It will soon be a matter of common knowledge that the integrity of globally successful yoga and Buddhism brands founded by charismatic evangelists have been grossly compromised by histories of abuse.
We don’t have to name names: they’ll just come to mind. Fill in the blank of “The ______ yoga community”, and you will likely have named an organization in which the leader and/or his/her key lieutenants have been abusers.
In some cases the relationship seems to express a morbid calculus: the more abusive the leadership, the more successful the organization.
The jury is out on whether abuse prevalence is higher in globalized-Indian-convert-spirituality groups than in other groups. But we can say that in a completely unregulated landscape confounded by idealization and orientalism in which charisma is the primary coin of the realm and consumers have little if any way of assessing the competency of producers — even in matters as tender as their own bodies, psyches, and inner selves — abuse is easy to pull off and devastating in effects.
Understanding how the abuse works systemically is impossible, IMO, without diving into cult studies, which provide a robust framework for how the behaviours, information, thoughts, and emotions of group members are controlled (cf Hassan) through the manipulating strategies and deceive and negate the self (cf. Mann).
When (not if) this analysis becomes normalized, the notion that these brands and their communities “protect” a particular kind of knowledge — a language that’s emboldened by references to “tradition” or “lineage” — will start to ring hollow. It will become clear that the shadow function of the organization has been at least dual. Aside from the good the organization has done, it has used the notion of
- Protecting proprietary/precious information to…
- Protect the image of the abusers said to hold it.
The vehemence of those who protect “purity” seems to rise in direct proportion to their shame.
The pressing question becomes “Who then was doing the protecting?” The answer is that it takes all types, from the goon-enforcer all the way up to the academic who gave the group uncritical validation by overlooking its cultic machine. But here I’d like to focus on the most respectable and popular types, who continued on in their careers after abuses became known, largely without changing tack. Let’s call them the Respectable Bystanders (RBs).
Think about the teacher who is well-respected for conflicting reasons:
- They have a strong relationship to a socially viable brand (i.e., they are “traditional”), but
- They have also tacitly distanced themselves from it (they are “independent”).
They often enjoy privileged status within the group, held up as paragons of virtue, as people who got the “true” message of the teachings, as luminaries who didn’t succumb to the foibles of the corrupt leadership. They were able to “separate the teacher from the teachings”. In public they’ll maintain enough of a relationship to the group to serve as an apparently safer or saner alternative to its darker regions. At the same time the RB will profess just enough ambivalence towards the group to not be dragged down by association.
The RB is not a safe person. They managed to capture the glow from the charismatic halo, bottle it up, and repackage it. They couldn’t have done that while also saying “My teacher was an abuser and together we have to heal his legacy.” And if they spent twenty years or more not speaking out against the abuse of the community in which they went on to attain mentor status, you can bet that they didn’t pay much attention to the power dynamics they themselves were creating.
More importantly, consider whether their mentor status now positions them to “save” the brand with their maturity and guidance. That’s not just cynical on their part. It’s dangerous. Because one thing that RBs generally share with the leaders they hold at arm’s length is a grandiosity that believes their internal goodness constitutes all the learning they need.
Theodora Wildcroft was just here in Toronto beginning her first post-doctoral foray into the mainstream yoga training sphere. Her research generated the concept of “Post-Lineage Yoga”, which does many things, including describing the way in which communities practice after their leadership is compromised by abuse revelations.
Because these revelations are now ubiquitous, and because sources of authority on movement and science and history are now horizontally networked instead bestowed from above, the truth is that we are all post-lineage practitioners now.
This goes for the bystanders and enablers as well, unless somehow they sealed themselves off from all other influences. In the case of the Respectable Bystanders, they didn’t. They diluted their socio-economic links to the abusive leader in part through being open to and sometimes taking on other influences.
Wildcroft is clear that post-lineage doesn’t mean anti-lineage, which is why the term also can describe the RB. What her scholarship has done, however, is to amplify some basic transparency questions that can only improve safety in the shadow of RBs and others:
“Do you know where you stand in relation to X group/method/tradition?” “Are you clear about the conflict between benefit and harm in your heritage?” “What are you doing to help those who were hurt by the system you benefited from?”
I’ve done a lot of podcasts, but this one is different. Tiffany and I have known each other for many years, and we were able to record at her dinner table with the Edmonton winter held at bay outside the window. I was exhausted and just off a plane but that somehow helped make me focused and relaxed and a little unguarded. Also, Tiffany doesn’t fuck around. Thanks for the all the hard work you do, Tiff, and for your friendship.
Here’s the recording, which is episode 2 on her new series with Elliot Kesse. You can support their work here. I’m posting a cleaned-up transcript below.
Welcome to Where’d My Chakras Go? A yoga podcast for the rest of us, with Elliot Kesse and Tiffany Rose. So I am here with Matthew Remski and Elliot is not able to join us unfortunately, but we will be discussing some of the topics that Elliot had requested. So maybe Matthew can just tell us a little bit about yourself?
Sure. Thanks for inviting me Tiffany. I’ve been teaching or I guess involved in yoga since about 2003, and that followed two three-year stints in yoga related cults. And how that happened is a long story, but coming to yoga itself was really wrapped up in trying to recover my sense of agency and autonomy after those experiences of control — of social control. And that really started with being able to feel my own body as my own, being able to feel my thoughts as my own. So I plunged right in.
Also, I’d lost a lot of time in my late twenties and early thirties, wrapped up in these two cultic organizations. The yoga industry was booming when I got out and it seemed like a fortuitous fit and, there was a training that I could go to and there wasn’t a yoga studio in the little town that my ex partner and I were living in at that time. So, things just seem to fall into place to put me in this strange position of studying a lot of yoga and then beginning to teach it a little bit too early, but in a very intensive way. I started out with 25 classes a week or something like that. There’s a lot of people who ended up doing that in the early 2000s I think.
I eventually continued to study in subject areas like yoga therapy and Ayurveda and more esoteric subjects like Jyotish or Vedic astrology and palmistry and the spatial arrangement thing called Vastu. And that was all really enriching in my life. I’ve continued on from there, but it’s really taken me about 10 years to swing around to recognizing that the primary value that I found in this to begin with was tools to access some sort of internal sense of constancy or agency, and capacity to feel like a single self and that’s been really important to me. And then it’s also directed how I’ve begun to look at how systems of social control developed within yoga environments as well. I think a lot of your listeners will probably know that I do a lot of work on yoga and Buddhist cults now in my writing. So that’s a little bit about me.
So you live in Toronto and you have two children and you’re married to a partner who is just starting to move into her own practice and the boys are both in school now, so this is kind of a transitional time for you as well, hey?
Right. Yeah. My partner is starting her psychotherapy practice and supervision as you say, the boys are both into school, little Owie is only in preschool. He says “pee skoo”. Then I’ve got this book coming out in March and I have no idea what’s going to happen after that because there’s going to be a lot of people I think who appreciate it and there’s gonna be bunch of people who really hate it. And I think it’s going to bring my engagement with yoga training work into a different area because up until this point I’ve been doing YTT modules in or facilitating YTT modules in history, philosophy and culture. But I think especially the conclusion of this book is going to put me into the zone of — or at least I’d like it to put me in the zone of — starting to talk about community health and, and safer spaces. Not just in terms of affirmative consent or informed consent or all of the amazing anti-oppression work that I’ve been exposed to and I’ve started to learn about, but also in terms of how do people actually form relationships in yoga and Buddhist communities, and what’s the role of charisma, and how do you know that you’re in a bounded-logic group, and how do you know when you’re being asked to do things through mechanisms of undue influence, and how do you know that the person’s actually giving you care instead of trying to control you? Those are very pressing questions to me because the last, especially three years of work that I’ve done in the writing and journalism that I’ve published have all focused on that in various yoga communities.
So you’ve kind of had this sort of archetypal position in Yogaland as like the evil sort of villain that just picks apart everything that’s good, and things that everybody loves, you know, you’re just there to shit on it. Did that happen intentionally or was it just sort of, did it just sort of evolve?
Well, I think, I mean to me, thinking critically about one’s internal life and how one consumes spiritual ideas is a form of spirituality. I think we — I don’t want to speak for everybody — but it seems to be a common thread that we take our spiritual aspirations really seriously, and to the extent that we do that, I feel like it’s really good to interrogate where they’re coming from and what kinds of wishes they’re fulfilling within us and what they make us more receptive to and what they make us more blind to. So I’ve always felt in the critical work I’ve done around yoga and injuries or the difficulty in telling apart trance states and dissociative states in meditation or how smiling and seemingly beneficent and communities can really hold these daggers of betrayal — all of that work to me has actually been a form of spirituality.
Because I think that one recurring pattern in my life is that when I learn something, it’s through some type of disillusionment. I don’t think that’s necessarily true for everybody, but I think it’s underrated. I think disillusionment as a growth process actually underrated. The trick is (and this is where I think I fall down and where people, perhaps people who are critical of what I do don’t get enough from me) which is that disillusionment really has to be healed by some form of re-enchantment. And so I’m working on that part, but it’s hard because all of my critical work is also wrapped up in the wounds of having been a cult survivor.
And so trying to find the pathway between criticism and productivity can be a real challenge, but it’s something that I think I want to keep working on for sure. I feel responsible to that. When people engage in my work and they feel depressed or more cynical or low, that’s a burden for me. It’s a burden for them! But I think it poses a responsibility. It gives me a responsibility. I don’t want to shy away from that.
I used to have this like almost-avoidant and dismissive attitude of “Oh, well, you know, I can just describe a problem and if you don’t like it then, you know, suck it up.” But that’s not where I’m at anymore. I think being in a really supportive relationship makes me understand how that can’t be where I am anymore. Trying to do well by my sons makes me understand that I really don’t want to be there anymore. I do want to do more to look at positive solution-seeking.
Is it you that says, are you quoting somebody that says something like enlightenment is the end of… what’s it?
I think maybe what you’re pointing to is that I had a teacher who gave this, I think probably eccentric etymology for “moksha”. He suggested that the first part of the compound word was shared with the name of Mohini,one of the divine feminine figures who has said to distract the yogi from — in this very misogynistic system of course — distract the yogi from his other-worldly concerns. And then the “ksha” is related to space element. And so his really beautiful explanation… I don’t know how other Sanskritists would find it, but he used to say that he thought of moksha as being “the end of infatuation”.
And leaving two cults was about two different types of infatuation coming to an end. Understanding that the bodily autonomy and, the real blessing of newfound interoception that I got from asana when I first started… really began to slide over into a kind of anxious ableism. When I realized that that was true, that was another end to infatuation. There was an infatuation that I had with physical capacity or even a capacity to sense things internally. You know, I think interoception is wonderful, but it can also be fetishized as, as some kind of core anchoring thing that will always bring you into the present moment and solve all problems and stuff like that. But it’s just another faculty and it has its uses and then it has its abuses as well.
And in fact, like for someone like me or people who have extreme chronic pain or maybe body dysmorphia or things like that, intense focus on interoception can sometimes be damaging, right? It can be harmful for people to feel like they’re trapped in their sensations or like they have to be tied to those internal sensations or else they’re not practicing yoga.
And that’s, and that’s a harder story for you for you to tell. I think it’s a lot easier — what I’m saying about interoception as being this wonderful grounding or agency-enhancing thing is a common yoga narrative. And then along comes Tiffany and says, “Wait, wait, wait a minute, wait a minute! When I go inside and try to find relaxation or peace or security and internal sensation, maybe I find the opposite. Maybe I just don’t find that at all.” And that in itself is a breaking of a kind of infatuation to just have that statement out there somewhere that, “Wait a minute, not everybody has that. Or not everybody does that. Or not everybody works that way.” It breaks this illusion that we’re all starting from the same place or that we all share something irreducibly in common. I think it gets us out of thinking that what we can share is an ideology instead of what we can share is a relationship where we’re actually continually learning about things that we just can’t understand about each other.
Doesn’t that make teaching harder though?
Like when there’s no common bond that we can kind of preach to. Then Actually have to start teaching in relationship.
And for people who maybe are closed down to relationship or maybe even like you were saying that closed down to a relationship to themselves. It makes teaching yoga a lot harder. I think
It does. It’s certainly harder to describe. It’s harder to market. It’s harder to feel evangelical about.
Well, there’s no flashing lights with that, you know?
No, there isn’t. This is a weird thing. I mean, when we hear the hopeful, hope-laden in statement in yoga culture or literature or marketing, we’re hearing two things. We’re hearing something earnest and yearning from the perspective of the teacher who’s marketing or the student who’s consuming. But we’re also hearing the potential for a kind of aspirational bypass where we’re somehow asking ourselves or other people to do and accomplish and feel more than they are able. And that brings up the whole problem of what happens when they don’t.
Do you think that…. I’m just kind of thinking this out loud, like, because I think that there’s so many teachers who are really wanting to do right. They’re really wanting to feel like their classes can be inclusive of everyone and that they are accessible, right? But with the current way that yoga is consumed in North America, it’s really difficult to remain profitable if that’s your livelihood and not sell hope. Right? So how do you, how do people who are really trying to be trauma-informed and inclusive and accessible, how do they compete with the evangelical, hopeful Lululemon crowd?
Yeah, I don’t think they compete. I think they offer something different which is: if there’s hope on offer, it’s the hope of, of inquiry or curiosity or a period of time out or a period of care or nurturance. I don’t see how they’re going to compete. I mean in a way, they’re antithetical so they can’t compete.
I think part of what we’re talking about is how can people make livings. And I think that when I consider what I know about your story and the story of so many other people who do this really sort of a in-depth trauma aware and non-commercialized work, I think of how I’m seeing this growing divide structurally between commercial and public service models. Where I see a hopefulness not in terms of marketing marketing solutions, but hopefulness in terms of the possibility for people like you and your colleagues for perhaps making more of a living over time or a better living over time is in the increasing movement of yoga into public health circumstances where the funding is assured because the population is known to simply benefit from what’s being offered.
That’s what I see with the work of people in the Yoga Service Council. And a little bit in the Accessibility Yoga Movement as well, that people are getting really good at, or better anyway, at figuring out where to pursue public funding rather than private commercial, consumer-based funding. So I’m very interested in that and that change in that movement.
One of the really great experiences that I had with you this year was at the Accessible Yoga Conference in Toronto. We had the privilege of presenting on a panel together there and you and I sat in on a session together at New Leaf foundation and I remember halfway through it, we were sitting beside each other and I was kind of a curled up in my chair and I had my knee in my chest and I was rocking a little bit and I remember you looking over at me and saying. “This is really good, hey?” And I remember thinking like, yeah, I feel very comforted. I’m like almost like rocking myself. Like I just feel very safe and comforted.
