Iyengar’s Charisma of Incoherence, and Selected Indoctrination Defence Statements

Ann Tapsell West posted two videos of Iyengar abusing students yesterday. If you don’t know West, her 2018 ethics complaint against Manouso Manos led to the recent independent investigation that found multiple allegations of sexual misconduct by Manos (including against West herself) to be credible. This has led to his decertification by IYNAUS, and the Iyengar family forbidding him from continuing to use their name and trademark.

West has since turned her attention to the systemic issues that her case has helped further illuminate. On May 9th, she published a “Reparations List for Survivors of Manouso Manos Sexual Assaults”, addressing the complicity of senior leaders, and institutional betrayal in the wider global community:

The video excerpts are recorded from VHS tapes that likely date to the early 1990s.

In the first excerpt, we see Iyengar dragging a woman into a dangerous shoulderstand position as if she were a rag-doll.

In the second, we see Iyengar repeated slap the student’s head as he says something about the student’s neck.

In her post, West analyzes the rationalized and sublimated violence.

From a perspective of familiarity with male violence, I can add that Iyengar beating on the male student’s head is not intended to injure so much as to humiliate, control, and instil a feeling of hypervigilant obedience. I’m willing to bet that any man raised in the dominance hierarchy of male-only schooling will be familiar with this on a visceral level. Here, there are also colonial and colonial resistance influences at play.

This scene alone gives rise to the question of what the iconic Iyengar precision and straightness and “consciousness” is really all about. Is it about mindful presence, or hypervigilance?

What also stands out for me is the incoherence of the master’s actual presentation. He gestures at invisible things in such a way that if you can’t see them you must be blind. He throws in padding words that can’t make sense and yet endow the interactions with a scientific or medical aura.

His general bluster is punctuated with the questions that have quasi-mystical overtones: “What is this space here?” “Follow?” “Follow?” They are rhetorical. He is the only person who can answer.

I’ve watched enough of this material to believe that if Iyengar had actually made sense, he wouldn’t have commanded the same deference. His charisma seems based in part in the same quality attributed to Chogyam Trungpa, whose students would call him “unfathomable” — even those who knew he was almost always drunk or high.

The paradox is painful: the greatness of the teaching seems to be directly dependent on how little of it you can understand. This is also how, I believe, the “buzz” around “non-dualism” is so easily conflated with interpersonal dominance. The master who has power because they are doing or saying something you can’t understand is the very embodiment of the impossible realization you are told you want to attain.

It’s little wonder that being in a high-demand ground degrades the capacity for critical and independent thinking. Members spend a lot of time not only accepting rubbish statements as reasonable, but elevating them to the level of brilliance.

The more thoughtful loyalists will search for explanations they feel are generous. One commenter on West’s post suggests that BKS had undiagnosed Tourette’s Syndrome, “which makes absolute sense,” they wrote, “if you observe his headshakes, gestures, voice modulation and mannerisms. This does not excuse everything but it does explain a lot about his behavior.”

This both interesting and plausible from the perspective of his charisma. There’s a long history of spiritual leaders presenting neuroatypical traits. Robert Sapolsky is interesting on this:

But from the perspective of abusive behavior, this is all irrelevant. There’s also strong evidence that Iyengar was in chronic pain for his last decades and may have benefited from multiple joint replacements. One senior student I spoke with speculated that he suffered with undiagnosed Ehlers-Danlos. It’s also plausible that his ACE score was off the charts.

But neither Tourette’s nor chronic pain, nor hypermobility syndromes, nor PTSD are correlated with regularly abusive behaviour; and to dwell on such things can veer into ableism.

Finally: on West’s post, the indoctrination defences are rolling out in the comments. In addition to being reflective of the scrambled cognition of having had to give sense to the senseless, they rely on I Got Mine-ism, whataboutism, baseless assertions about whether the subjects in the excerpts benefitted from the abuse, and the belief that idealizing self-reports are a strong form of evidence. Here are a few:

“We don’t have any right to say something about great personality.”

“I love people from west like u have no idea what is yoga. Yoga is not the exercise what are u doing in west. Krishnamacharya tied up with ropes his own son and make him sit in padmasana for hours. Please if u teach with kindness some exercise and you call yourself yoga teacher u should not be judging others and not question guru who knows much more about yoga than you.”

‘We met Guruji and we know he could be very sweet and profound. Why are you showing only the “negative” side of Iyengar Yoga?”

