Cyndi Lee Interviews Matthew Remski about Working Through the Abuse Crisis in Modern Yoga and Buddhism (+ transcript)
Notice: This interview is part of the Yoga of Healing and Awakening Summit, a free online event featuring essential depth teachings and daily practices for your body, mind and soul. This recording is a copyright of The Shift Network. All rights reserved.
Welcome to the yoga of healing and awakening summit, a free online event where you’ll discover essential depth teachings and daily practices for your mind, body, and soul. Share these visionary masters and esteemed practitioners with your friends and family and join us on Facebook at The Shift Network. And now your host, Cyndi Lee.
Cyndi Lee: 00:24
Welcome everyone. We’re so glad that you’re joining us and today I’m really pleased to introduce my special guest and friend, Matthew Remski. Matthew Remski is a yoga teacher, industry consultant and author of nine previous books including Threads of Yoga, a remix of patanjali’s yoga sutras with commentary and reverie, and the survivor of two cults. His work has been pivotal in illuminating the shadows of globalized Yoga and Buddhism and showing that disillusionment and critical inquiry can be gateways to mature spirituality. Matthew, thanks so much for being with us today. Welcome.
Matthew Remski: 01:08
Thank you so much, Cindy. Thanks for the welcome. Thanks for inviting me to do this. It’s a pleasure to meet you finally.
Cyndi Lee: 01:14
Yeah, maybe some day we’ll meet each other in real life. Exactly. So you sent me your recent book, All is coming, which I read and I’m familiar with. And I would say that you’re doing some very specific work right now in the Yoga and Dharma communities that I don’t know if anyone else is doing, both uncovering of variety of abuses and abusers that may or may not have been widely known. And also what I was especially moved by and encouraged by was that you’re pointing away forward, that you’re doing really crucial work in giving us a path forward and what seems really yogic and really Dharmic to me is taking quote-unquote poison and transforming that and working towards Buddhist principles such as non-harming and Buddhist principles such as clarity and compassion. And so that’s kind of a long statement, but I’m wondering if you could talk about that.
Matthew Remski: 02:27
Well thank you first of all, but I’d have to say that it’s really a privileged position to have been able to take a number of years to put this book together, but it really sits on the shoulders of especially women who have been in smaller forums, generally talking about power abuses within the younger world and the Buddhist worlds for a long time. So the people who have been very influential to this project include, Donna Farhi who has done a lot of coverage of the yoga world and especially the Iyengar world. And then the survivors themselves who began to step forward, including the first person who really alerted me to the severity of the abuse history within Ashtanga Yoga, my friend Diane Bruni here in Toronto…
People like Diane and then the people who were able to give testimony for this book, they’ve been holding these stories and their responses to them and their own ways forward for a long time. And so the book is really capturing the crest of a wave. I’m really grateful for, for all of the work that’s gone before me. And as far as a way forward goes, I do have some proposals that come out of the research, and listening that I’ve had to learn to do to the survivors of sexual abuse within yoga communities, but also from my own experiences as a cult survivor and my review of the cult analysis literature.
So yeah, there’s the sixth part of the book, a workbook actually for critical thinking and community health. And I have the sense that it is possible sometimes to turn poison into a kind of goodness. But that’s hard one. It takes a lot of care. It takes a lot of social networking; it takes the empowerment of survivors through listening to their stories, really carefully platforming them and making them the center of any kind of reform movement. So those are pretty key ideas to me.
Cyndi Lee: 04:49
Yeah. Well, I really appreciate, and thank you for mentioning the people that you’ve talked to, women that have come forward and are supporting, and that just seems like a positive right there, that we’re moving, we’re moving in that way and that you’re acknowledging that. It seems like we learn about a new abuse every day in Yoga and in the Buddhist communities and, starting at the beginning, we have to ask ourselves, why is this happening? Is there a root cause?
