Jonah, Matsyendra, Jivana Heyman, and Northrop Frye: Keynote Address to the Accessible Yoga Conference, Toronto, 2018
Given in the Victoria College Chapel,
University of Toronto,
May 23, 2018
I want to thank Jivana for inviting me to make a few remarks here today, near the closing of this groundbreaking event.
Fun fact: I used to go to school here. I dropped out. There were a number of reasons, not the least of which was that I couldn’t at the time see what the point was, what kind of job or living could come from a literature degree.
I didn’t want to break a spell. I’d spent several years reading books in these rooms, immersed in a dreamlike experience that shone a light into some internal space. It was like the sweet spot in a yoga career. I didn’t want to wake up and be productive. I wasn’t so interested in achieving anything. I didn’t want to perform, or conform. Maybe these sentiments sound resonant to some of you after this weekend – especially if you took the training earlier this week.
Just downstairs, I would go to the lectures of Northrop Frye in the year before he died. Frye was a famous Canadian intellectual. You Americans and others we’re hosting here might be familiar with a more recent and even more famous, and much wealthier Canadian intellectual, also tenured at this University. I’ll just say that Frye was very different from the current celebrity: he didn’t become rich and famous by mocking the emotions of marginalized people or by dismissing their needs, which the dominant culture already makes invisible – such the need of trans people to be recognized as who they are.
Like our current celebrity, Frye was also a Christian, and he appreciated Jung. But you can be sure that if he was still alive he’d be marching down Church Street this weekend in the PRIDE Parade.
Frye was truly a thinker, and a generous one – a literary critic and theorist who articulated several revelatory ideas that forever changed the way a lot of people read books.
He was a United Church minister, but his ideas were pretty yogic. One was the notion, broadly stated, that there are no single books in the world. It’s like the covers that separate books on shelves are simply there to allow you to pick them up more easily. Each person’s work, Frye argued, fit into a “continuity of the word”, reiterating and expanding upon primal themes handed down through the mythic frameworks by which societies live and grow. It wasn’t the critic’s job to judge an individual book so much as was to give it voice within its proper context, to see how it fit into the whole landscape of human dreams, how it mobilized the forms of the past for new purposes. He didn’t see himself as a gatekeeper of what was correct or proper, but as a facilitator of imaginative experience. That has inspired me throughout my life.
I’m opening with this recollection here, because I believe Jivana and his colleagues are doing the same thing with this organization, this movement. They look at bodies and consciousness in the way Frye looked at literature – as one broad continuum of potential experience. They aren’t high-brow. They are not gatekeepers. They don’t believe in gates, unless they’re already open.
I think you’ve gotten the download this weekend on what Accessible Yoga teaches, so I’ll take a moment to get more specific about what Frye taught. The class I took downstairs walked us through the repeating motifs of Biblical imagery, and the recurrent peaks and valleys of human joy and trouble. He showed how these patterns spun out into the present day in novels and films. In his lectures he would punctuate his intricate theory with examples that sent shivers up my spine. This was another yoga preview for me.
For instance: he said that the Jewish listener, hearing that Jesus was laid in the tomb, would have recalled the fable of Jonah being swallowed whole by the whale. Both men shared a temporary death, and then emerged from the darkness after three days with a message from the deep.
I remember listening to this comparison in a trance state and focusing on the sensations that both stories evoked: darkness, cold and wet. I had this deep embodied sense that the feelings and textures of those experiences were the actual treasure, and that I had access to them as well, even though I wasn’t a hero. That made me shiver, again.
Years later, Frye came back to me in my yoga studies when I first heard the story of Matsyendranath, who was said to be the founder of Hathayoga. You know “fish pose”? This is the guy. Early 10th century.
Matsyendra was said to have been born under an evil star. In Jyotisha (or East Indian astrology), this would be a portent for madness, demonic possession. Or in contemporary terms: mental health challenges. So his parents dumped him out of a boat, and into the sea.
Let’s just pause to note here that this part of the history of Hathayoga begins with a story of childhood abandonment and trauma. It begins with the story of someone being judged, marginalized and made invisible. It begins with the story of someone being plunged into a world in which they cannot be free, and kept there because those who should care for him, who can care for him, do not.
I think Northrop Frye would have a lot to say about how many of us here today find this medieval story to be resonant, and how many of us have repeated it through our lives, in ways both large and small, like a mythic refrain. Frye would also be tuned in to how this story unfolds in real time: as when, for instance, some children, because they don’t belong, are thrown not into the sea, but locked in cages in empty Wal-Marts in the desert.
Like Jonah, Matsyendra is swallowed up by a great fish — a matsya — which is how he gets his name. Indian stories always go a little overboard – so instead of the mere three days that Jonah and Jesus spend submerged, Matsyendra is in that whale for twelve years. That’s because he has a lot to learn. The whale takes him down to the bottom of the sea, and hovers, apparently sleeping, beside a bubble that’s glowing with golden light. Inside that bubble sit Siva and Parvati, together. They have retreated from the visible world to discuss the secrets of yoga. Through the ribs of the whale, the boy listens in rapt attention to a conversation he wasn’t meant to hear, but which will help him build his life and sense of self.
To review: Matsyendra’s parents tried to kill him. When he was born, they saw something about him that confused them, made them disgusted. He was so different they needed to make him disappear. By luck or grace, he is swallowed by something that looks and feels like death, but which protects him. In the belly of the whale, he descends into the living sea and overhears a divine mother and father discussing the methods by which he might reconnect with his fundamental self-worth.
It was because I took that class with Northrop Frye that I could connect with the feelings held within Matsyendra’s story. The people and times and purposes are different, but there is a series of core sensations around which a transformational moment occurs. An archetype can be conveyed through words and images – but these are all wrapped around feeling states. Jonah, Jesus, and Matsyendra – all probably trauma survivors, also maybe non-neurotypical – all felt the same cool, enclosed darkness. They were held there, immobilized. They all learned something from it.
And of course women did as well. And trans people. But that’s another speech.
Why am I telling you all this? Perhaps you can already sense the strange connection between what Frye helped people understand about mythology, and what Jivana and his colleagues have helped us understand about bodies and sensations and consciousness. Across ages and cultures, we share archetypal feelings. If we pay attention to them, they reveal something about our lives. When Jivana teaches Fish posture, the details of the form aren’t important. They are circumstantial. The details are performed by bodies that are different from each other, and perpetually changing.
He’s not sharing the details. He is sharing the archetypes of sensation: extending, opening, closing, compressing. He’s sharing how those sensations create meaning and relief. And he’s saying that it doesn’t matter who you are or where you come from or what your body is like now, or how old you are, or what your trauma load is: these archetypes of sensation are your birthright, and any spirituality that makes them inaccessible is actually no spirituality at all.
I’m telling you all of this for another reason, which is to situate why I am here. I mean, I’m not exactly sure why I’m here, but I’ll give my best guess. I’m definitely not here to talk about cults. You’re welcome. Although Jivana… if people start calling you Swami Jivanaji, we’ll have to have a chat.
I’m also not here as someone who identifies as having a disability – although I will have disabilities in the future: that’s guaranteed. I’m here as a yoga practitioner, and as a cultural interpreter and critic. And if I can emulate Frye just a bit, it’s by focusing on context more than judgment and declaration. I’d like to suggest that Accessible Yoga is continuous with the oldest forms of self-inquiry. And so, as in the Bible or the Indian Puranas, it recycles some very old values. At the same time, it expands upon those themes in such a way that the entire culture could be transformed. Jivana is not just serving an unmet need, or filling a niche market. He’s changing what the practice actually has to offer to everybody. He’s adding a chapter to a wisdom tradition where the books have no covers.
I’ll switch gears now to describe how Accessible Yoga has changed my life, even through brief contact, even as a temporarily able-bodied person. It’s done so in a uniquely yogic way: by helping me see through an illusion.
When I first started yoga, about ten years after that class with Northrop Frye, I was enthralled by the relief it offered. Within a few classes of feeling that breathing and movement could be mobilized to meditate on my basic human condition, I felt a kind of armor dissolving. I felt relief from the burden of an isolation and individualism I didn’t even know I was carrying. I immediately felt more porous and open to others.
And then I made a mistake. Or, more accurately, I was fooled by the capitalism of modern yoga. I falsely attributed those sensations to the specific techniques of the class, the method – more importantly, to the whole vibe and aesthetic. To the way things looked. To the marketing. And I wanted to buy more.
This was not by accident. My first yoga class was in the original Yogazone studio in Manhattan. For those of you who don’t know, Yogazone was founded by Alan Finger, whose family goes way back in the yogaworld. In the 1990s, I’m told Finger was good friends with Michael Gordon, the founder of Bumble and Bumble, whose hair products studio was in the same building. Finger was also a photographer with an eye for fashion. Before Lululemon, there was Yogazone wear – which was pretty much the same, except for the gusseting, the little pockets and flares. The people modelling the clothes in wild yoga postures set a now-familiar standard – and many of them also modelled hair for Bumble and Bumble upstairs. I’m not joking. The globalization of modern yoga has always been tangled up in notions of the body beautiful, fashion, the performance of zen detachment, and gentrification.
And objectification and sexualization and gender essentialism… but that’s another speech. I hope to hear Sarit Rogers give it sometime from the perspective of yoga photography, if she hasn’t already.
Those first years of my yoga experience were tangled up in something else, so pervasive it was completely invisible. Everyone in that shiny world was young and athletic. Why didn’t I clue into that? Was it because that’s what I wanted to be? Because it was a plausible enough ideal for me to want to pay to be part of it?
Not everyone was doing yoga glam – I also got hooked into various Iyengar circles in which people were given therapeutic options and the demographic was older. But these were marginal spaces. The public face of yoga belonged to those who performed grace and virtue through intricate and artful postures. None of them had disabilities. Not visible ones, anyway.
As I watched and imitated my teachers and the colleagues I was jealous of, I became confused. I got swept up into the performance of postures, and left behind the sensations that had actually awakened me to some deeper core of my life. I lost touch with simple, archetypal sensations in a neurotic hunt to reproduce them through increasingly difficult postures. I began associating yoga with complex movements and gestures that I prayed would show me some simple thing that I was forgetting. Over time, and without recognizing it, I had stopped practicing yoga, and had started anxiously exercising my ableist privilege.
So here’s a punchline: I had made yoga inaccessible to myself, while I was practicing postures that were inaccessible to most people, and while I was under the illusion that everyone should be able to do what I was doing. I didn’t think about the ramifications of all of this performance stuff for people who weren’t like me. But at the same time, it could all feel so terrible and empty. No wonder so many of us got so disillusioned.
Actually: it was really market capitalism that made the yoga inaccessible. And globalization. Because how were Finger and the Jois family and Choudhury and Iyengar and John Friend going to expand their content and market share without making up levels of attainment and competence? How were they going to sell anything without continually dangling a carrot in front of our inadequacy? And when the goal is continually pushed forward and upward, who but the most privileged would be able to reach it?
It took me about ten minutes of listening to Jivana at the Yoga Service Conference last month to have a startling thought: the modern yoga industry is a $20B ableist pyramid scheme. (As with Indian myth, I tend to go overboard. Also: so much for avoiding judgment and declaration!)
Jivana seems so calm and placid, but really, he’s shaking the foundations of that pyramid. It’s not just him – it’s all of you really, in your various ways. You’ve all dedicated yourselves in one way or another to the decommodification of self-inquiry. And it’s revolutionary.
Ask yourselves this, given all of the work your doing: how will yoga teachers of the future think of the yoga path as something to progress upon instead of something that unfolds uniquely, but archetypally, within bodies that are different from each other?
The Trauma Sensitive Yoga movement, to take an example, reminds us over and over again that 1 in 4 human beings carry Type 1 or Type 2 trauma loads, and many think that that statistic is low. That fact alone reveals every bit of yoga media content and marketing that focuses on skill accumulation, performance, demonstration, and prowess for exactly what it is: a glorification of inaccessibility.
But the Trauma Sensitive movement – a subset of the Accessibility movement – tells us something else, something older. It tells us that the body remembers. The body forms itself around its inner and outer conditions. The body is a record of experience that should be listened to. It tells us that Matsyendra needed care, he needed access to teaching, even if he was invisible. Perhaps moreso, BECAUSE he was invisible. He didn’t need fancy postures. He didn’t need Bumble and Bumble, although some shampoo and conditioner might have been nice after all that time in the whale.
Let me take this a step further.
When I facilitate training modules in yoga history and, at some point I try to steer the conversation around to an old word at the heart of many yoga traditions: moksha. The literal translation is something like “unbinding, loosening, unknotting” – which is both cool and strange, given that a key meaning of “yoga” is to bind things together.
I always tell trainees, however, about an eccentric translation one of my teachers gave me: he said that moksha meant “the end of infatuation”. I tell the trainees this while we discuss the meanings and politics of yoga on Instagram, of yoga in the age of performance, of yoga as something we are told we are doing if it looks right. These are all things that dampen those internal sensations, even while their glare makes so many people invisible.
I’ve been fortunate enough to have experienced many “ends of infatuation”. I’ve been infatuated – brainwashed really – by ways of thinking about the world and other people that have been blinded by privilege. This has taken a long time to face.
For instance: immersing myself in racial and gender justice resources disrupted my infatuation with the idea that the world was equal. I couldn’t be exposed to Black Lives Matter or #metoo for long without understanding that basic safety and dignity are simply not accessible to some people, because they are not like me. My basic safety and dignity are so assured, I don’t have to think about access needs. Before I really interrogated what being white gave me, what being male gave me, I was under the illusion that the world was made equally for everyone. I thought I was just living and acting and being rewarded according to my merits. I thought – not consciously, but stubbornly, with a sense of entitlement – that what this body could do was simply what should be done, which meant that bodies that couldn’t do those things, or who had to do them differently, were less-than me.
