the seeds of what I’m describing above:
In the Iyengar instructions, the strength and firmness was always built first, upwards from the ground. Strong feet, knees like so, quads engaged, do something something with your perineum and navel, micromanage you rib cage and especially your floaty ribs and don’t forget the mystical kidneys etc. And after this pillar of nobility or self-defence was built, the teacher would ask you to “soften your eyes”.
What was the eye thing about? It felt interesting to have this play of tension between skeletal firmness and eyeball softness, so there was that. But I also think the soft eyes managed to spiritualize or Mona-Lisa-ize the entire presentation. So that you could be armored but also inviting and wise. So that if you were actually defending your body against your neighbour with a thousand muscular actions in your butt, you could also affect openness and intimacy with the person you were asking to mirror you.
What does this all have to do with charisma?
As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, charisma doesn’t have to look like anything in particular. It’s not how you hold yourself or defend yourself, as I’ve described here.
I believe that charisma is the somatically contagious feedback loop that initiates when all of the stuff I’ve described above begins to work to the advantage of the person performing it. And so they escalate it. Before long, it becomes their “method”. The content doesn’t matter. It could be Iyengar or it could be Ru Paul or it could be Donald Trump: charisma is the commodification of somatic defence, which, at a certain saturation point, can flip into habitual bullying.
3. Somatic Dominance, Buddhist-Style
In Yogaland, somatic dominance is explicitly part of the wellness programme, where posture is the sign of multiple levels of attainment. While lately I’m pretty consistent about pointing these critiques at “Yoga/Buddhism”, I’d like to bring out the “Buddhism” presentations of somatic dominance a little more clearly.
There’s no doubt that sitting with relative stability and stillness makes sense for whatever meditation is for whoever is practicing it. So I’m not talking here about what people do when they’re sitting at home. I’m talking about how the posture of meditation gets translated in group settings into the somatics of control. How things like stillness, erectness, a wide and/or vacant gaze, a quizzical smile — can all be virally transmitted through a group so that suddenly it feels taboo to slouch, even if by slouching you would relieve the pain in your spine.
In the crudest examples, the Zen master literally beats you with a stick to force your posture into compliance. But how much more effective is it if you can encourage the student to straighten themselves, through manners alone?
I remember distinctly walking into Karme Choling in about 1995 and developing a wicked headache and backache from sitting up way too straight to listen to the warrior talk. I had no idea what was going on inside me, and no tools for investigating it. It would be decades before I understood the coercive stiffness at the root of the culture and its links to repression.
Trungpa himself modelled upright posture in most of his talks. They called him “perky”, “inscrutable”, “spacious” and other things, when the truth was that he had to maintain that posture as a defence against being shit-faced drunk most of the time. He was erect because if he wasn’t he’d fall over. Of course he had to bring this somatic control into all areas of life. I’m sure teaching people to use utensils as though they were on the set of Downton Abbey helped keep a lot of them from keeling over into their plates.
When the next year I was brought to a Michael Roach event I interpreted the same feelings of erectness as excitement or “receptivity”, especially in relation to the more natural transference that overcame me. The Shambhala shrine room explicitly reminded me of 1970s Sicilian Catholic kitsch, so I was less inclined to interpret the Shambhala headache positively. Michael’s group was fringey and boho, so the headache I got from all the sitting there was more easily interpreted as a “blockage” related to my own hang-ups.
If I had had the tools I would have understood that what was really happening was a new form of repressive behavioural control. There were proper ways to be in Michael’s presence. You could deviate from those ways in your body if the deviations expressed special insight or closeness to him. That’s why we watched Ian Thorson tremble and spasm and bark and quiver and sometimes even fall over out of meditation posture and chalked it all up to his devotion to Michael tickling his kundalini. I didn’t know him in the last ten years of his life, but back then I don’t remember anyone asking whether he needed medical care.
Most of us weren’t as “blessed” as Ian. We sat upright and still and got filled up with instructions to such an extent that there was no room for internal questioning, let alone breaking the spell in the room with any kind of challenge.
This happened in other contexts as well, subtler ones, and way closer to home. I remember the first time I hired my friend Michael Stone to teach at Yoga Festival Toronto. I passed by the room as they were setting up and 50 people surrounded him, all sitting stock still, mirroring him, arranged like a Renaissance painting. This is just part of what made his chaotic death so shocking to almost everyone.
As for myself: I remember leading meditation classes where I would open with the basic instructions about sitting upright, but then also model that uprightness myself, and lay it on thicker than I actually felt like doing, and then continued to straighten and ground and whatever as the people around me mirrored me.