Matthew Remski: 05:24
I don’t know so much about root cause as a series of mechanisms and influences that come together in particular ways. There’s a story that, that I come back to over and over again when I think about the various elements involved in how abuse emerges and is enabled in yoga communities. And it comes from this guy who I interviewed maybe four or five years ago. He’s a medical doctor. And he ended up, having a prominent teaching position in a graduate program in Yoga Studies because he was also a lifelong Asana practitioner. And he had studied with Ashtanga people and with Iyengar people. His yoga revelation story showed how a kind of situational vulnerability for the person who wants to pursue spiritual life, plus their aspirations, plus the charisma of the teacher, plus a kind of disenchantment with the world, plus the natural way in which spirituality encourages us often to, um, to look high and to reach further and to perhaps fake it till we make it in a way, in terms of trying to envision a better world,
This guy’s story was that was that he was finishing his medical school gauntlet of exams. And this was in the 80s, but he was in a bad way. He was suffering from depression. I believe he was talking about dealing with a drinking issue. And a friend of his said, You’re not doing so well. Can you just come with me to this yoga class? And he went. He was a little bit skeptical and he was super skeptical when the guy who was a senior student of Iyengar started talking about the kidney area. And this is the trained doctor. And the guy was demonstrating on some student’s back, you know, “breathing into the kidneys”. And the doctor’s response was — the guy who I’m interviewing — his response was: I just thought this guy was full of crap because I had just been in a cadaver lab that week, holding him and kidneys in my hand. I know what they are you don’t breathe into them.
And then he said: I paused though at that point, and I said to myself, Well, yes, but you’re not happy, and this isn’t working out for you. And you know, the whole weight of the very conventional choices that he had made in his life, the scientific materialism that he was immersed in, this rational way of being in the world that that wasn’t actually addressing his inner most parts… it came crashing down on him and he said, You know, I’m gonna have some patients here and see whether or not there’s another way of looking at things. And it’s a really fascinating moment because he’s actually recognizing a kind of spiritual thirst within himself. He’s discovering his disenchantment and he’s also relying on somebody’s innovative, perhaps poetic, perhaps, maybe even shamanic in way a language for reality to give them another view on things.
That point at which he realizes that he’s going to kind of turn off a critical faculty is really, really interesting because it could be fine. It could work out just perfectly well. It could, yes, show him a pre-20th century way of looking at his body and feeling himself in his environment. It could show him a new ways of feeling into his heart. But let’s just say that the teacher took that farther and then that more claims were made about let’s say the healing capacities of kidney breath or he started to tell students that this Pranayama would be good to help you avoid dialysis in the future or something like that. Who knows?
At that point there’s the possibility of the charismatic teacher beginning to push the limits of what is useful for the student with regard to enlivening their perspective on the world. And that’s where we start edging into deception or perhaps manipulation. And it doesn’t have to happen consciously, you know, going back to Mr Iyengar himself, Light on Yoga is filled with medical claims on every single page. Not one of them is cited. I don’t think he’s trying to fool people. I don’t think he was aware of the difference between evidenced and non-evidenced claims. But that doesn’t mean that people gradually didn’t begin to believe that he had verifiable medical insight and that he could treat them for rheumatism or for heart disease or what have you. And so we don’t even have to have charlatanism or opportunism at play. We just have to have this very natural human tendency to I think amplify exaggerations that seem to have positive impacts, but then they can cross over a threshold into this leader, this charismatic person just knows me better than I do. And the group dynamic that forms around them begins to communicate to everybody who’s on the periphery that this is the person with some kind of impossible-to-find-or-excavate knowledge. And that begins to create cultic dynamics just in itself.
It’s not about somebody evil setting out to manipulate or abuse other people — that can end up happening — and when the manipulative person ends up getting positive feedback or makes a lot of money or they end up feeling as though their students are just there to serve their financial or sexual needs, then certainly abuses can start becoming criminal. But I think it almost evolves in a natural way that is exacerbated by the fact that Global Buddhism and yoga are just totally unregulated industries.
Cyndi Lee: 12:13
Yeah. And you know so many people come to yoga because there they have various issues. And there’s been a lot of talk about this, as you know, recently: yoga is not therapy. If you’re bipolar, yoga is not going to be enough for you.
Matthew Remski: 12:36
Cyndi Lee: 12:42
Right. And so there are people that have thought Yoga was enough for them and they might become teachers. And they have issues and then those issues come out in all of their relationships. And as you say that it’s not necessarily an evil intention.
