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.
Trigger warning: descriptions of sexual and physical assault.
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?
Matthew Remski: 00:02:15
Well, I came to it reluctantly. The project that I had started with was a broader research project into injuries in yoga classes or in yoga practice. And the format was quite broad. I had started interviewing people from all communities and methods. And it had started with the strange realization that everybody that I knew who had professionalized into the yoga world or who was a really dedicated student was injured in some way. There were some people who were suffering from chronic pain or from repetitive stress injuries. And I found it very weird for a so-called therapeutic practice that people came to for spiritual benefit, but they also seem to be working themselves really hard in. And I started to wonder about that.
The book that started to emerge out of that research project was originally called Shadow Pose, and the project name was What Are We Actually Doing in Asana? And I still have Shadow Pose as kind of like a book structure. The first chapter was going to be an examination of the interview data of senior students of Mr Iyengar. And the second chapter was to be an analysis of interview data coming from the Ashtanga world. And at a certain point I realized that the injury question in the Ashtanga world, which is profound, it’s, it goes deep was still a surface question to the abuse issue that had been silent for many, many years, but also carried by a number of women survivors in a kind of whisper network as well. So once I started getting more and more attuned to the fact that that was an underlying story that Mr. Jois had actually assaulted women throughout his career, and nobody had really published on it, I realized that I couldn’t just put that into a chapter somehow. There was going to be a lot more work to do on that.
When I started to get a sense of how grave the issue was, I really resisted going into it because I thought that — my gut was that if it really was true that Pattabhi Jois was a serial sex abuser and that he did it in broad daylight and that there were an untold number of women victims and that none of them had been able really to speak out publicly about it until Anneke Lucas in 2010, and that the community had not done anything about it. And it was probably widely known within the upper echelons of the Ashtanga world, even into, even as early as 2012 — but of course, we now know it was far earlier than that.
But in 2012, there was a big hagiography published of Jois’s life featuring interviews with 40 students, and everybody talked about how wonderful he was and what a grandfather and father figure he was, and a spiritual teacher and all of that. So I had the sense around 2015 or 16 that if what I was hearing was true and I believed that it was true, that it would really rock the foundations of this particular community. And I was scared of that. And I also thought that it would rock the foundations of the broader yoga world because Jois is incredibly influential. Without him, there’s no vinyasa. Without him there’s no sense of the contemporary group yoga class as being a, an intense, ecstatic, immersive, silent experience filled with breath and sweat. Without him, there’s no adjustment protocol. Not that he really gave a protocol: he assaulted people. But the whole notion that the teachers should always have their hands or should have their hands on a student at all times that comes from his particular pedagogy. And so I just was terrified of the implications of what I was hearing and I resisted it for a long time actually.
Josh Summers: 00:06:52
Yeah. Some of our audience is definitely going to be familiar with the names in terms of that you just mentioned, but there’s, there’s probably a yogic un-literate audience, right, that is listening too, so can you put Ashtanga on the map and then put Pattabhi Jois in relationship to Ashtanga on the map in that?
Matthew Remski: 00:07:12
Yeah. So Pattabhi Jois is the innovator of a system that he named as Ashtanga Yoga, but it’s unclear when that name came into usage because it seems that he was calling his classes that he gave to the businessmen of Mysore up until the end of the Sixties, just “Yoga”. He had been trained in the Mysore Yoga Shala at a very crucial point in the development of modern yoga history. He was born in 1915. He met the person who many consider to be the father of modern yoga Tirumalai Krishnamacharya, when he was about 12 years old. And he actually describes being brutalized by Krishnamacharya being beaten as he learned to do asanas. And of course, he’s not describing that in terms of abuse, but rather as a badge of honor. He goes on to further his studies, later on in his life with Mr. Krishnamacharya and assumed a teaching position at the Mysore Yoga Shala sometime in the late Thirties. But also under Krishnamacharya’s tutelage was his brother-in-law BKS Iyengar. And so from this one gym which was set up by the Maharaja Wodiyar in 1934, we have two of the pillars of the modern yoga evangelical movement. Iyengar is responsible for the notion that the bodily postures that we assume in yoga should some sort of geometrical form and balance and symmetry and a kind of architecture of grace. But Jois is the person who puts postures into rigorous sequences and really gives the modern group class its fluid and intense feeling, going forward.
Josh Summers: 00:09:14
And the Ashtanga/Jois form has spawned into numerous side forms, right?
Matthew Remski: 00:09:20
Right. So if you’re new to all of this jargon, and you’ve been to a flow class you are benefiting from and perhaps being injured by Jois’s legacy. If you’ve been to a Vinyasa class, you are probably benefiting from Jois’s legacy if you’ve been in a class where rhythmic breathing has been timed with movement in some sort of coordinated way that’s all coming from Jois. And also I’d say that it’s Jois’s senior students coming out of his tutelage from the late Sixties, but then especially into the 80s that really give modern yoga its aesthetic in terms of its incredible athleticism, its beautiful, but sometimes scary contortionism. When you look on Instagram today at #yoga you will see images that really had their birthplace in terms of their sensuality their, their structure, the whole aesthetic really comes out of the Jois movement. It’s not Iyengar Yoga photographs that get the most clicks on Instagram. It’s really the beauty and the artistry and I would say the sensuality and the sublimated sexuality of — and sometimes not-sublimated sexuality of that imagery that is directly coming from Jois. And I think there’s something in there too around the connection between the yoga posture and a kind of sexualized performance. I mean, objectification aside, and all of those sort of image issues aside, I think the fact that, um, many of Joyce’s female students were learning in an environment in which he sexually objectified them, that’s really pertinent. So when we go to Instagram and we look at yoga images right now we’re looking at least part of a legacy of people really having to perform under the male gaze in more ways than one.
Josh Summers: 00:11:41
So talk about that: the sexual objectification, with Jois. And how did that lead to abuse both physical and sexual under, under him in his classes, and describe what that dynamic looked like.
Matthew Remski: 00:11:57
I mean, objectification is just dehumanizing. What all of the 16 women who gave their testimony for my book I describe is that you know, they weren’t people to him. “TM”, who is the one testimony giver who wanted to remain anonymous described feeling as though she was just a piece of ass who was there for him to hump her or to give him pleasure in some way. And so the assaults actually took place in plain view of everybody, but under the auspices or under this this story that he was adjusting people, that he was helping students attain postures that they couldn’t otherwise attain or even more kind of deceptively, and I would say creepily, that his touch was conveying some kind of spiritual knowledge.
And this really goes back to a very old and sacred idea in a part of Indian wisdom culture called Tantrism where the guru is said to embody a kind of bio-spiritual grace. And that by his, usually it’s his touch, or their gaze or they can strike you with a peacock feather that there’s a literal sort of a transmission of spiritual realization into the student’s body. And that’s a felt, phenomenological experience. And part of the story that started to accrue around what Jois was doing as he was sexually assaulting women and possibly men too, that’s not verified by first person testimony though. But part of the story that started building up around him was that this is what he was doing was that he wasn’t digitally raping that woman, he was helping her find her “mulabandha”, which is a term for an internal muscular, but also esoteric, sensation that is tied to the rise of Kundalini or esoteric energy. So he was doing that or he was helping her heal from sexual trauma. As Karen Rain says, this whole sort of slew of “cryptic justifications” arose around his behavior.
And the weirdest part is that he wasn’t the source of them. It was the students who said these things about him. I actually regret not making that clear in the book. I don’t say that he was the source of the explanations, but I also, I don’t think I’m explicit enough in saying that it’s pretty likely that he wasn’t. I don’t think that anybody asked him directly, what are you doing when you grope these women’s breasts or when you put your hands on their buttocks or when you put your fingers into their vaginas, like: “What are you doing?” When he was confronted about sexual assault, the few times that I have evidence of it, he was very embarrassed. He would burst into tears at one point. And apparently he would stop from time to time, but like somebody who had clearly an illness, he wasn’t able to stop for very long. So objectification was a felt reality by the women who he assaulted.
I think we have to then wonder what it means for his senior students and how they present asana or yoga practice to the world now. Like what were the conditions under which they learned? Because if they were assaulted while they were learning, that’s going to inform their bodily sense of who they are and what this means and what they’re feeling and who they’re doing it for. And if they were watching other people being assaulted, what kind of secrets are their body’s holding and as I said in the beginning, these are some of the reasons why I was scared to go into this material because it’s really deep. It suggests that at the heart of this, you know, venerable, lauded, beloved, you know, spiritual/wellness practice, there’s this really dark problem that, that hasn’t been looked at and hasn’t, and hasn’t been addressed.
Josh Summers: 00:16:39
Yeah. Major dark underbelly. As I’m listening to you, I’m imagining the listener that may not be familiar with the “Mysore” style of practice. So just to say that this is a style where unlike a typical led class: if someone were to go to a regular yoga studio or a gym and the teacher would sort of take them through a sequence, talking them through, maybe adjusting at times — but in the Mysore system, students show up quite early in the morning. Sometimes as early as 4, 4:30 AM. And they’re not following a led series of instructions from the teacher. They’re following a series of postures that they’ve been given in a successive stage-like manner. So you’re basically practicing independently and then the teacher comes around and adjust you or, quote-unquote assists you. And it’s that intimate contact of the adjustment or assist where this is the moment of abuse.
Matthew Remski: 00:17:45
Right. In Jois’s circumstance it becomes really complicated because one of the things that the Ashtanga world has prided itself on for the last 30 years is the sense that the teacher is able to learn and know about the student intimately because they are having personal interactions with them multiple times per morning, every morning, six mornings per week, two hours per session, two days off per month. That’s where we get into the notion of whether or not the method fosters communities that are actually high demand or cultic. How much time is actually occupied? But this feeling that people are getting individual attention and that when the teacher comes around and pays them that close attention. Meanwhile, their colleagues are not supposed to be looking. They’re supposed to be concentrating on their own stuff. They’re supposed to be concentrating on their breath or there’s even eye positions that people are supposed to take. There’s this sense that you and the teacher are alone and there are people who absolutely love and they thrive on that and there’s no reason they shouldn’t. They shouldn’t because it sounds like a really good thing. And I know that it works in practice in many circumstances, but it also sets up a very, very vulnerable situation in which, people can be exploited in plain sight.
Josh Summers: 00:19:19
And just to be really explicit about it: you document this in your book, but what were the adjustments that were abusive?
Matthew Remski: 00:19:28
Yeah, well, he would grope women’s genitals and breasts and he would climb on top of them and actually thrust his genitals against their own genitals. He would come behind women and digitally rape them by actually pressing his fingers through their tights and into their genitals. It’s almost incredible to say, but you know, story after story, testimony after testimony, this is what we come up with and it doesn’t make sense for 30 years of such activities to to take place in plain sight without there being a network of complicity that’s supporting and enabling them. And, and that’s why I started to use the language of cult analysis to describe how it actually happened.
Josh Summers: 00:20:30
The network of complicity. I want to explore that more. It does hit me on a personal level. I never really pursued Ashtanga yoga myself. I have lots of friends in the Ashtanga Yoga world. Authorized teachers. Um, and I’ve taken a few classes here or there. But when I first got into yoga, just to put a context on this, when I first got into yoga and started hanging around and studios that had an Ashtanga Yoga program, I did hear these whispers around certain kinds of adjustments and that the euphemism that was given for this kind of very intimate genital touch was called a “mulabandha check”. And as you described, mulabundha is sort of this energetic muscular lock down in the perineum, and the teacher is coming around feeling that to make sure it’s in quote-unquote engaged. And I’m appalled at myself in a way, that I kinda joked along like, ha ha, like this is just a spiritual… I don’t understand it because I’m not far enough along to even perceive it myself or to see the value of it, to see how important it is — when it’s just bad shit.
Matthew Remski: 00:21:52
But there’s something plausible about it. There’s something plausible about it. And I don’t think I addressed this in the book either except, except where I get into the fact that especially a Tantric and Hatha Yoga history is filled with analysis and thought and practice around the sublimation of sexual energies. And so there’s a way in which people show up in spaces like this and they are working so extrovertedly with their bodies in very vulnerable positions and they’re told that this practice will have kind of like a total effect upon their bodies, minds, emotions, psyches. Why shouldn’t their sexuality somehow be included in that? Why shouldn’t the intimacy of their, you know, their deepest selves be somehow exposed? And isn’t that where so much strength lies?
This is all the language that surrounds the sexuality of yoga that I believe begins to soften a person up into not really going, Wait a minute! What’s more obvious here is that this guy’s sexually assaulting women. And that he’s doing it for his own gratification and that there’s no therapeutic benefit to this. And you could meditate your way into believing that there was perhaps, but most people are not actually having that experience and we shouldn’t be telling them that they should.
So you know, I appreciate your confession. But I also want to say that, you know, the notion that the notion that people should be liberated somehow in the way in which they conceive of their sexuality within yoga is part of yoga’s appeal actually. And so I don’t think it’s a big leap for people to go, Oh, well maybe I shouldn’t be so uptight about such and such, or maybe I shouldn’t, ask too many questions, or that’s private after all. But also we’re working on our private stuff. And so I think it’s very confusing. Again I’ll refer to TM in the book, who says that as soon as she was sexually assaulted, somebody who saw it happen came up to her and said, “Okay, so you realize that what just happened to you — that wasn’t sexual.” And she was very confused. She was like, “What do you mean it wasn’t sexual?” And they had some explanation about Shaktipat or spiritual transmission. And you know, she didn’t give the impression in the interview that she totally bought off on the idea then, but she bought off on it enough to be confused and to be disarmed and to be put in this position where she felt that her own critical thinking or her resistance to the idea was somehow problematic. And that it was going to stand in the way of her spiritual development or something like that. So it’s not, it’s not a surprise that these things get wrapped up to together and sold on and end up rationalizing abuse to me.
Josh Summers: 00:25:43
In following you, I know that you have your eyes on many different yoga and Buddhist meditative spiritual communities that have lots of these bad dynamics at play. What was it about the Ashtanga situation itself that made you want to put it in the forefront of your case study in the book?
Matthew Remski: 00:26:09
I think it’s really kind of awful serendipity really because it was reportable. The evidence was clear. The network of sources that I began to develop began to send me this cascade of information.
Josh Summers: 00:26:33
Let me interject for a sec. But in terms of evidence being clear, because this sometimes comes up when I have conversations with people about.They refer to the “allegations”. The thing that listeners need to know is that there’s ample video and photographic evidence documenting all of this.