In the exact same way, I didn’t understand that the yoga and meditation practices I had encountered had also been made for me, for the money I had, for the way my body seemed to be, so natural and capable. That they could work as complimentary care to the other health services that I already had access to. That they had been crafted for export to suit my values and needs. That they were hosted in spaces that felt naturally welcoming to me in ways I didn’t even notice, and that just blended in with the rest of my gentrifying life. Oh look: a yoga studio, Right on: a health food store; Cool: a microbrewery; Yay: David’s Tea!
I didn’t realize that when yoga came into English-speaking countries, it was bent and twisted to resonate with my values, my hang-ups, my culture, to attract my dollars. Not that there’s anything wrong with things that change. I was under an illusion – that I was going out and pursuing something difficult and/or authentic. That was partially true. I didn’t realize that it was also a commodity, and that I was consuming it like other commodities.
Jivana faces this down in a way that makes this all sink in for me, although I’m sure it’s nothing new for you. The body can be racialized and gendered, and those constructs will intersect with abilities and non-abilities to create a spectrum of marginalizations. He’s showing me that those marginalizations dehumanize everyone. He’s showing me that really listening to the needs of people with different bodies and nervous systems from mine does way more for my soul and the world than trying to get better at postures or meditation.
So here’s my latest flicker of moksha – of the lifting of infatuation. I once blindly believed that a spiritual practice should, naturally, serve and reflect and challenge my able-bodiedness, rather than help me see it as temporary, illusory, and socially constructed as valuable. I now understand it as something to share the advantages of, while I have it.
So one of the most precious things I believe Accessible Yoga points to is that we can reach through the display and armoring of privilege, to find a place where the gifts of yoga can be shared. The world might be seduced by spectacles of racial, class-based, gendered, and ableist oppression, but parallel to that spectacle – back stage, off stage even –there might be a simpler place, where yoga isn’t some hybrid of physics and engineering, Crossfit, and a glamour shoot. It’s a plain, everyday room where experience is simple, internal, and shared.
This all brings me back to Northrop Frye. Why did I start with him? To review: his whole opus was about making experiential connections across time and culture. This meant seeing how Jonah, Jesus – and I would argue Matsyendra – all went through something deep and cold and dark. To me, Jivana does something similar when he teaches cobra posture to a class where people practice with paralysis or three limbs or an anxiety disorder. He helps them all feel something archetypal in that spinal extension – even if it is only visualized. That shared experience – internal, performed for no one, and which is not about becoming better citizens but more fulfilled beings – brings us into a kind of union across time, space, and difference.
And the most cutting-edge thing of all about it? The way in which Accessible Yoga represents perhaps an integrated expression of yoga concerns? It’s that it is so perfectly about and within the body, but because bodies are so different, it simultaneously has to be about something beyond bodies that is shared and shareable. For Frye, this something beyond was myth. For Jivana this something beyond seems to be our sharable sensations of healing or enlightening experience.
Last thing I’ll say to close the circle on Frye. When I attended that last course he taught, he was in his late 70s. He was sharp as a tack, spoke in full paragraphs and sometimes pages, never from any notes, quoting chapter and verse from the Bible, Milton, Shakespeare or Henry James with a proficiency that I’ve never seen anywhere else, outside of watching the old priests in India chant the Veda. He was know for other forms of dexterity. My future father-in-law remembers passing by his office and hearing him typing at a crushing speed. He said it sounded like a machine gun. Frye had first come to the College in the late 1920s, having won a scholarship in a speed-typing competition.
But as I listened to him speak, I knew he was dying. He had trouble standing, though he stood there for an hour, so Anglo and stalwart. He had to be helped up and down the stairs to the dais. When he sipped water I thought I could hear dentures clicking close to the microphone.
If I am not suddenly disabled before I reach that age, I will be like that someday. However it happens, I will become intimate with those changes in my body in a way I cannot now imagine. I might die typing. But my fish pose might get very subtle, or be invisible to everyone but me.
When I was Jivana’s class at the Omega Institute last month, he taught us how to do a sun salutation against the wall. He said, “Imagine this is the only sun salutation that you are able to do.”
I suddenly started to cry. I realized that I was being given a kind of end-of-life care, preparing me for being unrecognizable to myself, for the dissolution of these privileges that I took to be essential to me, but the power and meaning of which are ultimately ephemeral.
Jivana didn’t do all of this work for me, obviously. He did it for people who need it. But there are ripple effects beyond his explicit audience.
One ripple is that the privileged are being invited to fine yoga underneath the ableism of their world. They are being invited to really contemplate who they would be without this particular body, brain, or mind. That may resonate with contemplating who they would be without this racialization, or that gendering. Who they would be if they were refugees, refugee children perhaps. If they were traumatized, if they weren’t self-sufficient, if their lives depended upon the care of others.
Those are powerful contemplations. On a social level, maybe they will lead to increased accessibility activism. But privately, they may lead the earnest practitioner into a direct confrontation with the core yoga questions that keep returning, like images from ancient myths:
“Who am I within or beyond this body?”
“How is this body changing?”
“How might this body feel differently, if people valued it differently?”
“How will it all end?”
Accessible Yoga is marketed as serving particular populations. But the secret is that it serves everyone.
Well played, Jivana, well played.
Accountability Or Apologia? Reading Between the Lines When Yoga and Buddhism Leaders Issue Crisis Statements
Many of today’s leaders in yoga and Buddhism built themselves through online marketing. This means that when abuse in their communities is revealed, they must be prepared to make online responses. It’s good to be able to see where the responses are continuous with the marketing: this may give clues as to how earnest, considered and educated those responses are.
The speed at which it all happens is both terrible and revealing. Terrible insofar as it suppresses sober second thought. Revealing because it lays bare microdynamics of cultic control that in the pre-digital age were invisible outside of the group. Today we can watch cults get penetrated by reporting and instantly try to circle the wagons. It’s easy to see the crude damage control of the attempt to discredit victims or reporters. What’s harder to see is how the reporting can be deflected by selective acknowledgement or yes-but statements. Whatever the responses are, they play out in the open field, like some kind of cult-exit obstacle course reality show.
We have to learn the difference between structural change and rebranding. Especially as people are getting better at co-opting and monetizing discourses around trauma-awareness and justice. There’s a lot of leaders in the Shambhala org right now who will be ramping up the trauma awareness language and dusting off their Naropa psychology chops. But if they don’t simultaneously call for the Sakyong to be removed and the org to be investigated independently, they are abusing that language and those tools. This may not at all be their fault. They may be under the illusion that those values actually came from the Trungpa legacy, instead of having been co-opted by it.
I’ve learned a lot about this through discussing the responses to the Jois revelations with Karen Rain. She’s really good at sniffing out when sober accountability pivots into self-inflation, what-about-me-ism, and wagon circling. She had to learn that in order to determine whether a space or encounter was safe. Here are some tips that have evolved from our conversations:
1. Look at the narrative arc of an acknowledgement statement. If it starts out expressing empathy for victims but then shifts to reaffirm the value of the abuser’s legacy, ask yourself “Why are those two things together?”
2. Look for self-aggrandizement in the statement, distinguishing how the speaker is so much more careful than the disgraced leader. This misses the point.
3. Look for the gambit of psychologically distancing oneself from what happened with statements like “I never saw him as a Guru.” If the person has materially profited by association, internal semantics aren’t that important.
4. Suss out the knee-jerk reasoning around “separating the teacher from the teaching”. It’s not so simple. It’s probably impossible. And chances are good the speaker is economically or socially dependent on the teaching structures, so the reasoning is highly motivated.
5. If the org lied about the teacher, ask if it also lied about the teachings. There’s usually pretty strong overlap.
6. Tune in to minimization and false equivalencies. “We’re all human.” Yes, but not all of us run or enable cults and break harassment, assault, and labour laws in the service of “crazy wisdom”.
7. If the speaker has family connections within the organization, imagine that for as much as they’re speaking about the org they are also negotiating a family crisis, with all of its compromises, in public.
8. Relatedly, if the speaker has logged many years in the org, their statement will always be a complex tight-rope walk between public discourse and in-group messaging. Be aware that with the latter task the speaker has to position themselves within a quickly-devolving social and economic landscape, often re-negotiating long-term relationships or finding out that old friends weren’t actually friends at all. They’re under a lot of stress. They might be looking for new jobs, or tuition costs of going back to grad school without health insurance. Don’t expect clarity.
9. Look for how the boundary blur between private and public selves drives the speaker into an unconscious narcissism. Mainstream yoga and Buddhism runs on the en masse commodification of the confessional voice, on the marketing of vulnerability and openness. This is at the heart of personal branding – it’s *personal*. When there are structural or institutional responsibilities at hand, however, your personal journey isn’t the thing to centre. This is hard to learn if you’ve been paid for the performance of personal transparency. Bottom line: if you make money from a wealthy yoga or Buddhism brand, you don’t get to have JUST a personal take on the issue. This is because your personal take is automatically becomes social guidance for your closest followers. “These are my personal views only” doesn’t cut it. If you are successful as a spiritual teacher it is because a lot of people want to have your personal views as their own.
10. Tune in to how a group will change the channel. Fundraisers are always a good idea. Who can argue with raising money for a great cause? Members can be enthusiastic about a cause and not recognize that it can be a subtle form of brand-washing, if internal problems remain unaddressed. It’s a lot harder to raise money for outside consulting and independent ethics review.
11. If the speaker references the wisdom of the in-group as a tool for restorative justice, read up on what Jennifer Freyd describes as “Institutional Betrayal”. Victims of Catholic priest abuse don’t need sermons delivered by people wearing the same robes as the abuser. They need victim’s services.
12. If a speaker is not reaching for independent resources to understand what has happened and how it can be rectified, there’s little chance that either will occur. This is because a primary mechanism of cult dynamics is information control. The speaker got into the mess they’re in by having shut out independent resources to begin with.
13. If the speaker can’t seem to avoid “yes but” pivots, you have to question whether they really are “finding comfort in uncertainty”, or “owning their vulnerability.”
14. #13 becomes extra complicated if “finding comfort in uncertainty” has actually been mobilized to encourage members to do nothing at all. We have to ask when and if meditations on “No Mud, No Lotus”, on “Full Catastrophe Living” or on “When Things Fall Apart” are being used to pacify and reabsorb the member on the edge of leaving by saying: yes we’re all flawed, all flaws are the same, let’s work on these flaws together. Again, Freyd is excellent on this.
15. Look at how the commenters respond. Try to feel into statements like “Oh _____, I’m so glad you’ve come out with such as wise and compassionate statement and view. It really puts my mind at ease in this difficult time.” This might be an entirely earnest reflection, but it is also a sign that the regrouping part of the original statement has done its work. Order cannot simply be re-established. It has to be changed.
I’ve taken a lot of criticism for pointing out stuff like this. Usually I’m told that it’s not good to shame people who are trying to make accountability statements. I get that, which is why I try to identify trends instead of naming names. It’s not easy to negotiate a personal crisis in public. But that’s part of the problem. The whole yoga/Buddhism industry has to recognize the difference between private revelation and public care. This is a challenge for any privatized religion. Holding a public statement up to critical analysis is not incompatible with nurturing personal empathy for its speaker. Ideally, these positions should nurture each other.
Image: myself and Diane Bruni at the #WAWADIA event on May 29, 2014. I refer to this event in the interview. The write-up and (unfortunately) butchered video is here. I love how Diane is looking at me here, trying to figure out how full of shit I am.
Thank you to J. Brown for having me on his podcast, as part of his series about current news in the Ashtanga world. You can also tune in to his talks with Kino MacGregor, Scott Johnson, and Sarai Harvey-Smith.
Here’s our talk. Resources and transcript (trimmed of intro/outro) below.
Here’s where I’ve quoted Theodora Wildcroft on the fear of contagion elicited by the voice of the victim.
Here’s my conversation with Colin Hall and Sarah Garden.
I’ve posted the classic “Deception, Dependence, and Dread” summary from cult researcher Michael Langone here.
Hi, how are you?
I’m good, I’m good. I just listened to your intro to Scott Johnson. I didn’t listen to what Scott had to say, but I really appreciated the intro, it was good.
Well, thanks. There was still some debate about it, I guess. I just default to transparency and not everybody always thinks that’s a good idea. But for me, it’s where I feel most comfortable. So, thanks. But what else, what’s been going on, how’s your day going? It’s the middle of the day for you too, right?
It is. And I just got up from a nap with alongside the almost two-year-old, Owen. And that was really good because I was up until about 1:30 in the morning after doing another interview with my friends Colin Hall and Sarah Garden at Bodhi Tree in Regina. It took me a while to come down off of that. But the sun is shining, we got some backyard cleaning done over the weekend, we emptied out the basement. Things are heading in an upward arc it feels in many ways.
Yeah. You know what, you mentioned two and a half years for your son and-
Almost two, he’s going to be two in May 17th.
Well, we last spoke, the last time you were on the podcast was May 2016.
Oh, my goodness. Was he born or not?
I guess he wouldn’t have been born because it’s exactly two years ago. But we spoke about that book that you wrote with Michael Stone about becoming fathers and stuff. I remember that. I can’t believe it’s been two years.
Yeah, it’s been a long time. We’ve been in touch since. The difference between the podcast and being on the phone is a little bit thin.
That’s true actually. That’s a good point because sometimes, I had Peter Blackaby on and I had not had other conversations with him other than the two that you hear on the podcast, but you and I had had many conversations. There is a three line there. And gosh, so much has happened. When we last spoke, we were talking about WAWADIA still. And right at the end of that, we were saying, “Oh, it’s going in different directions.” And people were sort of, I think upset back then and maybe still that it was started out as what poses hurt you, what poses don’t hurt you. People wanted to sort of have some how to practice safe in clear, simple answers. And you were like, “I looked at it and I don’t know that pose exists. And you were saying that it was going in this direction of the interpersonal dynamics that were going on.