And I kept going as I felt the relief of having others validate the sublimation of my bodily anxiety and shame.
That Time Manouso Manos Started a Yoga Class with a Verbal Attack And Showed How Trauma Bonding Works
Special thanks to Cassie Jackson, who was there that day and helped confirm many details. Her testimony of Manos assaulting her is included in the IYNAUS investigative report on pages 15-17.
In January of 2017 I emailed Manouso Manos to request an interview. At that time, my research for the book that eventually focused on Jois and Ashtanga Yoga was casting a wider net. The working title back then was Shadow Pose: Trauma and Healing in the Cult of Modern Yoga.
I was upfront and honest about the project. I told him I was investigating intergenerational trauma in the yoga world, and would be citing the 1991 report on allegations of sexual assault against him. I wrote that I wanted to ask him if or how he had changed over the years, and how he understood his teaching within the legacy of BKS Iyengar.
This was about ten months before I heard about the sexual assault claim Ann Tapsell West was preparing to file against Manos, which was first dismissed by the IYNAUS Ethics Committee, and then substantiated by an independent investigator.
When I wrote to Manos I did not know that there were or would be contemporary allegations against him. I also didn’t consider or research sexual offender recidivism. In this light, my initial query was naive.
Manos’s curt responses included a threat to take me to court for writing about him from the public record. Then, paradoxically, he invited me me to come to one of his classes for free.
So I made plan to go. I didn’t expect a warm welcome. But I didn’t expect to be ambushed. Continue reading “That Time Manouso Manos Started a Yoga Class with a Verbal Attack And Showed How Trauma Bonding Works”
Short answer: there’s a lot you can do if after all this you still love yoga and Buddhism the way you did in the beginning and you still want to share it with others. Scroll down if you don’t need the primer on the problem.
In January of 2018, Shannon Roche, current CEO of Yoga Alliance said the following in a video announcement of YA’s updated sexual misconduct policy:
There’s a deeply troubling pattern of sexual misconduct within our community, a pattern that touches almost every tradition in modern yoga.
Every human being deserves to practice yoga free from abuse, harassment and manipulation.
In honour of those who have spoken up, and in honour of those who have been too hurt to speak, we have to start somewhere, and we have to start now.
“Almost every tradition.” Did she really say that? Yes she did. Is that accurate? Yes it is.
You can scroll to the very bottom for an incomplete List of abuse documentation. Roche is speaking for the yoga industry here, but her statement might equally apply to Buddhist organizations, so The List is in two parts.
Please note I’m not talking about “Yoga” and “Buddhism” in some general sense, and as you’ll see from the list below, I’m not referring to organizations that are strictly indigenous to India or South Asia. The focus here is on modern businesses conducted mostly in English and responsible for the global commodification of yoga and Buddhism as wellness and spirituality products.
When I present The List publicly to groups of teachers and teacher trainees, I can feel the air get sucked out of the room.
Because virtually everyone who has professionalized into yoga or Buddhism over the last thirty years has done so in relation to one or more of these groups.
The List makes clear just how terrible the yoga and Buddhism industries have been at fostering the communities of competence, safety, dignity, and even love that their marketing has promised. The List lays bear the toxic outcomes of (mainly) male charismatic leadership over brands that vie for commercial legitimacy within an unregulated field. The List shows that the main thing that facilitates practice — a safe social space — is actually a very rare commodity. On the broadest scale, the sensitive observer will look at the list and wonder “What was this industry about, really?”
So what now? What do all of those trainings and certifications mean? What baggage do they carry with them? What do we do with this past?
I remember writing about Anusara Yoga in 2012. I was amazed at many things, but two stood out: how quickly the organization imploded, and then, how equally quickly so many people moved on. Some of the higher-ups simply switched gears and replicated abusive patterns in unregulated coaching or MLM schemes. But the lower-downs with more integrity tried to pivot to independent teaching status where they could still share what they really loved and valued. As they did so, many scrubbed their resumes, as if it had all been a bad trip they’d rather forget. I remember talking to many friends at the time. They now had a secret, and didn’t know what to do with it, and wondered how they would recover their sense of confidence.
There are fewer and fewer secrets now. That said, some of the articles listed below are from the early 1990s, so the secrets have been open for ages, and of course the survivors of these organizations have known the truth all along.