Matthew Remski: 00:26:51
There’s also 16 women who said “He assaulted me, and this is how he did it.” One is enough. There’s no question anymore that we’re in “allegation” territory. That’s a really crucial moment actually because one of the things that comes up in each one of these yoga or Buddhist community, you know, spiritual, physical, emotional, sexual abuse cases is that the behavior of the actual actions of the leader of the perpetrator are always interpretable. There’s always something mysterious or like, or a little bit beyond or childlike or innocent or super spiritual about the leader, about Mr. Jois or about Manouso Manos. Or about Bikram Choudhury, although less so, more and more people would see him clearly for who he is.
But there’s always something mysterious about the leader or the guru — which is probably not a good word for these people — that allows their behaviors to be endlessly bandied about as though, Well, we can’t really know what he was doing. And you know, the relationship between the teacher and the student is sacred. And you know, we don’t know what’s going on. We can’t really interpret… You bring up the video evidence. People argued about that for years. They are watching sexual assault taking place like before their own eyes and they’re saying, Oh, we don’t know what’s happening. We don’t know what’s going on.
So it’s been a combination of forms of evidence that, I think have moved it out of allegation territory, but more importantly, out of the territory of interpretation where the leader who has perpetrated crimes is somehow beyond the realm of the normal citizen who can be evaluated according to the same standards of evidences as anybody else. And it’s something about that interpretability that is like essential to his magic, usually his magic that, that you never know quite what he’s doing. You never know whether it’s actually for your benefit or not. And you know, even if he’s abusing you, maybe he’s helping you get over ego. There were people who would say that.
I guess the other thing that Jois would do is that he would just steal money from students. He would cut short their stays or would say that they owed him more money than they actually did, or he would make up exchange rates between the US dollar and the rupee in his favor. When that came up, that was well known as well. And when that came up, people would say, Oh, he’s helping people with their money issues. You know, they’re attached to money. So people are capable of all kinds of BS when it comes to the interpretability of the magical person.
Josh Summers: 00:29:56
And that was one of the things I wanted to ask you about is what role does a kind of somewhat flaky, soft or even direct interpretation of ancient spiritual texts that draws on particular metaphysics? How do the spiritual metaphysics factor in to this cocktail of toxic group dynamic?
Matthew Remski: 00:30:30
I think I have two feelings about this question. One is that it’s hard to say, how pre-colonial, especially Indian wisdom tradition metaphysics play any kind of role in this at all because I don’t think global yoga practitioners have access really to those metaphysics. I don’t think we know the kinds of relationships that they’re grounded in. I don’t think we have a clear idea of what the commitments, the social and economic and relational commitments, there are or were or were supposed to have existed between teachers and students that might ground all of this stuff. I do know that whether they’re accurate interpretations or not, there are all kinds of yoga or Buddhist or pseudo-yoga or pseudo-Buddhist ideas around, emptiness, interpretability, the play of Lila, karma, all kinds of, of terms that are correctly or incorrectly used to describe or to rationalize things that we would rather not confront as being abusive.
I’ll give an example of a concept that carries both of these histories. I go into detail in the book, on a Sanskrit word that is “parampara”. Now, parampara in precolonial terms, and up until this point, even now in contemporary India, means something very specific about how knowledge is transferred, especially spiritual knowledge in this context. It can apply to other forms of knowledge as well. But it implies this unbroken, usually familial, certainly intimate relational transfer of knowledge that depends on a whole series of social commitments and contracts in order to keep it stable. Now it also implies that the knowledge that’s being transferred goes way back in history and has been tested by time. Well, modern yoga ashtanga practitioners or Jois method practitioners from America and Europe have started using the word parampara to describe what they belong to. And so what that means is that they’re saying that a technique that Jois developed in the late sixties and changed several times as his shala got busier, they’re implying that that is traditional in a way. They’re implying that it has the weight of several generations of validation behind it. They’re implying that they belong to a heritage rather than a branded family business. And so we have this beautiful word that carries an ancient heritage that I personally don’t have access to how that actually works, but I know it’s there and I hope that it can be recovered in some way or it can be made more known, or I can have more access to it at least. And then we have this sort of like contemporary bastardized version of the term that’s used to pretend that the people who are the people who are using it have something, you know, magical or special when that’s really deceptive.
Josh Summers: 00:34:10
And the deception around it too. I mean in the yoga landscape at large, at least in my experience, Ashtanga, has held this kind of vaunted position as the legit, hardcore, no nonsense, real authentic practice.
Matthew Remski: 00:34:31
Well, every group does say that though. Like the Iyengar fold will say that This is authentic. This is true. This is hardcore. It’s hard to know. I mean, every group makes proprietary and sort of like advocacy claims, self-advocacy claims. I don’t want to interrupt. I would agree.
Josh Summers: 00:34:56
Okay. Did you get into this in your book about the, like Mark Singleton’s work looking at the origin of modern postural yoga of which Jois’s system comes as part of?
Matthew Remski: 00:35:09
I refer to it here and there throughout the book because you can’t really avoid it. Singleton’s work I think dated 2010 really blew the lid off of the notion that postural sequences or postures themselves or the way in which they’re practiced in group class formats with adjustments, that any of that has any pre-modern heritage. It’s more like Indian anti-colonial activists in the 1920s and 1930s wanted to indigenize physical culture influences from Europe. Actually colonial influences: gymnastics, harmonial gymnastics, weight lifting, bodybuilding. They wanted to indigenize these physical culture practices, as forms of national physical culture, but also anti-colonial pride building. And it worked. It was really, really effective.
But what we have is something that pretends to have a stronger linkage to the medieval history of Hatha Yoga than it actually does. And then that’s what gets exported to the world is the notion that Jois’s system is ancient or that it goes back to Patanjali, or something like that when there’s no evidence for that at all. But it becomes a very powerful selling and marketing point. You know, it’s so common within the modern yoga world, and this is why I think Singleton’s book was so riveting and so outrageous to many people. And also so earth shattering is that you know — he doesn’t phrase it this way — but the research as he lays it out basically says what we have believed about the modern posture, about the modern yoga movement is mostly deceptive. It’s mostly a kind of clever elaboration or —
Josh Summers: 00:37:20
It’s an invention.
Matthew Remski: 00:37:23
It’s an invention. And we have endowed it with a kind of orientalist idealistic mysticism, and that has become one of its main selling points. It’s also what has made it resistant to contemporary biomechanics and contemporary kinesiology and contemporary physical therapy. So it’s really, it’s really complicated. Here’s another example. There’s part of this invocation of tradition that also shielded Pattabhi Jois from scrutiny because one of the things that his students would say, and they say it to this day actually, is that his adjustments, as brutal as they were, as injurious and as intrusive as they were, were traditional. Well, they might’ve been traditional in the sense that that’s what Krishnamacharya did to him. But we don’t have any evidence that physical adjustments in yoga existed prior to the 1920s. I proved that I think in my book by citing the work of several historians of medieval yoga, or one in particular, Dr Jason Birch, who says there’s no evidence for anybody physically assisting anybody else in a yoga posture prior to the 20th century.
Josh Summers: 00:38:46
And just to jump on that for a second — around the nature of the adjustments, because we’ve discussed how there’s a component of sexual assault in them, but the physical assault too… the stories of people just hearing ligaments snap or rip. I mean that was just sort of sending shivers down my spine as I read, the whole book in a way. It’s harrowing to read.
Matthew Remski: 00:39:17
And it also shows how effective and immersive the propaganda was around Jois’s power that the senior students openly joke about how they all crawled crying out of practice everyday. They all openly talk about how, Oh yeah, he blew out my knee and he was doing this, but I got the posture or he led me towards a more advanced position in the series or something like that. The way in which this group of people was inculturated to withstand pain is extraordinary. And I think it’s had a huge ripple effect. Or kind of like a trickle down effect into the next generation with regard to how we regard the body and effort and pain in general. You know, there are very few, I would imagine in North America and Europe, yoga teachers who are cranking people today the way that Jois cranked people in his day. But I think that the basic ideas around what pain means, what injury means, what pushing yourself means, what being pushed by a teacher means: those have all remained intact in places.
Josh Summers: 00:40:47
So you’ve sort of discussed a little bit about the spiritual interpretation and reframe of a lot of this behavior. What has been some of the response you’ve received or seen in light of the stuff coming out and also in light of your book. How is the community both within Ashtanga and th yoga community outside of Ashtanga receiving this?
Matthew Remski: 00:41:13
There’s a huge spectrum and there’s kind of a line in the sand as it were, of that spectrum between people who identify as Ashtanga practitioners and people who don’t. Amongst the people who do, this is a difficult book to read and some people have really negative reactions to it. Although it’s not like the reactions that they’ve had to my more informal blog work over the years, which a lot of people have just been able to dismiss or to say it’s agenda driven or something like that or that, “You just hate our community”, or something.
Josh Summers: 00:41:56
Again, this is very personal for me. I have friends who I’ve tried to talking about your work with both here and in Europe and there has been this view that you’re, this opportunist, you’re your swooping in on this thing just to elevate your own work and your own, your own profile, and I’ve always gone cross-eyed when that’s come up. I’m like, this is not what he’s doing.
Matthew Remski: 00:42:20
It’s opportunist in a sense that nobody was doing it for one thing. And I would say that anybody in the Ashtanga world who calls me an opportunist should really ask themselves the question, “If you knew about this, where was your book? Where was your newspaper report? Why didn’t you go to a journalist? I mean it didn’t have to be me. Why was it me? Why was it me? It’s like, it’s 2010 and Anneke Lucas published her account and it got buried on Facebook. There was like five likes to it. Nobody shared it. You know, there’s one comment saying, “You know lot of people are going to say you’re a very brave person sometime in the future.” Fast forward six years later, she republishes her blog. By that point, I’m talking to Karen Rain for two years. People asked for like a decade. “Where did Karen Haberman go? Where did she disappear to?” She got so far away from the Ashtanga scene in the yoga world in general, she changed her name and it’s like nobody wanted to ask a little bit further?
So I mean, okay. Opportunistic. Yes. But that’s because there’s this great big vacuum. And with regard to my profile, well, we all have jobs and you know, my job as strange as it is and as self-made as it is, is that I look at abuse and spiritual communities. And so, yeah. Does it raise my profile? Yes. Does it make me fame and fortune? Um, no. I mean, anybody who thinks that somehow I’ve gotten rich on this just doesn’t know anything about what writing a book means or what it means to sell it or anything about it. And, and, you know, it’s like, did you, did anybody say that, Ronan Farrow was opportunistic for reporting on Harvey Weinstein? I don’t think so. They looked at the work and they said, Wow, he gained the trust of, what was it, eight women who he published on in that first New Yorker. He gained the trust. He was able to publish their testimonies. He pretty much stayed out of the way. And he created a victim-centered narrative. And so I didn’t actually — you asked the question and I didn’t want to go on a rant about —
Josh Summers: 00:44:43
Well actually, you know, I just want to interject too, is that the people that I’m in contact with, that had said that actually have read the book and have actually completely changed their tune. Oh, okay. So even with people that were initially critical, they’ve read the book and they feel that this is a very fair, balanced treatment and important that it’s out now.
Matthew Remski: 00:45:05
Yeah. I hope that slowly gets in. I think part of that maybe the threshold has to do with, it’s not like I was a professional journalist in sports or something like that, and I got wind of this story and people didn’t know who I was, but, you know, I’ve been writing as a cultural critic within the yoga world for the last five years. My book on Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras was in 2012. And there’s been a lot of divided opinion about the value of what I do ever since then. So as a cultural critic, as I’ve reported on various abuse stories, the Anusara implosion, the Jivamukti lawsuit, the Satyananda Yoga thing, Shambhala, Rigpa… As I’ve done that work, I’ve made a lot of allies and I’ve made a lot of enemies. And all of that really is in the sort of public, very jousty sphere of blog work and social media.
A book is a different thing, you know, when it’s editorialized and fact checked and there’s legal backing of publication behind it, it’s 380 pages long and there’s 380 foot notes or whatever, it’s well-cooked. And so I think it’s unfortunate that I already had a name coming into this particular work, that I carried the baggage of past work with me. But at the same time, I don’t think I would’ve gotten the book contract without that. So it just is what it is. I hate that phrase, but I think there’s there’s nothing to have been done about it.
Josh Summers: 00:47:13
Well I won’t repeat it is what it is, but, one of the things I really appreciated about the book was the level of analysis that you went into, sort of deconstructing the dynamics in these high demand groups that that broadens the conversation from just saying, Oh, well the perpetrator was just a bad apple. Like he was, he was a bad man. And, we can throw him out but keep, keep this very valuable and integral practice intact. Right. Or the opposite, which I hear a lot too is Okay, well if these people, like with Karen Rain going back again and again and getting continually assaulted: What’s going on in her psychology or someone’s psychology like that, that keeps them there? Why aren’t we talking about that more? And I know you’re excellent at eviscerating both of those, those, those veins, right?
Matthew Remski: 00:48:18
Yeah. So on one hand, yeah, on one hand the bad apple argument just doesn’t work because nobody assaults… Jubilee Cooke estimates that there’s 30,000 — her conservative estimate is that there’s 30,000 distinct episodes of abuse or assault —
Josh Summers: 00:48:35
Just briefly take me through the math on that.
Matthew Remski: 00:48:42
Jubilee Cooke is one of the women who gave testimony and she was one of one of the women who was there for eight months. And so I’ll talk about her in the second section as well, in the second part of this answer, and she was assaulted repeatedly, but she said, you know, this happened to me in three different postures every single morning. This is the number of mornings. Every morning that I was there in Mysore, I saw three other women who, who got assaulted in those three postures. So she starts to build numbers out of what she personally experienced and what she personally witnessed. And then she just counts up the years she counts up the tours. I think she uses, no, I don’t think she uses my research to try to figure out how many women he actually came into contact with when he’s away from the Mysore shala on world tour, you know, in California or New York or Boston or whatever, or Hawaii. And she comes up with a conservative estimate of 300 or, sorry, 30,000 individual sexual assaults over what’s likely a 30 year period.
That’s not a bad apple. That’s a whole orchard. That’s like a bad apple and a whole bunch of people saying, No, this is great. This is a great apple. This is a great apple! In a more contemporary story, what we’re seeing with Manouso Manos right now.
Josh Summers: 00:50:21
Just for reference, who is he?
Matthew Remski: 00:50:24
He’s probably BKS Iyengar’s most famous, most prominent, most senior student, and the one who most embodies his own teaching persona. BKS’s gruffness, his shouting, his way of both electrifying and terrifying a room at the same time. He has recently had allegations, numerous allegations of sexual assault verified against him by an independent investigation that was commissioned by the Iyengar Yoga Association of the United State, or IYNAUS. And so in that ongoing story, which is still unfolding, we have this sense administratively within IYNAUS that you know, he’s been delisted, he’s been decertified and the Iyengar family has removed his right in light of these crimes, which can’t be prosecuted — they’re all outside of the statute of limitations — but in light of these behaviors, he’s been prevented from using the Iyengar trademark in his teaching going forward.