Matthew Remski: 12:57
Right. And sometimes, and sometimes in the management of an undiagnosed condition like that, a person, especially a teacher, can really effectively learn how to monetize the highs of their life, and hide or suppress the lows of their life. I know of a number of instances of that happening for sure.
Cyndi Lee: 13:21
It’s interesting to me too because I have a Tibetan Buddhist background. My teacher is Gelek Rinpoche, and we learned, I learned from the very beginning, specific ways to choose a teacher. This was not him, this was traditional Buddhist teaching, Tibetan Buddhist teaching. It strikes me that it might be useful to have that be more broadly known, and one way is to look at the people around the teacher: do they have an entourage are they sycophantic, stick with the teacher for two years. And you know, and one thing Rinpoche would always say is — he was really good at English, but it was his second language cause he’s Tibetan — If your teacher asks for money or sex turn and run 500 miles.
Matthew Remski: 14:14
It’s a funny thing. I think you said in the intro that I was a two time cult survivor and that this was true. The first group that I was wrapped up in actually was a neo-Tibetan Buddhist group. And we got that teaching. We were actually given that introductory… It’s part of the Lam Rim I think — here are the qualities of the teacher; here are the qualities of the student. The leader actually was very insistent. He would say over and over again, you know, You’ve got to check this person out. However, they were also lying about about who they were, who they had studied with, where they came from. There was all kinds of biography-padding going on.
The thing is that even in traditional systems… Well, I don’t know about traditional systems, actually. What I can say is even when we have traditional systems that that somehow blow up and cross cultures into a global context, there aren’t the checks and balances particularly available to be able to really execute those instructions. Like I imagine in its indigenous context in Tibet, all of those instructions are kind of grounded by, Well, your family also knows who this guy is, who this guy is and you know, their family’s reputation in the monastery or in the village or what have you, is going to be well known. But, you know, to me there’s a big problem with you know, kind of loosely socially tied together groups coming together usually because they’re very excited about the charismatic impact of a particular teacher who can give formal instructions like this. But then they remain very abstract, at the same time. It’s not like the instructions alone are able to save the day. They need a social context. And so I’m thinking about how I meditated very seriously about how to take my lama and it really did not overcome either my attraction to him on just a visceral level or the fact that he was actually deceiving everybody around him about where he was from.
And you the other thing that strikes me about, especially Indian wisdom traditions, because we’re talking about Yoga and Buddhism primarily, and you and I both have this background in Tibet and Buddhism: How are you and I, at the beginning of our Dharma careers, what tools do we have to evaluate the competence of the person who’s at the front of the room? The guy that I was with could recite, you know, 20 verses in a row of the Abhidharmakosha in perfect Tibetan. Or so I believed. I don’t speak Tibetan, but it sounded pretty good to me. And then there were enough people around him who did have college Tibetan education, were like, Yeah, that’s legit. I had this sense that, Oh, he had passed a threshold of competence,. But that had nothing to do with whether or not what he was actually doing with that content was legitimate or whether it has had antecedents in Tibetan history.
It’s one thing to be able to recite, to be able to recite scripture. It’s another thing entirely to really understand middle way philosophy and how to properly approach it or how to properly communicate it. And so I feel like there’s a lot of people exposed to the wealth of Indian wisdom culture or Indo-Tibetan wisdom culture who just do not have the tools to evaluate whether or not they’re being manipulated with material that sound wonderful, right? That sound sound really wonderful.
Cyndi Lee: 18:33
And you know, this kind of community check-and-balance thing, You were saying like, if you’re in Tibet, people know your family and there’s different levels. If the teacher that you were working with, you were were magnetized is who I think it was, there were other Rinpoches and people that were working with that person and trying to, you know, him and getting him in line and support him and love him. And you know, he didn’t, he didn’t respond to that. So that’s an interesting point of view.
Matthew Remski: 19:12
And they didn’t have contact with us. It’s not like any of that discourse happened out in the open. I mean, he might’ve been taken privately aside and given a talking to or what have you, but it’s not like that filtered down to the level of his satellite communities, which were spread out over the entire globe and didn’t really have any contact with his authority figures who eventually tossed him out. But we didn’t even know that. Right. It was relatively easy for this person to create a kind of sphere of competence or a bubble or the veneer of competence rather around what he was doing. And that can be really effective. So I do have some suggestions in my book around how do we begin to approach that. And I hope they’re helpful.