And that kind of work that they’re doing, I found a lot of hope in that and it was something that I hadn’t really been exposed to until then and just listening to them speak about the work that they do and the way that they approached it really gave me hope for yoga. Did you feel that way when you were listening to them?
I totally did. And I think it’s not just because of their content, which is top notch — because their content is not that much that far off from yours and it’s not going to be that much far off from anybody in yoga service. Where I find the comfort in just meeting people like that is in seeing how they have learned to approach the public infrastructure for support and to carve out their niche in it. And, I don’t know the New Leaf people personally that well, but that support is something that I know is a huge part of everybody who’s deeply invested in yoga service throughout North America is really trying hard to work on.
I was really struck sitting at the Yoga Service Council conference I think two years ago and I was speaking with a woman named Mayuri. I think her organization is called Little Flower Yoga and she trains teachers how to give 20, 30 and 40 minute yoga classes to grade school kids and she works in Manhattan. I think her partner is a public school teacher and so they’re sort of networked in the school system in a way. And she not only developed her training and by knocking on doors got her programs and her teachers into eight or nine public schools, which took three or four years, and they were able to pay out of discretionary spending for that. I think that’s how her business got going and I think she’s set up as a nonprofit as well. But she taught herself all how to do that, coming out of a non admin or nonprofit background. But the thing is there was one point at which, I think last year, Deblasio, the mayor of New York announced through the education department that they were making $20,000,000 available to the boroughs of New York public schools for wellness programs that would include yoga and mindfulness sessions or something like that. And so who’s on the phone the next morning, knowing who to call to get in on that funding is Mayuri. That is so cool because now she has networked her… she’s going to be able to leverage all of these teachers who she has trained into a new field that in terms of public money is still only being funded to a drop in the bucket. This has nothing to do with commercial yoga economics at all.
And yoga people are not in these circumstances having to worry about overhead or any of the things that you just went through with your studio over the last several years. So when I going back to sitting with New Leaf, the comfort that I feel is these people had figured out how to interface with the public health world. That means that comes with responsibility. That comes with “I’m going to have to have informed consent policies for all my workers. I’m going to have to have trauma informed training. I’m going to have to have good HR policies. I’m going to have to have all of these things that the commercial yoga world is totally shit at, and they’re just going to have to be a matter of course, and people are gonna have to be trained to a certain level that will allow them to be accountable to their public health positions.” And it’s like, it’s just a totally different world. And so I feel very, I feel very — it’s not what I’m professionally doing, but just as an observer and as a cultural critic and as a somebody who does journalism of this stuff sometimes, and I’m really fascinated to look at how that’s working.
I’m just going back to the conference. You gave the closing address for the conference and I had to jump on a bus to get to Montreal so I didn’t get to hear it, but I did watch the video. And I think I cried, which is really hard to get me to do so. But I think one of the things that really touched a lot of people in that address with you talking about how you too will one day become disabled. And I’m wondering if you can share a little bit about that.
Jivana, and — I’m a little bit embarrassed that I can’t remember the activist’s name that he cited in his presentation during the conference, but it’s somebody famous I think in California who was at the center of the disability rights movement from maybe the seventies or something like that — I think his one of his statements was, “It’s not like you’re not going to need these services. We’re all in this together.” And it’s kind of like a more visceral and material framing for all of the old ascetic and Buddhist realizations around mortality, old age, sickness and death. So there’s picture of the guy in his wheelchair saying, “You’re going to be somewhere like this.” And and then I was in his class a little bit later and,
Jivana’s class right. And I think he asked us to, — he’s got this great way of, “Let’s see how you can do Tadasana or a mountain pose, but, imagine that you need to have your full body in contact with a wall. Or let’s see if you can do tree pose on a chair. And he’s got all this amazing teaching around, “What is the posture actually? If you have an internal visualization of it, and that’s meaningful to you, is that the posture?” All of these ways of picking apart an ableism that is so pervasive, it’s invisible to people like me who, you know, I don’t see myself as being physically disabled.
So there was one point where I just burst into tears because I realized that he was giving me an end-of-life practice, or a later-on-in-life practice or something like that. He was actually preparing me for something in a way that nobody had ever prepared me for in a yoga class. When I got into yoga and I was doing asana obsessively, it was more like, “What secrets does this body hold that I can stretch out of it? And how can I break this open to find what’s inside?”
And Jivana’s doing something different. He’s like, “What’s already inside that can be felt and accepted as your condition or what your condition will be when you’re perhaps not able to stand or you’re not able to see or you’re not able to feel all of these things that you associate with yourself.” So there’s something very profound about that and it just kind of like, it added to this row of dominoes that have been falling around me or within me around what it means to not see your own privilege.
For me, that started with, I don’t know, several years ago. Actually, it came up this morning as well because I arrived here in Edmonton at 9:30, which meant that I had to leave the house in Toronto at 3:30 in the morning. And several years ago, my partner said that she wanted me to take a cab to the bus stop we live in. We live in a neighborhood where if you want to catch the bus to the airport — like the bus that costs $3 instead of paying 60 bucks to take a cab at that time — you know you have to walk through a kind of lonely patch. And it’s a little bit of a sketchy area. And actually there were just two shootings this past week in the area. And so a couple of years ago, I was going to take one of these trips. I was probably coming here and she said, “Can you just take a cab to the bus stop?” And I was like, I was insulted. And I was like. “No, I’m not gonna, I’m not gonna.” I got all proud and huffy and stuff like that.
It took this argument, I’m ashamed to say, to break through this layer of absolute unconsciousness around what it actually meant to be female and in a body and in this part of the city, and thinking about walking at that time of night. And it kind of like overwhelmed me. I was like, “Oh, you live in a totally different world than I live in. And I haven’t seen that before. And I have to start taking care of that. Like I have to start taking care of you. Not in a paternalistic way, but taking care of the fact that I don’t even understand how much benefit I have here.”
It’s funny because I stayed with you during the conference and I, one night I went out and I was up until midnight and I had to navigate my way back to your house and I remember you asking me because I walked from that bus stop to your house and it was about midnight or 12:30 and I remember you asking me if I felt unsafe and I said no. And I thought about that and you know, I think probably what that is, you know, as a trauma survivor, I tend to feel safe in unsafe situations and unsafe in safe situations. So for me, I just kind of…
It can be scrambled, right?
Yeah. I puff myself up and put my head down and just walked to your house without even giving it a second thought. But, you know, it didn’t probably even occur to me that I might be putting myself at risk or in danger or that I should have maybe taken a cab or something like that. I just wandered through the streets of Toronto by myself.
Yeah. And like me asking you that and me asking you that comes from… I mean, it’s funny because there’s a potential for paternalism in there too, right? Where I’m going to be protective towards my partner or towards you as a guest and maybe over-compensate in some way and so these questions about empowerment and equality that come up. But really listening — I think the main point about privilege is just really letting it sink in: that we live in different worlds. And that was one of the first big things that, that I think really started to, it changed my spirituality in the sense that like the infatuation now that I am interested in ending or interrogating in myself is the infatuation that I have with forms of privilege that I can’t even see.
Because that infatuation — not understanding what it means to be male, or male-identified, not understanding the advantages of being white, not understanding the advantages of being considered to be able-bodied — that those are all barriers to empathy and communication and activism. Because they make a person feel like that the world is just, should be okay and navigable by everybody.
And so I’m in Jivana’s class and this, this other sort of penny dropped which was, “Oh, I’m not looking at the world as… I’m looking at the world through ableist eyes, and I’m doing that in physical terms. I’m doing it in psychological terms. I’m doing it in cognitive terms. And if I can stop doing that or if I can, I can start questioning that a little bit, I’m going to see and invite others into, or I’m going to see other people a little bit more clearly and I’m going to be able to care for things a little bit better or at least I’m going to make fewer boneheaded remarks. I’m going to cause less harm and that’d be a start.”
So we talked a little bit about disability and the, the Accessible Yoga conference, and one of the things that we talked about before we were recording was — and Elliot talks a little bit about this too, as someone who is physically disabled — that oftentimes there’s this binary around disability where we think of disability only in terms of physical disability. And one of the things that I try to talk about is how we can be disabled in other ways, right? I think when talking about internalized ableism and how we don’t always see how, how people may be disabled in certain ways or how we might have blind spots. One of the blind spots I think that I see a lot in Yogaland is around people not really understanding neurodivergence. I think you don’t really speak about this very often, but I know when I did an Ayurveda training with you, you shared about in your twenties something that happened to you, that you kind of realized that there was some neuro divergence in your life. Do you mind sharing about that?
No. Not a lot to say except that during a period in my early twenties of real emotional stress and alienation and probably like — I think I’ve been undiagnosed clinically depressed at several points in my life and it was just never in my culture or it wasn’t in my toolbox to seek out therapy. That wasn’t part of where I came from. So, that’s why I think I remained undiagnosed. But yeah during a period of really severe stress, I had a series of really explosive seizures where I lost consciousness for fairly long, I don’t know how long, but fairly long periods of time. And they were physically violent enough that I would wake up on my or I came to on the floor of my apartment with like the bookshelves toppled over. So something had happened or I’d be physically injured in some way.
And I went for testing and there was nothing found so I did whatever the EEG tests that were typical. They did a sleep deprivation test and things like that. The neurologist who saw me felt the things were, that the experiences were anomalous or they could be stress-related. But one thing that emerged out of that was every once in a while, like I sort of like go back into, I’m thinking about or researching how people experience seizures because one feature of what I experienced was that — or at least the way I narrativized it was that — the physical sensations were associated with some sort of mystical experience.
So I was in university then for religious studies, I was reading all kinds of mysticism. I was in classes where I got my first exposure to yoga philosophy and Buddhism and other things. And I think Tantric thought as well. But the story that I had ready-made for me to apply to these physical experiences I had was that something transcendental was happening to me. And so after that period, my fascination with things religious and spiritual just seemed to increase, as did my obsessive writing. And so there’s this weird thing which I haven’t been diagnosed with but seems very resonant. It’s called Geschwind Syndrome. And I think it’s a subset of a particular type of epileptic condition where — and I should say just right upfront that I haven’t had seizures for a since that period, so this is really going back 25 years now — but I think they flipped something in me or they turned something on… Geschwind Syndrome is marked by not just the seizures, but two very clear characteristics. One is hyper-religiosity, but it’s not the type of hyper-religiosity that is devotional. It’s a hyper-religiosity that is simply intellectually interested in religion. And then the other thing that people with Geshschwind Syndrome have or typically present is hypergraphia or endless writing, obsessive writing. And that’s certainly very resonant with me.
Because you’ve described yourself as almost addicted to, writing.
Sure, for sure. Yeah. Because, for various reasons, that’s also been like a way of internally parenting myself when I do various types of writing. So not all of this is like this. I can write pseudo-academically or whatever and I can write in a kind of reporting format. But when I really need care, my instinct has always been to write about something. And what’s fascinating is that as soon as it begins to appear on the screen or the page in front of me, it’s almost like a hologram. Almost like like there’s a person there that I am dialoguing with and who is caring for me enough to listen to what I’m saying and faithfully reproducing it.
My partner actually told me about this thing DW Winnicott says, which is that sometimes a person can turn to their intellect for care. And that’s certainly been true for me for writing. So it’s a very hard thing to describe except that when I get into the flow of it, I don’t feel like I’m alone. However I have to be alone to do it!
And so that makes — I struggle with accepting care from other people because I’ve developed this really sort of iron-clad way of doing it for myself internally and that all intensified after the seizure experience. The other symptom that, or thing that people with Geschwind Syndrome present with is atypical sexuality, and that doesn’t really resonate with me, but often they say two out of the three things is good. So that’s been interesting to me.
I want to learn more about that so it can be more transparent about that because I think that if my writing becomes more prominent or you know, if this book does really well or something like that, I want to be really clear with myself and with my readership that writing is not just a profession or a skill for me. It has a therapeutic aspect to it. It has a compulsive aspect to it. And that means that I have to take responsibility for dumping on other people when I write and you know, you can have the kind of avoidant hand-wiping attitude of “Well I’m just gonna produce my content and people can do with it what they will.” Or you can say “No, if you do something that’s compelling and people follow it, then you have responsibility towards them.” And so yeah, I wanna learn more about that part of myself which is so large, it’s hard to see.
One of the things that, that I hear a lot when I talk to other yoga people about you is, you know, I think it comes out of intimidation to be honest. People are intimidated, by some of the big words that you use when you write. But there’s a lot of like, “Oh, he thinks he’s better than everyone,” or “He thinks he’s smarter than everyone,” or “He’s so negative or judgey. And certainly like, you’re probably one of the smartest people I’ve met. But I mean, I don’t personally find you intimidating. But I’m wondering, and somebody asked me this about you. Somebody asked me a couple of weeks ago like, “I wonder why Matthew didn’t become a cult leader?”
Some people say that I have!
Some people say that you have, some people say that —
I’m like: “Show me the people.”
Where’s the money? Well, I mean, I think some people think because, you know, like myself and some of some of our other friends that we have in common will come to your defence when you’re being dog-piled on for things. I think that we get accused of being Rembots or that we’re in the cult of Remski or whatever. But like because you kind of have the brain that you do. I mean, it certainly isn’t out of the realm of possibility that you could have at one point created some kind of a cult if you wanted to.
Yeah, you’re totally, you’re totally right. Okay. So, so the first thing that comes up when you, when you asked that is that I stopped doing classes that I was… Well, I mean, a lot of things happened that ended up closing up my last studio that I owned in Toronto with my ex partner. Like the main thing being that the relationship ended. I ran courses in Ayurveda and I had a small following and there were a lot of people who really liked what I did and… But there was also… I would do, Ayurvedic health education appointments, for which there’s no licensing or no accountability structure. And it was only when I started to go to psychotherapy myself that… then certainly when I met my partner and she comes from a psychotherapy family and she was going to start studying psychotherapy herself, I was like, “Oh a regulated industry means that there’s a huge interpersonal training component that really should be in place before you’re visiting with people alone and talking with them about their diets and their relational lives and all of the things that come up in Ayurvedic health education.”
And I stopped doing those appointments because I realized that I did not know how to understand — or I started to begin to understand what was happening in things like transference and countertransference. And that happened through my own therapy, also, as I said with starting to learn about my partner’s world. And I realized that I did not know how to… there was nothing in the training in the yoga world or the yoga therapy world or in the Ayurveda world that I had encountered that really gave me a clear understanding of how to understand the power dynamics of the relationship of a personal meeting like that. And so I just stopped doing it because I realized I didn’t understand it.
So when I think about like why, if I’m a charismatic person and I have interesting and unique content, why I didn’t go forward and want to accumulate power or something like that socially with people in real life. I think about that. I think there’s something in me that said, “No, wait a minute, I’m over my head here and I don’t know how to do this.”