#metoo sweeping through the yoga and Buddhism worlds has turned the open secret into a do-not-pass-go reality test, and shown that abuse ignored is abuse perpetuated. One of the clearest recent examples has come from Dharma Ocean, where brave former students of Reggie Ray have disclosed a system of charismatic coercion that mimics the Trungpa/Shambhala community Ray famously broke away from. (Pro-tip: charismatic men splitting off from charismatic groups to form their own groups are waving red flags right in your face.)
The shame-scented grace period within which people have been able to quietly rebrand and move on is now over. We’re in a golden age of cult journalism. Skepticism is at an all-time high. And the yoga labour market is simply too saturated to skip town and just hang out another shingle. There’s no room left for blank slates. But there is room for honest growth and resilience.
Four Groups of Stakeholders
What do we do with the knowledge that our education is compromised by the unaddressed abuse histories of our schools? Let’s first get clear on who wants to do something.
In my experience so far, people relate to their abusive groups in four modes of descending intensity. I’ll briefly describe them here to narrow down who my real audience is here (spoiler alert: it’s group 3), because that audience has the burden of being surrounded by people (groups 1+2) who used to be friends and associates, but have now revealed insupportable values.
- Doubled-down Devotees. Take a look (trigger warning) at this petition organized by Russian Ashtanga students. And this one, organized by a Bulgarian student of Manouso Manos. Here are folks who show the classic hard-cultic habits of absolute denial, DARVO, black-and-white thinking, and bounded choice. For these folks, revelations of abuse by Jois and Manos cannot be true, but must be evil, must be motivated by hate and jealousy for sincere practitioners like them who have found the truth. These folks are the life-support system for the high-demand group before it implodes fully, or runs out of recruitment possibilities. That these two petitions target non-English speakers shows that the most recalcitrant elements of a cult will always evade responsibility in their home lands and languages to go for broke abroad.
- Reformer-Apologists. These respectable bystanders are often able to admit that their guru was a flawed man. Oddly, this can automatically increase their own social capital, because they are said to be showing wisdom and forgiveness. “Jois was only human,” they say, never naming the behaviour as criminal. They are even less likely to acknowledge that the criminality was enabled by the organization. Their statements and actions consistently ignore or minimize survivor testimony, and seem guided primarily by the need to limit liability and preserve the idea that the practice of the organization itself (as continued on through their virtue) will be enough to solve all problems. They typically argue that the practice can be separated from the abuser at the centre of the organization, even when they themselves enabled the abuser, and owe him a chunk of their social status. Most of these folks have financial positions to defend in relation to the organization. I’ve talked with many survivors who say that these folks are far more harmful in their behaviours than those in group 1, because reformer apologists pretend to care, but then go about business as usual. In the worst cases, they go so far as to take on reformer roles within the organization, even while shutting down survivor voices.
- The Disillusioned-Sincere. This is the group of people who are worth talking to about how to move forward with integrity. These are folks who professionalized through an abusive school. They may or may not have known about the abuse at the time they were on the inside. If they didn’t, they may have felt something. If they did, they might have frozen in response to it and haven’t known what to do since. They generally finished their educations and then struck out on their own, but were always low enough on the totem pole that it would have been a risk to clearly differentiate from the group. They’ve had good learning experiences, and they value the shreds of community they have left, but they also question what unspoken things they picked up. They can feel lingering weirdnesses, silences, and secrets. Most of all, they want to reclaim whatever it was that drew them to practice in the beginning, and to extract that from the mud. They know it’s worth keeping and sharing with others.
- The Long-Time-Gone Independents. People like Angela Farmer, Donna Farhi, and Diane Bruni are far enough away from their abusive learning communities that they’ve had time to feel and model the empowerment of personal creativity. They’re in a good place in relation to the systems that booted them out or that they had to leave, but it wasn’t always easy.
The iron laws of cultic allegiance mean that for the most part, people in groups 1+2 will only ever be able to serve their own diminishing markets. They’re either too indoctrinated or conflicted to care about or have the ability to move beyond their groups to show the general public that they’ve learned something beyond what their leader taught and his enablers rationalized.
Folks in Group #2 might move at some point to #3, but only if they get pushed off the island by fellow Group #2ers. I think there’s too much at stake in terms of identity formation for them to go on their own.
But if you’re in Group #3, there are three categories of action I believe you can take to reparatively and positively move forward.
I. Personal Inventory and Therapy:
As a Disillusioned-Sincere person, it’s tough to realize that your educational affiliation is compromised, or worse — that it has value to the extent that the group’s leaders suppressed abuse histories. But here we are.