And that’s it, right? Like, this is not a regulated profession. He can go on and teach whatever he wants. He can teach Manouso Manos Yoga tomorrow and open up shop wherever, maybe in Bali or something. But the thing is, is that administratively we have this sense that while he’s been excised, somehow he’s been amputated and, you know, we’re all fine now. Well, here’s somebody who had such teacherly influence for such a long time and such administrative influence over the entire organization for such a long time. Now I would say what the organization has to do is say, “Okay, who actually trained under this guy and who would attribute their certification to him and who was tested by him?”
Because everybody involved in that is going to have to answer some questions about, Well, what did you actually learn from him? Here’s somebody who is probably less of a yoga teacher than a sexual predator posing as a yoga teacher. “What did you actually learn? And how can we help you learn some more? Or how can we help you mitigate this educational stain?”
And then on the other side of it, it’s like anybody who asks, why did Karen Rain keep going back to get assaulted by Pattabhi Jois every, every year — doesn’t know anything about trauma, doesn’t know anything about domestic violence, doesn’t know anything about a trauma bond, doesn’t know anything about being gaslighted. That response, which is very common and I would say, you know, it’s so common, it shouldn’t be shameful. I just think people should be open to correcting it.
People who have that response really have to get educated in what it means to be in a toxic power dynamic, that confuses your basic capacity to feel as though you have agency. Like I bring up the metaphor in the book that if you broke a person’s leg and there they were on the ground, you wouldn’t blame them for not running away from you as you came in to damage them further. But somehow with sexual assault, we look at the survivor or the victim or the survivor and we say, why didn’t you run away when actually the sexual and the physical assault have deprived them in many cases of their capacity to feel as though they are autonomous, to feel as though they can have individual agency, to feel as though they have their own bodies even.
Josh Summers: 00:54:41
Right. That’s a huge, hugely important piece that I think gets overlooked. I know you’re not found at this guy and I think I have mixed feelings about myself, but I was glancing through Jordan, Jordan Peterson’s book and he makes some comment that I think is really relevant here where he says you know, if we deny a victim response, some responsibility, we deny them agency.
Matthew Remski: 00:55:04
Right? Yeah. Except that he’s going to use that to say that we somehow as observers of the victim have to give them responsibility within our assessment of what happened during a particular crime. Right. The problem with that is that there might be some, some therapeutic application of that principle of well, You know, in this moment, do you feel as though you have agency with regard to how you’re moving forward coming out of this experience. That might happen privately in therapy later, but what happens is, and I can hear it in that quote, is that the notion of victim is turned into a kind of psychological state instead of a label for somebody against whom a crime has been committed.
The further problem with assigning responsibility, regardless of what that even means — like what does that mean? Is it about the clothing? Is it about the fact that you went that morning? Is it about the fact that your voice froze when you wanted to say No? Like what, what responsibility are we actually talking about and can that discussion survive the fact that one of the reasons that Karen Rain was assaulted over and over again was because the group had deceived her about what was going on?
The problem that I don’t think Jordan Peterson or any of his kind of like alt right bros want to really face is that you cannot be responsible for having been deceived. I’d even say his own fans aren’t responsible for him deceiving them! It’s very, very difficult to protect yourself against being deceived. That’s what deception is. It happens to intelligent people. It happens to mediocrely educated people. It happens to people who aren’t educated at all. If you are deceived about why you are in a place, about what is going to offer you, then you’ve really already had your agency taken away. It’s not like you’re going to give it. In both cults that I was a recruited into, they presented themselves as, other than what they actually were.
No, there’s no part of Ashtanga Yoga that said to Karen Rain, Hey, this is a cult in which you’ll be sexually assaulted every day! No, that’s not what they said. They said: This practice will give you spiritual liberation and if you follow this teacher’s instructions as closely as you can and you surrender your body up to them, your process will go a lot faster. That’s what they said. That’s what they said. And if she’s to blame for believing that, well, you know, let’s have another conversation about what people actually end up believing.
Josh Summers: 00:58:38
Yeah. I thought that that part in the book was great. And you also from there, you then expand into an analysis of sort of structural, systemic conditions that do kind of disorient and confuse and create this kind of vertiginous internal phenomenology for the person that makes it very difficult to see one way or the other.
Matthew Remski: 00:59:06
And I think I really have the work of Alexandra Stein to thank for that because she uses this basic — so just a caveat here, when we talk about the psychology of person who’s victimized by a cult, it’s not to say that, you know, there was something inside them that made them more vulnerable. The deception is the threshold. And then there are a psychological processes that can take over that make recruitment easier, dependency, easier, dread of leading, easier — but what she says is that the main thing that the cult does is it rewires your way of relating to people, to everyone, really towards the end of the attachment spectrum, known as disorganized, where you’re actually in a constant state of love and fear of approaching, but withdrawing, of going to a person for love who on some level is also hurting you, but you feel dependent upon.
And one of the things that she says this creates is this amazing — I say it’s amazing, it’s awful, but it’s amazing to me because it articulates my own cult experience so well — she describes a triple isolation in which you’re isolated from the outside world. You’ve lost your old friends probably, or you’ve written them off or they’re not enlightened enough for you, or you’re just separated from them because you’re in an ashram or something. And then you’re isolated also from people within the group because there are certain things that are taboo to talk about. And in the Ashtanga world, you couldn’t say around the breakfast table at Mysore: He sexually assaulted me. Or if you tried to, you’d be told, Oh no, that’s not what it was.
And then that second layer of isolation leads to a kind of internal isolation from your own moral sense, where it’s like you had values that helped you navigate the world. You had a compass that was a shining light for you, but now it’s kind of broken or it’s been occluded and the wisdom of the group has entered in and has kind of overwhelmed what you’ve been able to decide for yourself in terms of your moral values throughout your life. So that triple isolation is like this amazing idea. You’re with other people, but you’re totally all alone at the same time. And the only person who really is the reality principle is the leader, is Mr Jois, is Mr Iyengar, is, Manouso Manos. In my case, it was, in my case, it was Michael Roach of the Asian Classics Institute or Charles Anderson at Endeavor Academy. Like that guy was the reality principle.
Josh Summers: 01:02:01
Right. They have all the answers.
Matthew Remski: 01:02:04
Right, and that’s part of what alienates you from your own, even your will to, to propose an alternative or to ask questions, which of course you’re not allowed to do.
Josh Summers: 01:02:19
Yeah. I thought the inclusion of attachment theory there was, was pretty helpful, for just for shifting the blame on the victim and, or the blame on the leader,
Matthew Remski: 01:02:34
Yeah. It’s a system. They’re working together. I would like people to just reflect on the fact that you have no idea who Jim Jones was. You have no idea what was going on in Chogyam Trungpa’s head, you have no idea what, what the inner life of Bikram Choudhury is like. The, what is it called, the Eisenhower Rule? What psychiatrists came up with in the 1950s where they self imposed — they’re starting to break it with Trump now — but a lot of professional clinicians, have this self-imposed rule that they’re not going to diagnose people that they’re not in clinical practice with. I think that’s a really sound principle. You don’t know, I don’t know what’s going on in Pattabhi Jois’s head. I don’t know what his internal constellation is like. I’ve spent two years interviewing Karen Rain. I feel like I know her a lot better than I know him, but I still wouldn’t presume to know why she makes choices that she does. All of that intentionality, all of that speculation on people’s internal states, what it usually does is it overshadows the fact that a crime has been committed and we can obviously set up ways of preventing it from happening again. [Correction: it’s the Goldwater Rule. Woops.]
Josh Summers: 01:03:58
I know we’re closing in on your time a bit and I do want to get into maybe the path ahead. You know, I know you hold that intention in the book of, of offering some sort of roadmap forward with better practices. So one of the things that I as a teacher, myself, and I do trainings in various yoga studios. One thing that’s come up from me is that I’ve had some studios on my schedule that still have photographs of Pattabhi Jois in their altar corner of the studio. And there haven’t been, to my satisfaction, statements of distancing and denouncing and separation and all that. And I have to say, I’m deeply grateful to you for your work because it’s helped me sort through how to engage with that. But one of the things that has come up for me and trying to talk about it with these hosts and these other studios is, it’s hard to escape a little bit the idea of or the dynamic of virtue signaling, where you kind of come off pious or sanctimonious: Look, you have this photograph up and you’re silencing victims and doing your part of an institutional enablement. And I think that’s really all important to say, but it actually hasn’t gone very well for me with these places. I get labeled as being judgmental. I’m not understanding them, not letting them handle it in their own way.
Matthew Remski: 01:05:33
You know, but you don’t have to do that work because the survivors have done it for you. Really. Like, Karen Rain and Jubilee Cook published this amazing — I hope this goes into the show notes — this amazing essay in Yoga International that the title is something like “What do survivors of sexual abuse in Yoga communities need?” And it’s like a white paper that basically lays it out and says, Look, here we are, we’re sexual assault survivors of a 20th century yoga master. And this is what happened to us and this is how we feel about what will create safety and respect, not only for us, but for students going forward. And, you know, I think anybody who reads through that and you know, there’s stuff around: don’t venerate people who are sexual assaulters or rapists. That’s not safe for the people who come to your studio. You know: you have to make a distinction between people that you love because you love them and people who are triggering to your students. I mean, that’s just, that’s basic adulting for one thing.
But anyway, their list of the things that you can do is all laid out for you. And I don’t think you have to be worried about virtue-signaling by referring to what survivors of sexual assault need. To me, virtue signaling is, you know, some sort of opportunistic self aggrandizement based upon associating yourself with you a fashionable social cause. But you’re not getting anything out of those confrontations if you’re trying to teach there.
And as far as like being judgmental goes, I mean, well, asking for basic justice and respect isn’t judgmental. What’s judgmental or perhaps the better word is just inept, is to continue to keep your head in the sand about what the person that you love did to people. You can still love him, but it doesn’t mean that you have to venerate him or say that he was somebody that he wasn’t in public terms.
You know, I think the whole notion of the veneration of the photograph is so difficult for so many people because there was an intensity with which he would gaze at them or they would gaze at him. And often that would happen within the of adjustments. And I believe that if, if in some cases, if those portraits on those altars are looked at from just the right angle, the person might go, Oh my God, actually he’s not who I thought I was, who he was after all. It’s almost as if the portrait will stay on the altar to preserve something that if it cracks will crack the entire world along with it. And that’s a tough place to be in. I would acknowledge it.
But if you’re running a public space, and people who are sexual assault survivors are going to it and they can Google Pattabhi Jois’s name and that story is the first thing that comes up… how are they going to feel safe and how were they going to feel as though you’re not somehow excusing or aiding and abetting or minimizing or just not caring about sexual assault. That doesn’t make sense. Right? If one in four women are survivors of sexual assault — and it’s probably higher than that — do you really want to almost emotionally haze or gaslight a quarter of your potential practice population? It doesn’t make any sense. My main point is that is that you don’t have to do that work because it’s already been done for you in, in Rain and Cooke’s essay. And so that’s really cool.
Josh Summers: 01:09:44
That crossed my desk a little while ago and I did very much appreciate that. I feel like if I’m going to these places,I’m coming in not as a regular teacher, I’m coming in for a workshop or a training. I feel like if I’m going to a place that still venerates put a Jois-type figure that in some ways my, my showing up is complicit with this network of complicity.
Matthew Remski: 01:10:10
That’s a hard one, right? You’d have to make some personal choices around whether you’re using that privilege, the fees that you’re getting from the training to push back against that idealization. There’s going to be a lot of calculations in there. There’s people who are at certain points in their career where they can say, well, I’m not going to work with so and so anymore, and they can make that public and that will be very, very effective. And they won’t hurt because of it financially. But, you know, I think people who are in different financial circumstances might find it more effective to preserve the relationship with their Ashtanga Yoga shala hosts than to separate altogether and to slowly encourage them to change. So, you know, those are individual choices for sure.
Josh Summers: 01:11:12
Yeah. Within the Ashtanga world in general, what reforms do movements do you see happening and what, what gives you a sense of hope?
Matthew Remski: 01:11:27
The reform so far has been strong in some areas in the zone of sentiment, rather than action. But that’s gonna take a long time. It’s not like it’s not going to happen. I’m sure. I’m sure things will improve. But when you asked me that question, I think of an amazing accountability statement made by Sarai Harvey Monk who is authorized by Sharath Jois sometime in the 2010s, something like that. And you know, she laid out this five point, “this is how my participation in this organization is complicit with this abuse history and here are the five things that I’m going to do now in my classes to make sure that I don’t carry any of those impacts on.” There has been a couple of other statements like that, but hers is a real standout. There’s a guy named Guy Donahaye, who actually was the co editor with Eddie Stern of a very popular book in 2012 called Guruji which I describe in my book, and I criticize very closely and heavily as being a hagiography of Jois that was published with the cultural knowledge of what was being left out. So, Guy is the co-editor, Eddie Stern is the other editor, but Guy has gone on kind of like this solo truth and reconciliation tear on his blog. And he’s published a lot of really beautiful pieces about that are basically, What the heck were we doing? What did we overlook? Who did we not listen to? What does Karen Rain have to say? How can I make this up to her? Like he’s doing an amazing amount of public vulnerable, accountability work.
And he recently also sponsored a petition that’s on Facebook, trying to get Ashtanga certified and authorized teachers to make accountability statements. That’s moving kind of slowly because I think there’s a lot of fear around the control that the family still has over the finances and the copyrights and the ability to practice, uh, or to teach the, the, the method, quote-unquote legally or with the validation of the family. So that’s moving slowly.
And then on the logistic or the sort of material front, there is a group that’s in formation and I think it’s called the Amayu collective. And two of its leads are Scott Johnson from London and the UK. And Greg Nardi from Orlando or Fort Lauderdale, Florida. They’re coordinating with a few other second generation of Ashtanga teachers. So it’s a young group, I think about five, and one of them isn’t a teacher, I think her name is Emma. She’s actually a women’s studies professor in southern England somewhere. And she’s a student and I think she’s also an educational specialist. I think this group of five people are putting together a kind of alternative training program to what’s on offer through Sharath Jois and KPJAYI. I don’t think that has really gotten off the ground yet. There’s a lot of aspirations involved there. I know that the group will have some challenges with diversity with inclusion and also. I would say that they probably have to do a better job of making sure that they’re professionally consulting with survivors like Karen Rain and Anneke Lucas and Jubilee Cooke. Because I think that’s essential. Any reform movement that isn’t asking Jois’s survivors exactly what to do and exactly what they need and exactly what they would have needed to keep safe is not really a reform movement at all.