And there’s a lot of people out there in this world who also don’t know how to do this and they’re doing it and they’re hurting people, because we started to hear those stories as well. And so I guess the notion that I would manipulate people interpersonally just fills me with such dread and guilt and shame that that would be possible.
Can I tell you a story?
Yes, you can.
So the first time you ever came to my studio in LaCombe it was packed. So there was like, I don’t know, 30, 40 people in the room. It was all women. And LaCombe is this tiny little city in central Alberta and it’s I think the most churched community in Canada if I’m not wrong. And it’s also a guaranteed conservative stronghold. Anytime there’s an election, it’s always a conservative community.
And I remember watching you teach meditation to this room full of women, at the studio. We had just opened. I think we were maybe open for four or five months. And I remember watching the women were sitting down and you were standing up and you were talking about meditation and I just remember their faces watching you talk with…. they seem to be just full of like this weird wondering. It’s probably, they’ve probably never seen somebody like you before or interacted with somebody like you before. And I remember thinking after a while after they’d asked questions and you were talking about meditation and how to claim agency in your own body. I remember thinking, “These women are asking him for permission to exist.”
I remember being so blown away by that and wondering how you were navigating that because I’m sure you picked up on it and in some ways
And I wondered like, how is he going to navigate this? They’re asking him to just give them basic permission to breathe and like they don’t even know that they can breathe.
Right. And what does it mean to stand at the front of the room as a man? And have it be okay that you’re the person who’s going to do that. It’s just so…
That is so weird.
It’s so bizarre and it’s, I think it’s very unhealthy and I just don’t think it’s a good. I just don’t think it’s a good dynamic. There’s too many,.. like at that point, at that point, I can feel, I can feel the countertransference, right. So: Dude’s from the city. A totally different background from anybody I know. He’s gendered differently in some ways —
Yeah there’s some sort of femininity about him.
Right. So I know that there’s something new or odd or attractive about me and I’m like, and it just makes me uncomfortable, My immediate feeling is I’m uncomfortable and there’s a power dynamic here that is artificial or it’s overriding, not overriding but competing with whatever the basic content is of saying a few things about meditation.
So we’re running out of time, but I really want to get into your book and I really want to get into the other thing we want to talk about, but I wanted to, I want to kind of dive into this a little bit because this is something I’ve personally had to navigate because I was raised in a cult. And certainly male authority has more power for me than female authority.
And I think when you and I first met because we’re both cult survivors, I think there was a really strong pull that could have gone into countertransference for me anyways, I don’t know about, for you, but for me there could have been a really strong sort of like glomming on to you as some sort of, you know, teacher figure or something. And at one point there was something we were talking about, and I was asking you what you thought and I think you said, “You know, I’m just telling you this as your friend, right?” And I remember hearing you say that and thinking, “Okay, yeah, you’re right, like, this is just like two people sharing information. This isn’t you some kind of supernatural being telling me something that I needed to hear.”
I hope that like saying “friend” implied like equal.
Yeah, it did, it did, it totally diffused…
Because that can be a weird word too.
No, it completely diffused it for me and really brought me back down to earth and kind of cemented the relationship that I feel like I have with you. But I know that for me in certain circumstances, because those deeply ingrained patterns are so embedded that it’s almost impossible for me sometimes not to need that in order to hear something.
It’s tragic, totally fucking tragic.
It is. I had this dream one time that I was, I was an elephant in an elephant sanctuary and I really wanted to be out in the wild. And I remember the elephant me crying and wanting to be wild and having this realization that I had to stay in the sanctuary because I couldn’t survive in the wild. And like, that really spoke to me about, you know, I was born into dynamics, so my patterning is from birth and it’s so, it’s not so easy to untangle. And so my whole journey now has been, you know, what do I need to embrace and work with and what can I, what can I get rid of. And so when I, when I had that realization about you at my studio and I saw the way that these women were watching you, I had this realization that I’m this whole city that I was opening the studio in felt like an abusive relationship to me. It felt like an oppressive and abusive relationship where, and you know, I’m, I’m saying this knowing that maybe some of the people from my studio are going to be listening to this, that there were women in this community who had never experienced agency and who had never had the chance to really be in their own bodies and to make their own decisions. And I wonder, you know, with you saying, well, that’s wrong. I shouldn’t be teaching these people, but I wonder if there are things that you could say to someone like that that wouldn’t be heard from anyone else other than a man.
Yeah. I really don’t know. Like, it’s a really sort of prime example of privilege meeting an old paradigm that seems to want it or need it or something like that.
Well we talked about this a little bit when we talk about, the ways that people can go into practices that are harming and so like practices like BDSM where, where people are addressing their trauma through, through physical harm to their bodies or physical harm. Maybe harm isn’t the right word, but from hurting themselves. And how that, some people find that as a pathway to healing. And I wonder, you know…
Yeah — If there’s informed consent and if there’s all kinds of safety procedures and all that, right? I don’t know how to answer that question of what does it mean to be in the front of the room as a man with a lot of women listening to you very intently. And the dynamics that creates and echoes. I don’t have a personal answer for that except to say it doesn’t really work for me, and I’m not comfortable with it.
That said, I’m here in Edmonton, I’m going to facilitate a YTT module. It’s going to be mainly women in the room, but it’s going to be different because I’m not going to be teaching techniques or practices. I’m going to be giving basically a seminar in critical thinking. And so it’s not about instructing people towards their higher selves or giving them some sort of spirituality or pretending in some way that there was something inside me that is worth sharing. Those things are not really part of that kind of instruction. But I do know that leading a retreat for or like leading a group class in an 80 percent female practice population… I just don’t know how personally I would feel comfortable given everything that I’ve learned about sustaining those dynamics.
And so everything that I’m doing now is to try to move towards just offering a content rather than practices. And coming out of this book, I’m working on modules for community health. I’m thinking about going to, I guess it wouldn’t be graduate school because I didn’t graduate, but I don’t know, doing what I need to do to become a licensed counselor for people who are navigating their way out of cults. Because I’m doing that like a dozen times a week anyway and I’m doing it for free and I should be paid for it, but I also should know how to do it better, and not just have informal conversations with people. And so I’m just moving away from the charismatic power dynamic that is kind of at the center of how commercial yoga works and that is exacerbated by this structural sexism that you point out.
I mean that could lead into a whole conversation around men teaching yoga and what needs to happen around that for sure. But I’d like to finish off with talking about your book and maybe some cult dynamics in yoga land for sure. So: March, you’re book is going to be out?,
Yeah, March 14th. We’re in the thick of production whirlwind and there’s a thousand little details and decisions to be made along the way and we’re setting up online resources. And, there’s a workbook that is at the end of the book that I’m hoping will be a resource for teacher training programs. The book’s called Practice and All Is Coming: Abuse, Cult Dynamics, and Healing in Yoga and Beyond. And it comes out of three years of a tracking the stories of the survivors of Pattabhi Jois’s sexual assaults, which he got away with for 30 years because he was enabled, I argue, by a number of factors including including key cultic dynamics of information control and image management and rationalization and pyramid-like structures, where power just floats to the top and, you know, information leaks down to the bottom and get suppressed and silenced.
And feels like a good time. Like it took three years to do. And because I’m so personally invested, not in Ashtanga yoga, but in cult literature and cult recovery I didn’t realize until I pretty much finished the draft how exhausted it had made me and how much it had, caused my physical and mental health to deteriorate. I feel that slowly I’m recovering from that. And it kind of feels like an exciting time now because, there’s going to be a shitstorm when it’s released, but I kind of know what’s coming and I’m a little bit more relaxed into the decisions I’ve made around, how I’ve analyzed things and who I’ve called to account in the book and that sort of thing. So I’m feeling good about it and I also just don’t know what’s going to happen.
Yeah. Because there’s always kind of like the things you can’t really predict, right? Like your work over the last few years, you know, you’ve really kind of dug into exposing the unhealthy dynamics in Yogaland. And I think through that work and through the work of others that are less visible than you, like Theo and myself and other trauma informed teachers, we’ve seen this language and this movement become co-opted. And so it’ll be interesting to see how that plays out with your book as well.
Right? Well it will be. And what I was really grateful for in working with, with my editor at the Walrus, is that she really guided me through the nuts and bolts of creating a victim-centered narrative or a survivor-centered narrative. And that’s the most important thing about this book to me is that at the heart of it I’m learning to listen to what people like Karen Rain and, and Anneke Lucas and Marissa Sullivan and Jubilee Cooke have to say about their experience and really trying to grasp what it was like and how difficult it has been to hold it and to name it and to manage and to then disclose it and then to deal with all of the blowback.
And my editor also with Embodied Wisdom Publications has been excellent in helping me to really keep the book focused on a survivor’s voices. And that’s key because as we’ve seen in the last six months or so as people have tried to address… as the yoga world… I would say the yoga administrative or bureaucratic world has tried to address the issue of institutional abuse in yoga schools and amongst yoga teachers, they’re not inviting survivors to the table. In event after event, panel after panel, the people who are not invited are the people who actually have done the most work. And this was true back in March or something like that of 2018 when all of the luminaries of the world gathered for their confluence in San Diego. And they actually had a panel discussion on, “Well, what do we do now that we’ve realized that the leader of our method was a 30 year sexual predator?”
They didn’t use those terms, but they convened a panel where they basically discussed, “Well, what does this mean to us as faithful people? What does this mean to us as devotees?” They didn’t reach out to Karen Rain and say, “Can you come and tell us what we should do in relation to survivors of our guru’s abuse? We’re here and we’ve made our careers because we actually either turned a blind eye or enabled him.” They didn’t, of course, they didn’t do that.
There was a similar meeting in London where again, none of Pattabhi Jois’s actual survivors were invited to participate. It was a closed session, but Theo was invited to it and she reluctantly agreed, I believe, I think I can say that on her behalf, to be the person who was going to speak for survivors as the trauma-sensitive person. But you know, they had a Jois devotee on the panel. And it’s like — if you’re going to actually tackle it, you actually have to listen to the people who were impacted and you have to let them drive the story. Because where are you going to be otherwise other than in one realm or another of brand reframing or management or brand washing.
What my hope is that people will start listening to what Karen Rain says as being central to the narrative of modern yoga. That she has as much to say about what it means to learn about yourself and to deal with suffering and to deal with trauma and to understand what kind of support one needs as any yoga expert does. I just want to see people like people like her become the real community leaders. Having said that, I know that that’s not what she wants! I think what I wrote my book is that is that at a certain point people in Yoga culture will be more interested in what Karen Rain has to say about her experience in yoga than they’ll be interested in what Pattabhi Jois taught. And at that point, I think we’ll all be practicing more yoga actually.
Amen. All right. I think we’re done. Thank you so much. I really appreciate you being willing to do this. I know you’re exhausted and you need to have a nap. So thank you so much for your time.
Yesterday, Toronto yoga and movement trainer Cecily Milne (@yogadetour) shared an Instagram post from the account of @ashtangatoronto. The post features a photo of teacher David Robson manipulating @lisaasana in an advanced backbend.
The post is captioned with a quote from meditation instructor Stephen Levine. The quote either compares or conflates the mental or psychological discomfort experienced in meditation with the physical discomfort of an extreme posture. The quote suggests that the best choice a student can make in relation to discomfort is to surrender.
“That surrender,” part of the Levine quote says, “that letting go of wanting anything to be other than it is right in the moment, is what frees us from hell.”
Robson is an Ashtanga yoga teacher, authorized to teach by Sharath Rangaswamy. Rangaswamy is the grandson of Pattabhi Jois, who has recently been outed for sexually assaulting female students over several decades. The revelations, along with the continued activism of survivors like Karen Rain, have prompted soul-searching throughout the Ashtanga world, and some steps towards accountability.
Milne’s commentary focuses on the message communicated by the image paired with the Levine quote. She makes reference to her own training with Robson at Ashtanga Yoga Centre of Toronto, where Robson claims to lead “one of the world’s largest Mysore programs outside of India.”
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I saw this post last night and when I read the caption my first thought was – “This is fucked. This message is so problematic” (original caption below). ⠀ I used to practice at this studio. I’ve received this adjustment. And while I’m not trying to make a habit of putting others choices down in order to give strength to my own, I believe it’s my responsibility to use my work to spread awareness around the fact that asking people to surrender to discomfort is NOT ok. ⠀ Should we avoid discomfort? No. It’s inevitable. Life is uncomfortable. But let’s confront that discomfort. Let’s understand where it’s coming from and learn to understand it. Let’s use discomfort to grow, not to surrender. ⠀ As @stopchasingpain reminds us: Pain is a request for change. ⠀ Change is here. Finally. ⠀ #Repost @ashtangatoronto with @get_repost ・・・ “When you can accept discomfort, doing so allows a balance of mind. That surrender, that letting go of wanting anything to be other than it is right in the moment, is what frees us from hell. When we see resistance in the mind, stiffness in the mind, boredom, restlessness … that is the meditation.“ – Stephen Levine __ Photo of @lisaasana moving into #kapotasana in Friday’s Mysore with @davidrobsonyoga __ #yogadetour #followthedetour #movementeducation #yogarevolution #bethechange
The 300+ comments under Milne’s post feature several reports of similar experiences at Ashtanga Yoga Center Toronto.
“Ughhh, I used to practice here too…” wrote one commenter. “I remember those adjustments. I remember the breath cues to relax into it…”. Another describes how the value of “surrender” in the environment led her to tears.
In a separate post, Milne described the “surge of anxiety” that preceded speaking out against the post, knowing that some might retaliate.
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I don’t shy away from discomfort because it always has something to teach me. ⠀ Just ask anyone who takes my class what my opinion is of a muscle cramp – uncomfortable, but a sign that progress is being made! ⠀ But there’s a big difference between leaning into discomfort and surrendering to it in potentially damaging ways. ⠀ To all those who have raised their voices in support on my last post – thank you. Thank you for getting it. Thank you for expecting more from this community. ⠀ I’ll be writing more about this in my next email. If you want to receive it, make sure you’re on the list (link in bio). ⠀ ⠀ #movementeducation #yogarevolution #yogadetour #ashtangayoga #yogateachertraining #bethechange
In response, Robson posted the following to his Facebook page. The statement interprets criticism of the notion that a student should physically surrender as a form of discrimination against the global Ashtanga community.
Soon after Robson’s response, his supporters began using the hashtags #bullying, #stopbullying, #troll, and #dontbeabully, referring to Milne.
Labelling criticism of a power imbalance as an attack is part of the DARVO mechanism, described by psychologist Jennifer Freyd. In the DARVO maneuver, a criticism or accusation is denied, the whistleblower attacked, and the roles of victim and aggressor are reversed.