Yeah. That’s a good summary actually. It took about two years to figure out that I was barking up kind of a dissociative tree, that when the hard data is really laid out as I think you yourself suggested those years ago and perhaps before that as well, we don’t really see that yoga is any more damaging physically to anybody than any other physical activity. In fact, it’s probably safer. When that was clear, for a moment I held on to this notion that the problem with yoga injuries is the problem of expectation, that people get involved in this practice for therapy and spiritual healing. And why it seems very bizarre that they would hurt themselves, that they would develop repetitive stress or chronic pain.
I held on to that for a while. But trying to hang a research narrative on that premise became a lot less important than realizing the kinds of stories I was overlooking or I was papering over in the midst of all of the interviews that I was doing with people who had injured themselves or who had been injured by teachers. And a couple of key things happened that kind of spun me around. And one of them was that Diane Bruni was an early supporter of the work and she was one of my first interviews. And she told me about the correlation between overuse, repetitive stress and her hip injury coming out of the Ashtanga world.
And I interviewed her, it was a really compelling interview. She loved the project, she was a big supporter and she wanted to host this event at her home studio in Parkdale here in Toronto. We advertised it, it was going to be under the banner slash branding of WAWADIA or my project. And 60 people showed up, and she was going to speak on her injury experience. I was going to give my initial research that was related to psychosocial dynamics of injury. And then we had also a sports medicine doctor who was going to come, and he was going to do a little bit of statistical analysis on who got hurt when and where and how. And Diane was going first, and she just did not follow the plan. That’s not really her jam.
It wasn’t unexpected, but at the same time, what she began talking about was really outside of what I felt the scope of my project should be. She started talking about the whisper network that she had encountered in the late 1990s that informed her that Pattabhi Jois was allegedly assaulting female students. And she described how that led her into a kind of crisis of faith and professional choices like how was she going to associate herself with a system where this was true? And the information that she had was credible. She told the story, and I was sitting there gripping my meditation cushion listening to her say it and thinking, “This wasn’t in the program, this wasn’t part of the deal.”
Yeah, sorry to jump in. But I remember when I spoke to her, she came to Brooklyn and I met her. And she came on the podcast and we talked, but she talked a lot more about actually ripping up her hip and then stuff that she felt was wrong with Ashtanga having to do with just biomechanics and stuff. She didn’t necessarily, we might have gone and don’t I really remember, somebody wasn’t the focus of our conversation at that time.
Okay. Here’s the thing and this is where I think you and I as media people in the yoga world have this interesting interaction. If you interviewed her after that event, you might have been the recipient of the fact that I had silenced her because what happened at the event was that we had planned to have it videoed. That whole first section was on video.
I saw it. I remember seeing some video of you guys doing that section.
You didn’t see the story she told though because I actually convinced her to drop it. I said, “Look, the story is uncorroborated, you’re not naming your source. I’m a little bit concerned about legal liability.” I had all of these great rationalizations for encouraging her to desist. By the way, we’re very close friends and we have talked this out since. And I have given her my sincere apology for what ended up being like about a six month to a year long contribution that I made actually to the silencing of this story because I really felt that the sex scandal genre was a kind of dumpster fire of controversy and confusion. And there are specific reasons that I felt that way but are not just personal.
Oh, I remember when we spoke last we were talking about the Jivamukti thing. And I just know that you have often used Facebook as a little bit of a litmus test for things, it seems to me. I could kind of understand why you were being super careful because that’s what people were always coming after you, that’s what people still come after you about in terms of just being too sensational and not sourced or whatever?
Right. That does play into it, but there’s something deeper to investigate there. And that is that I believed somehow that these two forms of harm were separated and separable that somehow the somatic dominance that Diane Bruni and then, of course, the nine women who came forward for The Walrus article are describing in terms of assault is of a piece with attitudes of somatic dominance that are registered in the tissues. I wanted to really pull those apart. But I think, and I also began to realize that the discussion around injuries in yoga was so charged because there was this underlying theme that wasn’t actually being addressed. It’s like, why are we so upset about repetitive stress injuries and why are we really trying to figure out what the best way of doing Trikonasana is?
It seemed to be carrying a lot more than, “Okay, let’s improve our technique when we’re doing spin class.” It was fraught with not just the expectations of therapy and spiritual equanimity, but also it was fraught with I believe this unspoken set of grievances about how we had been taught or how we had been held in the community. I think by the time Diane got to you, she had already sort of been taught by somebody who’s like you, which it was me that this really isn’t the time or place to talk about this stuff. And it was so strange is that all of the arguments that I presented to her were a kind of hyper rationalized version of the arguments that had buried or made people’s responses to that infamous video of adjustments inconclusive. That video popped up for years-
I remember seeing it, I remember seeing it.
Remember what people would say, they would say, “Oh, we don’t actually know what he’s doing.”
It looked bad, but I didn’t trust it because it’s just an out-of-context clip on the internet. I wouldn’t damn somebody on an out-of-context clip on the internet because I don’t trust that.
Right, there is that. There’s the credibility of the technology. But then there’s also when there’s the acknowledgement of what’s actually happening in the physical contact, it’s like, well, these encounters are taking place in the intense and well-defined parameters of long-term teacher-student relationship or guru student relationship. These are advanced practitioners, they know what they’re doing, they know what they signed up for. Obviously he’s touching men and women in the same way, actually obviously he’s not. There was this endless, endless round of equivocation that I really think infected me, it poisoned me in a way to such an extent that I was looking through my emails yesterday to try to figure out when the video started to really catch my attention.
And it was my friend Carol Horton in 2013 who sent it to me. And she said, “Have you seen this thing? It’s really awful, it’s disturbing.” And I wrote back to her, and I saw my reply and it said, “Oh, yeah, I’ve seen it. It is awful.” I don’t know if I change the subject or, I don’t know. It’s just I didn’t follow up on it. And I think what was going on was that one of the things, one of the many things was that in the absence of there being audible voices, it was just too easy to equivocate over the imagery. And for the longest time I thought, well, nobody’s spoken out about this, but I was actually wrong.
In 2010, Anneke Lucas published a blog post that she just reissued in 2016, it had disappeared because the website, you probably remember it Yoga in New York City.
I do, I remember. The problem was is when [Maya 00:14:26] was a problem, but I remember there was the whole thing going on with Yoga for New York and they were trying to regulate the teacher training programs. And we raised money and got lobbyists and actually stopped that. I was one of the first times that that kind of happened. And in the meetings that we had for Yoga New York, this issue came up in those discussions. But I remember being at the time feeling like it was a distraction from the other issue.
Right. And that’s the horrible, it’s this unintentional sort of fog of neglect and rape culture and kind of just low expectations that really delays and delays, and delays the story coming out. Anneke publishes this thing in 2010, she clearly says I was groped this way, this is what it felt like, this is how I confronted him two days later. You can go back and you can find her post. When you put this up, I’ll put it into the comments.
She said it on the podcast, she came on the podcast long before the #metoo thing happened. We talked about it the last time she came on. And I remember, and guess because she also told her personal story, which is also so mind glowing. And then she also mentioned that, but I guess it just at the time seemed so crazy. What’s interesting to me right now is I think we share something in that. You’ve been interviewing people as have I in a sense. And doing that and then going back and observing yourself and your behavior when you’re talking to people about these things, which is just sort of a natural for what we’re doing. [inaudible 00:16:11] anything or whatever, reveal stuff.
I always talk about it on the podcast, and you see, “Oh, crap, look at that,” in yourself. And I do think that that’s been happening for me a lot recently. And that’s what I was talking about on the podcast this week, that trying to address these things as someone who’s starting conversations often means having to do it in yourself and failing sometimes or something.
Oh, I think that’s a huge part of it. I can tell you for sure that getting to the point where I could actually listen just did not come naturally to me. And it really took the patience of people like Diane Bruni who when I’m talking to her about, I don’t think that releasing that part of video is a good idea if we want to keep the focus on safety in asana practice. And she’s like, “But you know what I’m saying is true?” And she looks at me with this face where she’s half exhausted, half disappointed. And I’m like, “Yeah, and what am I supposed to do about it?” And there is the problem right there, it’s like you immediately sort of jump into what you think should be your problem-solving mode instead of just better listenership.
And that was a very hard lesson that I had to learn. And it was really out of those conversations with Diane that I started to pursue the stories. I reached out to Anneke, Anneke put me in touch with Marisa Sullivan. Marisa Sullivan put me in touch with Maya Hammer. Maya Hammer was Diane Bruni’s student in Toronto. And then this sort of web, this network emerged. And all I had to do was to re-associate myself with the awful sensations that I felt while watching that video and to not push them to the side, to not say, I don’t want to deal with that or I don’t know what’s going on there because I was nauseated when I saw that video.
I am not the victim of sexual assault, but I am a victim of male violence and I know what somatic domination feels like in my body and I had a sense of what generally was happening in the depiction of that physical contact. I did not put it together with, oh, this may well be predatory behavior.
Well, it makes me think a little bit of what I think it was Theo wrote recently, might have even been, I think it was Theo when she was just saying that listening to the realities of this, nobody wants to do it. It feels so terrible, and I know I keep bringing it up on the podcast and then just kind of budding it off because, oh, my god, because I want to talk about it because I think we need to. But it feels so horrible so you avoid it.
Right, right. There’s a couple of things, Theo Wildcroft, I’ll put the link to this one too. I published a little thing where I just quoted from a conversation she and I had over Skype about how the story of the trauma survivor is actually contagious. We feel that we will be infected by it, we feel that it will change our world, it will have to change our perspective on everything, on how everything works together, on what right and wrong is, on who’s in control, on whether or not something is good or something is bad. And the deeper sense of infectability, I guess is that you might begin to reorganize your own memories in a different light. There might be some reframing that you’ll have to go through if you hear Karen Rain describe something that sounds pretty familiar but you didn’t think of it that way and then, oh, no, is that something that you have been carrying in some unconscious way as well?
And Karen Rain is a wonderful example of the type of voice that is so hard to listen to because she has zero fucks to give. She has no social capital to win or lose within the yoga world, she has been 20 years metabolizing her experience. I want to take that back, it’s not that she has zero fucks to give, it’s that she is able to speak outside of because she cares very deeply, actually. I know that about whether or not this continues or whether or not it can be improved or healed. Where she has nothing to lose is in the social capital department.
Yeah, I was going to say, I think when you first said what I took was that she doesn’t have any professional skin in the game.
Not at all.
To me, that’s sort of why I have kind of looked to her and I had a chance to talk with her because she’s in that video. And everybody who got into Ashtanga in the early days knows that video. It’s the icon of Ashtanga coming to [inaudible 00:22:10] something, and she’s in that. And we all recognize other people from that video who went on to have these yoga careers.
All five of them.
There you go. I didn’t even know that offhand, but she didn’t go on to have a yoga career. And this is why, and now it’s coming out.
And it’s not just didn’t go on to have a yoga career, she couldn’t have a yoga career. I think this is a very important thing to draw out, of those six people, Karen was one of them, her name was Haberman then. And then we have Tim Miller, we have Chuck Miller, Maty Ezraty, Eddy Stern, Tim Miller and Richard Freeman. And all of them went on to have life long to this day careers in the broadcast of this method. And then we have somebody who completely vanishes. I had been aware of the video and then when I was actually visiting with and interviewing Elizabeth Kadetsky in New York City in maybe 2015 or so, she said, “You should try to get in touch with Karen because I learned Ashtanga from her in New Jersey in the early 2000s. And she had a lot of interesting things to say about her experience in Mysore, but I think she’s changed her name.”
And then I had to do this detective work to find her phone number and then call her up out of the blue. And her outsidership to this entire industry is so perfect and yet, it’s so radioactive. And I think that’s why it is extraordinarily difficult for anybody to even consider inviting her onto a panel or has she done any podcasts anywhere. There’s been a couple of public meetings on this particular issue. And as far as I know, she has not gotten many invitations. And it’s because the actual voice of the victim carries something that must be addressed, it cannot be equivocated, it cannot be turned into a photograph or a video that can be reinterpreted. The person is standing right there and they’re telling you exactly what happened and they’re telling you exactly what would help them.
And it’s no mystery anymore, you can’t stand there and you can’t say, well, I wonder what they want, I wonder what would be good or I wonder what we should do about this going forward. All of those somewhat self oriented concerns just have to dissolve actually.
I hear that. Having had a chance to speak with her and have that exact conversation with her, I felt like it had a big impact on me. I know that that has affected how I’m having the conversation a lot. And I guess trying to sort of think of the other side of the conversation in terms of why she’s not getting invited, I’ve had that conversation a little bit with some friends. And one of the things that someone brought up which I thought was maybe a valid point, maybe not is that I think people are a bit afraid because even when I was talking to her, I said a stupid thing or two and she was very sweet and gracious to help educate me. But it was touchy and I guess people don’t necessarily know that she would want to be on those panels, but you got to ask to find out I guess.
A, you have to ask to find out. B, you’re going to make mistakes. C, if you show good faith and you say, “Yeah, there is obviously something here that I have to learn,” then 9 times out of 10 people in Karen Rain’s position, if they have the energy on that particular day are going to probably respond to that earnestness and say, “Yes, well, out of my desire to help other victims or to improve the culture in general, here’s what would be helpful.” And I can say now that the number of mistakes that I made in communicating with Karen was really almost … Sometimes I wonder about the amount of patience she had with me actually because I don’t have her experience. And not only do I not have her experience, but I have never encountered somebody who’s been able to … There are many people who can do it, but this is my first personal encounter with somebody who can speak so clearly to the facts and to the effects and to the meanings.
I’ll tell you about one thing that I did was when we were going back and forth in our interview process, and that was long, it took place over about a year and a half actually. And there’s is development story to that too, which we’ll describe in a future interview, she and I. But at one point, she decided she was going to make her me too statement and we were talking about that. And I was asking her how she felt and things. And then in the wake of making that statement, I began tracking the responses. And we were discussing the responses, and one of the things that she was very clear about with me was “I am triggered by seeing his photograph. That has a negative impact upon my nervous system, it makes me feel in these ways, that’s very hard for me.”