My sense is that personal reckoning in most cases has to come first in order to get over the guilt and shame responses that impede being able to truly listen to and centre survivor voices, and let them carry reform forward, or conceptualize a new way of doing things altogether. So here are some thoughts I hope are helpful:
- It’s an unregulated profession in which male charisma — not competence, not kindness — has been the primary currency of value. It’s not surprising that the power dynamics are bad. You didn’t make the system up, and you wouldn’t have chosen it if offered a choice. But you can take responsibility for your part.
- If the group you were part of was indeed cultic, there is no shame in having been recruited. You know you didn’t sign up for abuse. The group hid that part from you.
- Educating yourself on how high-demand groups work can be really liberating. Here’s a great reading list from Janja Lalich.
- Don’t get caught up in the meaningless shame spiral of thinking that, for instance, the victims of Jois judge you harshly because you love Ashtanga. They don’t care what you love to do with your body, as long as you’re not hurting anybody else. That shame is a black-and-white defence against moving forward.
- You may have been a bystander to harm. Or you may have perpetuated harm. You can go to therapy to explore how that might have happened, and how you feel about it. But keep in mind that the group may have taught you to do exactly that, and that there were strong mechanisms in place to egg you on and shut you up.
- You don’t have to totally forgive yourself for having been there in order to do a good job with the next two categories, and the main point is not to make yourself feel better. But if you are gentle with yourself you’ll have less of your own stuff in the way moving forward.
The baseline, ground-zero instructions for how to listen to and support those your organization abused are in this white paper by Karen Rain and Jubilee Cooke: “How to Respond to Sexual Abuse Within a Yoga or Spiritual Community With Competency and Accountability.” Please read it, digest it, and share it with everyone you can. Follow up, to the best of your ability, on its distinct suggestions (I’ve added some terms in brackets to broaden the scope):
- Seek education from experts outside of the community [on all aspects of equality and justice, for no yoga or Buddhist organizations have this as a focus].
- Learn about sexual [physical, emotional] violence.
- Talk in a way that supports survivors and does not cause further trauma or perpetuate rape culture.
- Be accountable.
- Understand and address the shortcomings of the organization.
- Design policies and practices that help prevent further sexual [physical, emotional, financial] abuse.
- Utilize resources.
Here’s yet another tool that Karen Rain has offered for Jois-identified teachers who want to do the right thing. They can take this pledge,which commits to stepping back from any leadership in reform.
If you know that you have some bystanderism or enabling in your past, it might make sense to personally apologize to those you impacted. However, it’s anyone’s guess whether they want to hear from you, and there’s no telling how it will go if you do reach out.
In considering repair, let’s think about money as well. As an example, check out this still from this famous video released in 1991:
Jois stands in the centre. From the right we see Maty Ezraty, Eddie Stern, Chuck Miller, Tim Miller, Richard Freeman, and Karen Haberman (now Rain). Jois died a wealthy man, and five of these students went on to have very lucrative careers. There are reports that Ezraty’s net worth at the time of her recent death was 15M USD. Karen Rain, by contrast, had to leave the Ashtanga world, and her career, because she was able to discern that Jois was assaulting her and other students. Most of her colleagues on that stage alongside her knew what Jois was doing to women. Rain had to leave what she loved behind and start over.
Maybe at some point someone will be able to collect data on the amounts of money that survivors of abuse in yoga and Buddhist communities have had to spend on therapy and lost wages. In some cases, groups of survivors might find themselves in class action territory.
Until then, do what you can to support and platform survivors of your organization. And you can go farther than that by refusing to participate in yoga financial structures that suck profits up to the top. As with any vertical system, wealth accumulates because it gets stolen from others. You can re-orient yourself in relation to this by moving towards yoga service in public health spaces. See the Yoga Service Council for more details.
III. Moving towards Protection, Mitigation, and Freedom
This is where I pitch my book, because the last section is called “Better Practices and Safer Spaces: Conclusion and Workbook”, and it goes into detail about how to recognize cultic dynamics and how to think critically about group-based spiritual practice. It contains several frameworks meant to foster protection and safety. One such framework is the PRISM method, which I use in consulting. Another calls for a “Scope of Practice for the Yoga Humanities”, in which I argue that it’s not enough for yoga teachers to adhere to a physical SOP that would govern things like touch and unlicensed dietary advice, but for teachers to abide by standards of humility and self-restraint in the areas where they can most easily manipulate the emotions and intellects of students.
