How Good Book Stores Become Unwitting Retailers for Yoga and Buddhism Cults
(With great love and care for independent booksellers everywhere.)
As part of my tour to promote Practice and All is Coming, I was invited by a well-beloved bookstore in a major North American city to give a presentation and sign copies as part of their author’s series.
This gorgeous bookstore is proudly independent, and has supported spiritual seekers, social progressives, and environmental activists for decades. The staff were kind and professional and encouraging.
I arrived early for the AV check and looked around. Behind the little stage area where I was supposed to stand stood the entire yoga section.
And there they all were.
It was strange and tense and activating to see piles of yoga books written by or associated with abusive leaders and institutional betrayal. I was there to present an argument against the messages and the media of exactly these books.
At the risk of wearing out my welcome, I made use of the paradox in my presentation. When I offered the following slide of The List of yoga organizations that have unresolved abuse histories, I was able to tie almost every one with a book from the shelf. I was worried about making the staffers uncomfortable, but they were really grateful and supportive. Who wants to sell compromised goods, after all?
It all got me thinking about how vulnerable a bookstore like this can be, in relationship to this troubled industry.
The publishing and distribution arms of high-demand groups will specifically target these stores as they seek out product placement opportunities and pursue member recruitment. (Health food stores have the same issue.)
The store owners and book buyers are vulnerable because they’ll likely have all the right altruistic intentions on board. They’ll earnestly want to help their customers self-inquire, self-regulate, and explore their creativity. I know they’re working out of good intentions, because who wants to try to make money selling books? What a foolish idea.
In a sense, the owners and buyers share the same aspirational hope with the seekers they serve. And that hope is the primary target of the high-demand spiritual group. That’s how a group fosters spiritual abuse: that unique category of violence against a person’s deepest values.
The high-demand groups of modern Yoga and global Buddhism movements have been adept at hiding their abuse histories and convincing the public that they are producing literature as opposed to marketing or even propaganda. Thus, the owners and buyers are almost destined to end up propping up organizations that violate the store’s values and mission. They’re in the same position as academics and yoga service providers who can be tricked into platforming groups they otherwise wouldn’t.
How can booksellers avoid this paradox? How can they avoid being manipulated by publishers and distributors that are arguably acting as fronts for toxic groups? I’ll offer an idea down below.
But first let’s look at some photos of the shelves and consider the implications:
First up, here we have a copy of Yoga Mala, by “Sri” K. Pattabhi Jois. With a foreword by Eddie Stern. How weird is that, looking over my shoulder as I describe his serial sexual abuse?
I’ll let the ad copy on the MacMillan website embarrass itself:
The seminal treatise and guide to Ashtanga yoga by the master of this increasingly popular discipline.
One of the great yoga figures of our time, Sri K. Pattabhi Jois brought Ashtanga yoga to the West more than thirty years ago. Based on flowing, energetic movement coordinated with the breath, Ashtanga and the many forms of vinyasa yoga that grow directly out of it have become the most widespread and influential styles practiced today.
Yoga Mala—a “garland of yoga”—is Jois’s authoritative guide to Ashtanga. In it, he outlines the ethical principles and philosophy underlying the discipline, explains important terms and concepts, and guides the reader through Ashtanga’s Sun Salutations and the subsequent primary sequence of forty-two asanas, or poses, precisely describing how to execute each position and what benefits each provides. It is a foundational work on yoga by a true master.
To coincide with publication of Guruji: A Portrait of Sri K. Pattabhi Jois Through the Eyes of His Students by Guy Donahaye and Eddie Stern, this new edition of Yoga Mala includes a foreword by Jois’s grandson Sharath Rangaswamy, currently co-director of the famous school Jois founded in Mysore, the Ashtanga Yoga Institute.
Oh look: here’s several books by Yogi Bhajan, accused in this lawsuit of rape and confinement. On one of the covers he uses the post-nominal “PhD”. This is news to me. Looks like there’s been some digging done on that on the wiki talk page, which records how critics and loyalists have battled over his mythology:
Years ago the website stated that Yogi Bhajan got a Phd. in Humanology from the University of Humanistic Studies in Solana, California, an unaccredited school that closed May 1999. Now, the KRI website states that he received a Phd. in Psychology from the University of Humanistic Studies in San Fransico. There is no record of any such university. The KRI current website data about Yogi Bhajan’s education was changed and fabricated to promote a more favourable image of Yogi Bhajan to the public despite its falsehood.
Now we see the distinctive covers of Bihar Yoga School publications. BYS is the educational and publication arm of Satyananda Yoga, which was found by the Australian government to have engaged in child abuse and trafficking. This summary by Dr. Josna Pankhania and Jacqueline Hargreaves on this story is excellent. How strange for these books to share space with books by Rosen and Schiffmann, and especially Vanda Scaravelli, an early exemplar of post-lineage yoga pedagogy, following her departure from Iyengar. Note that some of these titles are in the “S” section because Satyananda himself is said to have written them. But with over a hundred publications attributed to him, it is likely that ghostwriters were employed.
Now with this one I just can’t. Lower right corner is How Yoga Works by Michael Roach and Christie McNally. I was a member of Roach’s cult from 1996 through 2000. HYW was written after Roach fell out with the global Tibetan Buddhist network over clerical sexual misconduct and a perceived insult to the Dalai Lama. He needed a new market, and yoga was booming. He started presenting a Jivamukti studios in the early aughts and then came the books.
There it is, right beside Ramaswami’s book, which is actually a faithful account of what he actually learned from T. Krishnamacharya, FWIW.
Here’s an interesting alphabetical pairing: the books of Kino MacGregor beside those of Gregor Maehle. I can’t speak to comparing and contrasting the content, but I do know that the two authors express very different attitudes towards the Jois abuse history. Maehle, who distanced himself from Jois’s group over his concerns that it was cultic in 1994, has been a tireless advocate for Jois’s survivors on his blog and professional FB page. See Karen Rain’s appreciative comments below. MacGregor has offered this statement, which is quite different.
Lastly, across the floor from the yoga section, we find about twenty titles by Chogyam Trungpa, published by Shambhala Publications. An SP publicist told me by email that they’ve wholesaled 2,000,000 units of Trungpa titles since 1973.
Before cashing out, prospective readers might want to consider the accounts of Leslie Hays, one of Trungpa’s seven “spiritual wives”.
I can say with confidence that Hays is not the only one who remembers these behaviours.
It might seem self-serving to end a post dissing other books by referring back to my own, but I’ll do it anyway.
I believe that EVERYBODY who engages with modern yoga or Buddhist communities, whether educationally or commercially, can benefit from a 5-step inquiry process I lay out in the last part of the book. It’s called “PRISM”:
- Pause to reflect on the idea that each Yoga/spiritual method and community carries value, but also, potentially, a history of abuse.
- Research the literature on the method to find and understand that history.
- Investigate whether the harm has been acknowledged and addressed.
- Show how you will embody the virtues and not bypass the wounds of the community.
- Model transparent power sharing and engaged ethics for future practitioners.
You can also think of it as a practice for opening up shelf space.