Comment une publication #MeToo sur Facebook a renversé une icône du yoga

 

Une ex-disciple du swami Vishnudevananda révèle une décennie de mauvais traitements, faisant éclater une crise encore en développement au sein de yoga Sivananda.

 

Matthew Remski

 

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.

 

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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 ».

 

 

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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].

 

 

 

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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.

 

 

Recent Notes on Somatic Dominance in Yoga, Buddhism, and How to Know When You’re Doing It

Recent Notes on Somatic Dominance in Yoga, Buddhism, and How to Know When You're Doing It

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. 

 

 

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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”

I Learned Yoga/Buddhism Through an Abusive Group. Now I Teach It. What Do I Do?

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.

Why?

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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. Educating yourself on how high-demand groups work can be really liberating. Here’s a great reading list from Janja Lalich.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.

 

II. Repair:

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):

  1. 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].
  2. Learn about sexual [physical, emotional] violence.
  3. Talk in a way that supports survivors and does not cause further trauma or perpetuate rape culture.
  4. Be accountable.
  5. Understand and address the shortcomings of the organization.
  6. Design policies and practices that help prevent further sexual [physical, emotional, financial] abuse.
  7. 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

Protection

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.

Mitigation

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.

 

Freedom

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.

________

The List:

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.

Yoga orgs:

 
Ashtanga Yoga:
 
 
Bikram Yoga
 
Jivamukti Yoga
 
Anusara Yoga
 
Kundalini Yoga
K Felt. ‘Katherine Felt on Yogi Bhajan and friends’. http://yogibhajan.tripod.com/.
 
KYHF Chennai
‘Legal Closure | September 2014’. http://kausthub.com/legalclosure.
 
Satyananda Yoga
J Pankhania and J Hargreaves. ‘Culture of Silence: Satyananda Yoga’. 12/22/2017. https://www.theluminescent.org/2017/12/a-culture-of-silence-satyananda-yoga.html
 
SYDA Yoga (Muktananda/Gurumayi)
 
Rajneesh/OSHO
 
Himalayan Institute
Amma
 

Buddhist orgs:

Rigpa
 
Shambhala
Dharma Ocean
Against the Stream (Noah Levine)
Triratna (FWBO)

Cult Classics vs. Cult Survivor Literature: What Will Your Spiritual Reading Be Now?

"Cult Classics" vs. Cult Survivor Literature

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.

Continue reading “Cult Classics vs. Cult Survivor Literature: What Will Your Spiritual Reading Be Now?”

What’s Behind the Blowback You’ll Get When You Engage Cult Members

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.

This idea comes from Theodora Wildcroft, and is described in more detail here, and on p. 42 of Practice and All is Coming:

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.


Selected Bibliography:

Ainsworth, Mary D. Salter. Patterns of Attachment: a Psychological Study of the Strange Situation. Routledge, 2015.

Arendt, Hannah. The Origins of Totalitarianism. Penguin Classics, 2017.

Farhi, Donna. Teaching Yoga: Exploring the Teacher-Student Relationship. Rodmell Press, 2006.

Freyd, Jennifer J. Betrayal Trauma: the Logic of Forgetting Childhood Abuse. Harvard University Press, 1998.

Freyd, Jennifer J., and Pamela Birrell. Blind to Betrayal: Why We Fool Ourselves We Arent Being Fooled. Wiley, 2013.

Hassan, Steven. Combating Cult Mind Control: the #1 Best-Selling Guide to Protection, Rescue, and Recovery from Destructive Cults. Freedom of Mind Press, 2016.

Kramer, Joel, and Diana Alstad. The Guru Papers: Masks of Authoritarian Power. North Atlantic Books/Frog, 1993.

Lalich, Janja, and Madeleine Landau. Tobias. Take Back Your Life: Recovering from Cults and Abusive Relationships. Bay Tree Pub., 2006.

Lalich, Janja. Escaping Utopia: Growing up in a Cult, Getting out, and Starting Over. Routledge, 2018.

Langone, Michael D. Recovery from Cults: Help for Victims of Psychological and Spiritual Abuse. W.W. Norton, 1995.