Josh Summers: 01:15:43
And in Yoga at large, I know yoga is kind of like the wild, wild west of, industries. What kind of reform… I know you mentioned things like more of a consent culture in terms of adjustments and scope of practice considerations. What would you like to see, see moving forward?
Matthew Remski: 01:16:04
Well the last part of my book is written as a workbook for the yoga teacher training industry. It summarizes the analysis of the Jois event and the cult literature that I use. I try to lay out a number of tools that I think — I’m not an expert in this — but I think will be helpful as teachers, students and administrators and yoga service providers and yoga academics as well go forward in figuring out how to identify toxic group dynamics. So there’s tools in there and the tools are accompanied by personal essay questions for review. So there’s something in there called the PRISM method. There’s eight best practices for avoiding cultic dynamics. There is also, as you mentioned, a scope of practice for the yoga humanities that I think would be a good idea.
And it’s something that Yoga Alliance may adopt in part, not because I wrote it or anything, but because it’s in the air now they’re doing a renovation of their standards after 19 years. Scope of practice or defining a scope of practice for a yoga teacher is a keystone of that effort. And that’s super important because one of the reasons that Jois was allowed to be who he was is that nobody gave him any limits. He was given kind of free reign to pontificate about every aspect of a person’s life, you know, so it’s not just that he was teaching people asana, but he was also telling them to stop taking their medication or he was telling them that their back didn’t need surgery or, you know, he was giving them spiritual advice perhaps or, or what have you. It’s like the modern yoga movement has been built on the charismatic personalities that did not have a scope of practice because it was thought or they assume they could do anything. And that is about to get checked. And that’s a really good thing. Like if you’ve trained as an asana, a teacher, let’s stay in our lane: let’s not give dietary advice. Let’s not pretend you’re a marriage counsellor. Let’s not start talking about the chakras. Let’s not give psychological advice or talk about people’s medications.
Also let’s not BS about history and philosophy either because it’s becoming increasingly clear — and I want to cite my colleagues Theodore Wildcroft here for coming up with this analogy — it’s becoming increasingly clear that Yoga teachers are not physiotherapists. They’re not going to be trained to take care of your subluxated disc in your back, and they’re not going to be trained to fix your labral tear. Now that’s new. What the public is less aware of is that it’s fairly easy for your run of the mill yoga teacher to manipulate a whole class of people intellectually and then psychologically by claiming that they know more about yoga philosophy than they actually do. So one of these tools that I offer in the sixth part is: are you really clear as a yoga teacher about what the limits of your humanities knowledge is? Or are you giving people the impression that you know, what yoga philosophy says when actually very few people know what or understand the depth and breadth of yoga philosophy? So I hope those are helpful ideas. I hope that people are able to begin to look at the communities that they live in a little bit more critically, to look at the kind of leadership that they have a little bit more critically and start modelling that critical thinking.
Josh Summers: 01:20:26
I think it’s a great direction forward. I’m getting drowned out, I think, I don’t know if you can hear, I’m getting drowned out by leafblowers, lawnmowers, unfortunately. But look, it’s been great. I’ve really enjoyed talking to you and I’m really super appreciative of the work you’re doing. I know it’s tough sledding. I follow you also in the common threads and you’ve rolled up your sleeves, the knuckles are out and it’s bit of a knife fight in there, but you’re fighting the good fight. And I just want to thank you for that.
Matthew Remski: 01:20:55
Thank you, Josh. It’s a pleasure to talk with you. Great questions. Thank you.
Josh Summers: 01:20:58
Great to chat.
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?”
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.
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?”
“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.”
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.
I’ve done a lot of podcasts, but this one is different. Tiffany and I have known each other for many years, and we were able to record at her dinner table with the Edmonton winter held at bay outside the window. I was exhausted and just off a plane but that somehow helped make me focused and relaxed and a little unguarded. Also, Tiffany doesn’t fuck around. Thanks for the all the hard work you do, Tiff, and for your friendship.
Here’s the recording, which is episode 2 on her new series with Elliot Kesse. You can support their work here. I’m posting a cleaned-up transcript below.
Welcome to Where’d My Chakras Go? A yoga podcast for the rest of us, with Elliot Kesse and Tiffany Rose. So I am here with Matthew Remski and Elliot is not able to join us unfortunately, but we will be discussing some of the topics that Elliot had requested. So maybe Matthew can just tell us a little bit about yourself?
Sure. Thanks for inviting me Tiffany. I’ve been teaching or I guess involved in yoga since about 2003, and that followed two three-year stints in yoga related cults. And how that happened is a long story, but coming to yoga itself was really wrapped up in trying to recover my sense of agency and autonomy after those experiences of control — of social control. And that really started with being able to feel my own body as my own, being able to feel my thoughts as my own. So I plunged right in.
Also, I’d lost a lot of time in my late twenties and early thirties, wrapped up in these two cultic organizations. The yoga industry was booming when I got out and it seemed like a fortuitous fit and, there was a training that I could go to and there wasn’t a yoga studio in the little town that my ex partner and I were living in at that time. So, things just seem to fall into place to put me in this strange position of studying a lot of yoga and then beginning to teach it a little bit too early, but in a very intensive way. I started out with 25 classes a week or something like that. There’s a lot of people who ended up doing that in the early 2000s I think.
I eventually continued to study in subject areas like yoga therapy and Ayurveda and more esoteric subjects like Jyotish or Vedic astrology and palmistry and the spatial arrangement thing called Vastu. And that was all really enriching in my life. I’ve continued on from there, but it’s really taken me about 10 years to swing around to recognizing that the primary value that I found in this to begin with was tools to access some sort of internal sense of constancy or agency, and capacity to feel like a single self and that’s been really important to me. And then it’s also directed how I’ve begun to look at how systems of social control developed within yoga environments as well. I think a lot of your listeners will probably know that I do a lot of work on yoga and Buddhist cults now in my writing. So that’s a little bit about me.
So you live in Toronto and you have two children and you’re married to a partner who is just starting to move into her own practice and the boys are both in school now, so this is kind of a transitional time for you as well, hey?
Right. Yeah. My partner is starting her psychotherapy practice and supervision as you say, the boys are both into school, little Owie is only in preschool. He says “pee skoo”. Then I’ve got this book coming out in March and I have no idea what’s going to happen after that because there’s going to be a lot of people I think who appreciate it and there’s gonna be bunch of people who really hate it. And I think it’s going to bring my engagement with yoga training work into a different area because up until this point I’ve been doing YTT modules in or facilitating YTT modules in history, philosophy and culture. But I think especially the conclusion of this book is going to put me into the zone of — or at least I’d like it to put me in the zone of — starting to talk about community health and, and safer spaces. Not just in terms of affirmative consent or informed consent or all of the amazing anti-oppression work that I’ve been exposed to and I’ve started to learn about, but also in terms of how do people actually form relationships in yoga and Buddhist communities, and what’s the role of charisma, and how do you know that you’re in a bounded-logic group, and how do you know when you’re being asked to do things through mechanisms of undue influence, and how do you know that the person’s actually giving you care instead of trying to control you? Those are very pressing questions to me because the last, especially three years of work that I’ve done in the writing and journalism that I’ve published have all focused on that in various yoga communities.
So you’ve kind of had this sort of archetypal position in Yogaland as like the evil sort of villain that just picks apart everything that’s good, and things that everybody loves, you know, you’re just there to shit on it. Did that happen intentionally or was it just sort of, did it just sort of evolve?
Well, I think, I mean to me, thinking critically about one’s internal life and how one consumes spiritual ideas is a form of spirituality. I think we — I don’t want to speak for everybody — but it seems to be a common thread that we take our spiritual aspirations really seriously, and to the extent that we do that, I feel like it’s really good to interrogate where they’re coming from and what kinds of wishes they’re fulfilling within us and what they make us more receptive to and what they make us more blind to. So I’ve always felt in the critical work I’ve done around yoga and injuries or the difficulty in telling apart trance states and dissociative states in meditation or how smiling and seemingly beneficent and communities can really hold these daggers of betrayal — all of that work to me has actually been a form of spirituality.
Because I think that one recurring pattern in my life is that when I learn something, it’s through some type of disillusionment. I don’t think that’s necessarily true for everybody, but I think it’s underrated. I think disillusionment as a growth process actually underrated. The trick is (and this is where I think I fall down and where people, perhaps people who are critical of what I do don’t get enough from me) which is that disillusionment really has to be healed by some form of re-enchantment. And so I’m working on that part, but it’s hard because all of my critical work is also wrapped up in the wounds of having been a cult survivor.
And so trying to find the pathway between criticism and productivity can be a real challenge, but it’s something that I think I want to keep working on for sure. I feel responsible to that. When people engage in my work and they feel depressed or more cynical or low, that’s a burden for me. It’s a burden for them! But I think it poses a responsibility. It gives me a responsibility. I don’t want to shy away from that.
I used to have this like almost-avoidant and dismissive attitude of “Oh, well, you know, I can just describe a problem and if you don’t like it then, you know, suck it up.” But that’s not where I’m at anymore. I think being in a really supportive relationship makes me understand how that can’t be where I am anymore. Trying to do well by my sons makes me understand that I really don’t want to be there anymore. I do want to do more to look at positive solution-seeking.
Is it you that says, are you quoting somebody that says something like enlightenment is the end of… what’s it?
I think maybe what you’re pointing to is that I had a teacher who gave this, I think probably eccentric etymology for “moksha”. He suggested that the first part of the compound word was shared with the name of Mohini,one of the divine feminine figures who has said to distract the yogi from — in this very misogynistic system of course — distract the yogi from his other-worldly concerns. And then the “ksha” is related to space element. And so his really beautiful explanation… I don’t know how other Sanskritists would find it, but he used to say that he thought of moksha as being “the end of infatuation”.
And leaving two cults was about two different types of infatuation coming to an end. Understanding that the bodily autonomy and, the real blessing of newfound interoception that I got from asana when I first started… really began to slide over into a kind of anxious ableism. When I realized that that was true, that was another end to infatuation. There was an infatuation that I had with physical capacity or even a capacity to sense things internally. You know, I think interoception is wonderful, but it can also be fetishized as, as some kind of core anchoring thing that will always bring you into the present moment and solve all problems and stuff like that. But it’s just another faculty and it has its uses and then it has its abuses as well.
And in fact, like for someone like me or people who have extreme chronic pain or maybe body dysmorphia or things like that, intense focus on interoception can sometimes be damaging, right? It can be harmful for people to feel like they’re trapped in their sensations or like they have to be tied to those internal sensations or else they’re not practicing yoga.
And that’s, and that’s a harder story for you for you to tell. I think it’s a lot easier — what I’m saying about interoception as being this wonderful grounding or agency-enhancing thing is a common yoga narrative. And then along comes Tiffany and says, “Wait, wait, wait a minute, wait a minute! When I go inside and try to find relaxation or peace or security and internal sensation, maybe I find the opposite. Maybe I just don’t find that at all.” And that in itself is a breaking of a kind of infatuation to just have that statement out there somewhere that, “Wait a minute, not everybody has that. Or not everybody does that. Or not everybody works that way.” It breaks this illusion that we’re all starting from the same place or that we all share something irreducibly in common. I think it gets us out of thinking that what we can share is an ideology instead of what we can share is a relationship where we’re actually continually learning about things that we just can’t understand about each other.
Doesn’t that make teaching harder though?
Like when there’s no common bond that we can kind of preach to. Then Actually have to start teaching in relationship.
And for people who maybe are closed down to relationship or maybe even like you were saying that closed down to a relationship to themselves. It makes teaching yoga a lot harder. I think
It does. It’s certainly harder to describe. It’s harder to market. It’s harder to feel evangelical about.
Well, there’s no flashing lights with that, you know?
No, there isn’t. This is a weird thing. I mean, when we hear the hopeful, hope-laden in statement in yoga culture or literature or marketing, we’re hearing two things. We’re hearing something earnest and yearning from the perspective of the teacher who’s marketing or the student who’s consuming. But we’re also hearing the potential for a kind of aspirational bypass where we’re somehow asking ourselves or other people to do and accomplish and feel more than they are able. And that brings up the whole problem of what happens when they don’t.
Do you think that…. I’m just kind of thinking this out loud, like, because I think that there’s so many teachers who are really wanting to do right. They’re really wanting to feel like their classes can be inclusive of everyone and that they are accessible, right? But with the current way that yoga is consumed in North America, it’s really difficult to remain profitable if that’s your livelihood and not sell hope. Right? So how do you, how do people who are really trying to be trauma-informed and inclusive and accessible, how do they compete with the evangelical, hopeful Lululemon crowd?
Yeah, I don’t think they compete. I think they offer something different which is: if there’s hope on offer, it’s the hope of, of inquiry or curiosity or a period of time out or a period of care or nurturance. I don’t see how they’re going to compete. I mean in a way, they’re antithetical so they can’t compete.
I think part of what we’re talking about is how can people make livings. And I think that when I consider what I know about your story and the story of so many other people who do this really sort of a in-depth trauma aware and non-commercialized work, I think of how I’m seeing this growing divide structurally between commercial and public service models. Where I see a hopefulness not in terms of marketing marketing solutions, but hopefulness in terms of the possibility for people like you and your colleagues for perhaps making more of a living over time or a better living over time is in the increasing movement of yoga into public health circumstances where the funding is assured because the population is known to simply benefit from what’s being offered.
That’s what I see with the work of people in the Yoga Service Council. And a little bit in the Accessibility Yoga Movement as well, that people are getting really good at, or better anyway, at figuring out where to pursue public funding rather than private commercial, consumer-based funding. So I’m very interested in that and that change in that movement.
One of the really great experiences that I had with you this year was at the Accessible Yoga Conference in Toronto. We had the privilege of presenting on a panel together there and you and I sat in on a session together at New Leaf foundation and I remember halfway through it, we were sitting beside each other and I was kind of a curled up in my chair and I had my knee in my chest and I was rocking a little bit and I remember you looking over at me and saying. “This is really good, hey?” And I remember thinking like, yeah, I feel very comforted. I’m like almost like rocking myself. Like I just feel very safe and comforted.
And that kind of work that they’re doing, I found a lot of hope in that and it was something that I hadn’t really been exposed to until then and just listening to them speak about the work that they do and the way that they approached it really gave me hope for yoga. Did you feel that way when you were listening to them?
I totally did. And I think it’s not just because of their content, which is top notch — because their content is not that much that far off from yours and it’s not going to be that much far off from anybody in yoga service. Where I find the comfort in just meeting people like that is in seeing how they have learned to approach the public infrastructure for support and to carve out their niche in it. And, I don’t know the New Leaf people personally that well, but that support is something that I know is a huge part of everybody who’s deeply invested in yoga service throughout North America is really trying hard to work on.