“I wish I could be touched with this sharpness by Guruji. With three spine surgeries and two fused vertebrae the sharp and strong touch of my Iyengar teachers helped me to recover. I guess if any of these people gave ever been to the Pune Institute in medical classes where so many bad cases are going every year to recover ( I was there!) This is a place of compassion… These two videos taken from a larger one is useless… Nothing comparing to the huge work Iyengar did for the mankind…”

“The Great BKS till his last breath worked for people gave them life through knowledge of this conventional methodology of yogic practices. I would just like to say any conventional practices when learnt through masters even you can see in shaolin temples of martial arts student go through different chambers of learning and the REAL MASTER knows exactly what they are doing and its all out of love and compassion for their students. Sometimes it’s that we are in some moment where some things seen seems little not good but it doesn’t means that they were intentional and created out of wrong doing. Guruji, Had a way to teach and I believe that world all over has got enormous leanings and great life through his ways. If you will look at certain texts in India gurus were never easy to their students they always were strong to attack their ego for tuning their mind. I would say GURUJI knew exactly what he did.”

“I’m so sad to see people taking things out of context, just to express their rage when things aren’t working their way. BKS Iyengar was a Master who knew how to adjust without harming.”

“B.K.S Iyengar was not only one of the greatest teacher in all time but as well changed the life of incomparable number of people. Including mine. I don’t know where I would be today without his teaching and his knowledge. The way he used to teach was unique to him. He had the knowledge, intuition and intelligence to do it. It was a blessing to be corrected by him. Student who would be under his watch and demonstrate for him got many benefits from him and strong, life changing enlightenment and had no choice then to face their truth. And nobody force them. They were responsible and aware. “

I’m freezing these comments into blog form because I think it’s useful to see what instinctual defences do in real time. Why? Because the immediacy and force with which they are presented is exactly what abuse survivors have to brave and navigate as they try to tell their stories.

These are not thought-out, well-reasoned responses. That’s what makes them powerful. They are on the front line of the shared unconscious as the group feels its internal logic threatened by greater clarity.

Seeing such defences clearly in ourselves and others is, in my opinion, a form of yoga in itself.

 

7 Comments

  • Love it! Charisma of incoherence. His gift of gobbledgook. The appeal of the absurd. This is probably the most succinct description of Iyengar’s nonsense I’ve seen. Thank you!

    Now, on to his senior teachers. I wonder how many wake up in a cold sweat thinking, “what the fuck have I done?!!” I’ve been going to Pune every year for 40 years to learn new gibberish.” That’s a tough one because then they have to either face it, admit it or go on and teach it to others. Most opt for the latter I guess.

    The big shots always make sure to inform anyone who will listen (in a subtle manner, of course) that they are a senior Iyengar yoga teacher… They are Special. I guess they are in a way. It’s like a reunion of survivors of some perverse reality show. They all devoted their lives to an extreme exercise in futility. These folks have so bought into this illusion that most have foregone actually learning about the body. They bought into Iyengar’s “yogic anatomy” where the simple action of straightening the knee in janu sirsasana becomes beneath them so why bother to learn the muscle that does the action. Instead, encourage students to move the outer inner thigh towards the groin or whatever. It’s tragic really.

    It’s ironic that this whole affair is preceded by Iyengar’s senior most teacher being defrocked. This is the guy who bragged about having one of only two advanced (insert gobbledegook) senior teaching certificates in the world!

    Now that all of this is being exposed, what happens to Iyengar yoga? Does it go the way of Anusara yoga? Instead of being truly elite, they are actually purveyors of the preposterous!

  • I wonder how rationalizers for Iyengar’s abusive behavior would respond to this moment of disgusting bully arrogance (see video link), where he violently strikes his assistant, who doing her obedient best to follow his directions. In the characteristic answering-his-own-questions involuted rhetorical supremacy noted by Matthew, he goes on to explain to his compliant audience, in a relaxed tone, the necessity for hitting her. What is the first lesson in yoga? Ahimsa. The master failed that one brutally. Go to 25:30 of the video.

  • Could you please share the address of the original link @douglas Moore ?Thank you for fishing this video out.

  • Years ago at one of the US Iyengar conventions, someone got the idea of having Iyengar present to a group of doctors at grand rounds for the medical school. I have no idea how they arranged this, but someone had connections and did. So he shows up and there’s a small auditorium filled with doctors and others there for the presentation. They go through some intro and then invite anyone from the crowd with a problem to come up on stage, so Iyengar can cure them. Iyengar is acting kind of sheepish himself. He was prolly thinking, “what the hell have I gotten myself into?!” as he looked out into a room full of critically thinking educated people who didn’t give a flying fuck who BKS Iyengar was. Probably had about a millenium of cumulative critical scientific thinking in the crowd, and he was in their House and they don’t fuck around. Bullshit walks.