Cyndi Lee: 20:04
You put this question in your list to me and I really wanted to talk about this anyway, which is How do we not throw out the baby with the bathwater? You know, I hear people saying, well, lineage is just a bad thing and, you know, maybe I should just drop the practice. What do you have to say about that?
Matthew Remski: 20:29
I really, I love this question. It’s such a tender question and I’ve got a couple of angles on it. One is that the response that people have, that is this very natural, visceral, Like, well, what does mean does, is everything crap? Do I have to throw everything away? The vision or the fear is that, I’ve been doing this thing that has been legitimate and has provided benefit and it’s connected with some sort of authentic stream of knowledge. But now I’m just going to be like on my couch with junk food, watching Game of Thrones, and I’m going to be depressed for the rest of my life. And so there’s this all-or-nothing anxiety underneath that question. And that in itself is a red flag for a kind of cultic thinking. Because what it’s doing is it’s saying, first of all, it suggests that we can’t reorient ourselves towards the baby or the bath water. It’s like, something’s going to be ruined if we go farther with this. This is the first point. It betrays the kind of black-and-white thinking about what you would do with your history or what you’ve already accumulated.
You’re not going to get rid of the bathwater anyway. You’re just, you’re just maybe add some more water or you’re going to get a different map or something like that. It’s not, it’s not going anywhere. Nobody is going to take, take it away from you. But the other, the other thing that, you know, it’s related to this metaphor is: “We need to separate the teacher from the teaching” is the thing that we’ll always hear, and that the teacher or the teaching structure or the Catholic Church or the community, that’s the bathwater. But the teaching itself can be extracted out like some sort of jewel and can be preserved. And that’s what we’re going to keep. That’s really difficult too because I don’t believe there’s any such thing as yoga or Dharma that’s not communicated through human beings and through their communities.
A good example of this would be: Can you imagine Iyengar yoga rebranding itself as something different? Like we’re just gonna change the name now. It’s going to be “Alignment Yoga” or you know, “Precise Movement Yoga” or something like that. It would be impossible because the entire feeling of the instruction is embedded with the charisma of this man who had a very particular and perhaps anxious and perhaps fierce and perhaps illuminated relationship with his own body. And that’s all integral to how he taught, how he presented the method. And you know, when you walk into an Iyengar’s space years after his death, you know, 40 years perhaps after the teacher was actually last with them, you know where you are, you are feeling his presence. And so the notion of being able to separate the baby of Iyengar, sort of genius from the bath water of — Was he physically abusive? Well, yes. Was he emotionally abusive? Yes. Did he appoint a senior teacher who ended up having this abuse history as well? Yes. I don’t think it’s that simple. You’re not going to separate those two things apart.
As you can see, I chew on this, this one quite a bit. So let me just review. I don’t think you can take the the teaching out of the teaching context. And I also don’t think that it’s useful to think about this question in black-and-white terms or at least we should recognize that the fear that it’s concealing has something to do with the belief that the practice was all-good to begin with or that it was going to save you and so on. And the last thing that I think about when I, when I encountered this question is that: who’s the baby anyway, right? The premise is that the teaching is the baby, the postural sequence, the Pranayama, the scripture, the Sutra, that these are the babies and we’re not going to throw the babies away. And I just don’t think that’s it.
I think the baby is the practitioner. The baby is you, the baby is whatever you have picked up from and benefited from in terms of these practices and nobody is going to take that away. And you can’t ignore that you’ve been in perhaps a toxic system once it’s been exposed to you. So it’s not like, I don’t think we throw anything out with anything. We’ve got the baby and that’s our life experience and our practice and how we have grown. We’ve got the bathwater, which is wow, you know, this was a real mess perhaps that I came from. And then we have maturity, which is, you know, while I’m still here and I’m still bathing, or I’m still swimming around, and I’m going to show my students, if I go on to teach, how I’m not going to make them dirty.