I was really struck sitting at the Yoga Service Council conference I think two years ago and I was speaking with a woman named Mayuri. I think her organization is called Little Flower Yoga and she trains teachers how to give 20, 30 and 40 minute yoga classes to grade school kids and she works in Manhattan. I think her partner is a public school teacher and so they’re sort of networked in the school system in a way. And she not only developed her training and by knocking on doors got her programs and her teachers into eight or nine public schools, which took three or four years, and they were able to pay out of discretionary spending for that. I think that’s how her business got going and I think she’s set up as a nonprofit as well. But she taught herself all how to do that, coming out of a non admin or nonprofit background. But the thing is there was one point at which, I think last year, Deblasio, the mayor of New York announced through the education department that they were making $20,000,000 available to the boroughs of New York public schools for wellness programs that would include yoga and mindfulness sessions or something like that. And so who’s on the phone the next morning, knowing who to call to get in on that funding is Mayuri. That is so cool because now she has networked her… she’s going to be able to leverage all of these teachers who she has trained into a new field that in terms of public money is still only being funded to a drop in the bucket. This has nothing to do with commercial yoga economics at all.
And yoga people are not in these circumstances having to worry about overhead or any of the things that you just went through with your studio over the last several years. So when I going back to sitting with New Leaf, the comfort that I feel is these people had figured out how to interface with the public health world. That means that comes with responsibility. That comes with “I’m going to have to have informed consent policies for all my workers. I’m going to have to have trauma informed training. I’m going to have to have good HR policies. I’m going to have to have all of these things that the commercial yoga world is totally shit at, and they’re just going to have to be a matter of course, and people are gonna have to be trained to a certain level that will allow them to be accountable to their public health positions.” And it’s like, it’s just a totally different world. And so I feel very, I feel very — it’s not what I’m professionally doing, but just as an observer and as a cultural critic and as a somebody who does journalism of this stuff sometimes, and I’m really fascinated to look at how that’s working.
I’m just going back to the conference. You gave the closing address for the conference and I had to jump on a bus to get to Montreal so I didn’t get to hear it, but I did watch the video. And I think I cried, which is really hard to get me to do so. But I think one of the things that really touched a lot of people in that address with you talking about how you too will one day become disabled. And I’m wondering if you can share a little bit about that.
Jivana, and — I’m a little bit embarrassed that I can’t remember the activist’s name that he cited in his presentation during the conference, but it’s somebody famous I think in California who was at the center of the disability rights movement from maybe the seventies or something like that — I think his one of his statements was, “It’s not like you’re not going to need these services. We’re all in this together.” And it’s kind of like a more visceral and material framing for all of the old ascetic and Buddhist realizations around mortality, old age, sickness and death. So there’s picture of the guy in his wheelchair saying, “You’re going to be somewhere like this.” And and then I was in his class a little bit later and,
Jivana’s class right. And I think he asked us to, — he’s got this great way of, “Let’s see how you can do Tadasana or a mountain pose, but, imagine that you need to have your full body in contact with a wall. Or let’s see if you can do tree pose on a chair. And he’s got all this amazing teaching around, “What is the posture actually? If you have an internal visualization of it, and that’s meaningful to you, is that the posture?” All of these ways of picking apart an ableism that is so pervasive, it’s invisible to people like me who, you know, I don’t see myself as being physically disabled.
So there was one point where I just burst into tears because I realized that he was giving me an end-of-life practice, or a later-on-in-life practice or something like that. He was actually preparing me for something in a way that nobody had ever prepared me for in a yoga class. When I got into yoga and I was doing asana obsessively, it was more like, “What secrets does this body hold that I can stretch out of it? And how can I break this open to find what’s inside?”
And Jivana’s doing something different. He’s like, “What’s already inside that can be felt and accepted as your condition or what your condition will be when you’re perhaps not able to stand or you’re not able to see or you’re not able to feel all of these things that you associate with yourself.” So there’s something very profound about that and it just kind of like, it added to this row of dominoes that have been falling around me or within me around what it means to not see your own privilege.
For me, that started with, I don’t know, several years ago. Actually, it came up this morning as well because I arrived here in Edmonton at 9:30, which meant that I had to leave the house in Toronto at 3:30 in the morning. And several years ago, my partner said that she wanted me to take a cab to the bus stop we live in. We live in a neighborhood where if you want to catch the bus to the airport — like the bus that costs $3 instead of paying 60 bucks to take a cab at that time — you know you have to walk through a kind of lonely patch. And it’s a little bit of a sketchy area. And actually there were just two shootings this past week in the area. And so a couple of years ago, I was going to take one of these trips. I was probably coming here and she said, “Can you just take a cab to the bus stop?” And I was like, I was insulted. And I was like. “No, I’m not gonna, I’m not gonna.” I got all proud and huffy and stuff like that.
It took this argument, I’m ashamed to say, to break through this layer of absolute unconsciousness around what it actually meant to be female and in a body and in this part of the city, and thinking about walking at that time of night. And it kind of like overwhelmed me. I was like, “Oh, you live in a totally different world than I live in. And I haven’t seen that before. And I have to start taking care of that. Like I have to start taking care of you. Not in a paternalistic way, but taking care of the fact that I don’t even understand how much benefit I have here.”
It’s funny because I stayed with you during the conference and I, one night I went out and I was up until midnight and I had to navigate my way back to your house and I remember you asking me because I walked from that bus stop to your house and it was about midnight or 12:30 and I remember you asking me if I felt unsafe and I said no. And I thought about that and you know, I think probably what that is, you know, as a trauma survivor, I tend to feel safe in unsafe situations and unsafe in safe situations. So for me, I just kind of…
It can be scrambled, right?
Yeah. I puff myself up and put my head down and just walked to your house without even giving it a second thought. But, you know, it didn’t probably even occur to me that I might be putting myself at risk or in danger or that I should have maybe taken a cab or something like that. I just wandered through the streets of Toronto by myself.
Yeah. And like me asking you that and me asking you that comes from… I mean, it’s funny because there’s a potential for paternalism in there too, right? Where I’m going to be protective towards my partner or towards you as a guest and maybe over-compensate in some way and so these questions about empowerment and equality that come up. But really listening — I think the main point about privilege is just really letting it sink in: that we live in different worlds. And that was one of the first big things that, that I think really started to, it changed my spirituality in the sense that like the infatuation now that I am interested in ending or interrogating in myself is the infatuation that I have with forms of privilege that I can’t even see.
Because that infatuation — not understanding what it means to be male, or male-identified, not understanding the advantages of being white, not understanding the advantages of being considered to be able-bodied — that those are all barriers to empathy and communication and activism. Because they make a person feel like that the world is just, should be okay and navigable by everybody.
And so I’m in Jivana’s class and this, this other sort of penny dropped which was, “Oh, I’m not looking at the world as… I’m looking at the world through ableist eyes, and I’m doing that in physical terms. I’m doing it in psychological terms. I’m doing it in cognitive terms. And if I can stop doing that or if I can, I can start questioning that a little bit, I’m going to see and invite others into, or I’m going to see other people a little bit more clearly and I’m going to be able to care for things a little bit better or at least I’m going to make fewer boneheaded remarks. I’m going to cause less harm and that’d be a start.”
So we talked a little bit about disability and the, the Accessible Yoga conference, and one of the things that we talked about before we were recording was — and Elliot talks a little bit about this too, as someone who is physically disabled — that oftentimes there’s this binary around disability where we think of disability only in terms of physical disability. And one of the things that I try to talk about is how we can be disabled in other ways, right? I think when talking about internalized ableism and how we don’t always see how, how people may be disabled in certain ways or how we might have blind spots. One of the blind spots I think that I see a lot in Yogaland is around people not really understanding neurodivergence. I think you don’t really speak about this very often, but I know when I did an Ayurveda training with you, you shared about in your twenties something that happened to you, that you kind of realized that there was some neuro divergence in your life. Do you mind sharing about that?
No. Not a lot to say except that during a period in my early twenties of real emotional stress and alienation and probably like — I think I’ve been undiagnosed clinically depressed at several points in my life and it was just never in my culture or it wasn’t in my toolbox to seek out therapy. That wasn’t part of where I came from. So, that’s why I think I remained undiagnosed. But yeah during a period of really severe stress, I had a series of really explosive seizures where I lost consciousness for fairly long, I don’t know how long, but fairly long periods of time. And they were physically violent enough that I would wake up on my or I came to on the floor of my apartment with like the bookshelves toppled over. So something had happened or I’d be physically injured in some way.
And I went for testing and there was nothing found so I did whatever the EEG tests that were typical. They did a sleep deprivation test and things like that. The neurologist who saw me felt the things were, that the experiences were anomalous or they could be stress-related. But one thing that emerged out of that was every once in a while, like I sort of like go back into, I’m thinking about or researching how people experience seizures because one feature of what I experienced was that — or at least the way I narrativized it was that — the physical sensations were associated with some sort of mystical experience.
So I was in university then for religious studies, I was reading all kinds of mysticism. I was in classes where I got my first exposure to yoga philosophy and Buddhism and other things. And I think Tantric thought as well. But the story that I had ready-made for me to apply to these physical experiences I had was that something transcendental was happening to me. And so after that period, my fascination with things religious and spiritual just seemed to increase, as did my obsessive writing. And so there’s this weird thing which I haven’t been diagnosed with but seems very resonant. It’s called Geschwind Syndrome. And I think it’s a subset of a particular type of epileptic condition where — and I should say just right upfront that I haven’t had seizures for a since that period, so this is really going back 25 years now — but I think they flipped something in me or they turned something on… Geschwind Syndrome is marked by not just the seizures, but two very clear characteristics. One is hyper-religiosity, but it’s not the type of hyper-religiosity that is devotional. It’s a hyper-religiosity that is simply intellectually interested in religion. And then the other thing that people with Geshschwind Syndrome have or typically present is hypergraphia or endless writing, obsessive writing. And that’s certainly very resonant with me.
Because you’ve described yourself as almost addicted to, writing.
Sure, for sure. Yeah. Because, for various reasons, that’s also been like a way of internally parenting myself when I do various types of writing. So not all of this is like this. I can write pseudo-academically or whatever and I can write in a kind of reporting format. But when I really need care, my instinct has always been to write about something. And what’s fascinating is that as soon as it begins to appear on the screen or the page in front of me, it’s almost like a hologram. Almost like like there’s a person there that I am dialoguing with and who is caring for me enough to listen to what I’m saying and faithfully reproducing it.
My partner actually told me about this thing DW Winnicott says, which is that sometimes a person can turn to their intellect for care. And that’s certainly been true for me for writing. So it’s a very hard thing to describe except that when I get into the flow of it, I don’t feel like I’m alone. However I have to be alone to do it!
And so that makes — I struggle with accepting care from other people because I’ve developed this really sort of iron-clad way of doing it for myself internally and that all intensified after the seizure experience. The other symptom that, or thing that people with Geschwind Syndrome present with is atypical sexuality, and that doesn’t really resonate with me, but often they say two out of the three things is good. So that’s been interesting to me.
I want to learn more about that so it can be more transparent about that because I think that if my writing becomes more prominent or you know, if this book does really well or something like that, I want to be really clear with myself and with my readership that writing is not just a profession or a skill for me. It has a therapeutic aspect to it. It has a compulsive aspect to it. And that means that I have to take responsibility for dumping on other people when I write and you know, you can have the kind of avoidant hand-wiping attitude of “Well I’m just gonna produce my content and people can do with it what they will.” Or you can say “No, if you do something that’s compelling and people follow it, then you have responsibility towards them.” And so yeah, I wanna learn more about that part of myself which is so large, it’s hard to see.
One of the things that, that I hear a lot when I talk to other yoga people about you is, you know, I think it comes out of intimidation to be honest. People are intimidated, by some of the big words that you use when you write. But there’s a lot of like, “Oh, he thinks he’s better than everyone,” or “He thinks he’s smarter than everyone,” or “He’s so negative or judgey. And certainly like, you’re probably one of the smartest people I’ve met. But I mean, I don’t personally find you intimidating. But I’m wondering, and somebody asked me this about you. Somebody asked me a couple of weeks ago like, “I wonder why Matthew didn’t become a cult leader?”
Some people say that I have!
Some people say that you have, some people say that —
I’m like: “Show me the people.”
Where’s the money? Well, I mean, I think some people think because, you know, like myself and some of some of our other friends that we have in common will come to your defence when you’re being dog-piled on for things. I think that we get accused of being Rembots or that we’re in the cult of Remski or whatever. But like because you kind of have the brain that you do. I mean, it certainly isn’t out of the realm of possibility that you could have at one point created some kind of a cult if you wanted to.
Yeah, you’re totally, you’re totally right. Okay. So, so the first thing that comes up when you, when you asked that is that I stopped doing classes that I was… Well, I mean, a lot of things happened that ended up closing up my last studio that I owned in Toronto with my ex partner. Like the main thing being that the relationship ended. I ran courses in Ayurveda and I had a small following and there were a lot of people who really liked what I did and… But there was also… I would do, Ayurvedic health education appointments, for which there’s no licensing or no accountability structure. And it was only when I started to go to psychotherapy myself that… then certainly when I met my partner and she comes from a psychotherapy family and she was going to start studying psychotherapy herself, I was like, “Oh a regulated industry means that there’s a huge interpersonal training component that really should be in place before you’re visiting with people alone and talking with them about their diets and their relational lives and all of the things that come up in Ayurvedic health education.”
And I stopped doing those appointments because I realized that I did not know how to understand — or I started to begin to understand what was happening in things like transference and countertransference. And that happened through my own therapy, also, as I said with starting to learn about my partner’s world. And I realized that I did not know how to… there was nothing in the training in the yoga world or the yoga therapy world or in the Ayurveda world that I had encountered that really gave me a clear understanding of how to understand the power dynamics of the relationship of a personal meeting like that. And so I just stopped doing it because I realized I didn’t understand it.
So when I think about like why, if I’m a charismatic person and I have interesting and unique content, why I didn’t go forward and want to accumulate power or something like that socially with people in real life. I think about that. I think there’s something in me that said, “No, wait a minute, I’m over my head here and I don’t know how to do this.”
And there’s a lot of people out there in this world who also don’t know how to do this and they’re doing it and they’re hurting people, because we started to hear those stories as well. And so I guess the notion that I would manipulate people interpersonally just fills me with such dread and guilt and shame that that would be possible.
Can I tell you a story?
Yes, you can.