    Anyway, so a girl goes up on stage and says she has knee pain. He proceeds to put her in virasana. No diagnostics, no questions about her history or even where she has pain. Just, bang, you pain? I’ll fix it right now with virasana. Which, unsurprisingly, made her pain worse. He says, “there is that better?” “No,” she replied. “Its’ worse”. Now he can’t smack her over the head or yell at her because he knows that doesn’t fly here. Which proves a point and that is that he knew when he was bullshitting and, in the right crowd, he could use brow beating to get around things. Can’t do that here.

    So he sticks some slats behind her knees and starts cranking on them like that is going to miraculously cure her knee pain. It doesn’t. It makes it even worse. Finally, I guess the girl says to herself, “fuck this shit” and gets up and says her knees hurt worse. Iyengar’s crew gets her off the stage.

    The docs are starting to say to each other, “what the fuck is this shit anyway?” and getting up to leave in the middle of this charade. I think Iyengar tries another miracle cure which, not surprisingly, goes bad too (since Iyengar doesn’t have a clue about what he is doing and the whole proposition of him presenting to a group of people that do know what they’re doing is ludicrous. He winds up with major, much deserved, egg on his face and they get him out of there.

    I think this underscores the sense of entitlement Iyengar walked around with. His entourage and groupies were always granting him concessions to do what he wanted. Why on earth would he think he was qualified
    to show up at grand rounds of a major hospital and supposedly cure people. I think that’s why he was so sheepish. His followers set this gig up and he was caught in the middle. He knew he couldn’t deliver and would be exposed, but also probably thought that he couldn’t turn it down. He may have also believed that he could pull off some miracle cure and impress these western doctors that he railed against for so long. That he could “Wow” them with his mysterious powers.

    The accolades from the peanut gallery that you collected here, speaking of miracle cures in Pune are, by and large, bullshit. He had no more success in his medical classes than he had in that auditorium. And that’s not surprising. He had no training whatsoever in diagnosing and treating illness. What kind of egomaniac would think that he could simply bypass all of that? Why would a group of people, his followers buy that same shit? So, I think you’re on to something with the cult analysis.

  • The comment above referenced the San Diego Iyengar Yoga convention, 1990. The Grand Rounds were at U.C.S.D. Medical Center. Was given during the day, though I don’t know which day exactly. The Iyengar groupies probably filmed it too, because they filmed everything like that and this was to be his big moment. Iyengar would have wanted that, because, somewhere in his mind he probably believed he could cure people and he so desperately wanted to be a doctor. But you can be sure that any film footage of that day has been quietly destroyed.

  • I have been practising Iyengar-style yoga for about 30 years, taking classes on and off, but mostly on my own. There often was a sort of military atmosphere in classes, yes. Derisive and occasionally disparaging remarks that stung. Not always a very positive environment to concentrate on practice. I also repeatedly encountered an elitist attitude, bragging about who had studied at Pune with the Iyengar family most often, which I found quite off-putting. I have never observed any abuse which seemed sexually driven, however. Just the usual human power games.

    And I had heard enough rumours about Mr Iyengar’s teaching methods not to wish to repeat the experience with my verbally and physically aggressive father in Pune, and paying thousands of Euros for this “privilege”. So I quite agree with a number of your points, Matthew.

    The remarks on joint replacements I find rather unwarranted though. If it is a benefit is to decide for everybody themselves thankfully. For my part, I would not be keen to have a gadget of plastic and metal in my body either. Even if it makes some movements easier.

    Mr Iyengar certainly fell short of expectations in some regards. As we all do. No need however to go to the other extreme by idolizing scientific medicine which often fails to deliver as well. The Ehler Syndrome is idle speculation, I cannot see any relevance. It is just gossip, and of no concern as to Mr Iyengar’s teaching qualities or teaching horrors in my eyes. Useless remote diagnostics. The ACE score? Do you mean to say that everybody with a higher score at that is automatically disqualified as a teacher?

    Although I never felt any inclination to study at Pune myself, it seems a bit exaggerated to look down on all others who did or do, and imply they got victimised by a cult, a sect, or an egomaniac narcicist. People are different, with different strengths and sensibilities. If people feel helped by Mr Iyengar, why not let them? He committed no crimes (though a couple of teachers trained by him obviously did). Mental attitude moves mountains. Placebos can heal, as has been confirmed in countless experimental settings. We are all grown ups. Nobody is forced to study at the Pune Institute. Each to their own.

    Conclusion: On the one hand, I was glad to have stumbled on your blog. It is certainly nice to have one’s own concerns with the Iyengar method shared by others. But part of your criticism seems a bit excessive, bordering on the arrogance which you rightly criticise in Mr Iyengar and some of his following. And a couple of the replies – not the blog itself – are downright aggressive and disparaging. True Iyengar spirit.

    Apologies for insecure English. It is not my first language. Best, Iris

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