The social media exchange comes as competencies for Ashtanga yoga teaching are being contested by a number of younger Ashtanga-affiliated teachers. This is a developing story.
I was honoured to be contacted by Giada Consoli with the following questions related to her graduate work on contemporary yoga culture. She is an Ashtanga Yoga practitioner and works as yoga teacher, naturopath and Bach Flower therapist in Rome, Italy. She has attended the Master in Yoga Studies at the Ca’ Foscari University in Venice. Some of this discussion will be included in her final thesis, which is titled:
How Yoga Ruins Your Life: Body politics, Dispositif, Counter-Dispositif.
(You can listen to/view a reading of this post here, on my Facebook author’s page.)
In my research on contemporary yoga, I’m analyzing the concepts of biopower and biopolitics, how power constructs and defines subjects, and how the body, as a social artifact, incorporates power dynamics but can also be a place of resilience and resistance.
I’m looking at the concept of dispositif, both in Foucault and Agamben, as everything in our life as modern consumers which captures, controls, determines and models our gestures, behavior, opinions, discourses.
My main question is if yoga can still have a countercultural potential, if we can consider it a tool of individual and collective liberation or if, as a consumer culture product, a multimillionaire industry, it is just another way to reinforce the status quo, another type of social control developed by neoliberal governments.
This is such a rich area, and I’m so glad you’re diving into it! I believe contemporary yoga can only benefit from more and better discussion about its most painful paradoxes, all sharpened by the fact that its growth arc and the rise of neoliberalism are inseparable.
As the sign of a globalized product with ever-more tenuous relationships to its wisdom roots, the term “yoga”:
- promises an equitable space of community gathering, yet too often spiritualizes continued class and racial segregation;
- promises a renewal of bodily agency, but too often delivers a more sophisticated form of objectification;
- promises empowerment through exquisite messages of inadequacy;
- promises authenticity but too often demands you perform it;
- promises self-inquiry, but too often delivers self-surveillance;
- can deploy a language of feminism to reinforce gender essentialism;
In short, the stretching and twisting too often embody the contortions of co-optation. The deep breathing can become a strategy for acclimatizing to stresses that yoga as a culture too often only pretends to resist.
In reading your fascinating intro, two definitional points come to mind straight out of the gate, which you’ve probably considered, so I hope you forgive me for making them explicit.
First I think we have to speak of “the body” under neoliberalism in the radical plural, lest we replicate its own false premise of equality. There are so many bodies. In neoliberalism we are constantly asked to believe in the even playing field of a fantasized freedom, where some idealized body, unmarked by race or class, gallivants through the duty free.
Lululemon published a blog in 2011, during their Ayn-Rand-and-yoga-pants campaign. They wrote:
Think about it: we are all born with magical machines, aka human bodies, able to think, jump, laugh and run . . . . We are able to control our careers, where we live, how much money we make, and how we spend our days through the choices we make . . . many of us choose mediocrity without even realizing it.
They use the plural, but they’re only talking about one body. The narcissistic body that believes it is everywhere and everything. This homogenization is crucial to be aware of in yoga discourse, which often uses notions of oneness as aspirational fodder.
This is only one of the ways in which the global yoga industry spiritualizes neoliberalism’s greatest lie: that all bodies possess equal potential and therefore are equally liable to self-caused failure and shame.
As white interlocutors, we have to foreground the fact that bodies of PoC, for instance, incorporate power dynamics and express resilience in ways that we aren’t able to imagine. The diversity and intersectionality of trauma loads would be another example.
Secondly, my personal and research background is in cult studies. I can’t help but to view neoliberalism as a macro-cult within which more tightly organized micro-cults flourish under the tyranny of aspirational charisma. All cults run on deception, and the deception of the macro-cult is that its leaders in deregulation tell citizens that they can be free if they gladly accept policies of economic and environmental coercion. As micro-cult leaders, Tony Robbins or John Friend tell students that they are free if they gladly undertake practices of indoctrination, which, paradoxically, can feel euphoric.
But — has anyone developed this stuff, consciously? Is there intentionality here? I don’t think so. I can’t see a conspiracy of governments or leaders to implement yoga or mindfulness practices as a means of social control. When you study cults you quickly realize that groups that want to concentrate power simply do whatever works. There’s a lot of trial and error involved. If yoga both expands and spiritualizes neoliberalism, there may be the cold calculations of a few sociopaths at play, but mainly it’s happening through the unconscious biohacking that comes from doing whatever we must to make ourselves feel good within a high-stress landscape, while disowning shame and responsibility.
The genius of neoliberalism is that it makes self-control and self-monitoring into a virtue because it really does offer — unequally and unpredictably — addictive doses of pleasure. It doesn’t need a puppet master: it teaches us how to pull our own strings.
Can we read yoga, in its current commodification, exactly as another kind of dispositif which trains and manages our bodies and minds according to the logic of neoliberalism? Most of all, do we have any counter-dispositif?
I’m more familiar with the term habitus, which I think is getting at a similar thing, but narrowed down to the felt sense. I understand it as somatic contagion. As in: what does it feel like, in our diverse bodies, to walk into a room filled with ballet dancers? Poker players? Rappers? MMA fighters?
When I close my eyes and imagine myself walking into a yoga room, I absolutely have an entrained felt sense that overtakes my body. I straighten up, I slow my breath, I soften my eyes into what feels like equanimity but might also be dissociation, with a touch of disdain. I want to feel and appear to feel as though I am self-contained and self-sufficient. I also really want to radiate humility, which isn’t very humble at all.
Beneath all of that poise is the memory of a threat: if you don’t perform well, you will be punished.
Iyengar’s Tadasana has inspired millions of people to stand taller. But it has done so, I believe, by resonating with and spiritualizing the anxiety of impending punishment. Many of us may be of that younger generation in which we do not have the bodily memory of the corporal abuse that deeply impacted his relationship with his teacher. But it’s in the air, nonetheless, sanitized to feel like it’s something we want.
How does it work? There’s a direct line from the self-protective / anal-retentive postural detailing of Iyengar — presented as “awakening every cell”, but carrying a distinct hypervigilance in relation to both home-grown and colonial violence — and the performance of self-worth carried out by someone like John Friend.
When Friend asked his students — many of whom became pyramid scheme members — to “open to grace”, this was to be embodied through spinal extension and a Mona Lisa smile. He was taking the lessons of his teacher, Iyengar, to the next level of performance and commodification. He made Iyengar All-American. He turned postural discipline into an emotional prosperity gospel for those who already had money.
Back to the intersectional piece for a moment: I’m fantasizing about all of these sensations in relation to walking into a white, dominant-culture, gentrified, commercial studio. The design, colour palette, and finishes are all shaping my body into a performance of self-worth.
But this is not the totality of the yoga space. I don’t feel this way when I enter a room of yoga people at the Yoga Service Council. They can slouch a bit and smile more broadly, and make warm (not intrusive) eye contact. I’m not queer or trans but when I am around my queer and trans colleagues I feel a tenderness overtake my body that I believe is emanating from the struggle and exhaustion and persistence that flows through their bodies. That melts my armour a bit. I say this knowing that their struggle has not been for me, but despite me.
And when I talk to women like Maya Breuer and Jana Long, they tell me about hosting the Black Yoga Teacher’s Alliance convention, and how it sometimes reminds them of gospel church. I haven’t been there, but I’m imagining that that is outside of my familiar, whiter space of sealed-off individualism. I imagine a lot more eye contact and dancing and smiling than I’m comfortable with. Some people smile so broadly and openly it seems to come from knowing that connection rather than power is the only thing we can really store up.
So yes, I think there are spaces of counter-habitus, if you’ll indulge my substitute term. These spaces are less commercial. They are made by people who needed to make them, and organically made them, as part of their resistance practice. Very clear examples are provided in the spaces that are anti-ableist (which may eliminate most mainstream forms like Ashtanga and its derivatives). Like, when you walk into Jivana Heyman’s room as he teaches Accessible Yoga, you are explicitly plucked out of the dissociation and bodily anxiety of the dominant culture and invited into a place where, as their t-shirts (designed by Amber Karnes) say: Outer ability ≠ Inner peace.
How can we challenge — if we can — the logic of neoliberalism from the inside out and experience yoga in a way that is different from the mainstream ‘face’ of the yoga industry?
I tell my YTT students to take less pictures, get trauma-sensitive training, and get involved with yoga service organizations. The basic message is that yoga is not something to perform or perfect so much as it is something to share.
“From the inside out” is a crucial phrase. It points us to what neoliberalism and its technologies function to amputate and deaden: interoception. In a world of spectacles and surfaces, we are asked to continually externalize. I think yoga is a charged practice in part because we know we’re supposed to be doing the opposite of what its visual marketing tells us it is.
In yoga as everywhere else, we are often being told we must look a certain way, arrange ourselves in a more orderly or symmetrical or correct fashion, display more flexibility or “openness” or vulnerability. These performances can be meaningful. They can move us. But at the same time we suspect that we should be doing it all with our eyes closed. We know we are performing something that bodies cannot show, but must show nonetheless in order to be believed or to be marketable.
There is tragedy in this conflict, and I think tuning into that tragedy is a real starting point. We’re in a performative culture, and yoga offers a rich vocabulary for either giving that performance gravitas, or tricking us into thinking we’re doing something special. In a way, I believe some of us are trying to gild the lily, to find spirituality in places where it goes to die. Perhaps after enough performance, and all of the stress injuries it causes, we have no choice but to turn inside.
Looking at the current yoga landscape, we find a kind of separation: the yoga industry on one side and those who want to distance themselves from it on the other. There is a growing discussion on the blogosphere. Many refer to a lost of authenticity and purity of yoga, others are striving to challenge the dominant power dynamics in the yoga world, making yoga accessible for marginalized and discriminated communities. I’m thinking about the work of non-profit such as Off the Mat, Into the World, Race and Yoga, Decolonizing Yoga, Yoga Activist …How do you read this situation? And what do you think about the connection between yoga and activism, yoga in service of social justice, does it work? Is it a real alternative?
Be Scofield, who founded Decolonizing Yoga, has argued convincingly that there are no dependable correlations between any spiritual practice and progressive, anti-oppressive citizenship, and further, that believing there are causes great social harm. I’m with her on that.
Yoga practice, however earnest, will only be earnest according to the practitioner’s pre-existing values and social milieu. Two equally earnest practitioners can easily think of each other as being garbage people. Ethics gleaned from several-times-removed translations of Iron Age meditation texts can never offer a stable morality for late capitalism. Neither pre-modern nor modern yoga explicitly teaches us about rape culture or white supremacy or deep ecology.
Moreover, look how easy it is for alt-right charismatics to infiltrate the yoga space with parodies of self-awareness or self care. Witness the rise of Jordan Peterson as a guru to many yoga bros, or how many yoga people go bananas when Marianne Williamson announces a narcissistic bid for the White House.
People ask: why is Scofield, a trans activist (among other things) interested in yoga at all in a social justice context? She’s a Martin Luther King scholar, and understands religio-spiritual organizations less as moral structures than as power structures. There’s embodied energy and money and privilege in the studio and service network. Yoga isn’t a force for social change because breathing deeply makes you suddenly recognize that Steve Bannon is a liar and the promises of populism are corrupt. It’s a force because it organizes money and time and attention. But administrators who want to mobilize that towards the common good have to stick their necks out by actively politicizing their spaces.
For me the real relationship between yoga and social justice is that the former gives me the resilience to undertake the latter. I was a really good yoga practitioner while still way more of a racist than I am now. Taking care of my internal ecology made it easier for me to learn about and engage with my white privilege. But that learning came from PoC activists, not from Patanjali.
As for the yearning for authenticity and purity, I believe we have to look at two things —
First: late capitalism hollows out anything that we would understand as original, from land use to inherited culture, and sell it back to us. When people long for authenticity and purity in a yoga practice, I believe that they are longing for a stable sense of self, something that can be trusted within, something they didn’t have to buy.
There are no authority or purity claims, no matter how loudly trumpeted, that can truly satisfy this ache. In fact, the louder a claim is performed, I believe, the more it conceals its doubt. It’s not an accident that the Kundalini celebrity who proclaims yoga to be 40,000 years old has to wear a jewelled crown while she’s saying it, ostensibly to feel certain about it.
Second: the yearning for authenticity and purity intersects very easily with nationalism and even fascism. That’s what we can detect with some of the Hindutva claims around the supposedly eternal and unchanging Hindu nature of yoga practice, as if Jains, Buddhist, and Muslims don’t practice. It’s tragic to see white social justice activists jump on board with this, thinking that they are supporting an inclusive or anti-racist politics. I believe their longing for something noble and trustworthy is being manipulated.
Looking closely at this relation between yoga and neoliberal ideology, it seems to me clear how yoga is sold as a technique of self-development, a tool of optimization of our capabilities. In this sense it risks reinforcing the neoliberal concept of selfhood: we are constantly pushed to be a better version of ourselves, we are obsessed with the idea that we can do more, that we can be more than who we are. Perfectionism and success are our daily mantra. How can we escape from that? How about if we raise the idea of failure for example?
Perhaps you’re not thinking of it this way, but my worry with the concept of “failure” as a restorative is that it can also be mobilized by neoliberalism as a temporary experience of vulnerability through which we are meant to find renewed strength. It’s demanded of us, in fact. So when we’re asked to “lean into” our tenderness or be grateful about things falling apart — as per Pema Chödrön — I sometimes feel as if disappointment and even trauma themselves are being stolen by the machine of self-improvement.
The crude form of neoliberalism says that failure is not an option. The sophisticated form, marketed to us by what sometimes sounds to me like a co-opted feminism, says that failure and tenderness is something through which we can find transcendent strength, not by resisting it, but by fully surrendering to it.
The only pathway out of this that I can feel personally is to relax — when it’s relaxing — into some kind of existential mundaneness. I recognize and accept my suffering, my mental health fluctuations, my trauma. I don’t brush them away, nor do I view them as opportunities to sell myself remedies or encourage others to brighten up. At times it feels like I’m valuing a state of normalized depression, but there’s something more real about this, and therefore more stable and comforting, than the bipolar oscillation of the culture at large. I say this all recognizing that being able to bear “normalized depression” is a mark of privilege that many won’t have.
Isn’t this pressure on the individual another way to cover institutional and political mistakes and deficiencies? If you are unemployed, poor, ill, whatever, they let you think that it is your responsibility because you made the wrong choice, and this is such a pervasive message. So even if we appreciate the work that yoga can do in service of social justice, challenging stereotypes and working on inclusivity, how can we address these questions on a political level? What can we do to get a real institutional response?