So the first time you ever came to my studio in LaCombe it was packed. So there was like, I don’t know, 30, 40 people in the room. It was all women. And LaCombe is this tiny little city in central Alberta and it’s I think the most churched community in Canada if I’m not wrong. And it’s also a guaranteed conservative stronghold. Anytime there’s an election, it’s always a conservative community.
And I remember watching you teach meditation to this room full of women, at the studio. We had just opened. I think we were maybe open for four or five months. And I remember watching the women were sitting down and you were standing up and you were talking about meditation and I just remember their faces watching you talk with…. they seem to be just full of like this weird wondering. It’s probably, they’ve probably never seen somebody like you before or interacted with somebody like you before. And I remember thinking after a while after they’d asked questions and you were talking about meditation and how to claim agency in your own body. I remember thinking, “These women are asking him for permission to exist.”
I remember being so blown away by that and wondering how you were navigating that because I’m sure you picked up on it and in some ways
And I wondered like, how is he going to navigate this? They’re asking him to just give them basic permission to breathe and like they don’t even know that they can breathe.
Right. And what does it mean to stand at the front of the room as a man? And have it be okay that you’re the person who’s going to do that. It’s just so…
That is so weird.
It’s so bizarre and it’s, I think it’s very unhealthy and I just don’t think it’s a good. I just don’t think it’s a good dynamic. There’s too many,.. like at that point, at that point, I can feel, I can feel the countertransference, right. So: Dude’s from the city. A totally different background from anybody I know. He’s gendered differently in some ways —
Yeah there’s some sort of femininity about him.
Right. So I know that there’s something new or odd or attractive about me and I’m like, and it just makes me uncomfortable, My immediate feeling is I’m uncomfortable and there’s a power dynamic here that is artificial or it’s overriding, not overriding but competing with whatever the basic content is of saying a few things about meditation.
So we’re running out of time, but I really want to get into your book and I really want to get into the other thing we want to talk about, but I wanted to, I want to kind of dive into this a little bit because this is something I’ve personally had to navigate because I was raised in a cult. And certainly male authority has more power for me than female authority.
And I think when you and I first met because we’re both cult survivors, I think there was a really strong pull that could have gone into countertransference for me anyways, I don’t know about, for you, but for me there could have been a really strong sort of like glomming on to you as some sort of, you know, teacher figure or something. And at one point there was something we were talking about, and I was asking you what you thought and I think you said, “You know, I’m just telling you this as your friend, right?” And I remember hearing you say that and thinking, “Okay, yeah, you’re right, like, this is just like two people sharing information. This isn’t you some kind of supernatural being telling me something that I needed to hear.”
I hope that like saying “friend” implied like equal.
Yeah, it did, it did, it totally diffused…
Because that can be a weird word too.
No, it completely diffused it for me and really brought me back down to earth and kind of cemented the relationship that I feel like I have with you. But I know that for me in certain circumstances, because those deeply ingrained patterns are so embedded that it’s almost impossible for me sometimes not to need that in order to hear something.
It’s tragic, totally fucking tragic.
It is. I had this dream one time that I was, I was an elephant in an elephant sanctuary and I really wanted to be out in the wild. And I remember the elephant me crying and wanting to be wild and having this realization that I had to stay in the sanctuary because I couldn’t survive in the wild. And like, that really spoke to me about, you know, I was born into dynamics, so my patterning is from birth and it’s so, it’s not so easy to untangle. And so my whole journey now has been, you know, what do I need to embrace and work with and what can I, what can I get rid of. And so when I, when I had that realization about you at my studio and I saw the way that these women were watching you, I had this realization that I’m this whole city that I was opening the studio in felt like an abusive relationship to me. It felt like an oppressive and abusive relationship where, and you know, I’m, I’m saying this knowing that maybe some of the people from my studio are going to be listening to this, that there were women in this community who had never experienced agency and who had never had the chance to really be in their own bodies and to make their own decisions. And I wonder, you know, with you saying, well, that’s wrong. I shouldn’t be teaching these people, but I wonder if there are things that you could say to someone like that that wouldn’t be heard from anyone else other than a man.
Yeah. I really don’t know. Like, it’s a really sort of prime example of privilege meeting an old paradigm that seems to want it or need it or something like that.
Well we talked about this a little bit when we talk about, the ways that people can go into practices that are harming and so like practices like BDSM where, where people are addressing their trauma through, through physical harm to their bodies or physical harm. Maybe harm isn’t the right word, but from hurting themselves. And how that, some people find that as a pathway to healing. And I wonder, you know…
Yeah — If there’s informed consent and if there’s all kinds of safety procedures and all that, right? I don’t know how to answer that question of what does it mean to be in the front of the room as a man with a lot of women listening to you very intently. And the dynamics that creates and echoes. I don’t have a personal answer for that except to say it doesn’t really work for me, and I’m not comfortable with it.
That said, I’m here in Edmonton, I’m going to facilitate a YTT module. It’s going to be mainly women in the room, but it’s going to be different because I’m not going to be teaching techniques or practices. I’m going to be giving basically a seminar in critical thinking. And so it’s not about instructing people towards their higher selves or giving them some sort of spirituality or pretending in some way that there was something inside me that is worth sharing. Those things are not really part of that kind of instruction. But I do know that leading a retreat for or like leading a group class in an 80 percent female practice population… I just don’t know how personally I would feel comfortable given everything that I’ve learned about sustaining those dynamics.
And so everything that I’m doing now is to try to move towards just offering a content rather than practices. And coming out of this book, I’m working on modules for community health. I’m thinking about going to, I guess it wouldn’t be graduate school because I didn’t graduate, but I don’t know, doing what I need to do to become a licensed counselor for people who are navigating their way out of cults. Because I’m doing that like a dozen times a week anyway and I’m doing it for free and I should be paid for it, but I also should know how to do it better, and not just have informal conversations with people. And so I’m just moving away from the charismatic power dynamic that is kind of at the center of how commercial yoga works and that is exacerbated by this structural sexism that you point out.
I mean that could lead into a whole conversation around men teaching yoga and what needs to happen around that for sure. But I’d like to finish off with talking about your book and maybe some cult dynamics in yoga land for sure. So: March, you’re book is going to be out?,
Yeah, March 14th. We’re in the thick of production whirlwind and there’s a thousand little details and decisions to be made along the way and we’re setting up online resources. And, there’s a workbook that is at the end of the book that I’m hoping will be a resource for teacher training programs. The book’s called Practice and All Is Coming: Abuse, Cult Dynamics, and Healing in Yoga and Beyond. And it comes out of three years of a tracking the stories of the survivors of Pattabhi Jois’s sexual assaults, which he got away with for 30 years because he was enabled, I argue, by a number of factors including including key cultic dynamics of information control and image management and rationalization and pyramid-like structures, where power just floats to the top and, you know, information leaks down to the bottom and get suppressed and silenced.
And feels like a good time. Like it took three years to do. And because I’m so personally invested, not in Ashtanga yoga, but in cult literature and cult recovery I didn’t realize until I pretty much finished the draft how exhausted it had made me and how much it had, caused my physical and mental health to deteriorate. I feel that slowly I’m recovering from that. And it kind of feels like an exciting time now because, there’s going to be a shitstorm when it’s released, but I kind of know what’s coming and I’m a little bit more relaxed into the decisions I’ve made around, how I’ve analyzed things and who I’ve called to account in the book and that sort of thing. So I’m feeling good about it and I also just don’t know what’s going to happen.
Yeah. Because there’s always kind of like the things you can’t really predict, right? Like your work over the last few years, you know, you’ve really kind of dug into exposing the unhealthy dynamics in Yogaland. And I think through that work and through the work of others that are less visible than you, like Theo and myself and other trauma informed teachers, we’ve seen this language and this movement become co-opted. And so it’ll be interesting to see how that plays out with your book as well.
Right? Well it will be. And what I was really grateful for in working with, with my editor at the Walrus, is that she really guided me through the nuts and bolts of creating a victim-centered narrative or a survivor-centered narrative. And that’s the most important thing about this book to me is that at the heart of it I’m learning to listen to what people like Karen Rain and, and Anneke Lucas and Marissa Sullivan and Jubilee Cooke have to say about their experience and really trying to grasp what it was like and how difficult it has been to hold it and to name it and to manage and to then disclose it and then to deal with all of the blowback.
And my editor also with Embodied Wisdom Publications has been excellent in helping me to really keep the book focused on a survivor’s voices. And that’s key because as we’ve seen in the last six months or so as people have tried to address… as the yoga world… I would say the yoga administrative or bureaucratic world has tried to address the issue of institutional abuse in yoga schools and amongst yoga teachers, they’re not inviting survivors to the table. In event after event, panel after panel, the people who are not invited are the people who actually have done the most work. And this was true back in March or something like that of 2018 when all of the luminaries of the world gathered for their confluence in San Diego. And they actually had a panel discussion on, “Well, what do we do now that we’ve realized that the leader of our method was a 30 year sexual predator?”
They didn’t use those terms, but they convened a panel where they basically discussed, “Well, what does this mean to us as faithful people? What does this mean to us as devotees?” They didn’t reach out to Karen Rain and say, “Can you come and tell us what we should do in relation to survivors of our guru’s abuse? We’re here and we’ve made our careers because we actually either turned a blind eye or enabled him.” They didn’t, of course, they didn’t do that.
There was a similar meeting in London where again, none of Pattabhi Jois’s actual survivors were invited to participate. It was a closed session, but Theo was invited to it and she reluctantly agreed, I believe, I think I can say that on her behalf, to be the person who was going to speak for survivors as the trauma-sensitive person. But you know, they had a Jois devotee on the panel. And it’s like — if you’re going to actually tackle it, you actually have to listen to the people who were impacted and you have to let them drive the story. Because where are you going to be otherwise other than in one realm or another of brand reframing or management or brand washing.
What my hope is that people will start listening to what Karen Rain says as being central to the narrative of modern yoga. That she has as much to say about what it means to learn about yourself and to deal with suffering and to deal with trauma and to understand what kind of support one needs as any yoga expert does. I just want to see people like people like her become the real community leaders. Having said that, I know that that’s not what she wants! I think what I wrote my book is that is that at a certain point people in Yoga culture will be more interested in what Karen Rain has to say about her experience in yoga than they’ll be interested in what Pattabhi Jois taught. And at that point, I think we’ll all be practicing more yoga actually.
Amen. All right. I think we’re done. Thank you so much. I really appreciate you being willing to do this. I know you’re exhausted and you need to have a nap. So thank you so much for your time.
I was honoured to be contacted by Giada Consoli with the following questions related to her graduate work on contemporary yoga culture. She is an Ashtanga Yoga practitioner and works as yoga teacher, naturopath and Bach Flower therapist in Rome, Italy. She has attended the Master in Yoga Studies at the Ca’ Foscari University in Venice. Some of this discussion will be included in her final thesis, which is titled:
How Yoga Ruins Your Life: Body politics, Dispositif, Counter-Dispositif.
(You can listen to/view a reading of this post here, on my Facebook author’s page.)
In my research on contemporary yoga, I’m analyzing the concepts of biopower and biopolitics, how power constructs and defines subjects, and how the body, as a social artifact, incorporates power dynamics but can also be a place of resilience and resistance.
I’m looking at the concept of dispositif, both in Foucault and Agamben, as everything in our life as modern consumers which captures, controls, determines and models our gestures, behavior, opinions, discourses.
My main question is if yoga can still have a countercultural potential, if we can consider it a tool of individual and collective liberation or if, as a consumer culture product, a multimillionaire industry, it is just another way to reinforce the status quo, another type of social control developed by neoliberal governments.
This is such a rich area, and I’m so glad you’re diving into it! I believe contemporary yoga can only benefit from more and better discussion about its most painful paradoxes, all sharpened by the fact that its growth arc and the rise of neoliberalism are inseparable.
As the sign of a globalized product with ever-more tenuous relationships to its wisdom roots, the term “yoga”:
- promises an equitable space of community gathering, yet too often spiritualizes continued class and racial segregation;
- promises a renewal of bodily agency, but too often delivers a more sophisticated form of objectification;
- promises empowerment through exquisite messages of inadequacy;
- promises authenticity but too often demands you perform it;
- promises self-inquiry, but too often delivers self-surveillance;
- can deploy a language of feminism to reinforce gender essentialism;
In short, the stretching and twisting too often embody the contortions of co-optation. The deep breathing can become a strategy for acclimatizing to stresses that yoga as a culture too often only pretends to resist.
In reading your fascinating intro, two definitional points come to mind straight out of the gate, which you’ve probably considered, so I hope you forgive me for making them explicit.
First I think we have to speak of “the body” under neoliberalism in the radical plural, lest we replicate its own false premise of equality. There are so many bodies. In neoliberalism we are constantly asked to believe in the even playing field of a fantasized freedom, where some idealized body, unmarked by race or class, gallivants through the duty free.
Lululemon published a blog in 2011, during their Ayn-Rand-and-yoga-pants campaign. They wrote:
Think about it: we are all born with magical machines, aka human bodies, able to think, jump, laugh and run . . . . We are able to control our careers, where we live, how much money we make, and how we spend our days through the choices we make . . . many of us choose mediocrity without even realizing it.
They use the plural, but they’re only talking about one body. The narcissistic body that believes it is everywhere and everything. This homogenization is crucial to be aware of in yoga discourse, which often uses notions of oneness as aspirational fodder.
This is only one of the ways in which the global yoga industry spiritualizes neoliberalism’s greatest lie: that all bodies possess equal potential and therefore are equally liable to self-caused failure and shame.
As white interlocutors, we have to foreground the fact that bodies of PoC, for instance, incorporate power dynamics and express resilience in ways that we aren’t able to imagine. The diversity and intersectionality of trauma loads would be another example.
Secondly, my personal and research background is in cult studies. I can’t help but to view neoliberalism as a macro-cult within which more tightly organized micro-cults flourish under the tyranny of aspirational charisma. All cults run on deception, and the deception of the macro-cult is that its leaders in deregulation tell citizens that they can be free if they gladly accept policies of economic and environmental coercion. As micro-cult leaders, Tony Robbins or John Friend tell students that they are free if they gladly undertake practices of indoctrination, which, paradoxically, can feel euphoric.
But — has anyone developed this stuff, consciously? Is there intentionality here? I don’t think so. I can’t see a conspiracy of governments or leaders to implement yoga or mindfulness practices as a means of social control. When you study cults you quickly realize that groups that want to concentrate power simply do whatever works. There’s a lot of trial and error involved. If yoga both expands and spiritualizes neoliberalism, there may be the cold calculations of a few sociopaths at play, but mainly it’s happening through the unconscious biohacking that comes from doing whatever we must to make ourselves feel good within a high-stress landscape, while disowning shame and responsibility.