Cyndi Lee: 26:02
That is really great. I think a lot about this too. This is something I think about all the time, because I feel that there are a lot of good gurus and there are teachers that keep pointing back to the student, you know, if the student feels this kind of goodness and wellbeing and love that the teacher points it back so that the student realizes they’re falling in love with themselves. There’s a certain kind o confidence. You know, and that’s the spiritual maturity too. You know, in the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life, he says, “Don’t cover the whole world with leather. Put leather on your feet.” You can take responsibility for yourself that certain confidence and you’re talking about that spiritual maturity.
Matthew Remski: 27:00
I always like to emphasize the social because I think one of the primary ways in which Global Yoga and Buddhism mirrors our contemporary political economy — the disadvantage of students — is it really that it emphasizes a kind of hyper individualism. You’re on your own personal journey. “This is your yoga.” “You’ve got to do your practice.” I mean, the title of my book is the Ashtanga saying “practice and all is coming” as kind of like a panacea for anything that could go wrong. But we really need sources of social support for our practice spaces to be actually safe. It can’t come down to the individual to somehow understand magically that they’re being lied to and withdraw from a toxic situation or suddenly disengage from an interpersonal psychology that is quite disorganized and confusing to them.
Every single person that I interviewed for my book, none of them got into the place where they were assaulted by the, by the yoga leader, on their own. They were all drawn in. They were all attracted by a kind of buzz or even a propaganda around his powers. None of them signed up for the abuse that they received. Right. So, yeah, I always push the argument away from what’s natural within yoga discourse, which is to focus on individual internal states and the responsibility that we can derive from our internal sensations and say, no, we need more than that actually. We need, we need safe space policies. We need codes of conduct. We need an accepted scope of practice for yoga teaching. I think for meditation too.
Cyndi Lee: 29:00
I appreciate that you said that because you know, sure. It’s good to have spiritual maturity and confidence, but when you’re in this situation, that’s what you lose.
Matthew Remski: 29:11
It’s actually stolen from you.
Cyndi Lee: 29:15
People that are recovering and that are survivors — I think that’s a big part of the story is they regain the confidence in their intuition and in their bodies. And so let’s go to the next stage of the story here: can you give us some guidelines?
Matthew Remski: 29:38
Not guidelines so much as observations that come out of not only the research that I had to do for the book, but also watching how people responded to the revelations. And then also considering the sort of the peripheral impacts, these concentric circles of harm that ripple out from a very tightly wound, toxic social environment. So at the center of the book’s story is, you know, a yoga master who is assaulting students perhaps on a daily basis for 30 years. And around that is a network of complicity where people know and they’re not responding. And then there’s a larger sphere of people who are attracted to the practice because of the spiritual cachet that is offered. And then a whole bunch of people on the periphery that are sort of drawn in towards the center to varying degrees.
On the outermost layer what I’m really concerned about — it’s not like I’m more concerned about this, but I think it’s under-researched — is that there are so many people who are training themselves to professionalize into yoga and meditation, mindfulness culture, and they are all going to have to avail themselves of the methods of yoga and Buddhist communities. And when they do that, I think they have to start wondering “How clean is this material? How good are these relationships that I’m learning from?”
I can think of a number of examples of secular organizations that unwittingly hire yoga groups or yoga teachers that have unresolved abuse histories in order to treat or offer programming to like trauma survivors or people with other trauma loads.
And so I came up with this thought experiment called PRISM that is really directed at people who are in yoga teacher training programs, but also people who want to provide yoga surface to marginalized populations, people who are administrating yoga schools. It’s an acronym, but the analogy or images is that whatever yoga is as an experience — and this is a very contested thing right now — it throws off different colors of light. And because it’s an unregulated industry, usually the brightest, the flashiest, the prettiest colors get projected onto the full screen. And that’s how marketing works. And we have to really be mindful of that. People will go into yoga communities and practice a yoga and Buddhism and have very negative or perhaps even traumatizing experience. And so that’s what the metaphor is about. PRISM is a way of trying to recognize that fact and then also mitigate its harm.
So the five letters are Pause to recognize that any yoga community probably has many good things to offer, but it also likely carries a history of unresolved abuse. And I can just tell you that this is true of almost every modern yoga lineage and almost every modern Buddhist lineage as well. There is stuff and it’s not like it’s more prevalent than in any other organization, but we’re also not going to Harvey Weinstein for spiritual relief. We’re not going to Bill Cosby as our psychotherapist, right? Like we’re going to yoga and Buddhism for something higher. And so when that gets betrayed, the pain is a lot deeper.