At this point I also believe that the staunchly anti-regulatory attitude of the (especially American-dominated) yoga industry has to be called out for enabling abuse. This is a very contentious topic, but I’ll just give one example to prove my point:
It was not only internally reported, but publicly reported, in 1991, that Manouso Manos was committing sexual assault and misconduct on a regular basis. Had yoga teaching in California at that time been a licensed profession, he would have been barred for life. It wasn’t and he wasn’t, so he was free to go about his business after being “forgiven” by Iyengar.
I don’t know how licensing could or should work, but I do know that a blanket rejection of the very idea regulatory oversight is an ongoing slap in the face to abuse victims in the industry. What that attitude basically says is “The consequences of everyone being unaccountable to a college or licensing board are not as important as my freedom.” That’s immoral.
One of the most powerful assertions and recommendations that Rain and Cooke make in their article is this:
Accreditation through an organization lacking transparency, accountability, or reparations for abuse is inadequate for establishing safety. Upgrade accreditation through an uncompromised yoga organization or other educational avenue.
Let that sink in for a moment. What it’s saying is that those certificates from Pune and Mysore that people have been waving around for years are now liabilities. They thought they were showing their competency, but now they show corruption.
What Rain and Cooke are saying here is that a flawed certification can and must be upgraded. You have be able to show yourself, your community, and the public what you have done to mitigate your prior education. This is obviously the best thing to do. In a world of workshops, why not pursue the knowledge that will show real leaning? Even without the need to mitigate your resume, taking a trauma-sensitive certification would be an excellent thing to do.
Eddie Stern is a central figure in the Jois tragedy. He knew that Jois was assaulting women at least as early as 2001, when his student Anneke Lucas disclosed to him that Jois assaulted her (PAAIC p. 319-20). Yet, he went on to host Jois on many tours, and in 2012 released the book Guruji, in which close to 40 devotees of Jois give their hagiographical accounts of his mystic power, and no-one breathes a word of his criminality. Stern’s co-editor Guy Donahaye has disclaimed the book and promoted an accountability gesture for Ashtanga teachers to sign. Here’s Donahaye’s statement on the book:
Since his death, KPJ has been elevated to a position of sainthood. Part of this promotion has been due to the book of interviews I collected and published with Eddie Stern as “Guruji: A Portrait of Sri K Pattabhi Jois” which paints a positive picture of his life and avoids exploring the issues of injury and sexual assault. In emphasizing only positive stories it has done more to cement the idea that he was a perfect yogi, which he clearly was not.
By burnishing his image, we make it unassailable – it makes us doubt the testimony of those he abused. This causes further harm to those whose testimony we deny and to ourselves.
I would like to offer my sincere apologies to all victims who were harmed by KPJ or by his teachings as passed through his students for my part in cultivating this image of perfection that denies the suffering and healing of many. I would also like to apologize for taking so long to write this – it was not easy to do.
Aside from a poorly-presented series of quotes in the New Yorker, Stern has remained publicly silent on the issue of institutional abuse in Ashtanga. And his new bio note scrubs all reference to Jois.
Here’s a thought experiment: without his connections to Jois, would Stern have been able to build the networking power that enables him to now release a book with a forward by Deepak Chopra, or be the fly-in asana guy for the Walton family’s upcoming conference? (This brings us back to money, see above.) What does it mean that Jois has now vanished from his history?
Whenever someone asks me what they should do about their prior affiliation with the Jois family, Manos, Satyananda, or Choudhury, I can basically say: “Don’t do what Stern does.”
Here’s what transparency, which I believe leads to freedom, looks like:
- Fully own your educational past, and your relationships.
- Show how you’ve updated your education.
- If you feel that you were in a high-demand group, this is not a point of shame if you can show what you’ve learned from it. If you have to make amends to anyone before spilling it, do it: it’s the right thing to do anyway.
- Within the bounds of legal risk, be frank about both what you learned to do and what you learned not to do. If you can refer to mainstream articles to make your point about your former school, that should be safe. I am not giving legal advice here, but I can say in general that the test for defamation is that what you say about your past needs to be untrue for you to be in legal jeopardy. That said, people with money can sue over anything.
- If it’s not your style or it wouldn’t be appropriate or would be legally dangerous to share about your past in a confrontational way, you could instead write a manifesto of values that clearly names dynamics that you have suffered and will continue to work against and reverse.
Owning your past, flaws and all, can give a new sense of creative and educational opportunity. Erasing trauma and history does not lead to freedom, but working with both may.
Note: The organizations on this incomplete list are all different. What they share is social power that has survived unresolved abuse histories of different varieties. Often this involves the lieutenants of abusive leaders assuming routinized leadership positions by burying the truth about the organization’s origins and how they have benefited from the silence of the organization’s victims.