Part of the answer is to de-Americanize the conversation. I don’t know what it’s like in Italy, but I can tell you that the differences between US and Canadian yoga discourses are notable. Not on social media, but in actual classrooms and training venues. It makes sense that American Yoga is far more anxious — and therefore more evangelical — than what we have and feel in a country with universal health care.
The global yoga market and its media is dominated by citizens of a country that has forgotten the last shreds of expectation in relation to the common good. American yoga people literally have to practice harder and with more idealization than almost anyone else, because nobody is taking care of them in a structural sense.
I think this is why American yoga also has to tend towards the anti-intellectual: it lives in a place that makes no sense. And it generates a pressure that neatly overlaps with the survivalist mentality of entrepreneurs like Iyengar and Bikram, whose self-narratives both involve solitary recoveries from illness through their intensive yoga practice.
But the Americans also have some great non-profit yoga organizations that are actively attracting international membership. I mentioned the Yoga Service Council. And a lot of people don’t like the Yoga Alliance, and there’s a lot of history there, and it is not free of its American biases. But at the same time it holds enormous potential for facilitating a global conversation and sharing of resources.
Beyond that, there’s the regulatory discussion, which is currently also dominated by American yoga libertarianism, but which might come into sharper focus once it’s more widely acknowledged that virtually all yoga communities have unresolved histories of abuse. If yoga teaching becomes a licensed profession in the US or elsewhere, it will automatically begin to distinguish itself from neoliberal personal responsibility and move towards a more collective type of responsibility. This might not lead to overt politicization, but I can imagine that if yoga teachers were part of an American Psychological Association type structure — something with more heft than bling — they would actually feel a little more coherent in relation to social and political issues.
How can we rethink the concept of self-care and care for the others in the era of ‘the wellness syndrome’ where yoga is ‘the way’ to feel good and be healthy? Since yoga is a social practice, and as practitioners we reflect and incorporate the value of the environment in which we practice, how important is community and how the concept of care can be lived and experienced today in our community of practitioners?
It’s no secret that one of the most pernicious bits of propaganda that the wellness industry promotes is the notion that health is a personal concern and accomplishment. This is not true. There is very little space between herd health and personal health, no matter how much we bubble ourselves in technology or aseptic gentrification. I don’t think that mainstream yoga is a social practice, yet. Or at least it’s something that many people do together but alone. This is where the value of the non-mainstream communities discussed above comes into vibrant relief.
We have to be aware that late capitalism functions by commodifying literally everything. This includes concepts like “community” or “tribe”, which very often these days stand in for “branded market” or “downstream assets”. It doesn’t help when charismatic leaders promote what Kelly Diels calls the “Female Lifestyle Empowerment Brand” to manipulate social isolation as they build pyramid-style sales forces.
For me the antidote to this is to do hard self-inquiry into the question of why you want to be around people who are more like you than not. Can we find the daylight between community as “lifestyle choices our social status lets us make together”, and community as the “place where I actually live with others and our differences”? This comes up for me when I realize that I’m spending more time in yoga studios than in community centres, like the one where I play handball with men who don’t care about yoga. They care about their wages, strike actions, road works, and the schools their children go to.
In your work on WAWADIA you pose the essential question of ‘What Are We Actually Doing in Asana?’ Body and movement are key elements of the discussion. How can we live through the yoga practice an embodied idea of subjectivity. I mean, how do we shift from ‘the body that we have’ (the useful body that society require from us) to ‘the body that we are’? Can yoga work against a depersonalization of the body? And how can we experience, in the practice, a movement that is not staged, performative and finalized?
To repeat and rephrase a little, I’d say that trauma-sensitive discourse brings us back to interoception, and therefore away from visual epistemology, where being real means being seen. The trauma discourse makes sensation the reality principle.
Yes, yoga can work against depersonalization. But we have to be careful from at least two different angles. Trance states related to the Ganzfeld Effect or repetitive motions or chanting can actually lead to depersonalization or dissociation, especially for people who carry heavy trauma loads. In a way, this can work in favour of the dominant paradigm, as you suggest. Donald Trump is totally cool with yoga people checking out. After all, he depends upon his own people falling into altered states as well.
Secondly, depersonalization can itself be spiritualized as the out-of-body or transcendent gift of practice. In cultic systems, this is easily and often used as a gateway to compliance. Yuval Laor, who studies the evolution of religiosity, argues that when these moments of euphoria lead to sensations of “knowing everything” the practitioner may be gripped with awe, which, if it leads to fervour, can be easily manipulated.
I’m glad you’re talking about the “useful” body — and its discontents. Something to watch out for as the “functional movement” discourse gets more deeply embedded in the yoga world — for good reason, as it will increase physical safety — is that it might reinforce the notion that bodies are worthy or even sacred to the extent that they are productive and efficient.
This could be terrible for women and minorities. There’s a lot of people who don’t need to be more productive. They need to be seen and heard and respected as they are.
This functionality theme is also quietly opening up an entirely new front in the cultural appropriation debate, because the functionality of good citizenship was arguably not the point of the medieval traditions that helped inspire what Mark Singleton calls the “Mysore Asana Revival”.
Yoga today is mainly sold a way to ‘fit-in’, an easy self-help tool for spiritual consolation, stress-relief or increasing productivity, a mean to survive in our ‘automatic’ society. So does it still make any sense to talk about moksha, to talk about yoga as a personal and collective transformative practice? Do we have any space of resistance?
What I can add to the above comments is that moksha as a term does seem to have completely disappeared from contemporary yoga discourse. I know because I talk to teachers and trainees all the time. Perhaps it’s because taking it seriously presupposes beliefs in samsara and reincarnation. But I also believe that its disappearance is a mark of how the wellness aspect of yoga, and its seamless integration with spa culture, is a very effective way of erasing death and reinforcing the propaganda that life has no costs, or at least that costs can all be externalized, or paid for in goji berries.
However — has the drive towards moksha disappeared entirely? I don’t believe so. I don’t think we’ve changed that much. We may be better at medicating it away with technology and consumerism than previously, but my bet is that many people still crave some kind of ultimate release. And whether the term moksha is uttered or not, yoga spaces have the potential of encouraging contemplation on what it might mean or feel like.
Finally, which is your idea about the future of yoga? Where are we going? What do we need to work on both as individuals and as a community of practitioners and human beings?
At the risk of repeating myself, and suggesting that I have good answers:
I believe we need to work on trauma awareness, dismantling ableism, moving towards yoga service instead of the hoarding of private religion.
We need to flip “Practice and all is coming” into “Serve and be connected.”
We need to listen to the other, and do this in conjunction with listening to the estranged other within us, silenced by the tyranny of happiness.
We need to platform the voices that celebrity, privilege, and ableism have silenced.
We need to listen to how trauma victims have healed themselves — to the extent they have — and take note of what help they needed, what relationships were restorative to them. They are the canaries in the coal mine of the culture, as Theo Wildcroft says. They can tell us about the deepest patterns of life. They can help us realize, as Anneke Lucas points out, how we ourselves might be traumatized in ways we do not recognize. Of course we want to offer them whatever they need, because we suspect that we will need it too — if not now, than surely some day.
Thank you so much for these wonderful questions.
“Feminist-Informed” Ashtanga and “Trauma-Informed” Kundalini: How Cultic Deception Can Harm Academics and Therapists
High-demand groups hurt members and their families directly in physical, emotional, and financial ways.
That harm is contagious.
In this post I’ll look at two instances in which the primary tactic of the high-demand group — deception — radiates harm outward, wasting the time, resources, and emotional labour of well-meaning people who come into contact with the group and wind up promoting it, even as it belies their values. One comes from academia, and the other comes from the mental health world.
The 2016 article “Yoga As Embodied Feminist Praxis: Trauma, Healing, and Community Based Responses to Violence” (1) by Beth Catlett and Mary Bunn is built on meticulous fieldwork that assesses the efficacy of yoga programming in communities living with and recovering from violence. Bunn’s contribution comes from her work with Project Air, a non-profit bringing services including yoga instruction to HIV-infected survivors of the Rwandan genocide. Catlett’s focus is on the Urban Yogis programme for marginalized youth in Queens, New York.
Urban Yogis, as Catlett and Bunn report, is co-directed by an anti-violence activist named Erica Ford, and Eddie Stern of Ashtanga New York. Interviews with Stern and time spent in his service classes impressed the scholars with his humility and altruism, and dispelled their reservations about whether the patriarchal structure of Ashtanga Yoga could really serve a pro-social mission.
“Our engagement with the Urban Yogis program,” they conclude,
“has inspired a confidence that a feminist-informed social justice orientation to community engagement emphasizing ethics of care, commitment, shared power, and mutual political vision is indeed possible.”(2)
Had Catlett, Bunn, and their editors known about the active and unresolved abuse history in Ashtanga yoga when they began their research? If they had known, would they have chosen to highlight an Ashtanga yoga community in a book about feminist-oriented social values?
By email, the scholars vigorously confirmed they hadn’t known.
“Our starting point,” they wrote,
is always to listen to, and take seriously, the voices/experiences of those who have experienced violence and abuse — this is the way that we can learn about the ways that power operates in institutions, and these voices are important to inform our work to dismantle unjust systems of power, privilege, and oppression within such institutions.
We knew nothing of these experiences of sexual assault, abuse, and harassment at the writing of our chapter, and therefore, this new information about the abuse of power within the ashtanga community is something with which we will have to grapple as our work moves forward.
But why didn’t they know? Was the research naïve, overcredulous? Perhaps. But it’s also true that certain high-demand nodes of the Ashtanga yoga world hid crucial facts.
Stern himself plays a role in that story through his editorship of the propagandistic book Guruji: A Portrait of Sri K Pattabhi Jois Through the Eyes of His Students, The volume’s co-editor, Guy Donahaye, recently distanced himself from the book, writing:
Since his death, Guruji has been elevated to a position of sainthood. Part of this promotion has been due to the book of interviews I collected and published with Eddie Stern… which paints a positive picture of his life and avoids exploring the issues of injury and sexual assault. In emphasizing only positive stories it has done more to cement the idea that he was a perfect yogi, which he clearly was not.
By burnishing his image, we make it unassailable — it makes us doubt the testimony of those he abused. This causes further harm to those whose testimony we deny and to ourselves.
How then, does Stern become cited as a facilitator of “feminist-informed social justice” in the yoga world? How does he come to occupy that space to the exclusion of one of the hundreds of people, mostly women, that have been teaching consent-based trauma-sensitive yoga to at-risk populations for years?
Consider the enthusiastic undergrad and Master’s students who will read Catlett and Bunn’s essay and come away with a partial view of the method and community under discussion. Will there be a correction issued? Who will see it?
And how will Jois’s victims feel about reading feminist academic accolades to their former male colleague who has yet to publicly acknowledge the abuse? Months of fieldwork by two feminist scholars are now of questionable value, not because they don’t have productive observations to contribute about yoga service in general, but because their good will was confounded.
Trauma and addictions recovery specialist Gabor Maté works closely with a Canadian organization called Beyond Addiction, which offers a yoga-based training programme “for individuals seeking to develop healthy habits and overcome addictive behaviour, for health professionals and yoga teachers who work with addiction.”
The yoga community providing content for the program is 3HO: the “Happy, Healthy, and Holy” organization founded by Yogi Bhajan in 1969. Recent scholarship has shown that Bhajan’s postmodern “Kundalini” blend of Tantric Yoga and Sikhism has few historical roots in any stream of Indian wisdom tradition, despite the community’s lofty claims.
More importantly, anyone who Googles “3HO abuse” will find that the organization settled two lawsuits against Bhajan, including one case of rape and confinement brought by a woman who entered his harem of “secretaries” at age eleven.
Did Maté do a basic background check on the organization he’s promoting to his platform of 100K Facebook followers? Should he be concerned that a person with a trauma load might come to one of his 3HO-related trainings, do that Google search halfway through it, see that the Kundalini instructors he’s collaborating with still quote Yogi Bhajan without reservation? Should he be concerned if that person feels both triggered and betrayed?
“Dr. Maté is well aware of the possibility and actuality of abuse in any spiritual or medical culture,” wrote his assistant in response to an emailed request for comment.
That’s just not good enough.
Bottom line: if you’re going to platform a yoga community, method, or personality — especially with the altruistic intention of using those resources to help vulnerable people — do your research. Prepare to find out that that community, method, or personality has likely failed its vulnerable members and followers — and in the worst cases, traumatized them.
Then: work out how you’re going to relate to that community, method, or personality with transparency, integrity, and justice, in such a way that the patterns of harm, enabling, or bypassing stops with you.
(1) In Berila, Beth, et al. Yoga, the Body, and Embodied Social Change: an Intersectional Feminist Analysis. Lexington Books, 2016. 259-275.
(2) Ibid. 267.
On October 30th, IYNAUS announced the opening of an independent investigation into allegations of sexual misconduct made against Manouso Manos. “The independent investigation will not be limited to Ann West’s complaint. It will include other allegations covering the time period from January 1, 1992 to the present.” West’s complaint was dismissed in September, but many members felt the investigation was compromised by conflicts of interest.
IYNAUS has not suspended Manos pending the outcome of the investigation of multiple allegations, nor for making what was most likely a deceptive statement to the Ethics Committee that initially cleared him. He continues to teach.
One staunch supporter — a seemingly popular middle-aged male yoga teacher — went to a Manos event over the past weekend, and then took to Facebook to harass and smear the complainants: Continue reading “Manos Disciple Re: Manos Complainant — “She’s the only one who’s going to be hurt.””
On September 10th, the all-volunteer IYNAUS Ethics Committee met to consider an allegation of in-class sexual assault brought by Iyengar teacher Ann West against Advanced Senior Iyengar teacher Manouso Manos. They ruled to dismiss the allegation for lack of evidence.
Manos currently holds a seat on the Senior Council of IYNAUS. At least one of the Ethics Committee members is a long term student of Manos, enrolled in his three year Iyengar Yoga Therapeutics course.
The ruling, along with notes from that meeting, show that the committee glossed over past allegations against Manos. They questioned West’s perceptions of the incident, but found Manos’s explanation of his intentions plausible. One member suggested the committee punt the file to the Iyengar family in Pune. Continue reading “Notes From the Iyengar Ethics Committee Ruling Dismissing A Recent Allegation Against Manouso Manos”
An abuse crisis will often force a high-demand group to show outsiders what they inflict on insiders every day: loaded language, self-sealed reasoning, leader idealization, grandiose claims and image management techniques. If the group must admit abuse, it will show its unique harm calculus, and every emotional bargaining trick in the book.