Lifton, Robert Jay. Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism: a Study of “Brainwashing” in China.W.W. Norton, 1961.

Miller, Alice, et al. For Your Own Good: Hidden Cruelty in Child-Rearing and the Roots of Violence. Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 2002.

Oakes, Len. Prophetic Charisma: the Psychology of Revolutionary Religious Personalities. Syracuse University Press, 1997.

Shaw, Daniel. Traumatic Narcissism: Relational Systems of Subjugation. Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group, 2014.

Stein, Alexandra. Terror, Love and Brainwashing: Attachment in Cults and Totalitarian Systems. Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group, 2017.

Stern, Daniel N. The Motherhood Constellation: a Unified View of Parent-Infant Psychotherapy. BasicBooks, 2005.

Yogaland is Anxious Because It Is An Industry With A Product That May Not Exist

THERE IS NEVER ANYTHING TO PRODUCE. In spite of all its materialist efforts, production remains a utopia. We can wear ourselves out in materializing things, in rendering them visible, but we will never cancel the secret.

— Baudrillard, The Ecstasy of Communication (1987)

 

Note: This bit of exploratory theory is inspired by the modern globalized yoga industry, as described in sources like Andrea Jain’s Selling Yoga: From Counterculture to Pop Culture. If you’re a yoga teacher or student who identifies as existing outside of that industry, or feel you belong to a community that plays no part in it, this post may not concern you.

 

________

 

Actually, the 80 billion USD per year global yoga industry does have a product.

But it’s not a thing.

It’s not a car, or a book, or an app, or a head of romaine lettuce.

It’s not therapy or medical service.

You have to pay for it, while suspecting you’ll ever possess it.

The product is a wish, projection, or longing.

You must embody it for it to be real. The effort involved in this can be endless.

Continue reading “Yogaland is Anxious Because It Is An Industry With A Product That May Not Exist”

“Abuse in the Yoga Community”: Josh Summers Interviews Matthew Remski

Thank you to Josh Summers for interviewing me about Practice and All is Coming. You can download the mp3 here. Transcript is below.

Trigger warning: descriptions of sexual and physical assault.

Transcript:

Josh Summers: 00:00:06

Hi Matthew, how are you doing?

Matthew Remski: 00:00:07

I’m good. Thanks for having me, Josh.

Josh Summers: 00:00:09

Thanks so much for coming on. Let me introduce us. I am Josh Summers. I’m a yoga teacher and licensed acupuncturist. And this is Meaning of Life TV. You are Matthew Remski, a yoga teacher as well also an industry consultant in the Yoga Industry and an author of several books. Most recently you’ve written a book about problematic group dynamics in the yoga world and it’s called Practice and All is Coming: Abuse, Cult Dynamics and Healing in Yoga, and Beyond. So I should say, you know, is it’s really nice to meet you. This is kind of an odd sort of endorsement to you, but, right at this point I’d say you’re the main reason I go onto Facebook.

Matthew Remski: 00:01:00

That’s, that’s mixed. I’m happy to hear that. And I’m sorry to hear that all at the same time.

Josh Summers: 00:01:06

No, no. I mean, for me it’s positive because there isn’t that much, worth following on Facebook. But, I came across your work maybe two or three years ago. Someone shared something you had blogged about, about abuse and some of these problematic dynamics in the yoga world. And I just kind of got into following what you had to say about it and it really seemed like you had some trenchant analysis that was deeply missing in the broader conversation. So I want to dive into that. Talk about what’s going on in Yoga land, uh, what’s problematic about it and what might be some ways that things can be remedied. But as way of introduction. You are yourself a survivor of two cults, and I know that part of this work in this book has been a bit of a healing journey for you. But how did you come to a focus on the Ashtanga yoga situation in particular and what was going on in that that you felt needed to be highlighted? Continue reading ““Abuse in the Yoga Community”: Josh Summers Interviews Matthew Remski”

How Do You Know If You’re Spiritually Bypassing?

Here’s an interview originally published on the Yoga Outreach blog. I’ll be presenting and panelling at their upcoming conference in Vancouver, on May 25.