Rinzai Zen (Joshu Sasaki Roshi)
Diamond Mountain / Asian Classics Institute https://michaelroachfiles.wordpress.com/
New Kadampa Tradition
Stories of abuse and betrayal tremble beneath the veneer of spiritual groups. Silently. For decades.
The veneer functions like money does in the Epstein world to write the laws, conceal the truth, and dispose of the evidence. Spiritual groups don’t have Epstein-level money, but they have other shiny objects to distract and confuse. They have stories of extraordinary men, spiritual transformations, and a coming enlightened age.
One type of question I often field is “what makes the Jois story a yoga story?” or: “What makes the Rigpa story a story about Buddhism?” I counter the deflection of this question by saying “It’s true: these are rape culture and high-demand group stories.”
Then I add: “But it’s important that we see how they play out in environments in which they are explicitly not meant to happen: places where vulnerable people come to be protected from abuse.”
But there’s another reason I believe stories of spiritual abuse are important to investigate and understand. In some cases, the group has an outsize impact upon the broader culture, usually through having found a way to conceal its origins, manage its image, and secularize and popularize its techniques.
I’m not talking about groups like Scientology, which unduly influence celebrities who carry a lot of social power, but which also have a hard time commodifying their core content. (One test here is that Dianetics has always been published in-house, while much of the “advanced” literature is hidden altogether.) With Shambhala, for example, the core content is sanitized, legitimized, and monetized through institutions like Naropa and a number of spiritual/self-help books that became touchstones in the 1990s neoliberalism that believed it was progressive.
That core content is a group effort. More importantly: the group effort conceals itself through the presentation of individual genius. Nowhere is this more efficient than in the spiritual book industry.
Spiritual books are marketed on the basis of the awakened personality and the intimacy of the author’s written “voice”. The public ends up thinking they’re encountering the realized presence of Pema Chödrön on the page, for example. That page, and the buzz around it, gets her onto Oprah.
But Chödrön’s ascent to Oprah isn’t driven by her personal wisdom or virtue. She gets that gig because she has risen to the top of a high-demand group as a spokesperson.
I started writing about cults in 2012 when a group I’d been recruited into more than a decade before began to implode, after the partner of one of the group’s leaders died of exposure in the Arizona desert.
In the ensuing nine years, I’ve weathered a broad spectrum of blowback from loyalists to the groups I’ve written about critically. The responses unfold over a spectrum of defences: from primitive-enraged to sophisticated-subtle. I believe most of the responses share the features and impulses listed below.
This is not a complete list, nor is it scientific. It’s based primarily on personal observation. Some researchers might disagree with some premises here, and I welcome feedback and objections. I’m including a bibliography of diverse resources below.
I’m not presenting this list to imply that people whose cult ties lead them to gaslight or abuse others are somehow more deserving of empathy than anyone else. None of the impulses described here excuse the behaviour. People who act out like this have work to do, but it may be hard for them to even develop the impulse to do it.
I’m presenting the list for informational purposes, so that if you wind up trying to speak reasonably to or call out the harms of a person enmeshed in a cult, it might be helpful to identify some of the baffling responses as they come.
If you have the spoons for it, you can help a friend or relative in a high-demand group simply by engaging with them as if they are a full and rich person with their own ideas and autonomy. The work of Alexandra Stein suggests that modelling secure attachment is key to healing. Steve Hassan’s work suggests that appealing to a person’s “pre-cult” self can be very effective. A friend did that for me once with a letter. He helped free a part of me that had been locked up.
1. All group members are abuse victims, to varying degrees.
Dominance hierarchies exist within high-demand groups just as they do outside of them, so not everyone suffers the same. However, everyone recruited into a high-demand group has been deceived in one way or another. They have had their time, energy, and emotional faculties hijacked for a purpose that is not their own, and which is rarely clear to them.
Those who bear the brunt of the abuse in a high-demand group — women, children the poor, the super-earnest and altruistic — emerge with clear disabilities, up to and including CPTSD. But — absent real sociopathy — even those who enjoyed a certain amount of power within the group will carry with them guilt, moral injury, and the sensation of sunken costs. Criticism or resistance to the group may make these wounds sting and provoke intense defensive responses related to any sense of responsibility for the abuse they may carry.
They are caught in a bind: they are not responsible for having been deceived, and yet they are responsible for the power that deception allowed them to have over others. It is far easier to dismiss critical engagement or vilify whistleblowers than it is to engage in this deep moral complexity.