Nowhere is it all more visible than in the abuse crisis statement. Though offered as evidence for the wholesomeness of the group, it often provides key confirmation to insiders that they are, in fact, embedded or complicit in toxic dynamics.
The abuse crisis statement I’ll examine below was posted on Facebook in response to allegations of in-class sexual grooming and assault brought by Certified Iyengar teacher Ann West against Senior Iyengar Yoga teacher Manouso Manos. The allegations were made public in a September 8th article published by KQED and echo similar allegations made in a 1991 investigative report published in the San Jose Mercury News.
None of the allegations have been proven in court. Manos did not deny the allegations when asked by investigative journalist Bob Frost in 1991, but through a spokesman he is now denying all past and present allegations, according to the KQED report.
The statement below doesn’t come from an official Iyengar Yoga representative, but from a long-time Manos disciple. Continue reading “Manos Disciple To Manos Accuser: “If You Felt Assaulted, Please Try to Figure Out Why.””
Kathryn Bruni-Young is a fellow Toronto (post)yoga friend who I’ve known for over ten years. It’s been amazing to watch her change and expand her practice over that time, and very cool to visit with her on her excellent podcast and share some thoughts how my path has swerved alongside her own.
We also got pretty deep into what it was like for both of us — her as a 2nd-gen insider, and me as a reluctant researcher — to come to grips with the shadows of Ashtanga Yoga. We also spent a good deal of time on the “What now?” question. Kathryn’s thoughts provoked a new take on it that I like.
The disillusionment phase that so many folks go through always brings up the “baby and bathwater” metaphor. When institutional abuse and enabling become clear within an organization, leaders often caution: “Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater.” What they generally mean is: “Stay with us. Don’t give up. At least keep a foot in. It’s not all bad.” It makes sense in some ways. It’s an appeal to preserve the relationships of a group, to guard against the pain of sunken costs, and to develop a kind of maturity around extracting the good from the bad.
But it’s always felt to me like there was something off about the advice. After all, it does suggest that feeling disillusioned is like harming a child. In chatting with Kathryn, I suddenly wondered: “Who’s the baby here?” I think the answer is that we’re the baby, trying to learn and grow. Of course we’re not going to throw ourselves out. We’re realizing the bath is dirty, and we’re looking for new water. We’re going to get out and find it.
Karen Rain \\ Ashtanga Yoga and Me Too
Norman Blair \\ Essay: Ashtanga Yoga Stories
Anneke Lucas \\ annekelucas.com
Mark Singleton \\ Modern Yoga Research
Sarai Harvey-Smith \\ Article
- The Sexual Misconduct of Pattabhi Jois: My Thoughts, Accountability, and 5 Changes to Pledge my Support for the Victims
Hi everyone, welcome back to the mindful strength podcast. I’m your host, Kathryn Bruni-Young. Today I have an old friend on the podcast with me, Matthew Remski. I’ve known Matthew since I was a kid. He’s been a friend of my mom’s for quite a while. We were there with him right at the beginning of his What Are We Doing in Asana? project that he started, which has turned into something even bigger now. And that’s what we talk about in this episode. Matthew has done hundreds of interviews with yoga practitioners. He’s put together some really powerful information and he’s been also doing lots of research on cult behavior and cult mentalities. And I’m just so excited to have Matthew here with me today. His work is controversial and we might not all agree on these topics, but I think that it’s an important part of the conversation. Welcome to the podcast, Matthew.
Thank you, Kathryn. It’s good to hear your voice.
It’s good to talk to you. I have known Matthew for years. I feel like I’ve known you since I was a kid since I was a teenager back when you had a studio. I remember when I did my advanced teacher training program with Downward Dog. They were renting your studio space and I think that those were some of my first memories of you.
That is totally true. I think that that would have been 2006 or so. Does that sound right? And I remember your mom — I think she knew about the space because I had come to town the year before my move back to Toronto and I think I had asked her if she needed any presenting help in her YTT program for subjects like Ayurveda. And so I’d started to do that with her. And yeah, I suppose she needed extra space and I remember the whole group piling in and I remember Soleil being there, and I remember, of course, you know, the intensity of the whole experience and for all of you. And I also remember, I think it’s still in storage somewhere — I have this, this plastic container filled with sewing measuring tapes that your mother was using for something. I’m not sure what it was. It was, I don’t know what she was doing. Spinal measurements, or using it as some sort of strange prop, but I remember they never got back to her and so it’s one of those things that several moves later, you know — I talk with her on the phone once a week or something like that, and it’s sort of in the back of my mind. I know that I still have a piece of her old studio in my house. So yeah, I remember and I, and I, I don’t remember you from that, from I don’t remember. Like I don’t have a visual memory memory of you coming into the space. Um, but I do remember you from Downward Dog and in 20, in 2006. How old would you have been…
now? I’m 29. I just turned 29, so
… 13 years ago. So 16. Yeah. And I remember I remember you as being like incredibly motivated and adept of course at everything you were learning. Um, and I just had this feeling of Wow, that is really interesting to be Diane Bruni’s daughter, and to be and to be learning, learning in this environment and to become so proficient. And then I know a little bit about your story afterwards, but, but yeah, it’s, it’s an amazing thing to reflect back on because you’ve had such a journey.
Yeah. I mean when I was 16 I was, I had, I was probably doing the teacher training program at that time and then the next year I had, I had started teaching other teenagers. But I mean, oh my goodness, looking back to that time in my life, I was like super focused on learning yoga and, and hanging out with my mom and it’s just so funny to think back to all those years ago.
And you really mirrored each other as well. And, and, and I think, and it’s what I was amazed by was, was how you kind of came to the same sorts of realizations around, you know, what movement meant to you at the same time. And in fact, you know, that became really important like 10 years later when, when your mom was the first interview that I did for this research project and you were there in the room, in the house in Parkdale. Um, so yeah, we’ve got, we’ve got a couple of intersection points.
Yeah, I think I remember that first interview that I did with my mom and I remember at that point no one was talking really openly about anything. And I remember like kind of weighing in on some of the things and at the same time feeling like, oh my God, don’t quote me, don’t quote me on any of this. And like I’m not saying anybody’s name and I’m not really giving you any concrete information.
And, and, well, we went back and forth too because, because I think I published parts of that interview, but I mean it’s more of it is going to be in this upcoming book. And, and I remember that you, yes, didn’t want to be quoted, but she wanted to say some very specific things. Like I remember you were, you were, you were kind of like a, you’re sitting almost across the room. And I think Diane, your mom said, you know, do you mind if Kathryn’s here and I said, of course not. And you know, she asked you, do you want to hang out? And you were like, yeah, okay, sort of. And then we got into it and then we got into it. And she came to the point, I still have this on the transcript. She came to the point where she’s describing how she’s developing severe knee pain and you know, she’s finally going to go and get an ultrasound and she discovers that there’s a big cyst in the middle of her joint because she’s been doing all of these, you know, knee pressure postures and she says the line, um, “So I thought it was like a meniscus injury and then you break in and you say “Like, everybody in Ashtanga has!” And then I have in the, in the, um, I have in my notes, uh, “Kathryn rolls her eyes.”
And then the other comment was, was you said something really, really special about, the kind of addictive cycle of pain and pleasure in going to end range of motion. You said that, um, you know, when your, when your mother was saying we needed to, we always needed to progress and go deeper in order to nurture the sensations we were chasing. And you said something like, “Oh yeah. And you have to go deeper because those, those, those receptors, uh, get um, what, acclimatized.” I don’t know what kind of language you used, but I was like, oh, you studied, you studied the neurology of this too, right? Like, you know, you’re, you’re looking at your, you actually have an analysis around what it means to be chasing a sensation by going farther into something. Uh, so that was pretty, that was a really cool moment. And, and to see that you kind of been on this journey together and, and yeah, it was cool.
There’s so much in all of that. I mean, I remember when my mom was going through this situation where she had this cyst and she thought she had the meniscus tear and whatever. Um, I started to really feel like at that point, like I had also been having some knee issues and I started to feel like that was almost normal. Like all of my friends who are all yoga teachers also had these same issues. And I think that was the turning point where I started to think like “Maybe this isn’t totally normal.” Yes. Lots of people have knee issues and lots of those people will never do yoga day in their lives like knee issues come from all kinds of things, but at the same time like the normalization of the injuries that so many of us were having in common. I think that was the turning point where I started to think, hmm, maybe we could be doing things differently.
Right. Well, there was a turning point in that actual interview that was really important for me where, you know, your mom said that with this knee pain and probably moving onto the description of her hip injury when she had gone to her colleagues and said, you know, Well A, what should I do about this? And they really didn’t have any answers except more stretching. And then B, she went to her colleagues and said, well, this is what my sports medicine doctor said about passive stretching and end range of motion and they didn’t want to listen to her. We started talking about the, this explanation that was given in the culture around the necessity of pain and the inevitability of the injury and how injury actually signified that your body was changing into something else or it was going to become more resilient or it was breaking down so that it can be reformed. And, and I said, “Okay, so was that a therapeutic belief or was that a spiritual belief?” And she said, “It was a spiritual belief that we thought was a therapeutic belief.”
And I think that sentence alone set me off on an entire like research jag, because I think that particular confusion is at the heart of, of so many of the things that you’ve gone, you’ve gone on to study and to, and to try to resolve. You know, it’s like there, there are these very entrenched attitudes around discipline and pain and struggle that have to do with some very old notions of what the body is. And you know, whether it should be denied or whether it should be cared for or whether you can use activity and even discomfort to purify yourself in some way. And then, you know, the therapeutic movement in yoga is going the other direction and saying, no, you, we kind of want to be more functional. We would like to use breath and movement and mindfulness to actually enjoy being alive instead of instead of, um, instead of, you know, using our bodies as some sort of like a test, a philosophical test, you know? Um, so yeah, there’s… And you grew up in all of those messages too, right? Like it must have been such a trip for you to start saying, well, wait a minute, wait a minute. What do I actually believe?
Yeah. I mean, when I really started to, when I start, when I stopped going to yoga classes seven days a week and I started going to the gym and I started learning from different people. I think I at that point started to realize like a lot of the things that I had grown up with, I wasn’t sure if I was really going to believe those things anymore. I mean, I feel like I, I grew up in this bubble of Ashtanga Yoga, but also along with that comes as like, I don’t know, kind of like pseudo spiritual practice thing where we all, I don’t know, maybe I’m not going to speak for everyone in my, in my crew, but I definitely feel like I grew up with the notion that you go to the studio really early in the morning, you don’t eat anything before you go there. You do this practice and everything in your life is going to be good and it’s very spiritual and you’re mindful and it’s all gonna work out. And there was this notion of like, you know, people could have like these opening kinda healing crisis events, which I think is what you’re talking about with these injury states and you know, that that was somewhat normal. And in some cases “just part of the practice” and part of the whole experience. And I also grew up, you know, where people would like go out and do like shamanic drugs in the frickin Don Valley. And that was also kind of normal. Like, my mom had friends who were, you know, going into the forest of Toronto, which is like not really a forest at all and like taking ayauasca and like hearing about that and that also seem to be this like healing crisis of a, you have to go do this thing and like puke your brains out. And I’m sure I’m sure some of the listeners who are listening are like really into that. And so I, I don’t want to speak badly because, you know, I’ve never done that, but it’s not really my thing.
But yeah, it’s like I grew up thinking that all of those things where just like a normal part of whatever yoga evolution and spiritual evolution. And now like looking back on that, it’s a bit crazy. It’s a bit nuts. And when I started to go to the gym and like hang out with people who had not grown up with that, I then I started to realize how weird the whole thing was and how weird a lot of those thoughts were that I had grown up with. And you know, just starting to look at movement practice in a completely different way. And yeah, I mean I think the intersection between like spirituality and movement is really interesting. I’ve interviewed a lot of people on the podcast and a lot of people who I’ve interviewed have said something like, “No, when I go to the gym I’m doing something different than when I’m doing my yoga practice.” But also I’ve interviewed lots of people who say “When I go to the gym and I lift weights, I’m having the same embodied experiences I would have doing yoga.”
You said so much there. And one thing that I want to pick out is you used the word “bubble” and coming into a different community as you start going to the gym presents you with different world views and different attitudes towards the body. But it seems like the primary one or the primary shift would have been away from this notion that human being ssomehow have to go through crises in order to improve themselves. I’m wondering as a 16 year old or even younger and a little bit older, I’m wondering — I know you’re supposed to be interviewing me — but I’m wondering what, what it, it, uh, like what, what you end up having to, to break through about, you know, what you believe about yourself and the body in order to like take this very positive, “I’m going to build strength in these ways and I’m going to become an enjoyer of movement in these ways.” You know, you’re not, it doesn’t sound like you’re chasing crises anymore.
Yeah, I mean I think at some point you realize that you don’t have to punish yourself with movement or anything to improve if you want to improve and you know, like you can be enjoying this whole thing. And I think that when I moved from like more of whatever yoga mentality to like going to the gym and doing different types of movements, I realized how much, building strength in the body I think does more than just build strength in the body. I think it develops confidence and gives people their power back as opposed to the other method that I had been involved in, which was like, kind of like breaking people down and taking their power away from them and then they will follow the leader more and more.
Well, you know, it’s, I, I’m so glad that you brought that up because one of the things that I did notice, you know, meeting you when you were 16 and then, you know, probably once a year or every couple of years after that up until up until recently, is that people develop and change and you know, there would have been a natural developmental arc to, to your life regardless of what you did. But you know, you became strong. You became — what I did, remember what I there, I remember there was some turning point where I thought, and I think maybe it was when we did that event at your mom’s house, uh, and you stood up and you said, “Look, yoga people, yoga movement is like this percentage.” You made like a little pinchy gesture with your fingers, “this percentage of the available movement on the spectrum of possible movement, uh, and we, let’s just get straight about that. It’s a very limited vocabulary, and we can do more things and the movement world is actually enormous.” And I remember you standing up and speaking in a voice that I hadn’t heard before and it really wasn’t the voice of “I’m going to do what other people tell me to do. I’m going to do somebody else’s sequence or I’m going to, you know, I’m, I’m going to submit or surrender to a healing crisis.” So when you say, when you say building strength also builds confidence, I could literally see that happen with you in a way. Or at least I had that impression.
And I think it’s a very powerful a story, especially given the gender demographics of Yoga, because, you know, with an 80 percent, women practicing population roughly globally, I think we really have to wonder whether like, repetitive, perhaps deconstructing and maybe, and maybe stress-building movements that exhaust us when we’re doing a low protein diets — I think we have to ask whether or not that contributes to the kind of empowerment that so many people say they want to get from Yoga. So yeah, that’s a fascinating transition. I don’t think that yoga, the Yoga postural vocabulary has been about strength building for the most part.