And what did I do when I was giving her reports on how people were responding in their blog post? I kept sending her just links to people’s blogs where Jois’s face is right at the top beaming. I don’t know how many of those I did before she said, “You’ve got to stop doing that.” I think when she initially said that, I didn’t even know what she was talking about. There’s a level of otherness to that experience that I just couldn’t grasp and so I made mistakes. And it’s really in making those mistakes and having them pointed out through the patience that she showed that I feel I’ve been able to go to college or something in-
Oh, I feel like just trying to have the conversation has been a huge education for me. And it does seem to go beyond how much of the more recent revelations and the reasons that we’re listening to it maybe in ways now that we weren’t before are just because of the #metoo phenomena.
I think it’s integral. When Karen describes why she wanted to make her statement, she says in this forthcoming interview that the #metoo movement came and she said, “Well, I know that I have been sexually assaulted by somebody famous and I have to do my part.” There’s a paradigmatic listening shift that in the yoga world has its own crisis and conflict. In a way, the #metoo movement has had this profound effect on yoga culture so far. But at the same time, it has also encountered particular resistances that are related to the narratives that yoga people like to tell about themselves.
Nobody looked to Harvey Weinstein as a benevolent grandfather who is also a spiritual master. Being disillusioned about him is not so painful, everybody knew that the guy was off and cruel. There’s this extra layer of cognitive dissonance and idealization and mystification that #metoo has to break through. I think it’s happening in a unique way in the yoga world. And in some places, it’s taking a little bit longer than it should, but it’s definitely happening.
Well, that goes a little bit back to me where we started in the sense that if you start out trying to figure out why you’re hurt, you’re doing all this yoga practice and that you manifest chronic pain, which is what happened to me. And you start to examine why that is and maybe even you start a project called What Are We Actually Doing in Asana because of that. And then you first look to some technical things and you can identify things that you think might be it like maybe triangle pose is a problem. You’re trying to find some technical things that you think may be the answer. But when you examine deeper, as you said at the beginning, getting into these conversations with Amy Matthews and Peter Blackaby, you’re like, “But wait, is that really the reason?”
And when you start to look at it, it really comes back for me to something that you threw out there and it’s a term that I think is kind of an important term, this term “somatic dominance”. I think of it in two ways, there’s sort of the somatic dominance of the way a certain teacher and student relate. But there’s even a somatic dominance against my own body.
Right. Well, I think those two things are inseparable actually, that the self relationship, the self objectification, the struggle with one’s own body in some way has got to be an internalization, and who knows which one comes first of the dominant pedagogy that one engages. And yeah, I think that in a way, that’s the core theme of the WAWADIA project. And it was really these stories of criminal acts, of boundary transgressions, of sexual assault and harassment that made the wider theme of dominance as it plays out in subtler ways, in non-sexual ways, but ways that are equally expressive of unequal power dynamics. That’s really the core. And it’s one of the factors, I think it’s one of the factors that contributes to the silencing of personal experience.
I used to go to Diane Bruni’s classes, but I was never in a Ashtanga community and I never practiced Mysore style. And I don’t think I would have tolerated adjustments for very long, although who knows? That’s the thing about being inducted into a system of influences that you really can’t predict what you’re going to accept depending upon what you’re told about it. But having not had that experience, when I imagine what it must be like to spend years every morning six days a week really placing yourself into the hands of the person who will mold you into the shape that you can’t quite attain yourself, that is enormous.
That has to have such profound effects upon other ways in which you would relate to that authority figure. And I think it goes along too with the general report of the silence within the culture. Now, this is not unique to Ashtanga, but the number of people who have described being in those practice rooms and not having time to speak openly with the teacher about how something felt or to give them feedback or to tell them that they were hurt or to speak with them after class or to have tea with them or whatever. That kind of deep, involved, close, intimate, claustrophobic almost somatic space in which a very powerful set of sensations is being negotiated, it’s not really given to stepping back and having a conversation.
You would have to reorient your entire way of communicating with that teacher in order to step back and say, “Hey, can you tell me a little bit about what you knew about Pattabhi Jois and his relationship to his women students?” In order to do that, you would have to completely reorient yourself somatically towards the person you were speaking to. I think that the whole sort of landscape of one body expressing power over another or offering itself as a gateway to another’s experience that they can’t attain themselves, that’s both the root of to me, the WAWADIA project now, but also it’s the sphere of influence that circulates out from the difficult, the terrible stories detailed in The Walrus article.
Well, I’ve been thinking about what you’re pointing to a lot because I just had this conversation with Scott Johnson. And he and I are kind of the same generation where we didn’t go to India and meet the gurus and have a direct connection to them. Our teachers were the Westerners who went and did that. I didn’t have any, I don’t know. The picture of Pattabhi Jois was up on the altar and I was just sort of taught to revere them as the living masters. But it was sort of secondhand through my teachers. But my teachers, at least the ones that I went to, they didn’t set themselves up in that same way with me.
They may have had a certain, I said it on the podcast that the in is the teacher rather than the in being things that that teacher taught other people or something. There’s sort of this difference. I want to come back to what you’re saying because it goes back to the connection between why doing really hard assists and popping someone’s hamstring connector relates to sexual abuse in the space, this idea of somatic dominance. And even in some of the Ashtanga teachers I’ve been speaking to who don’t have this direct connection to Pattabhi Jois as their guru, they still have learned to do these assists. Even like when someone’s in paschimottanasana and they lay on top of them on their back, some of them aren’t crazy trying to pull your leg behind your head.
But when I spoke to these very thoughtful Ashtanga teachers who I think are being incredibly thoughtful, Scott and Sarai, they’re really tackling these things. But when I asked them specifically about this, I asked Sarai, “Do you still do that?” And she said, “I will if someone wants me to, but I do them in a different way.” But she could hear in her voice there’s this question of that. There’s a consent often given to them to lay on their back when they’re in paschimottanasana but that dynamic of teaching is sort of what we’re talking about. I don’t do that anymore, I don’t put my weight on anybody like that anymore because of this sense of dominance to it even if someone wants me to do it in a way.
For me personally what I’ve come to in my own practice and why I do it, it’s not the space where someone could have a conversation with me. I guess what you’re saying to me, they connect. I am there after-class and if you want to talk to me about whatever, that’s what I’m most interested in actually.
I think that there are so many things going on with the squish that you’re talking about from the practitioners that I’ve spoken to. Some students will develop relationships with teachers where that is a moment of deep, sweet intimate connection that feels safe because they’ve built up a field of trust between them over a long period of time. And then some people feel as though it’s something that they have tolerated for a while and some people didn’t like it at all and they gave boundaries. There’s a whole spectrum of responses. But the basic sort of principle of whether or not there’s a transparent conversation around affirmative consent and why it’s happening, why it’s happening. Is it really that the student is being helped into a deeper expression of the posture or is what is happening that a certain type of intimacy is being communicated and that is richly appreciated by both the student and the teacher?
And if it’s the latter thing, there is nothing illegal about that. However, it’s something that should be discussed openly. It should be transparent, it can’t be hidden underneath the sphere of mysticism or “This is the way the parampara does it” or “This is what Guruji did.” It really doesn’t matter that some people really crave that contact, there’s nothing wrong with that. What’s wrong with it is whether or not the reasons for that craving are fully exposed and whether or not they can be interrogated without shame, without guilt, whether they can be fully discussed. And I think this is why it’s a really contentious conversation within the community because the reality is that that physical contact is deeply, deeply nourishing.
And then in the absence of transparency around it, people discovered that the line between that physical contact and a kind of grooming for assault is very difficult to find. And that is a very, very threatening. It’s a very shaky ground I think for the people that I’ve spoken to to be standing on. and I really admire folks like Scott and Sarai and Greg Nardi and his partner Juan in Florida and Jean Byrne in Australia figuring out how to negotiate all of that because it’s rough. It’s like people want contact and yet contact has to be safe. And safety comes through transparency. And transparency comes through honesty about what the thing actually is.
Well, that’s the word I was going to use, transparency because I think a lot of these assists, they have been held up until now with this air of magic. And you know me, I’m an advocate for magic when it comes. But I adopted certain things, I remember standing on someone’s back and pushing my way down to give them cracks. I used to do it all the time to people, people loved it. I think of it now and I shudder. But that’s what teachers did to me, teachers did it to me.
But you think they loved it?
People would ask me for it, they’d be like, “Jay, please, will you stand on my back? Jay, will you stand on my back?” A teacher had done that to me, I liked it and I did it to other people. But I guess there’s sort of this idea that the yoga teacher knows something that you don’t. And that means that you would give over to them because they’re somehow going to do something that you wouldn’t be able to do or know how to do on your own.
Right, right. And think about the vulnerability of that being an embodied ritual where the actual posture that the teacher knows more about than you is the thing that they’re going to put you into that you can’t get into on your own and that you might not be able to get out of on your own. Immobilization actually is a key feature of that moment. And, of course, that brings up all kinds of notions of surrender and trust. And the question for me is, does the yoga world, never mind Ashtanga, does the yoga world have anywhere near as intelligent a conversation around the issues of immobilization, trust, sensation, pleasure and pain as, for instance, the BDSM community does.
Yeah, you brought it up. And I saw that talk with that woman whose name I don’t remember, maybe you know her name.
Tiffany Rose, my friend in Red Deer had a great interview with my friend Daniel Clements who’s in off of the coast of British Columbia, but I think he’s in Japan now. Yeah, that’s where it’s at. I am not a BDSM practitioner, but I am astonished by the richness of the discourse that that community has developed not without its problems, not without its own predators of course. But the richness that community has developed around these interpersonal interactions that are designed to provoke sensation in dyads. That’s what it’s about. And if the yoga world can learn something from that, I think that’s amazing.
I guess it brings me a little bit when we talk about learning from this and what we’re hoping to have happen by making people have to taste this stuff. It’s interesting to me that since I’ve been putting out some of these episodes, the kind of responses and comments and conversations that are happening, they’ve often been kind of surprising to me the way, I mentioned this week, people don’t see the same things or hear the same things that I hear. It goes back to what we talked about when we talked about your personal experience, I don’t know, did you listen to this podcast series called Dear Franklin Jones?
No, I haven’t but I know quite a bit about Bubba Free John, Adi Da, Franklin Jones.
I’m bringing it up because I literally just finished it this afternoon before I got on with you. And for people listen who don’t know what it is, basically, Adi Da who I’ve heard about forever, the same we heard about Osho. There was that big documentary. But the series is by a man whose parents, he was born into it, his parents were in when he was a boy and he was in it. And when he got old enough too, he actually believed and practiced. And then at 16, they left. And he started going through this process through the podcast series of kind of unraveling he loves Adi Da and he also has to face that … He ultimately comes to I was in a cult. And he never thought of it that way. But through the course of the podcast, he comes to that.
I guess my question is, and I can hear people in the back of my mind right now when I bring up the word cult when we talk about Ashtanga yoga. It’s sort of like, how much is there cult-like behavior and how much of it is a cult or is there a line or where is the line? Because sometimes it feels a little bit like that when I try to have conversations about this.
I’m really glad that you brought it up because it’s a discourse that I’m pretty familiar with being a two-time cult survivor myself. And it’s also highly radioactive. And I think it’s because there’s some fundamental misunderstandings about what a cult is and who cult members are. Cult members are you and I who become deceived by systems of influence. There are no predictors of who joins an organization that is deceptive and that begins to control their emotional labor or their finances or their ideas or their friendships or their relationships. People who I lived with in the two cults that I was in came from every walk of life, every level of education, every type of psychological background, every form of trauma or happiness that would be available in the whole menu of human experience.
Anybody is susceptible. And once you get that, once you get that the actual clinical psychology data on cult membership is not about who the people are but what the organization does, then the guilt associated with the word, the griminess, the shitty feeling that people get when they have to ask themselves, “Oh, was I in a cult?” All of that begins to lessen, it doesn’t disappear. But I can say from personal experience and from speaking to many, many other cult survivors to begin to understand that you did not join a cult but rather as Cathleen Mann says, you delayed leaving an organization that misrepresented itself to you. That begins to lessen the burden and allows you to pull back and look at, “Okay. Well, what were the mechanisms here that allowed for this system of influence to operate and then at the highest levels, for it to abuse people? What are the mechanisms there?”
And they’re pretty clear. Going right back to the fundamental research of Michael Langone, the three sort of building blocks of the cultic organization are deception, dependence and dread of leaving. And deception is however the first step. Going back to what you said about how adjustments were presented to you as a younger Ashtanga student. If you heard that, “Oh, this is the way we traditionally do it.” If you heard the sense that the adjustments had some sort of history to them. If you wondered why the teacher was touching somebody’s perineum and you discussed it in a group and somebody said, “Oh, that’s the Mula Bandha adjustment.”
All of those responses, those rationales, they are all deceptive. We know now from the scholarship that there’s no real pre-modern precedent for adjustments in yoga practice prior to the Mysore Palace. We know that there’s no such thing as the Mula Bandha adjustment that at best it’s a euphemism, at worst, it’s a rationalization that contributed to this feeling that something else was going on than what was actually going on. And what was actually going on was more properly termed sexual assault. But there was this veil of explanation over it that began to spread into other area. If we just take the Mysore narratives as an example, there’s this word used parampara to describe the method and the teaching lineage of Ashtanga yoga.
Now, that literally implies at least in medieval tantric terms that a teaching technique or a spiritual transmission was passed on for over multiple generations over centuries from one person to another, not generally through family lines. To call Astanga yoga a parampara, which is now a term that second-generation Jois students have picked up and started to use themselves to refer to how they relate to the Jois method, that is deceptive. It’s not true, it begins to create sort of mirage of importances and mystique and very attractive spiritual aspirations that people want to engage with, but they don’t have factual basis.