YO: The term Spiritual Bypassing (SB) is becoming more common – what does it mean?

MR: I want to say up front that I’m not that fond of how the term is used. Typically it reinforces an individualistic diagnosis of what’s really social problem. I’m a cult survivor and that’s my research area, and so my approach is to look at SB not as something individuals do because they’re psychologically lazy, but as something they are taught to do by spirituality organizations that benefit from indoctrinating them into the idea that their product will answer all questions.

That said; SB is when a spiritual ideology, jargon, or community leader encourages a person to believe that all problems are solved or solvable. But what’s really happening is that the person is avoiding or defending against more obvious and entrenched psychological or physical wounds. Continue reading “How Do You Know If You’re Spiritually Bypassing?”

Contact Dancing with Karen Rain

Note: I wrote this as an epilogue to Practice and All is Coming. For me, it rounded off the narrative journey of this 3+ years process. I’d gotten to know Karen Rain over several interviews, dozens of phone calls, and hundreds of emails. It was extraordinary to meet her in person finally, and go with her to a movement space where she didn’t have to speak her story anymore, but could show me something of what had helped her heal from being abused within the Ashtanga world. It really felt like the last word. However, as the book developed, its ending swerved away from the personal and towards the study of community health best practices. My editor and I eventually decided that this piece was ultimately distracting from that arc — even though it feels like the beating heart of how it all came together. So here it is, on its own, opening with a quote from Kathleen Rea, who hosted us that night.

Explorations of different themes, such as intimacy, sensuality, surrendering control, anger, fighting, being contained, grief etc. are welcome as long as they are not explicitly sexual, and are created through a step-by-step verbal or non-verbal consent building process. Please note that a newcomer to contact dance improvisation sometimes has not yet acquired the language or skill through which to build consent for dances exploring intense themes. We, therefore, ask that you limit exploring intense themes with newcomers.

— Kathleen Rea, “Wednesday Contact Dance Improvisation Jam Boundary Guidelines”

_______________

It’s a Wednesday evening in Toronto, mid-March. It’s chilly, and Karen clutches her bulky sweater close as we walk from the car to Dovercourt House in Toronto’s west end. On Friday we’ll be filming our big interview at Diane Bruni’s house. We’re chatting about it, going over the questions. The plan for the interview is to have something raw and humanizing to accompany The Walrus article when it drops. We know that people will try to discredit her, and me, and we’ve calculated that the in-person format will minimize that. We know what it feels like to talk with each other, and we’re thinking that if people can eavesdrop, they’ll get it.

But she’s nervous about it, and I can feel she wants to stop talking. The evening is crystal clear. We’re heading to a dance.

It’s a Contact Improv Jam, to be specific. The host is Kathleen Rea. She was in the ballet world, and is now a psychotherapist. We slip out of our coats and shoes and into her class in the enormous third floor room, and watch from the sides as she guides a small group. The dancers pair off and turn around each other, touching hands, arms, hips, backs, slumping together, pushing off gently, rolling down to the ground, supporting each other, trading weight back and forth. I feel relaxed and slightly mesmerized.

The class ends and Rea announces that the Improv session will be starting in ten minutes. She asks that if anyone is new to the experience that they meet with her outside to hear the intro talk and some ground rules.

As we file back out into the hallway, more people arrive. A musician begins to set up. It’s Jeff Burke, who locals know from his haunting busking on the subway. He has dreadlocks reaching down to his ankles. He’s smiling and melancholic, and bent low under an enormous dufflebag. As he unpacks it seems like some musical tickle trunk that can never be completely empty. He draws out a black bassoon, a tin whistle, and a theremin.

Karen and I sit down cross-legged in the hallway with three millenials, also first-timers to this space. Karen isn’t new to Contact Improv, which, she’s told me, has been very helpful in her healing process, post-Ashtanga. It’s helped her feel her body in relation to other bodies again. In public spaces, in safety, in sensual but non-sexual ways. Karen suggested we come to Rea’s class because Rea is famous in the Contact Jam world for the clarity with which she runs her space. Like Rain, she has been a reformer, calling out abuses and problems with consent in her subculture.