And going back into medieval history, it certainly wasn’t about becoming more functional. It wasn’t about becoming a better mover or being able to do your daily job better or taking care of your kids. It was about doing weird things, strange things with your body to experience eccentric sensations or perhaps esoteric sensations and, all of the metaphors around the movement we’re about, you know, I think you suggested it really not just breaking the body down, but pulling the body apart as though it contains something that needed to be released and you know, to move towards all of this strength training where we’re talking about pulling things towards the midline and creating, you know, central stability and, you know, being able to squat and do those wild pistol movements that you do, like all of that really shifts the conversation around what the body is for. And it’s super important and really, really interesting. And we’ve got to square it somehow with, with, well, “Are we still interested in yoga if we’re interested in all of these things?”
So I know that you are a great researcher and I haven’t talked to anyone about this on the podcast yet. So I’m going to ask you, will you tell us a little bit about where this modern postural yoga comes from?
I think the brief story is that around the turn of the century, amongst a certain class of educated Indians who were also, anti colonialists, they were interested in fostering many aspects of culture and nation building that would contribute to an independence movement. And, you know, and some of those activities were outright revolutionary, but others were more about liberalizing education and, you know, modernizing institutions and introducing new public health practices. At a certain point, according to Mark Singleton, whose thesis is controversial, but I don’t think it’s really been challenged in any substantial way, in around the 1920s or 1930s, the influence of what was called physical culture as a practice of personal hygiene citizen empowerment to public health in various European nations began to make profound inroads influentially India, to the point where, you know, there were certain, you know, luminaries like the Rajah of Aundh, who, owned all of the books and the tools and the apparatuses of one of these famous bodybuilders whose name I forget who he was, a German guy. [Eugen Sandow is the name I was forgetting.] He was like one of the first sort of performance bodybuilders. And he would go on tours of India that were wildly successful.
And there was this interest amongst this class of relatively educated and somewhat westernized Indian reformers to find a kind of physical practice that could be said to be, indigenous, but also competitive or at least comparative with the physical culture movements that were coming out of Europe. And they began to turn towards a kind of cultural memory of what medieval Asana had been. Now, this is not to say that there weren’t awesome practitioners who were practicing run right up until the modern period, but they were doing in sadhu were communities that were generally apart from the mainstream population, and their physical practices were generally regarded as being weird or heterodox like — they were not practices for householders. They were about bodily experimentation and often they were associated with alchemy and magic.
And some key figures began to, I’m gonna, use the word “appropriate”, these older physical forms into this program of creating an indigenous and nationalized health practice that began to take shape as the group asana class. And there was a couple, there were a number of key figures in this. There was Sri Yogendra, a Swami Kuvalyananda, who began to research the effectiveness of postures from a biomedical slash public health perspective, but without a lot of, you know, good research tools. And then of course, the figure that is probably most important in all of this is Tirumalai Krishnamacharya who has a kind of mysterious background and biography prior to being hired by the Maharaja of Wodiyar or who of the richest men in the world at that point. His, I think his fortune, his personal fortune in modern terms is estimated at being at about 40 million dollars. He was so wealthy that when he went on tours like a diplomatic tours to Europe, he would take like entire orchestras of, you know, 50 musicians and dancers in order to accompany him. And he would like put his Rolls Royces onto his boats and stuff. He was amazing, a modernizer and philanthropist within Karnataka province. And he did all kinds of public works within Mysore. He did wonderful things like, you know, initiated public school for girls in the region. And he also at his palace, set up a pilot program for physical culture, projects that by which young boys, especially those who were financially disadvantaged or who were orphaned, could come and learn wrestling and weightlifting and gymnastics and also yoga.
So Krishnamacharya was hired to run the yoga room, but it was alongside these other disciplines, almost everybody that is responsible for why you and I are having a conversation right now, why your mother got into Yoga, why I got into Yoga, why there are yoga studios, almost everybody who is of any importance came through Krishnamacharya’s classroom from about 1934 through the early Forties. There is a little bit of controversy about when he actually ended. But, you know, these wouldn’t be Pattabhi Jois, BKS Iyengar, and a number of other lesser knowns. And then, and then he also taught Indra Devi, and I think that was in 1936 or so, and she went off from there after about three months of education and started yoga schools all over the world. Finally ending up in Hollywood would teaching people like Marilyn Monroe how to do shoulder stand.
The question that arises is, where did Krishnamacharya’s material come from? And the big debate is how much is old? How much is new? What was developed for the group class process? How much therapeutic knowledge did he have? You know, how much did he really connect his, practice of Asana with older and more well known philosophical traditions and practices within Indian wisdom culture? Those things are all sort of part of a raging debate now when people are looking back to the roots of the modern yoga movement to decide whether or not it has some bearing on the prior history of Yoga in India or some relationship to it. What I have focused on in my study is not about where the postures come from or their connection to the medieval period, but, I’d rather focused on the pedagogical methods that come to us from the Mysore Palace.
We know, unfortunately, from the accounts of Iyengar and Pattabhi Jois, that Krishnmacharya was, you know, not unlike or untypically of teachers of his generation, he was quite a disciplinarian and that he, like other teachers of his generation, liberally used corporal punishment while he was teaching the boys under his charge. And, you know, many historians have noted this, but nobody has really followed through on the implications of that, you know, BKS Iyengar and Pattabhi Jois , for example, learned how to do yoga, which we associate with openness and receptivity and softness and therapeutic value and, you know, becoming more loving and all of that — they learned their art within a very brutal environment, of both corporal punishment and an emotional abuse.
So my research pathway has been trained to try to trace how that particular dynamic becomes intergenerational. And is then correlated with some of the attitudes towards the body that show up when Diane asks her colleagues, you know, “What’s going on with my knee?” And they tell her, “You know, knee injury is just the way it goes. It’s not only for your spiritual benefit, but it’s also just part of the discipline. And if you’re going to be dedicated to this, then that’s what you’re going to go through.” So, that’s the arc that I’m tracing.
And then further beyond that, the next part of the story is how do people like your mom and you and, and Donna Farhi and Theo Wildcroft and Angela Farmer and you know, too many to name — Judith Lasater — how do they inherit tradition of authoritarianism and, you know, the glorification of bodily pain, and how do they overturn it? How do they turn it into something else? How do they inject it with their own values? How do they turn this thing that really used to be about mastering the body into, you know… what’s the primary value now in modern postural yoga? Trauma awareness, really. I would say strength building is one primary value. And then trauma awareness is the other. And these two values, you know, you’re a representative of one of them, if not the other, if not both. And these two values have emerged in response to this darker history. So that was a little bit long winded, but, but, that I hope that gives you your listeners a little bit of a doorway.
Yeah. So I remember when you had your first, What Are We Doing in Asana things at the house. It was very much about injuries and I felt that when you interviewed us that’s what we’re really focusing on and now it seems like you’re focusing on like the bigger picture and the cult like behavior and the, you know, years of abuse that are finally coming out and like, why does that happen? Why were these people put on these pedestals? Why did nobody say anything? I’m so curious like how that natural progression started to happen.
Well, it wasn’t natural in the sense that people like your mom had to like, really give me a yank to swing me around. You know, you probably remember from that meeting — I just, I just told this story to J Brown as well — but, you know, we, at the gathering, there were 60 people there and our plan was to, you know, speak about injury in yoga practice and your mom opened was an account of, what a senior, Ashtanga teacher had told her about Pattabhi Jois assaulting students for years on end. And you know, you might remember that the room was absolutely silent. You could hear a pin drop. I was gripping the corners of my cushion, listening to her, because it wasn’t in the plan. And my thought was “This is really a rabbit hole that we’re going down here.”
And I think the discussion around safety with regard to Asana, is a relatively easy one to have, but this is a lot deeper. What I came to understand was that was that, you know, the injury question within modern yoga practice is really not as important as the power imbalance and the abuse question. People get injured doing all kinds of physical activities. They get injured because they’re unaware, they get injured because they’re addicted to sensation. They’re injured because they drive themselves forward out of a sense of inadequacy. That’s just across the board. It happens in an asana class and it happens in spinning class. But, but you know, when your mom tells me about this injury to her hip and she tells me about the betrayal she feels, with regard to the lack of advice that she got from her peers, you know, how she just didn’t feel supported and she wanted to try to change the practices in her business. But you know, the business actually wouldn’t let her. She was… there was such an anger driving this story and it really wasn’t the anger of, “Oh, I got injured while I was training.” It was an anger about something else. It was an anger, it felt like it was an anger about how she had been treated.
And that was a real big clue to me, is that, you know, in the online discussion that has surrounded the, the injury problem in Yoga, I think a lot of people would notice or resonate with the fact that it’s incredibly contentious and, and passionate. I mean, have you seen this? It’s like people are really, really like, charged about, about how their hamstring was injured in a particular class and, and they’re really upset about being told to do headstand, and then winding up with neck pain. And while these things are… Certainly they shouldn’t happen and, they feel unjust and our education should be improved, I started to understand that the feelings that were underneath the data were really about betrayal. They weren’t about, you know, normal and expectable injuries. They were about “Somebody was supposed to be taking care of me here and they weren’t.”
And the most obvious and loudest expression of that becomes clear when we encounter revelations around Pattabhi Jois, who is regarded as a Guru and yet he is sexually assaulting women in class on a regular basis. And because that story can’t be told because of silencing and rape culture and all of that, I started to understand that the passion that was driving the injury conversation was actually a way of expressing a deeper pain, a deeper pain that couldn’t yet been named. It couldn’t be out in the open. And the fact that it couldn’t be out in the open is just borne out by the fact that, that, you know, it took three years for me to find enough on-record testimonies and get consent from all of those people, all of those women to publish them. It was really, really hard.
And so I think the injury discussion is, masking something else. And transitioning over to looking at that directly, it was really difficult. Because I just didn’t want to, you know, I thought that I wasn’t, I wasn’t…
Okay, so in my history, I have been in two yoga-related cults and I really wanted to believe that the mainstream yoga culture that I was involved with, through people like your mom and, and, my teachers who were influenced by Iyengar, I wanted to believe that those mainstream yoga cultures were free of those influences and mechanisms and dynamics. And so I just didn’t. I was like, “I’ve been here twice before. I refuse to believe this is going on here.” That was one of my attitudes, the other attitude was, I just didn’t want to… I didn’t want to open such a mainstream can of worms. Like, you know, Ashtanga Yoga is so incredibly influential, worldwide.
I wanted to start the Walrus article with, the sentence, the first sentence was actually, you know, over 30 million people or approximately 30 million people in the United States alone practice a style of yoga that is inspired by Pattabhi Jois…. They changed it to millions of people because we couldn’t quite verify or they, they, they didn’t feel that my extrapolation of the numbers was accurate or could be substantiated. But the point is, it’s a hell of a lot of people.
Everybody who’s practicing Vinyasa, Flow, Power: this all goes back to that little room in Mysore. The clothes that are worn. It all goes back to that little room in Mysore. The notion that you are sweating intensely in contorted postures and, and, and having a blissful experience maybe or a painful experience that you can frame is blissful — all of that goes back to that little room in Mysore. And so when I started to really contemplate, “Oh, is this what you’re saying about this little room in Mysore? Is this what these people are describing? Is that really true?” I thought, “Oh, it’s too much to bear.” And so yeah, I just resisted going there for a long time. It did not come naturally.
Yeah, I mean it definitely feels like a much bigger thing. It seems like to say that a style of movement is physically injuring people like is unfortunate, but it doesn’t seem like that big of a deal. But to say that, you know, the person who was responsible for this style of movement has actually been highly abusive to a number of his students, you know, that definitely casts a different light on the whole organization and I think that to tackle that, you know, you’re going to have a lot, a lot more people who are potentially going to support you and then potentially going to fight against you.
Oh totally. Yeah. And, and this is where on the most reactive pole of the response spectrum, there’s a claim: “Oh, that guy is out to destroy Ashtanga Yoga. And it’s a very interesting claim because on one hand it’s completely absurd. Like I, I have good friends who practice, I remember practicing with your mom and I know what people got out of it… I don’t personally choose to do movement practices that are injurious to me, but I don’t have a problem with people choosing to do that. People’s bodies are their bodies and if they really want to, you know, pursue this edge between between pleasure and pain and test themselves and explore extreme sensations, all the more power to them. Literally I am an advocate for freedom.
But on the other hand, on the other hand, if suddenly the method and the community that communicates that method is implicated in a cycle of abuse, and some very basic principles within that method, like the principle of an adjustment itself has now become muddied by the question of
“Why was he doing that? Was he doing that to help people or was he doing that to gain access to them? Was he doing that to abuse them? Was it a mixture of both? How can we tell that apart? Did he teach his students to adjust in the same way that he did? Have some of them gone on to become assaulters themselves? Is there a correlation between that?”
That opens a huge, huge problem and it becomes very, very difficult. I think for some devotees is to really ask this deeper question of: does Ashtanga yoga exist without the influence of this man?
And so when they say “You’re trying to destroy Ashtanga Yoga,” on one hand it’s like, “No, you do whatever you want. That’s absurd. Don’t give me that power. That’s totally grandiose as well. I couldn’t do that.” I’m trying to, I’m trying to question abuse.
But if you think that there’s something abusive wrapped up foundationally in your practice or method or community, yes, that’s a problem you’re going to have to face I think. And, I also… but I don’t say that flippantly. Like I also want to hear from people and platform people who are talking about how to do that. You know, how to take those elements out of the practice culture that they found really valuable and really, really elevate them in contexts of explicit consent and bodily empowerment. Um, and so yeah, it’s definitely charged and, and I think I could sense how problematic and inflammatory this would become a in those early moments listening to your mother speak that night. Uh, and I just wasn’t ready. So I edited that part of her talk out to my shame and, and you know as she might’ve told you, we’ve patched that up. I’ve apologized for that and you know, we’re good friends and you know, I hope I can be as supportive of her work as she has been with mine. But um, yeah, it’s opened up a huge set of questions.
I think another thing that’s so interesting is I have told, obviously I’ve told many people over the course of my life that I’m a yoga teacher. I teach yoga and oftentimes, especially with people who like don’t know very much about yoga at all, I always get this question that follows, which is, well, “Did you train in India?” Almost to mean like, well you’re not really like the real deal yoga teacher unless you’ve trained in India. And I mean my mom had known about this abuse that was happening in Mysore like my entire life. And so as I was growing up as a young person, it never even occurred to me to go there. I was just like, ugh, “Why would I go do that after like what my mom has told me?”