The entire origin narrative of the primary series is dependent upon the existence of a book that nobody has seen called the Yoga Korunta, which apparently was found by Krishnamacharya in 1929 in the Kolkata library bound into a copy of the Yoga Sutras. And the word within the culture is that terms like “vinyasa” come from that book to describe the harmonization of movement and breath. And then if you talk to Sanskritists who actually look at the literature they say, “No, there’s no pre-modern usage of vinyasa that works that way.” And these Jay, they might seem like niggling academic details. But what ends up happening is that a kind of phantom city is constructed out of idealizations and deceptions.
And when I say deception, I don’t mean it’s intentional. People can repeat these things because they like how they sound or because it gives them a sense of hope or validity or aspiration or something. But the … Go ahead.
Let me jump first saying, what I want to say is that when I point to what you just did, the research that you’re pointing to about how some of these origin myths and some of these things that we’ve thought of as coming from the ancient wisdom but were kind of maybe invented by charismatic men along the way. When I point to that kind of research that’s being done often by academics, by some people there’s this knee-jerk reaction to it as this baseless attack. To me, it goes back to what I said before, even in my conversations with Ashtanga teachers. Sometimes I have a conversation with an Ashtanga teacher, doesn’t sound like I’m talking to anybody who’s exhibiting cult-like whatever. But other times I’m talking to someone and when there’s an over defensiveness about the conversation, that’s when I start to feel that.
I guess, I’m just sort of wondering it seems to me that often what legitimizes what you’re doing is this connection to some idea of ancient lineage. It’s kind of what we said before to be able to let it come into question means de-legitimizing something that’s really important to you.
And I think it puts people in a very emotionally tenuous position, and I think it’s very painful. People wind up having to resolve a lot of cognitive dissonance. But the thing is that it’s only really problematic, and here’s where we cross over into the threshold of cult analysis. Human beings can believe whatever they want to believe. It doesn’t matter whether they believe that their practices come from unicorns or whether Krishnamacharya got a download from Nathamuni. None of that matters, there are plenty of mythopoeic believes that do not end up fueling abusive organizational structures. There’s no solid correlation between belief and behavior.
The thing that is really good to focus on, and I think this also depersonalized cult discourse in a way that might be helpful is that let’s forget about whether or not the Yoga Korunta is true, let’s talk about whether or not we are willing to create a sphere of deception in which the real asset of the student, the real commodity that we’re going for is credulity. And because if we can get people to believe things, then will they believe me when they come to me and they say Pattabhi Jois just sexually assaulted me and I can tell them, “Oh, well that wasn’t sexual.”
There’s an interview that I’ll publish soon in a follow-up bit where a person who was there for not as long as Karen Rain but but almost describes being assaulted and going to her colleagues and being told preemptively, “Oh, that wasn’t sexual what he did to you.” Now, that’s a deceptive statement because it’s up to her to decide whether it was sexual or not. But it’s a deceptive statement that comes at the end of a long string of other statements that are designed to create a sphere of credulity. It’s not the first time that she’s been lied to. It doesn’t matter what the content of the lies are, what matters is that the individual is being induced into a system of influence and control and something is being extracted from them. That’s what matters.
And some of those deceptions, they’re happening in silence it seems to me.
Yeah. Tell me what you’re thinking about.
It’s sort of what we were saying before that in certain yoga practice rooms, there’s a certain air about it. I remember that expression silence is the best teacher. In that space, you’re set up for this somatic dominance dynamic.
You could be.
It seems to me. And then that’s why for me, it seems to me if you’re not going to have legitimacy because you’re connected to a particular guru or lineage tradition, the transparency and ability to have this kind of dialogue is the only thing that gives you any legitimacy.
Well, that’s a very good point. And I would say that it’s like on the other side of the fear, that, oh, maybe the Yoga Korunta isn’t a thing or maybe there were some exaggerations going on there, or maybe the series are not traditional in the sense that they’ve been changing every couple of years according to how many people have had to funnel through the shala. On the other side of this nauseating fear that perhaps you have been lied to, perhaps you have been deceived, I believe, possibly lies the liberation of transparency, lies the liberation of, oh, wow, it’s amazing what our desire drive us towards, oh, it’s amazing what the process of idealization tells us about ourselves, oh, it’s amazing how we can be vulnerable to manipulation. We really should base our service towards others upon offering protection and safety and safe spaces and trauma awareness.
Far from wanting to just having any animosity towards people’s yoga inquiry at all, for me, personally looking directly at this stuff is actually the source of my spirituality because I don’t see what else I can learn about it except how I am deluded. I don’t see what is more valuable for me to learn except where my blind spots are, except where I shut down Diane Bruni or I can’t actually understand what Karen Rain is telling me, or I don’t want to look at that video, or I want to maintain some image of wholesomeness that is actually fragile and tragic in a way because it’s not going to last.
Oh, I so appreciate that because if we were going to think of yoga as being about some kind of freedom or liberation or moksha, which I generally don’t like to frame it as. But if we were, my experience of freedom is very much connected to just not having any secrets. That’s where I feel that sense of I don’t have anything to hide, I can feel free to talk about anything. I don’t know. To me, is where the freedom comes. And I heard you say in that talk, you offered this definition of moksha that I thought was quite-
Right. Yeah, I said to Colin and Sarah that I had a teacher who gave, I think eccentric and perhaps unique etymology from the nirukta tradition or “what is not said” poetry of the Sanskrit technique where he described moksha as there was a way that he had of translating the roots, but the basic translation of the compound was “the end of infatuation”. And I feel like the process of disillusionment if I’ve been well supported, if I can reach out to reality in other forms, if I can find stability outside of my social bubble, if I can reach out and hold on to something else. And, of course, that depends a heck of a lot or almost entirely upon privilege, then I am able to survive the disillusionment process and perhaps even make it into compost. Yeah, the end of infatuation.
Yeah, the ending of illusions. And to me, that has to do with what I’ve been doing in this process of having the conversation like you described, it feels like practice to me.
Yeah, I feel the same way.
Well, it brings me to something because in getting ready to talk to you, I reached out to some friends of mine who don’t know you so well, who I’ve heard be a little critical of you because we’re friends and I don’t want people to feel like I was soft-balling you. I reached out to them, and it’s interesting because the line of questioning was really I think sometimes a reaction to maybe even your writing style sometimes more than content. But what it boiled down to for me, which I thought was kind of an interesting line of questioning and maybe where we would start to wind it down is it’s sort of about your practice because sometimes people accuse you of being this academic. But I remember from when I talked to you before, you were a yoga teacher, you had a yoga center, you did Ayurveda. You’ve had a whole history of practice. I’m curious about that, what do you practice now?
Yeah. I practice movement every day, sometimes on my mat, sometimes not. I generally sit every day, but I have to be really drawn to … I don’t even know what it is, by some internal ringing bell that says, “Okay. If you have time right now, you should sit down.” I go through the forums that I used to practice when I was in my full-on asana days occasionally. But I’ve also explored so many other different types of movement over the last couple of years that I’m sort of constantly playing and examining, but then I can have an almost nerdy aspect to that investigation that, I don’t know, starts the inner dialog in my brain about what is this action doing and is this functional movement? And what is that sensation actually?
When people ask me, “Would you teach asana again?” I always have to say, I really don’t know how I could. If I lived in Peter Blackaby’s town and he was giving a teacher training, I would probably go and do that. And maybe I would come out the other side and I would feel like I knew what I was doing.
Let me ask you something, when you are doing whatever you’re doing and it’s not like the forms that you learned back from your asana yoga teacher days and you’re doing other things that you describe, do you think of that as yoga practice?
Oh, yeah. Absolutely, absolutely. I think that if there’s the thread of self inquiry, if I’m looking into my sensations and into the pattern of my breath and I am watching the relationship between my breathing arc and my thinking arc and if I’m seeing how thinking is embodied, and if I can feel knots in the flesh related to knots in my psychology, then yeah, that whole holistic and non-dual conversation I think is happening. And if there’s pleasure and interest in that, so much the better. But then also sometimes it’s boring.
I like that, that’s a really good point.
And if it’s boring, for a while, I was like, “Why be bored?”
That’s true. Sometimes I think of boredom as a pleasure, sometimes.
Right. And sometimes it’s not, sometimes it’s connected with ennui and depression. And also if I’m able to feel other people better as the result of what I’m doing on my mat or on my cushion, then I feel like I’m doing yoga even though it’s not like I learned anything particularly from anyone that really made that connection solid. The yoga that I learned, the asana practice and breathing practices, meditation practice that I learned was really about individualistic self inquiry. And there was a sense that your life, your relationships would straighten out a little bit. But now when I can actually relax myself into the difficult conversation or the thing that I don’t know or the blind spot that I’m coming up against or some echo of intergenerational anger that’s playing out in my parenting, if I can do all of that, then I feel like I still definitely have my practice.
I like that. It integrates, it’s that direct connection between that time that you spend in practice and it having an actual application or something to you dealing with the thing that’s at the most forefront or whatever that’s in front of you. And very rarely for me is it about … And I guess it is physical, but often it’s more my direction in life and my relationships as you said, the way I’m relating to people. And I guess I’m wondering now how much has doing these interviews over the last years and hearing these stories and navigating all the stuff, how much has that affected and changes your practice along the way like?
Oh, it’s been at the heart of it really. I think that the selfish part of it is that I’ve learned about ways in which I dissociate, I armor myself, I don’t give positive regard to other people, I project or I fantasize or I transfer or I counter transfer. I’ve gotten to see all of those things. Yeah, I wouldn’t be able to pull those things apart.
Yeah. I guess they don’t really separate out for me either, gain, the podcast and the blog writing and trying to … In a way, to me, I think of it in the sense of almost I need to do it and I think that if we can say the word yoga community, which I’m hesitant. But I think we need to grapple with these things. If some of us don’t go first and put ourselves out there and make mistakes and have to deal with that, then it’s going to be harder for everybody to do it.
Yeah. And one thing I agree with you and one thing that I just want to sort of clarify is that in the midst of answering a question like how these interviews impacted you, I am sensitive to the privilege involved in listening to Karen Rain’s experience being part of my personal development. That’s not what it’s for. It was a very happy development that I feel responsible for paying back in some way. I think that you and I both in this particular arc, in this particular field can, I don’t know, in some ways have these encounters, these difficult encounters that we can ultimately turn around into some kind of spiritual or psychological benefit and not everybody has that possibility.
One of the things that Sarah Garden said last night was that she really liked how in the article the nine women who gave their testimony, the article turned around and showed how they were doing later on. And most of the stories were or the aspects to their stories that the article disclosed were all on an upward arc. Maya becomes a certified psychologist and Karen Rain heals herself through contact improv and dance. And Marisa Sullivan is doing all of these wonderful workshops, and Anneke is doing this fantastic prison work with yoga. And those feel-good stories, that feel-good part of the narrative, I think we want to be really mindful of because there’s a whole bunch of other stories out there, perhaps the majority of people who suffered abuse in yoga community and in relation to yoga methods where there isn’t an upward arc, where the life didn’t turn out well.
When there’s a positive story that arises out of adversity, we really want to remember, this is my firm belief that there’s a whole social matrix that allows that positive narrative to emerge. And that it’s really good if we’re not seduced by the notion even in small ways that somehow it all turns out for the best because I think in a lot of cases, that’s not true.
Well, I appreciate that and I’m glad you brought us back to the women in your article because I think that’s right. I may have fallen victim to some of the things that we were talking about even in the course of this conversation. But I really appreciate that you’re bringing me back to that and also to this idea that I know for myself, and I’m betting it’s true for you that the reason we’re we’re doing this is because we really want there to be healing. And we have our own relationships to yoga that have served us and we’ve seen it help other people, and we want there to be healing. And in order to do that, it feels to me that there has to be this transparency.
Sometimes I think when I get into these conversations with people, it gets to this back and forth and it’s like this who’s more intellectually, more morally superior than the other or something. And we lose this thread of why people are passionate about it. And you said another thing because it’s something I’ve been going through with the whole Kino episode and stuff. And someone asked you about it, and you made a really important comment. You said, “She said that she was conflicted about things,” and you take her comments in that context. And I think that’s important, it was important for me to hear it that as much as I can sometimes have a reaction and feel passionate and get upset where I feel like someone’s deflecting, these are really hard things. And people are grappling with them, and we have to do it in the spirit of like shared humanity or there’s no way we’re going to get through this in a good way.
Yeah. When I encounter statements that are problematic or controversial, I just have to reflect back upon my own divided intentions. You mentioned that, yes, we do want healing. To be completely honest, I’ve also had to negotiate the fact that I want revenge and that my need for justice is very much related to early streams of anger that I have worked in for a long time to try to understand and to try to unravel. And the paradox is that it’s driven me to this work, and it can also harm this work.
Revenge against who?
Well, it’s a long story.
Isn’t that what people are accusing you of sometimes, you’re taking that out on?
Yes, exactly. And they’re right, and a lot of time they’re right. They can feel it and I would say they have a good point. And every time I’ve been accused of this guy is an unhealed dude and he’s toileting on people, I’ve really tried to listen to that. I haven’t always been successful, but I have become more respectful of the paradox of the fact that you do not become an activist without, well, I think it would be very rare to become an activist and certainly not an activist journalist without having a personal need for some kind of justice. And the problem with that is that every story becomes about you. And what was so fortuitous for me, so lucky was to somehow find myself involved in this process where I could step out of the way and let these nine people speak. I really could step out of the way. Now, that didn’t come naturally to me.
Yeah, I was going to say the folks at The Walrus did you a big service I think because I’ve read all your stuff and this one, there was none of those moments where the alarm goes off and I go, “Oh, Matthew,” that little flourish of a language, you just know that’s the thing that everybody’s going to jump on. But it seems like this particular article was quite impeccably checked and sourced and there wasn’t that in there. And I haven’t seen anybody being able to jump on you for that in this one.