Rea starts her intro talk from the groundwork of affirmative consent. This is an art-form, she explains, in which touch is common. It’s often evocative and nourishing, but it’s also not essential. She says that any dancer can and should say no to an invitation to dance at any time, and can also express withdrawal verbally or non-verbally. She says that we might notice that people who have been coming for a long time have unique and complex dance-stories that have evolved between them. That can be cool to watch, but probably not to try to imitate.

She explains that Contact Improv can bring up all kinds of complex sensations, feelings, and thoughts, some of which might be sexual in nature. This is nothing to be ashamed of, she says. But in this space we agree that those feelings will not be acted out. There are spaces in the subculture in which that’s part of the scene, she says. But here, sexualized contact is strictly forbidden. She assures us that while she’ll be participating in the dance, she’ll also be available for questions and to help us process any complexity that comes up.

So I’m sitting there and it’s starting to sink in. How extraordinary it is to be here with Karen, listening to a teacher give us a ten-minute safer-space talk about touch and consent. How would Karen’s life have turned out, I wonder, if this level of clarity had been available twenty-five years ago in the Ashtanga world?

I can feel also something else. A terror has built up in me while writing this book that there is no safety to be found in this world. That yoga classes and dance jams are somehow always and forever strained by unconscious desires and aggressions fanned by unequal power dynamics, and that there’s nothing to be done about it.

This is not true. We can do lots of things about it.

Rea checks in to see if we have any further questions. A young woman asks about feeling shy or out of place. Rea nods and says, “You can just watch, too. And you can just wait for someone to ask, and see how you feel.”

I like that answer. It’s also for me.

We file back in and sit down against the wall. Jeff Burke has started to play. There’s a pickup plugged into the mouth of his bassoon. It sends a low drone through an amp and into a loop machine to keep it going. Some of the dancers are already up and at it.

I feel shy, not only about the dance, but about sitting there with Karen, not talking about Jois. We’ve put aside the history, and now there’s music.

Two days later, after our interview and over lunch, Karen summed up our awkward moment, and a few others.

“So when we stop talking about Ashtanga,” she says with wry smile, “will we have anything else to talk about? How likely is it that we’ll be friends after this is all over? Do we have anything else in common? I’m queer and you’re a straight guy with a partner and kids and very little free time. You’re also still in the yoga world.”

Half sad, half elated, I laughed. Of the many things this whole experience had done to and for Karen, it had above all else made her brutally honest. I know she doesn’t like this word, but I can’t think of any other that fits: for Karen, honesty is the highest form of spirituality.

As I drove her to the airport the day after that lunch, we talked about the sacrifice this spirituality demands. We were talking about the pros and cons of having gone through all of this, especially for her. How much it cost to disclose everything and remember, and retell, and weather the denials and rationalizations all over again. But also: how much clarity it had provided. How it had helped to change an entire culture.

“When I first dialed your number,” I said, “I had no idea that all this would happen.”

“Neither did I,” Karen said.

“I’m sorry.”

The landscape hurtled by.

“What can I say?” said Karen. “I hate you for this and I also love you for this.”

We laugh and cry.

Back in that dance room on that Wednesday night, I remember my shyness slowly turning into a pre-teen-style goofball shame that I wasn’t just getting up and dancing.

“So are you going to dance?” Karen asked me.

“I think I’m waiting for someone to ask me.”

“Okay.” She smiles. I’m sure I look funny to her. Just another man, used to thinking of himself as so confident. But really, deep down, afraid to dance.

“Would you like to dance with me?”

I nodded.

“Look,” she said. “I feel safe with you. I don’t think you’re a creep. But don’t give me all your body weight. You’re a big guy.”

Got it.

I still felt too shy to look her in the eye. That was okay. We went to the centre of the room and sat down, back to back. The bassoon got louder and Karen leaned into me. As she pushed her back into mine I felt a flush of warmth and resolution and friendship.

And I was surprised, in a new way, by how strong she was.