So then R is Research to find out whether or not that abuse history is known. I is Investigate to see whether or not it’s been accounted for or mitigated, whether its survivors have been taken care of.
And then the S is to Show that you will, as a practitioner, recognize the wounds of the community and the method that you’re using and not perpetuate them. So that’s got to be a transparent action.
And then Model is to model engaged ethics going forward.
The showing part is difficult though because in an unregulated industry, there’s a lot of people who can be opportunistic about, Now I’m going to say that I’m trauma-aware or now I’m going to use consent cards in my yoga class, or there’s no real control over what people say about how sensitive they are. And it’s very easy for people to rebrand. So, you know, I don’t know what to do about that except to ask people to investigate whether or not the person that’s making a claim about having made a safer space in their yoga studio or their meditation center, whether they’ve actually done some work. And part of that might be to show what you have supplemented your education with if you have been educated within a compromised pedagogy.
So if it is clear now that as a certified Iyengar Yoga teacher for example, that recent news means that you feel that that degree is compromised —and I think reasonable people might feel that it is — then it’s not like you say, “Well, I was never an Iyengar teacher,” or you take that off your resume. It’s like: “I’ve learned this, I’ve recognized the problems inherent in the community that I was in and I’ve also done this supplementary training and I’ve become a mandated reporter for sexual abuse in my community.”
You’ve got to show the community that you have done something, I think, to mitigate a problematic pedagogy that you’re coming from. And if you don’t do that? I think we’ve had 40 years where people have been able to say, “Hey, look who gave me my certificate!” And now we gotta look at those certificates and say, Hey, actually that’s a liability. That doesn’t imply that you’re a safe teacher. So let’s see what else you have. And don’t try to like fudge it. Don’t try to erase your history or pretend that you weren’t involved in this group because that’s not gonna work either.
Cyndi Lee: 36:30
But yet we don’t want to throw the baby out with the bathwater. So you’re saying you can still keep the beneficial part of the methodology, but you know, be open, be transparent, and…
Matthew Remski: 36:49
… and recognize that if there’s a beneficial part of the methodology, it has emerged in response to your practice of it. That’s you, you’ve brought that, you shouldn’t give up that value. That’s yours. You’ve actually put… you formed yourself around that in some way and so it would be really unfair to, to be asked to throw that away or to even denigrate it in your own head. The great work that a person has done so far is just not going to be wasted, but it does have to — in, in a public relations and in a transparency and in a safe space sense — it does have to be clear that if it is wrapped up or if you’ve been taking your authority or validation from a community that has a rampant abuse problem and it hasn’t addressed it, you’ve got to do something to show your students that you’re better than that, that you’re moving forward.
Cyndi Lee: 37:57
And that’s exactly, I think — we have to wrap up our time here and I think that’s a good place to start —because, you know, I’ve been practicing yoga since 1971…
Matthew Remski: 38:11
That’s the year I was born Cyndi!
Cyndi Lee: 38:13
Oh my God! Thanks for sharing that.
Matthew Remski: 38:14
That’s sweet actually, that’s amazing.
Cyndi Lee: 38:23
That was a good year for both of us!
Matthew Remski: 38:24
It was, it was!
Cyndi Lee: 38:29
All along, I have felt and seen that yoga, Dharma, all of this — for it to be meaningful, it has to be alive. These are living traditions, it’s just like a life, and we need to stay attuned to that. And it’s always been for me as a teacher and a Yogi, this question of how much, how true to this exact material do I have to be, what has come up in me that is evolving it? And I think that that is what we always want to do with our practice is evolve it. So it’s a living thing and it’s something alive from us that we can share. And I really appreciate this work you’re doing and thank you so much.
Matthew Remski: 39:20
Thanks. Thanks for the great questions. It’s really sweet to talk about it all.
Cyndi Lee: 39:24
We could talk for hours, obviously that was a good start and I think it’ll be very helpful for a lot of people.
Matthew Remski: 39:30
Cyndi Lee: 39:32
Thank you so much.
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