Yeah. I’m grateful for that, that kind of firewall that’s provided. But I’m even more grateful for the lesson that I learned through that editorial process and others, which is it’s the paradox is you’re driven here by a sense of justice, you have a passion for it and you cross over the threshold and you really have to leave that at the door. And I think the article is largely a result of my being helped to do that. And now the problem that I think I’m going to have to face next is that I have to cross back over that threshold outside of the mainstream feature article mode. And if I go farther with this material, which I intend to, I do have to bring back the analysis and the personal positionality. And I have to be able to say, “Okay. Along with this evidence, here is my research input, my observational input into where this story goes to next.” And I think that’s going to be interesting to navigate.
And I know just in our conversations, there’s a lot more in the research that you’ve been doing over these years and it does seem like there’s bigger works coming. This was just a little bit of something that came up and maybe because of recent and current events with me too, but it does seem like all of this is leading to much larger works. I was one of those people who helped finance WAWADIA a few years ago, and I’ve heard people express little grief. Maybe we could give a little update. I think I’ve been privy to conversations with you and been learning, and I think people have on Facebook been learning from the project as it’s been happening. But I know you’ve got plans for stuff to eventually come out. Where are you in that process?
Yeah. I sent out a too late update to all of the crowdfunding supporters. I think the day that the article was published, I said basically this is, and I put the same statement I think on the WAWADIA page on my website. and I basically said, “This is why this project is late is that it took a left turn into the investigative and into the interpersonal dynamic of toxic pedagogy.” And now that that has been covered, that data has grown. The backstory on The Walrus article is that it was accepted for publication in December and it took basically five months. And during that time, I continued to compile data, I continued to research.
And what I thought was going to be the second chapter in a book called Shadow Pose as my agent has been flogging throughout North America for the last year is now too large to fit into that book. And it’s got to become its own book, but its own book really dedicated to the industry itself and presented as a case study for how abuse can happen within a yoga community, how it can be enabled and how it can be prevented. That will be the first volume of the WAWADIA project, which is now going to be at least two volumes long. The second volume is still called shadow pose as far as I’m conceiving it. The book on Pattabhi Jois is 180 pages in manuscript form right now.
The second book is still at its 300 pages that it was before with the Jois material extracted or at least reduced. And it’s going to be a much more generalized alternative history of the modern postural yoga movement that describes the movement from somatic domination to trauma sensitivity. That’s the basic arc, how did that happen? Who were the major figures in that? And how did the trauma-sensitive movement arise in response to realizations around somatic dominance in the yoga world in general?
Well, I think that final note you just made is sort of where we’re at.
I think that’s the story, yeah.
That’s where we’re at.
Right, right. If there’s a short way of describing the arc of the last 50 years, we have gone from somatic dominance to trauma awareness.
And practice is reflecting that.
And practice is reflecting that. And modes of teaching are reflecting that. And that’s the story that I’m trying to tell not in an academic sense, but in a kind of interview fieldwork sense that focuses on key figures like Donna Farhi is a key interview subject for that book because she begins her career in the Iyengar world and spends eight years there and then has to leave. And she goes on to create her own thing.
Well, I guess there’s one last little tidbit that I got from your talk last night that is maybe the perfect note for us to end on at least in my mind, which is this story that you told about the older woman and the younger woman next to each other at a Pattabhi Jois practice. Do you know which one I’m talking about?
I do. Did you want me to just-
I want you to tell it again even if people heard it because there’s a lot more who are going to listen to this and maybe saw that Facebook Live thing. And to me, it really kind of encapsulates what we’re just saying, maybe just tell it again if you don’t mind.
Yeah, sure. One of my interviews was with a senior Jois student, and she’s probably in her late 50s now, she might be in her early 60s. And she went to Mysore several times, she was thick in the Ashtanga community in her home state in the US. And somewhere in the early 2000s, Jois came back on tour to California and was in one of these big gym environments and there was a couple of hundred people there or something. And she shows up, and she’s maybe in her early 50s then. She rolls out her mat and there is a woman in her early 20s who rolls out her mat beside her. And when Joyce comes in, he walks around and he greets everybody. And he recognizes the older woman, and he says hello and greets her.
And then as he passes on in front of the younger woman, the younger woman says, “Oh, hello Guruji, I have this problem with my back,” she names some condition, some injury or vulnerability. And she says, “I would rather not be adjusted today.” I’m interviewing the older practitioner, and she’s recounting this story. And when she gets to quoting the younger woman, her voice fills with indignation. And she says, “What kind of nerve does that young woman have? Who does she think she is? She’s going to come into this room and demand that the Guru not touch her? That’s why she’s here, why did she even come?”
And it was this kind of stunning moment for me in the interview recognizing this deep generational divide that the older generation is expressing indignation over the younger generation asserting agency over their bodily autonomy. And I just thought it said so much. And it said so much about things also changing naturally and organically and without a lot of effort too. There are tremendous efforts on several fronts. But in other ways with a thousand different little cultural movements, it is gradually becoming unacceptable for one person to exert somatic dominance over another. I’m trying to bring the way that happens into focus.
I really appreciate it because I do think there just has been a huge change. Even among people who haven’t been saying this previously, I’ve been hearing them say it where, yeah, in the past, nobody ever asked. And now, it’s not cool to touch somebody without asking.
Right, right. Figuring out how that happened and trying to tell that story clearly, I think can only strengthen the values that are being expressed. That’s what I hope to go on and do. And I kind of dodged, “What’s your publication schedule?” I’m kind of negotiating figuring out exactly when this first book will be done. But I do want to say that I hope within a couple of weeks, I’ll have a firmer answer.
Fair enough, fair enough. I for one don’t mind. Again, I have a friendship to you, not everybody has that benefit. I know you’ve been working on stuff. I know you didn’t just take the money and run.
There were no vacations.
No, you’re working hard on this stuff. I hope that in this conversation we’ve done some of what we were just saying in terms of these conversations being yoga practice and finding these ways forward.
Well, thank you.
Oh, no, Matthew, thank you. It’s been great to talk to you, I’ll be in touch. I think this is going to post in two weeks, I’ll let you know for sure. All right man, take care. And yeah, it’ll be ongoing.
Okay, yes, have a great day.
All right man, take it easy.
Karen Rain Speaks About Pattabhi Jois and Recovering from Sexual and Spiritual Abuse — Video Interview
Thank you for visiting this page. If you scroll down past these intro notes, you will see the full transcript of the interview offered below, for easy citation.
We’d like to start with a trigger warning:
This interview conveys details of sexual assault and the silencing of a victim of sexual assault. The descriptions are detailed and emotionally charged.
One of our supportive advisors offered the following feedback: viewers should leave good time for self-care while engaging with this video.
It was suggested that this might be especially important not only for those whose trauma occurred in yoga spaces, but also those who have gone to yoga for healing.
We’d also like to offer the following resources, notes, clarifications, and links.
- The Walrus: Yoga’s Culture of Sexual Abuse: Nine Women Tell Their Stories
- Karen Rain’s blog.
- Anneke Lucas’ 2010 disclosure (republished in 2016). This is to my knowledge the first public disclosure.
- Bodhi Tree Yoga, Regina, SK. (Thanks, Colin and Sarah.)
I’ll preface this post by saying that, in accordance with the clinical research, I do not believe there are strong correlations between prior life experience and the likelihood that a person will join or stay in a cult (or “totalist”, or “high-demand” group.) What follows is a speculation, based on memory and anecdote, on why people who are already inside such a group may be more prone to the kind of enabling and moral harm that Philip Deslippe has described to me as “I got mine-ism” (IGM).
IGM is a defensive strategy by which a member who has not (or believes they have not) directly experienced abuse or institutional betrayal within the group deflects stories of abuse within the group by immediately self-referring, saying things like: “I don’t know about other’s experience; I find/found the teacher/teachings to be profoundly helpful in my life.” The statement is usually couched within an unwillingness to act on behalf on victims or mitigate future harm. Continue reading “The Unbearable Smugness of “I Got Mine-ism” Amongst Cult and ex-Cult Members”
When I talk with my yoga friends these days, there’s only one topic: the forest fire of reform sweeping through our sub-culture. Or at least the social media layer of it (the thickness of which is hard to gauge).
We talk about Rachel Brathen’s #metoo post, and what will happen when she connects her correspondents and supports them in taking further action, whether legally, or in the mainstream media. We talk about Karen Rain’s statements. This one, and this one.
We also worry about the smoke inhalation. About the toll taken on faith and hope, about the 30M yoga practitioners in the U.S. alone who are getting dusted in ash, the majority of whom may not know or care about the venerated names, what Yogi Bhajan was really up to, or may have no feeling at all that the memorized script of Bikram’s method might be inseparable from the man.
But it’s not right to infantilize the innocent practitioner. I’ve spoken with several older devotees of these teachers. They question the value of airing “old stuff”. “Why disturb the faith of new students?” they ask. I tell them they sound like Catholics filibustering inquiries into the clergy.
This morning I’m thinking about how one wise friend said, “there will always be yoga tomorrow.”
It’s a good thing. Countless people will wake up at 4 to get to the shala at 5 to perform a candlelit ritual of bodily testing and reclamation. They’ll head to the gym after work. They’ll go to restorative class, or a therapeutics class with those Iyengar backbending props. People will treasure the waves of warmth and sensitivity and tender self-observations that ripple out through their day. The vast majority will feel supported, nurtured, even liberated.
The vast majority — millions — practice in the space between two poles: the fires of reform and the marketing of an industry that has tried to pretend it has no shadows. How can we support this space on a daily basis?
Further, I have to ask every day: what’s my responsibility, with this strange platform, cobbled together out of critique? I spend half of my working life burning the roof. How do I show the less visible work of those I admire, shoring up foundations in the clay and the mud?
I have a more robust list in mind. What do they call these things? Gratitude lists?
It’s a jumble of precious moments and articles of faith, both personal and social. They perform two actions for me: they counter the demoralizing content, and they provide space. This is a list with candlelight instead of fire.
- A long breath, deep or shallow, never gets old.
- Nor does that feeling I had rolling out of my first savasana, gazing at my hand lit up by the sun, and thinking I am That.
- There are radiant heating coils in the polished concrete floors of Lacombe Yoga, in rural Alberta. It’s -31C this morning in Lacombe. My friend Tiffany runs the place. She’s a trauma expert. She taught over 500 classes in 2017 and barely broke even.
- Yoga Service Council. I’m not as involved as I want to be, because time and other excuses, but wow, what great work that network does. YSC is like the Canada of modern global yoga. (Canada on a good day.)
- I love talking with Jivana Heyman. Social media allows me to fantasize a wonderful IRL community.
- I get to talk with almost all of these people on a panel looking to build an actionable and aspirational code of conduct for yoga teachers.
- What’s left of movies in the wake of Weinstein? Lady Bird opens. Patty Jenkins champions Wonder Woman. In the yoga world too, what was always underneath will rise up.
- I go to a Community Centre in the basement of a public housing complex to play handball and swim. On Tuesday and Thursday mornings, one of the activity rooms is packed with Indian women in saris and punjabis doing yoga. The door is open and I can hear the breath count and see the simple stretches of people taking a holy hour for themselves. The drab room has a cold tile floor and florescent lights. It’s about as far away as you can get from the gentrified spaces I identify with yoga. The class is free. I listen at the door and realize I don’t know anything about yoga yet, and this makes me happy.
- So many of us are coming out of cults. Tuning in to the deception, dependency, and dread-of-leaving. We’re learning that everyone comes out at a different pace. We all have different needs, different privileges. We really can learn to respect each other’s pathways. Maybe the fires are burning the cultic to fertilize the permaculture.
- I’ve learned that yoga trolls are like vrittis, and yes they can be stopped. With single-pointed concentration on the “Block” button.
- Several years ago, Dexter Xurukulasuriya in Montreal humbled me during a global yoga culture 101 presentation for a YTT with the best yoga cultural appropriation questions ever. Their family is from Sri Lanka. They reminded me of their comments by DM: “Since EVERY culture has its own rich, complex treasury of inspirational poetry, imagery, mythology and holy scripture,” Dexter wrote, “shouldn’t we ask why some people feel so comfortable and are so drawn to re-work and update other people’s traditions rather than their own? Isn’t it a form of privilege to be able pick and choose whatever aspects of a culture you want to adopt when so many of us have been so forcibly estranged from our cultures through colonial and imperial violence and while your own still-living traditions are actively oppressing millions of people? Isn’t this reworking of our cultures a kind of colonization? Isn’t abandoning rather than reworking your own traditions an abdication of responsibility?” Um, uh, I said. Yes. You’re right.
- I recently visited Dexter and they prepared incredible food. “Bonchi curry, parippu, vambatu moju,” they said, “and Sri Lankan red rice with cardamum & cinnamon, and an arugula salad topped with purple carrots, Quebec cranberries and crickets from the local market.” They taught me to eat it with my fingers. Two trips to India, and nobody ever showed me how to do this. We talked about a lot of things. When we circled back around to appropriation, I said: “The thing is, non-Indians aren’t just enthralled by the yoga, or some romantic idea of India. And it’s not just that our churches are dead to a lot of us, or that our mystics haven’t been taken seriously for centuries. This yoga fascination is also about falling in love with the families of the gurus.” I said that at least one aspect of the yoga cultural appropriation story evolves out of the Euro-American wish for stable, predictable, orderly relationships. A conservative family, with strong gender roles, in which everyone understands their place in the universe. Where dad isn’t drinking the war away, but instead lighting the oil lamps in front of the divine and the ancestors every morning. As Dexter and I talked and listened to each other I could feel the bits and pieces of love we might recover through all of our jumbled history. We fell in love with your families. They smiled, then served something chocolatey.
