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.