2. The voices of survivors are psychologically threatening to those who have not yet owned their survivorhood.
Intuitively, we know that if we really listen to them, we might succumb to a kind of sickness marked by feelings of doubt, shame, and guilt. We know we’ll have to start asking questions about how the big picture is organized. We’ll have to bear out the possibility that everything we value is infected by everything we fear.So what we do to trauma survivors—even, sometimes, if we are survivors ourselves—is that we shut those voices down and quarantine them in an attempt to keep ourselves sterile and safe.
This begins to account for the reactions that go beyond silence and dismissal. Often survivors who speak up and whistleblowers are not just refuted. They are depicted with contempt, revulsion, and loathing.
The most basic form that this takes is through false psychiatric diagnoses. I’ve seen survivors labelled as mentally ill. It can get even more crude: I’ve had my physical appearance mocked, my face described as “creepy”, my intentions as predatory. This shocked me at first, until I understood through this contagion principle that whistleblowing quite literally reveals hidden cancer and rot, and disgust is a reasonable response.
There might be something else going on. Some of the survivors I know radiate a kind of awareness of the world and of their own vulnerability that is somatized through hypervigilant affect. They wear no masks in the world. I believe that sometimes the raw honesty of their presence shows the person who has not yet come to terms with their own survivorship what it would feel like to live without armour, and this is terrifying.
3. They love the group leader in a complex, intense, and painful way.
Many group members have been entrained to love the leader with a passion designed to overcome the fear they provoke, or to rationalize or erase the harm they commit. They might feel dependent on the leader’s gaze or attention, and desperate to stay in their good graces. Somewhere they are aware of the emotional and material capital they’ve given up to their commitment, and their ardour must measure up to that loss. In some cases their love mirrors what happens in the trauma-bonding of intimate partner abuse.
Rachel Bernstein recently provided a very accessible run-down of the trauma bond. I’ll post it at the bottom.
If you engage with someone who is enmeshed in a high-demand group and has developed insecure attachments to the leader(s), it will be very hard to avoid implying that they are trauma-bonded, and this can be incredibly shameful.
In the process, you’ll also be shedding light on the unconscious but persistent sense of betrayal that they feel in relation to the “good” leader who is actually hurting them and others. By pointing out betrayal, you will be cast as the betrayer. (See the resources from Freyd below.)
Also: be aware of the vicious calculus at play. Karen Rain has pointed out that the lengths to which some Ashtanga people have gone to vilify me mirrors the love they have expressed for Jois.
4. They believe their community loves and protects them, but they also doubt it. You are externalizing those doubts.
Everything the person feels about the leader they may feel about their fellow members. However, the web is intricate and the textures are subtle. If they’ve been in the group for years they have spent a long time finding the right niche of safety-that-isn’t-quite-safety. They have friends who are not primarily friends and family members who are not primarily family members: in both cases allegiance to the group trumps all.
As an outsider to that group, you are making an intervention in the voice of someone the group already vilifies. Of course you cannot understand them, of course you are out to destroy their vision. The number of people who have accused me to trying or wanting to destroy their communities is astonishing, until I realized that that defence is proof of the fragile insularity of the group.
The paradox of being in a group like this is that you are isolated within it. Alexandra Stein says it this way:
Contrary to the stereotype of cult life, followers are isolated not only from the outside world, but in this airless pressing together they are also isolated from each other within the group. They cannot share doubts, complaints about the group or any attempt to attribute their distress to the actions of the group. At the same time as this isolation from other people – either within or outside of the group – is occurring, there is also a deep loneliness and isolation from the self. The time pressures, sleep deprivation and the erasure of the individual mean there is never any opportunity for solitude – that creative and restful state where contemplation, thinking and the space in which changes of mind might occur can take place. As there is no space between people, neither is there any internal space allowed within each person, for their own autonomous thought and feeling. Thus there is a triple isolation: from the outside world, from others in the group and from one’s own self.
— Terror, Love and Brainwashing: Attachment in Cults and Totalitarian Systems (loc 1835)
The cult member is also aware at some level that they will be punished for leaving. This accounts for the “dread” famously articulated by Langone and others. As the person who stands outside of the cult and seems to offer you a pathway to leaving, you may become the very embodiment of that dread.