- Yoga and Movement Research Community. Hurray. Sometimes a multiple car pile-up, but people are getting better at keeping it moving, limiting their rubber-necking.
- I’ve been working with a friend on an app that aims to take the yoga conversation out of the Facebook trench and into a creative, talking-circle space, with professional moderation. We can always dream.
- Some yoga researchers are so generous. Like this one. And these ones.
- Uma Dinsmore-Tuli suggests that all of the wild alchemical aspirations of medieval yoga may be a cultural case of womb-envy. Woah.
- When I enter the room to give a presentation at Queen Street Yoga, I walk by framed statement on the wall about how the studio occupies the land of the Anishnawbe and Haudenosaunee people. A while back, on the opposite wall, there was a “Body-Positivity Blackboard”, where students were encouraged to finish the sentence, “My body is great because…”. Different hands have written: “It made a baby”, “Its squishiness makes me good at cuddling”. I picked up the chalk as people filed past, murmuring cheerfully. “Through depression, anxiety, and neglect,” I wrote, “my body has always been here, holding me.”
- Consent cards.
- Talking about my late friend Michael Stone with one of his students. He’s been diagnosed with bipolar disorder as well. He disclosed this on social media, saying he wanted it to be an open part of his discourse around teaching yoga. We sat on the patio on College Street in the late summer sun. He explained to me little about what he thought might have been going on for Michael. Part of his practice is knowing which parts of yoga work for his diagnosis, and which parts don’t. He has the most gentle, self-aware voice.
- TFW I’m texting with Be Scofield about plans for a cult-busting website while she’s driving across the rural South. We also text about how much she adores a good Kundalini class. Then we throw potential cult-infiltrator code-names back and forth. She turns down “Maya Honeypot”. I never argue with her. She’s the boss.
- I’m in class with Peter Blackaby at Esther Myers Yoga Studio. He says: “It’s not quite exercise. It’s not quite therapy. I’m not quite sure what ‘good alignment’ means. The only term that makes sense to me is ‘self-inquiry’.”
- I get a stack of papers in a big brown envelope all the way from New Zealand. Donna Farhi has sent me a file of her notes on the ethical complaints she collected from throughout yogaland in the 1990s. The contents are heavy: Donna has been doing the heavy lifting.
- At Esther Myers again, sitting with Monica Voss on the tatami mats. She tells me she’s never been injured practicing yoga. I look puzzled, and she looks back at me, puzzled that I’m puzzled. Like — why is that even a question? We talk about Vanda Scaravelli. Then we talk about the relationship between teaching yoga and the hospice work she does. Her voice is quiet. I can hardly hear it when I listen to the recording afterward. I turn my phone off and just try to remember. That’s oral tradition, creeping back in.
- Before dawn, I unroll my mat in my cramped space. The black rubber absorbs a landing strip of scant light against the sheen of the hardwood. Around me, the books are mute with shadow. On the harmonium-case that serves as my writing table, my laptop sits like a window closed against the storm. I light a candle.
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OP: Hi everybody! I love this group! I hope you can help. I have a question about this thing in yoga: [insert whatever]. I’m wondering if you have any advice or resources to share. I’m writing this OP in good faith with an upbeat tone. I know that I might not be using the most correct language — after all, I’m just starting out as a teacher! I’m hoping that won’t matter, because we’re all learning together, and you all want to help, right? Thanks!
Commenter 1 (C1): [That thing in yoga you’re asking about] has nothing to do with real yoga. Can’t believe you’re going to be teaching.
OP: um okay well I’m just starting out thanks Continue reading “Facebook Yoga Group Thread From Hell (Hopefully, a Requiem)”
One thing that’s coming into clearer focus as I keep looking into the 1960s-90s period of the global yoga boom is that non-Indian students/consumers were attracted not just to notions of bodily freedom and the enhanced internal agency promised by meditation.
Through idealism and orientalist distortions, they were also attracted to an ostensibly older and more grounded mode of being.
On one hand, this was partially expressed through a nostalgia for conservatism. I believe this had a lot to do with being attracted to how Iyengar’s (and others’) colonial-era survivorship blended with post-war Fordism to value good posture, an independent work ethic, strongly defined gender roles, visions of the benevolent patriarch, obedience to a productive method, a fixation on the hero’s journey, and the notion that the world was improving, one sun salute at a time.
Beneath this simmered an attraction to something more primal: the very capacity for belief itself. Postmodernism had argued an “incredulity towards metanarratives”, such as “nationhood” or “religion” or “history” and even “self”. The 1970s academic deconstructionists attacked faith without mercy. Their work trickled down into a pervasive sense of irony within popular culture. It got so bad that at one point I realized that the feeling I had of understanding something was indistinguishable from the feeling I got when mocking it.
Somehow, the ground of yoga offered something more solid, less depressed. For the disillusioned global spiritual consumer, its homeland became the site of an unshifting reality or confidence, lived by those who had stood there and endured.
With privilege, you could travel to India as a tourist from historical and cultural bankruptcy, and try to soak some of that up, to fill the hole.
You could study there, get sick there, feel like a child again, without language or good toilet skills.
You could watch countless people flow by in an endless reaffirmation of your stereotypes and archetypes.
You could go to a temple and ask a nadi reader to retrieve your life story from a library of palm leaves. You could hear mantras recited, unchanged in tone or rhythm (or so they said) from before the dawn of time.
You could pretend to be guiltless, making yourself oblivious to the inequalities that allowed you to fly there in a plane and blend the reverie of gazing out at cloud cover with a vague sense of spiritual purpose.
But the one thing you couldn’t do as a spiritual traveller in India was to feel ironic. The feeling would instantly erase your visa from your passport.
That milky chai in a red clay cup as you waited for the rickety train was the sweet taste of relief from all doubt and skepticism and smugness. You could breathe its aroma deeply.
The Oneness everyone talked about had a somatic immediacy. There was nothing abstract about it. I felt it in the springs of the bus seat lurching up to Dharamsala, the punch of camphor in the sinuses. I thought I saw it in the cow pats drying on the mud walls.
How painful it is to become disillusioned with an authenticity project. To become ironic about yoga culture, skeptical of its pathways of authority, doubtful of its origin stories. How shameful to realize you were making yourself feel better by othering, by positively colonizing.
Or: to hear that this one made that up and the other one was in it for money or sexual gratification. To see that modern yoga in the U.S. and India both can prop up a politics you abhor. Didn’t we come to these mats and cushions to relax our cynicism?
From personal experience I know that irony can be the ironclad defence of the depressive. But if it retains just a little bit of sweet within its bitterness, it can serve a nobler role. If it’s a little less sneer and little more Mona Lisa, it can light a pathway to inquiry.
There really can be more to deconstruction than clever white men reliving their adolescence by claiming that all meaning – including the meanings that create power and inequality – is somehow a mirage.
Deeper than its flash, deconstruction shows that the heart is a garden of doubts to be carefully tended.
It shows that the attempt to fix meaning flows from patriarchal insecurities, that nostalgia for the father and the Word and for certainty cannot be healed through transference and projection, or fawning neocolonialism.
It shows how ultimately ridiculous it was – though not innocent – that you thought yoga was a specific thing you could grasp and possess and preach.
I had a teacher once who gave an eccentric etymology (of the “nirukta” or poetic variety) for “moksha”. He said that the “mo” pointed to “Mohini” who infatuates the yogi, and the “ksha” meant “removal”. Thus, he said, one way to think of “moksha” was as “the ending of infatuation.”
Infatuation ends in disillusionment. Irony comes in to soothe and protect.
But after a while, one may not need protection from vanished illusions.
It’s impossible to take a deep ironic breath, after all.
Maybe the Buddha is smiling through the other side of irony. The mature, humble, forgiving side.
Please support Michael’s partner Carina and children through this fund.
Photo courtesy of Ian MacKenzie.
Content warning: description of organ harvest.
I started writing this the day my friend Michael Stone died. On that day, the surgeons carefully cut into the body associated with him, to take the parts that used to be him and give them to others in need.
I wasn’t there, but I picture the following:
Their scalpels slide under the skin that was him, and was scanned a hundred thousand times in vipassana meditation.
They poke through the webbing of fascia that was him, and was stretched and twisted through a hundred thousand yoga postures.
Their blue-gloved hands, splashed with blood, pluck out two kidneys like sleeping fish.
They saw through the ribcage, softened by a decade of exhaling visualized light in the Tibetan style. They lift out the still-pulsing lungs, and watch them shudder to stillness on the ice pack. As though Michael were still practicing to lengthen and smooth his breath into that single point of silence he craved.
The transplant team demonstrates an ancient proof in Buddhist logic:
If you look for the person among the parts, you will not find him. “Michael” and “my friend” and “Buddhist teacher” are designations applied to a collection of skin, blood, voice, eyes, behaviors, images, and mysteries. All of which are ultimately ownerless.
One of the mantras Michael sought comfort from was: There is no “me” or “mine.” It’s an assertion of emptiness, but it hides a multiplicity: Michael, like any person, was many.
There was Carina’s Michael: doting and vulnerable. The Michael who stood large beside his brother Jayme and sister Sunny. The Michael of his parents, his teenage friends, his first partner. His friends from many walks of life. Those who didn’t care about Buddhism or yoga.
The Michaels of his children: Arlyn, and the two boys he had with Carina. The thirteen year-old, the four year-old, and the toddler knew different fathers. Baby-to-be heard a resonant voice to be remembered in dreams.
In rings circling outwards, more Michaels appear, each one a little less knowable: therapist, sometimes-monk, public speaker, heartthrob, author, entrepreneur. And of course, Michael the dharma teacher, sitting at the front of the room, by turns radiant, startled, or wooden.
Which Michael did his Buddhist teachers see? His therapists? His psychotherapy supervisor? What about his doctors?
Who was Michael to the man who sold him that little white pill?
The surgeons murmur over the body, and it sounds like prayers.
If you knew and loved Michael through his work, you beat the surgeons to that harvest.
You harvested the voice of his writing and podcasts, marked by the rhythm of the practices he loved and depended on. His penchant for boiling the broadest themes down to taut aphorisms. And for finding the Buddha everywhere he wanted to find him: novels, obscure Canadian poetry, cool apps, superior espresso, pop music, therapy, laundry, mountains, streetcars, his motorcycle, and hospitals.
If you were a student who went to his retreats, you harvested other things. Like how so many mirrored his exquisite posture with equal parts earnestness and piety. You absorbed a dynamic silence – at times anxious, haunted, or womblike. The talks he gave were metronomic, as though he needed the entire world to slow down and listen at the exact pace that soothed him. Then, his quirky yoga instructions tangled you up on your mat, made you teeter and laugh.
Perhaps you had a meeting with him about your meditation or yoga practice and he dispensed advice that connected, perhaps miraculously. Was he intuitive, or lucky? You can’t honestly say. Or maybe the meeting made no sense at all, and you felt odd about that – maybe even apologetic, like you were letting him down. Or: he outright frustrated you with those blue eyes that could seem to know you, love you, judge you, or be lost, all in quick succession.
You collected the countless steps of walking meditation, and the group chants Michael loved. They may have stirred you deeply. Or you may have found that in the English translations from Sanskrit or Japanese he collected and tweaked, they sounded angular and explicit to the point of embarrassment:
Don’t squander your life!
Does anyone really squander their life?
2013. We were walking through Mile End in Montreal, looking for the perfect cortado. Michael was telling me he’d backed off on the rigidity of practice in recent years, as we tend to do.
“I’m leaving just enough discipline to hold the shape of something,” he said, on the step of Café Névé. He gestured in the cold air with his hands.
That something was always meticulous, artistic, and intense. It felt like his longing for ritual order emerged, as much religion does, as an artistic response to internal and external chaos.
I remember when he rented my old space in Cabbagetown for several month-long retreats in 2006. One was in February. He’d ride his Danish bicycle over from Parkdale, and come in with snow in his beard that melted into the cup of coffee I handed him. Through the day, I sat at the desk outside the room, working to the rhythm of his somnambulant baritone, lulled by the vowels.
The students were Gen X, Y, and millennials, countercultural. Three-quarters women. When they trickled out to the bathroom they moved quietly and kept their heads down. It seemed like they were under a thrall they couldn’t risk breaking. When the studio door was left open, I could see the cohort encircle him. Some sat very close, absorbed in him.
I was impressed, and uneasy. What was going on? How did he manage to make all of that attention directed at him seem natural?
The fragments of his talks I overheard rung with a single note. It wasn’t from Buddhism or yoga. The texts were delivery devices for a sense of collective certainty, expressed through the first person plural.
“When we feel… we often find… and then we get caught up in… and so we practice because… and we fail… our hearts are like… our armour falls away… we are open to… we can be receptive to… we touch intimacy… we continue on with our work, not knowing.”
Michael’s register of wisdom could make people feel merged with each other, and with him. It created a feeling of group confession that generalized and depersonalized towards an unboundaried warmth. It seemed to hold nothing in private.
When the group left at dusk, the building vibrated. I’d sweep the room and then pause for a while by the altar they’d made by the window. I took note not only of the personal artifacts people had brought, but also the pristine and eccentric aesthetic Michael inspired. Japanese paper, quirky calligraphy, microbrew beer coasters folded into squat origami turtles.
The style was hipster zen, years before it was a thing. But instead of irony, it was imbued with what his brother Jayme described over the phone as Michael’s sense of the “ceremonious”. That same sense, Jayme said, that made the scene of Michael’s death so uncharacteristic of him.
I was never Michael’s student. I was his peer, colleague, co-author, and eventually, his friend.
I was that friend – I’m sure there were others – who made fun of him for having students. I would say:
Look at the mess you’re in now. People expect you to give them spiritual advice!
He smiled and shrugged, a little bashful. Sometimes he laughed. It was like he didn’t know how it all happened, even if he knew how to nudge it along. He didn’t stop it, because it seemed to be working. The glowing feedback he got burned everything else away. It’s hard to imagine anyone around him being large enough to persuade him to slow down.