And I think that, you know, obviously that information is not in the mainstream and maybe even if it was, I don’t really know what people would think, but it’s almost like as a yoga teacher, if you. And especially like as someone who was practicing Ashtanga Yoga and like teaching it a little bit. Like if you weren’t going to Mysore you weren’t really the real deal. But at the same time no one really understands why you’re choosing not to go to Mysore. And even if they, I mean, I’m sure lots of people knew about what was happening and still send their students there and, and still recommended that people go, you know, it seems like a little bit problematic.
I would say yeah, this is where we get into, I think, whether or not the language of cult analysis begins to apply because, you know, the senior students who are sending their students to Mysore, if they have knowledge of the abuse, then they are implicated in furthering it and enabling it. But then also, you know, we have to look at really carefully what was the social benefit of them doing that? Did that help them in their own, in their own communities? Did it further their connection to the Jois family? Did it mean that they were more apt to host the family when they came on tour? That sort of thing.
There’s a whole sort of network of potential social values in allowing that abuse to be silenced or to be kept silent. Um, so yeah, that, that becomes really complex, but you bring up this really interesting point of, well, you know, I didn’t want to go because it was obvious that wasn’t something that I wanted, But uh, I also couldn’t and say, well, Hey, I didn’t want to go. That’s a real mess. It’s a difficult position to be in.
And I mean I felt like on the one hand, so my mom had known a couple people who had gone and had this really negative experience and come back and told her and then she told me. And to some extent you almost feel like if it didn’t happen to you or it didn’t happen to someone really close to you, like you heard it from them, then it’s like, “Well, is this really happening? But I’m pretty sure it is.” But at the same time there is this feeling of like, you don’t want to be the one to say something in the event that is not true. It’s, it’s just this like, I mean, it’s further perpetuating the whole thing and further protecting the whole organization where like, something is wrong. You have this gut feeling that something is wrong and still you don’t want to say anything.
Right? So, so here’s where the statistics on false reporting become really, I think important and there’s a little bit of data around it, but, you know, the best numbers I think that are accepted right now or somewhere between only four and eight percent of claims of sexual assault and rape are false. So you know, the gut feeling is, is usually right, especially if there is news, especially if there is stuff coming through the whisper network.
But this problem of “I didn’t hear it directly” is something that I heard from senior students all the way through this research, all the way through preparing this article. You know: “I did hear about that, but I didn’t have direct knowledge of it. I didn’t see it directly. I didn’t…” And I think there’s a lot of things going on there. There’s the person who is saying that is appealing to a kind of sense of epistemological honesty. Like, “Because I didn’t see it directly, I can’t say that it’s true, so I’m not gonna say anything,”
But they would do that in relation to the video of adjustments, right? They’ll see it, they’ll see it happen and then they’ll say, “Well, I don’t know what those practitioners would say about it.” Or “I don’t know what, you know, they’re obviously advanced students and they probably have, you know, a good longterm understanding with Guruji about how they’re going to be touched and so on. And you know, it looks like he’s touching men and women in the same way. And so I really can’t. I’m really not in a position to judge.”
Well that, that unwillingness to be in a position to judge, as you say, it reinforces or encourages, it continues to enable the behavior and it’s based upon one primary unwillingness, which is: Why does nobody reached out to the victims to ask them what happened? Like how long does that video have to be out in the world before somebody tries to track down one of the women in it? How long does Anneke Lucas’s blog posts have to be up about being assaulted by Jois in New York City in 2000 before somebody reaches out and asks her, “Can you tell me a little bit more about that?”
How many, you know — you actually have to go out and do the work in order to really say that you have investigated it. It’s not good enough to sit back and say, “Well, I heard this thing but I can’t verify it.” You know, if false reporting is between four and eight percent, the real, the, the ethical response is: “Well, I heard this thing and I went out to try to find out if it was true.” That second part takes a lot of guts. It takes a lot of resolve because what it ends up doing is it ends up automatically isolating you from the group because nobody else is doing that, for one.
But also as soon as you go out and you start looking for the victim’s voice, and you start listening to it, you’re going to get a completely different picture of the community that you belong to. And that might be very fearful. It might overturn a whole bunch of things that you have, you know, thought about it or you’ve assumed about it. You may not want to find out. And this is where my friend, Theo Wildcroft’s notion of contagion is really important, I think is that, is that the closer you get to listening to somebody like Karen Rain, the more questions you have to ask about what you were involved with, the more you will feel that her experience will almost infect your own and cause you to ask questions about what you’re actually doing. So yeah, it’s, it’s hard to make that leap from “Ah! I can’t really tell,” to: “Yeah, I’m going to find out. ”
And I think that it’s just, it’s also showing us how kind of backwards we have been about assault in general. Like even as a teenager hearing those stories. My first response was like, “Well, I’m not sure if it actually happened.” As opposed to like, “Why don’t we just believe the people who say it happened?” Like that needs to turn over because if you say that false reporting is between four and eight percent, like that’s a huge percentage of accurate reporting. And why are we not just jumping to the conclusion that of course this person is telling the truth. And of course this, this is actually happening.
Can I ask you a question about this though because I think your listeners and everybody would really benefit from hearing more about that moment when you hear it from your mom, and she’s telling you who I assume because you know, there’s many, there’s many things that she’s telling you…
She is being protective. She is telling you about, the less radiant and positive nature, the industry that she has brought you into and, and that you’re part of. But when you have the response that “I’m not really sure if it happened.” I’m wondering what was at stake for you in that? Because I imagine if you, if you had just believed her, wouldn’t you have had to have had a whole different conversation with her about how you were going to proceed in relation to Ashtanga?
Yeah. So I think there’s a couple of things. I think that on the one hand I did believe her because I then always had this idea of like, “Oh, why would I go there if this thing is happening?” Like even just the potential that this is what the environment is like there. I’m not going to go. I think on the one hand I did believe her. And then on the other hand, I mean, oh my goodness, I think now it feels like, “Well if you knew that this was happening, like why are we all still toeing the party line? Why on the website does it say that we’re practicing this thing that was taught by this guy who’s like doing things that are, that are not really cool?”
But at the same time it’s like, I don’t know, I’m not really much of a historian or a researcher, but I feel like to some extent most of our civilization and culture is built upon mass systems of oppression and abuse. And so are we going to abandon the whole thing? Like it widened so much further. I’m like, “Okay, so this thing is happening with a stronger yoga. Are we going to abandon it because this has been happening. And then if we abandon that then it’s like everything…”
Right? I think you’re saying something so like really concise and, and precious about the moment of disillusionment where… and I get, I encounter this response a lot like you know, “Let’s make sure that we don’t throw out the baby with the bathwater. What would we have left? Are you trying to destroy Ashtanga Yoga?” And, and I would say that I would say that like as an emotional response, that is like a really necessary, a healthy and normal response to the problem, the problem being: “Oh, I have been involved with something that has caused harm to others and possibly to myself but I’m also deeply enmeshed in it and it’s part of my livelihood and my entire social life revolves around it. How am I going to extract myself from it without feeling totally amputated or without dying in a way?”
I think everybody goes through that. I think everybody goes through that. And that’s why I think, I think the language of cult analysis is really crucial too, because everybody who’s part of a high demand group, if they are heading towards the door, if they are beginning to exit it, they’re going to feel groundless. They’re going to feel like they have nothing left to them. Um, and this is why I really liked the work of Alexandra Stein who says that the most successful transition from within a high demand group to outside of it is really facilitated by other relationships. So, you know, you kind of hinted at it a little bit in your story about how you went from practicing yoga six days a week to starting to hang out at the gym and talking to other people who had different ideas about the body.
And so it’s not like the baby went out with the bathwater. The baby started swimming in a new bath, right? Like you were finding value in a Ashtanga Yoga. And then there were these, you know, dysfunctional or toxic elements to it and you moved into a different set of relationships and self perceptions and maybe you took some of the yoga with you and maybe you left something behind. But, but that, that immediate, “Oh my God, what’s going to happen now?” is just going to be. It’s going to be a moment in time that people just go through and hopefully they will be able to see that with transparency, with self study, with outside sources of support, with different tools. They will… their lives will continue. They will probably reorient themselves towards Ashtanga yoga in some way. If they want to create a really safe environment, they’ll get really specific about that if they also want to keep an association with a Ashtanga Yoga.
So there’s a lot of teachers right now like Sarai Harvey-Smith and, and Greg Nardi and Jean Byrne who are kind of revisioning Ashtanga Yoga with consent cards and with, you know, switching up the sequences and with all kinds of ideas of student empowerment. But they have retained something. It’s like, it’s like they have taken the, the whatever they found most valuable from the practice, the intensity, the breath, the notion of sequencing, the silence, the drishti, all of those things that they loved and which — I understand that love — and they have, and they have lifted them up out of this other context in which all of those things actually functioned as grooming mechanisms for abuse.
You know, because the bodily intensity, um, you know, can break down people’s resistance to critical thinking. The drishti can make people not look around and the rest of the room and see what the guru is doing to other people. The Ujjayi breathing can be, can put you into a trance state in which you don’t really register the pain that you’re experiencing in a reasonable way. And so all of those are really precious aspects of Ashtanga Yoga can be reframed towards empowerment.
But it takes transparency. It takes you, you know, I don’t think you get there without looking directly at, “Oh, you know, there was a real problem here.” And, and, and then really negotiating what you loved about it anyway. And maybe having a little bit of faith that those things can be lifted up and out and, and shared with others without the abuse.
And so where do you see the Ashtanga culture moving from here? So I, you know, I never went to Mysore. I was practicing with Ashtanga teachers in Canada and the United States and those teachers I was working with like were exceptional. And to my knowledge there was no abuse going on and it was always very positive learning experience. And so I think that just because someone is an Ashtanga teacher doesn’t necessarily mean they’re, you know, practicing in community in a negative way. And where do you think it’s going from here?
Yeah. So, so this where in the book that’s emerging out of this article, I want to finish with, I want to platform the voices of leaders within the community who have responded to these revelations in the most progressive and productive way. But I can see I’m going to miss some of course, but, uh, you know, I’ve named a few already. Um, I really think that….
Okay. One problem with using the language of cult analysis is that a people hear it and then they believe that, somehow there’s a hard line between being in and out it’s not really like that. It’s more like there’s a, there’s a very vibrant and magnetic and radiant center to the organization and then there are layers of association that move outwards in kind of like you know, an onion-type fashion and the people who were on the outermost layers — and I would say that that’s where you were actually, you know, it’s like your association was not to the center. It wasn’t too, you know, you didn’t look to the Jois family for your validation. You probably got maybe one or two layers closer to the center when you go to, you know, Richard Freeman and study with him or he comes to Toronto and whoever else that you studied with. You might’ve encountered other practitioners that were closer in towards the center. But you probably stayed on the outside of it.
And on that outside, we really have, you know, the probably the highest amount of benefit that the culture and the teaching offers to people, you know. People don’t necessarily have to engage with the toxic social dynamics that are pulling people in towards the center.
But the thing is, is that in a way, even Downward Dog as a yoga studio functioned as what, you know, a number of theorists would call a front organization for the center, in the sense that people would learn the method, they would hear about Pattabhi Jois. They might get fascinated by learning more, and they might be motivated to go to Mysore.
There’s a way in which being on that outside layer is not entirely benign, but it’s also where people can either plunge further in or they can just stay where they are. And I would say that, the really positive future of Ashtanga Yoga will be comprised of people who were on the outer layer and who learned the techniques and didn’t really have to engage in the toxic social dynamics. And also there will be leadership from people who are close to the center who made their way out and who say, “No, this is not what was valuable about the practice, the devotional aspect, the, the hierarchy, the dominance — that was not what I was actually wanting for my life. But I really do love the postures and the sensations of the breath work. AndI’m going to try to make something creative out of that.”
And I think that’s already happening. The Ashtanga world is decentralized enough that there are people who are already doing that work. You know, I just spoke with Matthew Sweeney, and, you know, he’s kind of been on that outer layer for the last 15 years and he’s cast a critical eye towards the center. And when I asked him, you know, “So what, what are the essential things that you value about this method that have nothing to do with these toxic dynamics that are being revealed right now?” He talks about those, those somatic tools, breath and movement together as some sort of modulation between intensity and ease, some sort of connection towards the Yamas and Niyamas, developing a focal point, the value of, of regular concentration practice, I mean, pretty basic stuff that really does not rely upon a kind of fealty to a set of commitments to the center of the organization.
And so in a way, you know, you asked where do you think it’s going to go? I think it’s already, it’s already gone. It’s already gone. And I think they will, the voices that express independence, and, but also love for the techniques, I think they will continue to develop the future of the community. I think a good reference here would be the work of my friend Norman Blair in London who published a wonderful essay that maybe we can maybe we can link for your readers.
What’s the essay called?
Oh, it’s called “Ashtanga Yoga Stories.” Cool. Yeah. Uh, the subtitle is “delights, insights and difficulties.”
Great. We will link to that in the show notes for sure along with all of the other resources and people who you mentioned. This has been such a pleasure. Matthew. Thank you so much for doing this with me.
Yeah, thank you Kathryn and I’m so happy to talk to you. It feels like some kind of circle is being completed. I mean we, you know, we met what, 12 years ago and, and, and, and there’s, there’s so much that we’ve shared on sort of parallel tracks. It’s really good to meet this way.
So for anyone who wants to get in touch with you or see some of the work that you’ve done, how can they do that?
Just my web site is my name, Matthew Remski .com. And people can also find me on Facebook and I’m, I’m happy to take any questions and, and respond to any emails I try to get back to everybody.
Awesome. All right everyone. Thanks again for tuning in and as usual, if you want to get in touch with me, you can do that on my website, which is Kathryn Bruni, Young .com, or on social media. Under my name. Thanks for listening. Everyone.
(With thanks to Karen Rain for her editorial suggestions.)
In this Triyoga Talks podcast (transcript excerpt below), Jivamukti co-founder Sharon Gannon is asked about why the Jivamukti New York flagship studio has started using consent cards. Gannon throws the question to studio director Jason Morris, who takes the opportunity to present some rebranding talking points.
For Morris, Jivamukti “has been a safe haven” historically, and offering consent cards is a way for the brand to continue to be safe, and to be “at the forefront” of the conversation on consent.
This is a revisionist stretch.
In 2016, JYS settled a sexual harassment lawsuit against lead teacher and trainer (Gannon was also named in the suit) in 2016. In an interview, the plaintiff in the suit suggested that a culture of implied consent in relation to adjustments was a factor in the harassment.
The 2012 book Yoga Assists: A Complete Visual and Inspirational Guide to Yoga Asana Assists authored by Sharon Gannon and her Jivamukti co-founder David Life does not contain the word “consent”, nor any substantive discussion of power differentials in teaching. The book is currently on sale in their shop. Continue reading “Jivamukti Yoga Claims Position “At the Forefront” of the Consent Card Movement”