The genius of neoliberalism is that it makes self-control and self-monitoring into a virtue because it really does offer — unequally and unpredictably — addictive doses of pleasure. It doesn’t need a puppet master: it teaches us how to pull our own strings.
Can we read yoga, in its current commodification, exactly as another kind of dispositif which trains and manages our bodies and minds according to the logic of neoliberalism? Most of all, do we have any counter-dispositif?
I’m more familiar with the term habitus, which I think is getting at a similar thing, but narrowed down to the felt sense. I understand it as somatic contagion. As in: what does it feel like, in our diverse bodies, to walk into a room filled with ballet dancers? Poker players? Rappers? MMA fighters?
When I close my eyes and imagine myself walking into a yoga room, I absolutely have an entrained felt sense that overtakes my body. I straighten up, I slow my breath, I soften my eyes into what feels like equanimity but might also be dissociation, with a touch of disdain. I want to feel and appear to feel as though I am self-contained and self-sufficient. I also really want to radiate humility, which isn’t very humble at all.
Beneath all of that poise is the memory of a threat: if you don’t perform well, you will be punished.
Iyengar’s Tadasana has inspired millions of people to stand taller. But it has done so, I believe, by resonating with and spiritualizing the anxiety of impending punishment. Many of us may be of that younger generation in which we do not have the bodily memory of the corporal abuse that deeply impacted his relationship with his teacher. But it’s in the air, nonetheless, sanitized to feel like it’s something we want.
How does it work? There’s a direct line from the self-protective / anal-retentive postural detailing of Iyengar — presented as “awakening every cell”, but carrying a distinct hypervigilance in relation to both home-grown and colonial violence — and the performance of self-worth carried out by someone like John Friend.
When Friend asked his students — many of whom became pyramid scheme members — to “open to grace”, this was to be embodied through spinal extension and a Mona Lisa smile. He was taking the lessons of his teacher, Iyengar, to the next level of performance and commodification. He made Iyengar All-American. He turned postural discipline into an emotional prosperity gospel for those who already had money.
Back to the intersectional piece for a moment: I’m fantasizing about all of these sensations in relation to walking into a white, dominant-culture, gentrified, commercial studio. The design, colour palette, and finishes are all shaping my body into a performance of self-worth.
But this is not the totality of the yoga space. I don’t feel this way when I enter a room of yoga people at the Yoga Service Council. They can slouch a bit and smile more broadly, and make warm (not intrusive) eye contact. I’m not queer or trans but when I am around my queer and trans colleagues I feel a tenderness overtake my body that I believe is emanating from the struggle and exhaustion and persistence that flows through their bodies. That melts my armour a bit. I say this knowing that their struggle has not been for me, but despite me.
And when I talk to women like Maya Breuer and Jana Long, they tell me about hosting the Black Yoga Teacher’s Alliance convention, and how it sometimes reminds them of gospel church. I haven’t been there, but I’m imagining that that is outside of my familiar, whiter space of sealed-off individualism. I imagine a lot more eye contact and dancing and smiling than I’m comfortable with. Some people smile so broadly and openly it seems to come from knowing that connection rather than power is the only thing we can really store up.
So yes, I think there are spaces of counter-habitus, if you’ll indulge my substitute term. These spaces are less commercial. They are made by people who needed to make them, and organically made them, as part of their resistance practice. Very clear examples are provided in the spaces that are anti-ableist (which may eliminate most mainstream forms like Ashtanga and its derivatives). Like, when you walk into Jivana Heyman’s room as he teaches Accessible Yoga, you are explicitly plucked out of the dissociation and bodily anxiety of the dominant culture and invited into a place where, as their t-shirts (designed by Amber Karnes) say: Outer ability ≠ Inner peace.
How can we challenge — if we can — the logic of neoliberalism from the inside out and experience yoga in a way that is different from the mainstream ‘face’ of the yoga industry?
I tell my YTT students to take less pictures, get trauma-sensitive training, and get involved with yoga service organizations. The basic message is that yoga is not something to perform or perfect so much as it is something to share.
“From the inside out” is a crucial phrase. It points us to what neoliberalism and its technologies function to amputate and deaden: interoception. In a world of spectacles and surfaces, we are asked to continually externalize. I think yoga is a charged practice in part because we know we’re supposed to be doing the opposite of what its visual marketing tells us it is.
In yoga as everywhere else, we are often being told we must look a certain way, arrange ourselves in a more orderly or symmetrical or correct fashion, display more flexibility or “openness” or vulnerability. These performances can be meaningful. They can move us. But at the same time we suspect that we should be doing it all with our eyes closed. We know we are performing something that bodies cannot show, but must show nonetheless in order to be believed or to be marketable.
There is tragedy in this conflict, and I think tuning into that tragedy is a real starting point. We’re in a performative culture, and yoga offers a rich vocabulary for either giving that performance gravitas, or tricking us into thinking we’re doing something special. In a way, I believe some of us are trying to gild the lily, to find spirituality in places where it goes to die. Perhaps after enough performance, and all of the stress injuries it causes, we have no choice but to turn inside.
Looking at the current yoga landscape, we find a kind of separation: the yoga industry on one side and those who want to distance themselves from it on the other. There is a growing discussion on the blogosphere. Many refer to a lost of authenticity and purity of yoga, others are striving to challenge the dominant power dynamics in the yoga world, making yoga accessible for marginalized and discriminated communities. I’m thinking about the work of non-profit such as Off the Mat, Into the World, Race and Yoga, Decolonizing Yoga, Yoga Activist …How do you read this situation? And what do you think about the connection between yoga and activism, yoga in service of social justice, does it work? Is it a real alternative?
Be Scofield, who founded Decolonizing Yoga, has argued convincingly that there are no dependable correlations between any spiritual practice and progressive, anti-oppressive citizenship, and further, that believing there are causes great social harm. I’m with her on that.
Yoga practice, however earnest, will only be earnest according to the practitioner’s pre-existing values and social milieu. Two equally earnest practitioners can easily think of each other as being garbage people. Ethics gleaned from several-times-removed translations of Iron Age meditation texts can never offer a stable morality for late capitalism. Neither pre-modern nor modern yoga explicitly teaches us about rape culture or white supremacy or deep ecology.
Moreover, look how easy it is for alt-right charismatics to infiltrate the yoga space with parodies of self-awareness or self care. Witness the rise of Jordan Peterson as a guru to many yoga bros, or how many yoga people go bananas when Marianne Williamson announces a narcissistic bid for the White House.
People ask: why is Scofield, a trans activist (among other things) interested in yoga at all in a social justice context? She’s a Martin Luther King scholar, and understands religio-spiritual organizations less as moral structures than as power structures. There’s embodied energy and money and privilege in the studio and service network. Yoga isn’t a force for social change because breathing deeply makes you suddenly recognize that Steve Bannon is a liar and the promises of populism are corrupt. It’s a force because it organizes money and time and attention. But administrators who want to mobilize that towards the common good have to stick their necks out by actively politicizing their spaces.
For me the real relationship between yoga and social justice is that the former gives me the resilience to undertake the latter. I was a really good yoga practitioner while still way more of a racist than I am now. Taking care of my internal ecology made it easier for me to learn about and engage with my white privilege. But that learning came from PoC activists, not from Patanjali.
As for the yearning for authenticity and purity, I believe we have to look at two things —
First: late capitalism hollows out anything that we would understand as original, from land use to inherited culture, and sell it back to us. When people long for authenticity and purity in a yoga practice, I believe that they are longing for a stable sense of self, something that can be trusted within, something they didn’t have to buy.
There are no authority or purity claims, no matter how loudly trumpeted, that can truly satisfy this ache. In fact, the louder a claim is performed, I believe, the more it conceals its doubt. It’s not an accident that the Kundalini celebrity who proclaims yoga to be 40,000 years old has to wear a jewelled crown while she’s saying it, ostensibly to feel certain about it.
Second: the yearning for authenticity and purity intersects very easily with nationalism and even fascism. That’s what we can detect with some of the Hindutva claims around the supposedly eternal and unchanging Hindu nature of yoga practice, as if Jains, Buddhist, and Muslims don’t practice. It’s tragic to see white social justice activists jump on board with this, thinking that they are supporting an inclusive or anti-racist politics. I believe their longing for something noble and trustworthy is being manipulated.
Looking closely at this relation between yoga and neoliberal ideology, it seems to me clear how yoga is sold as a technique of self-development, a tool of optimization of our capabilities. In this sense it risks reinforcing the neoliberal concept of selfhood: we are constantly pushed to be a better version of ourselves, we are obsessed with the idea that we can do more, that we can be more than who we are. Perfectionism and success are our daily mantra. How can we escape from that? How about if we raise the idea of failure for example?
Perhaps you’re not thinking of it this way, but my worry with the concept of “failure” as a restorative is that it can also be mobilized by neoliberalism as a temporary experience of vulnerability through which we are meant to find renewed strength. It’s demanded of us, in fact. So when we’re asked to “lean into” our tenderness or be grateful about things falling apart — as per Pema Chödrön — I sometimes feel as if disappointment and even trauma themselves are being stolen by the machine of self-improvement.
The crude form of neoliberalism says that failure is not an option. The sophisticated form, marketed to us by what sometimes sounds to me like a co-opted feminism, says that failure and tenderness is something through which we can find transcendent strength, not by resisting it, but by fully surrendering to it.
The only pathway out of this that I can feel personally is to relax — when it’s relaxing — into some kind of existential mundaneness. I recognize and accept my suffering, my mental health fluctuations, my trauma. I don’t brush them away, nor do I view them as opportunities to sell myself remedies or encourage others to brighten up. At times it feels like I’m valuing a state of normalized depression, but there’s something more real about this, and therefore more stable and comforting, than the bipolar oscillation of the culture at large. I say this all recognizing that being able to bear “normalized depression” is a mark of privilege that many won’t have.
Isn’t this pressure on the individual another way to cover institutional and political mistakes and deficiencies? If you are unemployed, poor, ill, whatever, they let you think that it is your responsibility because you made the wrong choice, and this is such a pervasive message. So even if we appreciate the work that yoga can do in service of social justice, challenging stereotypes and working on inclusivity, how can we address these questions on a political level? What can we do to get a real institutional response?
Part of the answer is to de-Americanize the conversation. I don’t know what it’s like in Italy, but I can tell you that the differences between US and Canadian yoga discourses are notable. Not on social media, but in actual classrooms and training venues. It makes sense that American Yoga is far more anxious — and therefore more evangelical — than what we have and feel in a country with universal health care.
The global yoga market and its media is dominated by citizens of a country that has forgotten the last shreds of expectation in relation to the common good. American yoga people literally have to practice harder and with more idealization than almost anyone else, because nobody is taking care of them in a structural sense.
I think this is why American yoga also has to tend towards the anti-intellectual: it lives in a place that makes no sense. And it generates a pressure that neatly overlaps with the survivalist mentality of entrepreneurs like Iyengar and Bikram, whose self-narratives both involve solitary recoveries from illness through their intensive yoga practice.
But the Americans also have some great non-profit yoga organizations that are actively attracting international membership. I mentioned the Yoga Service Council. And a lot of people don’t like the Yoga Alliance, and there’s a lot of history there, and it is not free of its American biases. But at the same time it holds enormous potential for facilitating a global conversation and sharing of resources.
Beyond that, there’s the regulatory discussion, which is currently also dominated by American yoga libertarianism, but which might come into sharper focus once it’s more widely acknowledged that virtually all yoga communities have unresolved histories of abuse. If yoga teaching becomes a licensed profession in the US or elsewhere, it will automatically begin to distinguish itself from neoliberal personal responsibility and move towards a more collective type of responsibility. This might not lead to overt politicization, but I can imagine that if yoga teachers were part of an American Psychological Association type structure — something with more heft than bling — they would actually feel a little more coherent in relation to social and political issues.
How can we rethink the concept of self-care and care for the others in the era of ‘the wellness syndrome’ where yoga is ‘the way’ to feel good and be healthy? Since yoga is a social practice, and as practitioners we reflect and incorporate the value of the environment in which we practice, how important is community and how the concept of care can be lived and experienced today in our community of practitioners?
It’s no secret that one of the most pernicious bits of propaganda that the wellness industry promotes is the notion that health is a personal concern and accomplishment. This is not true. There is very little space between herd health and personal health, no matter how much we bubble ourselves in technology or aseptic gentrification. I don’t think that mainstream yoga is a social practice, yet. Or at least it’s something that many people do together but alone. This is where the value of the non-mainstream communities discussed above comes into vibrant relief.
We have to be aware that late capitalism functions by commodifying literally everything. This includes concepts like “community” or “tribe”, which very often these days stand in for “branded market” or “downstream assets”. It doesn’t help when charismatic leaders promote what Kelly Diels calls the “Female Lifestyle Empowerment Brand” to manipulate social isolation as they build pyramid-style sales forces.
For me the antidote to this is to do hard self-inquiry into the question of why you want to be around people who are more like you than not. Can we find the daylight between community as “lifestyle choices our social status lets us make together”, and community as the “place where I actually live with others and our differences”? This comes up for me when I realize that I’m spending more time in yoga studios than in community centres, like the one where I play handball with men who don’t care about yoga. They care about their wages, strike actions, road works, and the schools their children go to.
In your work on WAWADIA you pose the essential question of ‘What Are We Actually Doing in Asana?’ Body and movement are key elements of the discussion. How can we live through the yoga practice an embodied idea of subjectivity. I mean, how do we shift from ‘the body that we have’ (the useful body that society require from us) to ‘the body that we are’? Can yoga work against a depersonalization of the body? And how can we experience, in the practice, a movement that is not staged, performative and finalized?
To repeat and rephrase a little, I’d say that trauma-sensitive discourse brings us back to interoception, and therefore away from visual epistemology, where being real means being seen. The trauma discourse makes sensation the reality principle.
Yes, yoga can work against depersonalization. But we have to be careful from at least two different angles. Trance states related to the Ganzfeld Effect or repetitive motions or chanting can actually lead to depersonalization or dissociation, especially for people who carry heavy trauma loads. In a way, this can work in favour of the dominant paradigm, as you suggest. Donald Trump is totally cool with yoga people checking out. After all, he depends upon his own people falling into altered states as well.
Secondly, depersonalization can itself be spiritualized as the out-of-body or transcendent gift of practice. In cultic systems, this is easily and often used as a gateway to compliance. Yuval Laor, who studies the evolution of religiosity, argues that when these moments of euphoria lead to sensations of “knowing everything” the practitioner may be gripped with awe, which, if it leads to fervour, can be easily manipulated.