But he asked everyone else to slow down, and look within. I wonder if he needed those around him to find the answers he couldn’t.
Friends harvested more hidden things:
His bouts of social unease, his obsession with dorky trivia and dark humour. You saw him long for guidance from senior teachers, like a prodigal son. He would connect with them, misfire with them.
You saw him draw conflict, get defensive, take a breath, take inventory, try to make amends. He would drift away from these people over here, become infatuated with others over there. You saw the acrimony from his divorce spill out and polarize a community. You understood that his prescription to always practice intimacy and forgiveness was the one he had written for himself.
You saw his effect on women, of all ages. They adored him and confessed to him. They poured their labour into his projects. Some became angry when they realized the imbalances. When they ghosted away, others came to replace them.
In such seemingly progressive spaces, it can be hard to call out hierarchy. The spirituality industry wants to make Iron Age yoga and medieval Zen look like they aren’t patriarchal in theme, form, and division of labour.
If you were a close friend, you saw how Michael’s doubts about his direction and competence were punctuated by flourishes of manic creativity. You saw how easy it was for his vision to outpace his introversion, and his appetite to outpace his digestion.
When he was flying high, his intellect became very porous, consuming and repackaging every idea he loved with dizzying speed. He was a DJ of ambient Buddhism, mixing freely from whatever tracks he could find.
If you were close to him, you collected his surges of warmth. These became more poignant when you realized that he often had to climb up out of a dark well to let them flow. You collected things that were hidden by his stylishness, his supermodel looks, and by the gold paint that people sprayed on him in their minds and online.
Maybe you were close enough to soak up what he was like with his family in its various constellations. How he loved and baffled them, how he thrilled but could also disappoint. How relatives orbited his sun in seasons of estrangement and reconciliation.
When he touched Carina’s hand or when his sons clung to his arms, or when he listened to Jayme play the banjo, or when he watched his sister Sunny whip up her cooking magic, you could feel his love come out in a flood of bewildered tenderness.
He ended our book together with a distillation of such moments:
Everything was in its right place and everything was heading in the same direction. In my body I felt something new about life: not my own life, but about the whole parade of humans moving through the world, of which my family was only one small part, but the largest part of the world I could ever know.
If you worked with him, like I did on his talk about struggling with the danger of his own charisma, you harvested the giddiness of his concentration. You understood that he survived in part by taking risks.
After their first son was born, Carina asked him to sell the motorcycle a psychic had told him he should buy. He did as she asked. But he kept driving too fast in his mind.
When we worked he would pause, waiting for the words to come. I could feel him teeter on the edge of something. One March day, I prodded him a little harder. I could hear his tapping keys over the phone as he murmured:
“I came to understand the shadow of charisma — of my charisma — was dependency.”
There was that feeling I often had around him. A lightning bolt of clarity, and then something fuzzy and frenetic rushing back in.
He was impatient with whatever couldn’t be finished with the speed of a zen brush painting. I would offer a paragraph of commentary; he parried with a sentence. I built things up, and he hacked them away. He loved the koans that could be answered in a single word. He was acutely aware of the shortness of time, and he’d learned that art must be made from the simplicity of panic.
I can hear him saying now: “This elegy is too damned long. And you always go too far!”
I yell into my silent phone:
Dude, I’m just getting started. And you’re the one who went too far. Gone, gone beyond, and all that, right?
I wait for his laugh.
During a snowstorm three years ago, Michael and I met for lunch to finish work on our book. At one point he stopped and leaned over to ask me something that wasn’t really a question.
“Hey – do you generally feel even-keeled?”
“I guess. Can you say more?”
“I mean – do you feel in control of your emotions?”
After I fumbled through an answer, he told me he was struggling with his mental health. That it had been going on for as long as he could remember. Suddenly many things made sense.
We got very still and gazed at each other. After a moment, I realized he was gapping out. I’d seen this before, but now it was clear that he had to struggle to come back to the table.
It occurred to me that this oscillation between intense focus and vacancy was part of what drew people to him. Like he could see you, and that felt so intoxicating, but then you’d have to chase after him to feel that again. Like he was profoundly okay in one moment, but you wanted to save him in the next. Or maybe you thought he was regularly falling into a meditative trance.
Things became more transparent between us, but never fully. I loved him more, even as – or because – I felt more uncertain about where he was going. I knew I’d been drawn to him without understanding a crucial thing. I was in his sphere because he’d cast a spell over me. Part of me resented that, but now I could love him closer to where he was.
We deepened things by trading war stories about our health. On the phone he’d tell me about crushing insomnia. About having to fly places and teach meditation on autopilot because he was exhausted and agitated. I told him about my heart palpitations in the middle of the night. He’d had that too. Once, I picked him up from the hospital when he went for knee surgery to fix the damage from that stupid lotus pose. Or was it skateboarding?
I developed a pulmonary embolism a few months after our book was published. I could easily have died. He was the first person outside of my family I called. I knew he would say something luminous and comforting. But there was also the feeling that I wanted him to know I was joining him at the edge of something.
We talked a lot about self-regulation. He told me that he’d stopped meditating everyday as an experiment to see if meditation was actually making his swings worse. He suspected it was. This was around the time he taped an interview with the world’s leading researcher in the neuroscience of negative meditation experiences. I’ll bet the turns of his research interests map perfectly onto his internal labyrinth.
I had to take warfarin to thin out my blood clots. He told me that lithium seemed to help even out his moods. We joked about it: after years of studying Ayurvedic diet and self-care, here I was, kept alive on rat poison. And for him — after scouring the library of scriptures, he’d found the answer in the periodic table. A single molecule, labeled “3”.
I said it was the chemical version of the triple jewel of Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha. He laughed his broad broken laugh.
Over the next few years I saw Michael increasingly exhausted by a race against the pressures of his persona, the tightening claustrophobia of his brain, his search for better medications, and the possibility that disclosing it all would help, or at least give him the next thing to work with. I thought about the growing distance between what he saw in the mirror and the headshots staring out at him from the screen.
His public life went viral, even as he seemed to become more isolated. He kept preaching the necessity of practice, even as I knew practice was less accessible to him. His sermons were about place and connection and sustainability. But he composed them on airplanes. He preached about community from the remote island he moved to after leaving the community he had founded.
When he was getting ready to move out west with Carina and their first child, he called me to say that he wanted to give me a bunch of his books on psychoanalysis. Two titles stood out: Being a Character, by Christopher Bollas, and Terrors and Experts, by Adam Phillips, who Michael and I had recently gone to see lecture.
Bollas describes the devastating results of living in the prison of other peoples’ idealizations. Phillips opens his book by quoting Iris Murdoch on how philosophers show you what they fear through what they become experts in.
We thumbed through his books, stacked in the front hallway. “I really think psychoanalysis,” he said, “gave us the most beautiful literature we have.”
He sounded wistful. I don’t know whether he was giving me a message, telling me about what had helped him find peace for a while, or parting with things that hadn’t worked. He handed over the books with a generous smile, and his body pulsed with warmth when we hugged. But as I drove away I felt like a thief.
As time wore on, Michael became an ever stronger advocate of the thing he struggled to do. Show each other your face, he would say.
I wondered whether his ideas got larger as his internal space and room to breathe narrowed. Not only did he constantly push himself to break new ground in Buddhist thought, he wanted to carve out a leadership role in the movement to renovate yoga postures. There was talk of building a new centre in the western mountains, and landing a university fellowship. He told me about one of his next books, in which he was going to be more transparent about his mental health. He was searching for the right hook. Something that could go mainstream.
If he was going to own his mental illness, he was going to learn and write and teach his way through it. It’s what he had always done.
It is perhaps what the Buddha himself had done.
A main difference being: Siddhartha Gautama wasn’t preceded in the world by the images of his own enlightenment. He didn’t need to feed the insatiable hunger of wellness culture. He did not have to live up to – nor compete with – the branding of spirituality.
The poet John Ashbury just died at the ripe old age of ninety. He once wrote:
Most reckless things are beautiful in some way, and recklessness is what makes experimental art beautiful, just as religions are beautiful because of the strong possibility that they are founded on nothing.
Don’t squander your life!
Sometimes the group whispered it. At the memorial, one of his students shouted it at the top of his lungs. Who was he shouting it at?
Those who harbour anger at Michael right now – and feel so guilty because of it – might feel sucker-punched by that line. Doesn’t it open a cut of hypocrisy? Did he really recite it a hundred thousand times? Who was he talking to?
The stigma Michael faced is real. But the broader story must include the fact that thousands of us paid him for the creative side of his mania, which was hard to separate from his talent. A portion of our money poured directly into a small industry of marketing and publicity that reflected our desires back to us. It paid for gorgeous photography and design, for occasional ghostwriting, and for partnerships that gave structure and anchoring to his flow states.
The yoga and meditation economy embraced him with open arms. And enabled him. He was working on four different books, all in different subject areas, when he died.
He may not have wanted to disclose. But if anyone could have turned stigma into stigmata, it was him. The spirituality industry, however, would suffer for it.
A disclosure like Michael’s would continue to erode the arbitrary distinctions between sane and insane spiritual leaders. It would be that much harder to read Pema Chodron or Alan Watts without wondering how much of Buddhism amongst postmodern converts is an elaborate way of covering over a hidden story.
If Michael had disclosed, we would look at our shelves full of Shambhala titles and wonder how many trees were felled to print them. We’d remember that the press that launched him was itself launched by the mercurial genius of Chogyam Trungpa: alcoholic, womanizing, surely undiagnosed. We would not be talking about the fall of a single hero, but the clay feet of a culture. We might sense the deep feelings of shame and inadequacy that drive so many men to the front of the room to prove themselves. We think they are vibrating, when really they are trembling.
After that line about squandering your life, Michael’s assistant would strike the gong while holding the rim, so it couldn’t ring to its natural end.
I was always a crappy Buddhist. Over that surreal weekend of his coma, I felt so identified with Michael’s body that I felt some shadow part of myself on that ventilator, forcing me to breathe, waiting for it to be switched off. A more solid part of me was here, not believing that he couldn’t taste this coffee, couldn’t stand in this garden, couldn’t smile at his wife, couldn’t hold his toddler.
Even two weeks later, his death still seemed a spectacle to me, I expected him to step out from behind a tree, or send a text from the edge of Algonquin Park, where he disappeared to when he was twenty. As though he’d just been out of cell phone range, and had no clue there was such a fuss.
It only really hit home as I sat with my family on a driftwood log on a Pender Island beach with a hundred others at the memorial. The children waited patiently through the chanting, holding the paper lanterns they would release after the last bell.
Jayme stood behind the altar with his partner Laura and cracked open the Zen liturgy with his banjo and a southern spiritual. His voice, braided with hers, carried light and ash. Their three year-old son pulled at Laura’s dress, asking to be picked up.
If you’re a Canadian Gen Xer like Michael and me, you’ll probably remember a little Québécois film from 1989 by Denys Arcand called “Jesus of Montreal”. I went to the Carleton Cinema over and over again to soak it in. I wouldn’t at all be surprised if Michael was sitting there during one of those screenings. I was eighteen; he would have been fifteen.
The movie tells a simple, predictable story. A wandering actor returns to his hometown and is hired to direct and star in a revamp of the Cathedral’s chintzy Passion play. He’s silent, magnetic, dreamboaty. Also a little wonky. He electrifies an unlikely cohort of disciples and leads them in pulling their art and their lives out of banality.
At the peak of his influence, while performing Jesus, and not really knowing what he was doing, the actor accidentally dies.
The concluding montage leaves the main characters behind. It cuts from one hospital room to the next, showing patient after patient waking up after their surgery to receive an organ, donated by the actor who played Jesus.
An old man wakes up with a new heart. A middle-aged woman has the bandages removed so that she can blink at her daughter with new eyes, and call out her name.
This is my body, which will be given up for you, as they say in the church to which I once belonged.
I cried harder during that scene than almost ever before or since, and couldn’t move from my seat until the janitor tapped me on the arm at closing time.
Whenever I crest over this present edge of numbness and am finally able to cry about Michael, I think the tears will join the river that started in that theatre. They’ll flow from the material realizations of love:
I’ll feel how one body becomes other bodies.
I’ll feel that this is all there ever was or needs to be: a recycling of flesh into new joys and troubles. This is the way biology grants forgiveness. The process itself is the only soul we need to speculate about.
I’ll feel that in death, as in life, a person is both visible and invisible. Charisma magnifies this split.
Visible or invisible, Michael couldn’t be found or boxed in. I was foolish to think he could be. So it goes for those burdened with charisma. They are who they are because they seem so much larger and more permanent than you, even when they desperately want to be equal, normal, not-special; even when they want to disappear.
I know this tune: I’ve spent years deconstructing the light and shadow of spiritual teachers. On the surface my crusade has been related to healing from being in two cults. But the deeper drives that both attracted me to those men and led me to loathe them flow from my own need to be special, to heal attachment wounds, to be seen and praised — and then the shame of recognizing these things.
Pegging Michael as charismatic, and feeling smug about it, let me off the hook for years. I could only truly love him when I began to understand that he was living an amplified version of my own needs.
Part of why I wanted to be his friend was that I wanted to see myself more clearly. Knowing he did many of the things I work against, I tried to forgive him because he was ill and couldn’t seem to do otherwise. Perhaps he was my dharma teacher after all, teaching me about love in that sideways land of the unconscious.
My eventual tears will tally all I harvested in every moment I knew him – over years, and not just suddenly. The organs are just the last parts to be offered.
I’ll understand that those who speak most about community and ethics and family and forgiveness and intimacy are those who most long for such things.
I’ll sense that the pain of watching a person you love shattering into emptiness can be soothed by the feeling that he’s already inside you, transplanted, flaws and all. He lends you the heart, for the brief time we have, to take care of others.