5. They might have cognitive injuries.
If the group’s practices have involved repetitive actions or rituals that have contributed to what we could call a dissociative reflex, it can be really hard for a group member to stay on point and think clearly. The suppression of discursive (let alone critical) thinking is actually a feature of many group ritual instructions. I’ve heard many reports of people leaving high-demand groups with substantial cognitive deficits. In my own case I couldn’t concentrate for long enough to write a coherent sentence, on account of the meditation and mantra practices I had been given.
So if you’re communicating with a group member and it seems that they can’t think straight, follow an argument through, or hold a stable definition of a term — hold space for the possibility that they simply can’t.
If the repetitive ritual involves physical labour or pain, this can be another obstruction to cognition. The person in chronic pain or who is dependent upon daily endorphin-release rhythms to feel not-miserable may simply not have the stamina for complex cognitive or psychological consideration.
6. They may feel existentially dependent upon the group ideology.
If the group’s belief system is totalizing and transcendent, and if it has been ritually embedded for long enough, it can begin to feel like the member’s own voice or sense of self. Everything leads back to the message, which is repeated over and over again.
Questions are disruptions of that message, but more importantly, questions disrupt the self-soothing rhythm of how that message is internally recited. Many group members report a feeling of deep anxiety when the internalized message is opened up to questioning. It can feel as though the basis of the person’s life is being attacked. So don’t underestimate the power and danger of saying something as simple as: “Do you really believe that?”
Another aspect: if they were recruited through totalizing promises, it might feel as though deconstruction of those promises feels totalizing. This accounts for how often cult analysts are called “bullies” by group members. It’s upside down. The analysis is calling out bullying.
7. The financial benefits of group membership may be as invisible as other forms of privilege.
The group member whose social and financial status is the product of the group’s hierarchy of harm will resist seeing that just as strongly as any consumer will resist seeing the harm of consumerism. If you point out that their relative comfort or safety in the group is dependent on any kind of “I-Got-Mine-ism“, you’ll face the same blowback that POC activists face when calling out white privilege, or women face when calling out male privilege. At the root here may be some deep strain of fragility that simply cannot turn the guilt of having benefited from the suffering of others into an active justice plan.
8. Because the criticism of the group feels like it is attacking the group member’s self and sense of authenticity, they will call you a fraud.
Classic projection. People engage in ad hominem all the time in this world. But in this discourse the flip to ad-hom is so instantaneous it should raise big red flags. Key things to notice: as soon as the response has migrated into ad hominem, you won’t be talking about the data anymore. You won’t be quoted directly. You’ll be defending irrelevant things like your religious commitments or daily habits. One person said that they could tell I was a carnivore from my writing and therefore I was mistaken about everything.
A particular sore spot in this theme is around educational attainments. Almost every single charismatic leader I’ve written about has falsified his educational background or source of lineage authority. The follower of someone like that is in a precarious position with regard to legitimacy. Legitimacy therefore becomes a fixation. Ad hominem arguments begin to merge with arguments from authority.
9. Please add your own observations in the comments.
Rachel Bernstein on the “trauma bond”:
[In the trauma bond] you become connected to the person who is abusing you or traumatizing you, or stressing you out in a way that people outside the relationship might not understand necessarily. Usually it goes like this: that you’re with someone who was abusive, let’s say, who is selfish or narcissistic. And they need to take this power away from you and make you feel small and make you feel afraid of disappointing them and not getting things done perfectly. And they get very punitive towards you. But then they are intermittently kind and giving funny, forgiving, emotionally generous and soft, and it’s like intermittent gratification. It draws you in into something that is called a trauma bond, where you want that sweetness and that break from the mistreatment to continue as long as it can.
So you learn that you can control it by shifting your behavior a bit and pleasing that person as best you can. So the sweetness and the break lasts for a longer time. But that really in the back of your mind, you know, it’s not gonna last forever and that the abuse is probably gonna come back and then there’ll be a break from it again. And you’ll know what you need to do in order to try to keep that good feeling going and continue getting that break that you need. But the cycle just continues. And then if the abuse comes back, you might feel you deserve it because you just had the recent experience of this person being kind to you. And if a kind person is angry with you, you can more easily feel like it’s your fault. Children learn to appease someone who puts them under overwhelming stress or abuse because they have to. If that person or those people are their only caretakers and they don’t have anywhere else to go or any other adults in their lives who they really know yet and can rely on, they are stuck.
— from “One More Thing” at the end of Betrayal and Power w/ Nitai Joseph, former Hare Krishna – S4E5.
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Freyd, Jennifer J., and Pamela Birrell. Blind to Betrayal: Why We Fool Ourselves We Arent Being Fooled. Wiley, 2013.
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