I’m glad you’re talking about the “useful” body — and its discontents. Something to watch out for as the “functional movement” discourse gets more deeply embedded in the yoga world — for good reason, as it will increase physical safety — is that it might reinforce the notion that bodies are worthy or even sacred to the extent that they are productive and efficient.
This could be terrible for women and minorities. There’s a lot of people who don’t need to be more productive. They need to be seen and heard and respected as they are.
This functionality theme is also quietly opening up an entirely new front in the cultural appropriation debate, because the functionality of good citizenship was arguably not the point of the medieval traditions that helped inspire what Mark Singleton calls the “Mysore Asana Revival”.
Yoga today is mainly sold a way to ‘fit-in’, an easy self-help tool for spiritual consolation, stress-relief or increasing productivity, a mean to survive in our ‘automatic’ society. So does it still make any sense to talk about moksha, to talk about yoga as a personal and collective transformative practice? Do we have any space of resistance?
What I can add to the above comments is that moksha as a term does seem to have completely disappeared from contemporary yoga discourse. I know because I talk to teachers and trainees all the time. Perhaps it’s because taking it seriously presupposes beliefs in samsara and reincarnation. But I also believe that its disappearance is a mark of how the wellness aspect of yoga, and its seamless integration with spa culture, is a very effective way of erasing death and reinforcing the propaganda that life has no costs, or at least that costs can all be externalized, or paid for in goji berries.
However — has the drive towards moksha disappeared entirely? I don’t believe so. I don’t think we’ve changed that much. We may be better at medicating it away with technology and consumerism than previously, but my bet is that many people still crave some kind of ultimate release. And whether the term moksha is uttered or not, yoga spaces have the potential of encouraging contemplation on what it might mean or feel like.
Finally, which is your idea about the future of yoga? Where are we going? What do we need to work on both as individuals and as a community of practitioners and human beings?
At the risk of repeating myself, and suggesting that I have good answers:
I believe we need to work on trauma awareness, dismantling ableism, moving towards yoga service instead of the hoarding of private religion.
We need to flip “Practice and all is coming” into “Serve and be connected.”
We need to listen to the other, and do this in conjunction with listening to the estranged other within us, silenced by the tyranny of happiness.
We need to platform the voices that celebrity, privilege, and ableism have silenced.
We need to listen to how trauma victims have healed themselves — to the extent they have — and take note of what help they needed, what relationships were restorative to them. They are the canaries in the coal mine of the culture, as Theo Wildcroft says. They can tell us about the deepest patterns of life. They can help us realize, as Anneke Lucas points out, how we ourselves might be traumatized in ways we do not recognize. Of course we want to offer them whatever they need, because we suspect that we will need it too — if not now, than surely some day.
Thank you so much for these wonderful questions.
On September 10th, the all-volunteer IYNAUS Ethics Committee met to consider an allegation of in-class sexual assault brought by Iyengar teacher Ann West against Advanced Senior Iyengar teacher Manouso Manos. They ruled to dismiss the allegation for lack of evidence.
Manos currently holds a seat on the Senior Council of IYNAUS. At least one of the Ethics Committee members is a long term student of Manos, enrolled in his three year Iyengar Yoga Therapeutics course.
The ruling, along with notes from that meeting, show that the committee glossed over past allegations against Manos. They questioned West’s perceptions of the incident, but found Manos’s explanation of his intentions plausible. One member suggested the committee punt the file to the Iyengar family in Pune.
The most recent allegation against Manos was first made public by KQED:
Ann West was performing an advanced backbend at a yoga workshop when her teacher came over and stroked her breasts and nipples, she said. He did it, she said, in a way “that could only be described as a caress.”
In the KQED report, yoga teacher Charlotte Bell makes a similar allegation, previously unreported, about an interaction with Manos in 1988. The allegations from West and Bell are similar to several others made in a 1991 investigative report by the San Jose Mercury News.
The meeting notes also document a previously unreported 2014 ethics complaint against Manos, “for using inappropriate language with sexual connotations during a class.” According to the notes, the Committee reviewed the incident and reported it to B.K.S. Iyengar, who asked Manos to apologize. Iyengar died later that year.
In 1990, Iyengar had pardoned Manos for actions later reported, or similar to those reported, in the San Jose Mercury News. This pardon reinstalled Manos at the Iyengar Yoga Institute of San Franscisco, prompting the resignation of several senior teachers, including Judith Lasater.
The four-member Ethics Committee dismissed West’s allegation primarily for lack of eyewitnesses. This was the standard of evidence despite the fact that the assault allegedly occurred in a posture in which class participants were all upside down, rolling back and forth on the crowns of their heads.
Committee members considered three pieces of corroborating evidence provided by West, but determined they were insufficient. (As in the case of the allegation brought by Dr. Ford against Brett Kavanaugh, the corroboration came from individuals West told about the alleged assault prior to taking formal action.)
The meeting notes show that committee members first decided that West’s allegation was unsupported, then reasoned that the reports of Manos’s misconduct from 1991 and 2014 were irrelevant.
“The past history,” they wrote, “would have significantly impacted the nature of sanctions if there were a determination of an ethical violation beyond reasonable doubt in the present case.”
It seems, however, that committee members weren’t clear on that history. They either didn’t read the 1991 report, or they accepted Manos’s denial of its findings.
The notes record that when asked about the 1991 report, Manos told the committee “The complaint on me from the 80s was for sleeping with my students. I am not and never have been a groper or molester.”
“Although there are no official records,” the notes echo, “the newspaper article and recent statement from IYNAUS shows that Mr. MM was sanctioned in 1992 for sexual misconduct i.e., “sleeping with his students.”
The committee is referring to a statement from IYNAUS president David Carpenter. The San Jose Mercury News article dates to 1991; Carpenter does not mention 1992. Carpenter also acknowledges that the earlier allegations included that Manos had “inappropriately touched students in class.”
The Mercury News report is more specific:
According to three separate sources familiar with the case, all of whom insisted on anonymity, Manos allegedly rubbed his pelvis against women students in a sexually provocative way as the women were doing yoga poses, touched them in private places during classes under the guise of pose adjustments, and asked certain women students individually into an institute classroom after group classes, where, behind closed doors, he performed sexually charged physical manipulations, and had intercourse.
The meeting notes show that although West’s allegation was dismissed, committee members tried to account for her experience. They appealed to a framework for sexual assault that relies upon speculating about the perceptions of the accuser and the intentions of the accused.
Committee chair Manju Vachher wrote in her ruling letter that “although there was insufficient data to prove that there was an ethical violation, we understand that while there was no intention of harm, actions can unknowingly cause pain.” To underscore the point she quoted an aphorism from Prashant Iyengar, son of B.K.S.: “What was taught (intended) and what was learned (received) are often two different things”.
The meeting notes refer to West’s “perception” ten times, and Manos’s “intention” seven times. According to the meeting notes, the subjective quality of the former made West’s allegation discountable to committee members, while the uncertain quality of the latter exonerated Manos in their eyes. “We do not have a direct or verifiable proof of his intention,” they write.
Experts define sexual assault as unwanted sexual contact with a person’s body. Many emphasize that the power differential between the two people is a key factor in assault. There are no standard definitions that rely on perceptions or intentions.
Having defined sexual assault through the framework of perception and intentionality, the committee then speculated on why West’s perceptions might be confused, and Mano’s intentions might be misperceived.
The notes speculate that West’s fear of Manos coloured her allegation, rather than being the result of the alleged incident.
One member noted that Manos “has ways of expression that can be offensive to some. [Manos] is a strong personality and students who don’t know him may take issue with some of his mannerisms, his way of expressing himself.”
“MM does have a strong teaching presence,” noted another member, “demanding the student’s attention to the practice. To [Ann West], this is interpreted as bullying and abusive and she states set her in a state of fear. This attitude would color how she interpreted his teachings and particularly any physical adjustments he made.”
Vachher’s ruling letter said that West’s allegation of sexual assault “highlights the complexities of a student-teacher relationship.”
One committee member suggested that to sort out this complexity, the committee should recuse itself, implying that Manos may hold it in low esteem.
“I think this needs to go to the Iyengars,” one member said. “My feeling is that [Manos] would benefit from council of those he holds in high regard.”
West says that she’s considering an appeal.
Talking with Carmen Spagnola about Attachment, High-Demand Groups, Responsibilism, and Grief (Transcript)
We talked about the intersection of aspirational and high-demand groups, getting over the guilt and shame of privilege-recognition, the somatic affect of charisma and how it leads to weird group habitus and the paradox of having to “market” things like community.
Carmen totally cracked me up when she described some of the well-intentioned jargon taking root in the deep ecology / revillaging circles she runs in. We talked about how highly evocative but undefinable terms like “grief-soaked” can brand a newly-commodified activism while also shutting down real-world convos. No, people probably don’t really talk like that. And when they do, there’s probably a little bit of trying-to-sell-shit-to-each-other going on. And loaded language is always a red flag for high-demand dynamics.
My favourite bits were when she asked me about how I stay connected to yoga practice while studying high-demand yoga groups, and how I manage rage and grief. This made me think about how I don’t actually know how well I’m taking care of myself — I mean, how would I? — even after all these years of yoga and meditation. Also it allowed me to describe how I have to split my brain in several ways in order to quarantine off certain things to get on with it.
I found the process of stumbling through answers to those two difficult questions was quite healing. Continue reading “Talking with Carmen Spagnola about Attachment, High-Demand Groups, Responsibilism, and Grief (Transcript)”
The outgoing “Kalapa Council” — the Board of Directors for Shambhala International — sent out a newsletter on Saturday. The newsletter was meant to clarify the role played by the Halifax legal firm, Wickwire Holm, in an internal investigation of possible sexual misconduct within Shambhala’s leadership, including the allegations against the spiritual leader of the organization, Ösel Mukpo.
The Shambhala investigation doubles up on the third-party investigative work of The Buddhist Project Sunshine, which has ignited a firestorm of controversy throughout the organization. Shambhala International has not denied any of the findings of the BPS, although a key leader has tried to discredit the motivations of the investigators, claiming they are staging an “attack upon the Mukpo family”. Continue reading “Shambhala Investigator Tells Sakyong Accusers Not to Talk to Anyone”
I was speaking with the survivor of a high-demand group. They described having been recruited by a family within the group that had offered them a job.
In time, the requirements of the job began to blend with the requirements of the group. Within a few months, the subject found themselves thinking that they were somehow still in the job, but had also become intrinsic to the centre of the group. This felt both special and strange. Ultimately they went on to suffer abuse at the hands of the group’s leader, from which they’ve spent the rest of their lives recovering.
In essence, the person I was talking to described being deceived, which is cult tactic 101. She showed up for a job, was asked to begin to interact with the group as an implied condition of ongoing employment, and was told that the group’s leader would offer her enlightenment. It wasn’t true.
They asked me:
So do you think that the family had planned all along to bring me in, and for those things to happen to me?
I could hear the tenderness of the question. Behind it was the terrible thought that perhaps this family, with whom they had bonded, had purposefully and callously betrayed her.
This was a question about evil.
I offered that neither of us could have a real clinical insight into the family. Even if we did, I said, it wouldn’t resolve the question of their intentions. We can never fully say why people do things, or whether they’re doing things in good faith, or with full agency.
I always find it easier, I said, to focus on impacts.
But the feeling of the subject’s question twigged something inside me.
There was a horror to it, a shame, a sense of claustrophobia. And contagion.
Can people really be so awful?
These are all feelings that also exude from the more common question that survivors ask. This would be the self-accusatory question: “How did I fall for that?” Or, “How could I have been so stupid?”
The self-accusatory questions show the internalization of the victim-blaming that fuels the wider culture. Which, in its most domesticated state, serves as the basic logic of neoliberalism.
It touches the root of a primal shame: Why did I deserve that?
Self-blame is bolstered by various legal, economic, and journalistic conventions that don’t have the tools (and perhaps don’t want them) to investigate the difference between consent and informed consent, or situations of trauma in which the fold response can broadcast false consent.
The things you said yes to because saying yes was safer than saying no.
Okay. So when this feeling of shame comes over the ex high-demand group member, here are two facts that cannot be denied:
1) They didn’t deserve it. Nobody deserves to be lied to and abused.
2) There are no predictors for why they got drawn in. There is no research to suggest there’s a particular “vulnerable type” who is more prone to recruitment. Nothing protects a person against deception. It doesn’t matter if you had an abusive childhood. (That wouldn’t be your fault either.) There are many people who have had abusive childhoods don’t wind up in cults.
Having wound up in a cult can feel like a personal failing. But it’s not. It’s more like having been infected by a virus.
According to Stein’s model of cult-as-disorganized-attachment-machine, part of the infected member’s condition is to believe that the source of the sickness is also the cure.
So let’s bring this back to the subject’s question: “Do you think that the family had planned all along to bring me in?”
That first, pragmatic answer still holds true: there’s no way of knowing.
But can we say anything else — something that sounds a little less like a shrug — to relieve the burden of having to ponder a terrible betrayal?
If we use the virus metaphor, perhaps we say that the subject got hired into a contagious environment. Perhaps the family didn’t even know they were infected. They were part of the group, after all, because they too, at some point, had been deceived.
The main difference between the subject and the family that hired her may have been that the family had incubated the group virus for long enough that they themselves were contagious in their daily actions. They may not even have recognized they are symptomatic.
My point is: wondering whether recruiters are evil shares space with the victim-blaming impulse. Both depend on the premise that personal agency — and therefore, the capacity for informed consent — remains intact in relation to a cult, even though the cult runs on deception. Both depend on the premise that personal choices are the prime movers of cultic involvement and action, rather than a kind of social contagion.
A good metaphor gives us space for working on the questions of the heart. But as much as cult-as-virus idea might relieve the survivor of self-blame — and, if they want to go there, the traumatic conviction that they were betrayed — it has a hard limit. A virus does not excuse criminal activity.
And, as an amorphic, amoral, depersonalized thing, the virus shares characteristics with the chaotic and naturalistic forces of “karma”, by which criminality has so often escaped scrutiny and accountability in yoga and Buddhism groups.
But if we don’t take it too far, there’s another reason to like the metaphor. It might let us think of cult awareness education as a kind of vaccination programme.
Reading a good cult analysis book is actually a lot like getting a sharp pinch in the arm. (Here’s an amazing bibliography.) It stings, burns, maybe swells a bit. You know the vaccine contains tiny bits of the virus itself, suspended inertly in the medium.
Every good cult book I know has been written by someone who had to develop their own antibodies.
So: a few regular, highly-researched shots in the arm. It should be enough arms to offer herd immunity to those who don’t have access to the information. It’ll be good to keep up to date, and pay the experts to watch for mutations.