Those who leave or escape from high-demand yoga groups seem to reorganize through two successive demographic splits.
The first split separates out those who must ghost out of the industry altogether to heal themselves and start over. Their drive to escape might be driven by the fact that they were abused too severely by the group to recover. There can be other factors as well, such as whether they have a pathway towards a different social circle and life, or whether they retained interests and skills outside of the group.
The second split occurs between those who stay within the industry, often because they need to.
I’ll use the Anusara example here, but you could substitute in many different organizations. I’ll call the splinter groups Category 1 & 2.
Category 1 is made up of those who figured out that John Friend created something toxic from top to bottom. They emerged with the drive to completely reorient themselves in relationship to their practice and self-understanding. It was a lot of hard work, and very lonely, because the rule book had been torn up. They might go through associations with other groups, and successive disillusionments as they detect similar patterns emerging. It takes them a long time to realize that the wisdom of disappointment has made them into leaders. I’ve seen many Category 1 people also start and follow through with training in a licensed therapeutic skill.
Category 2 consists of those who believed that Friend created something really awesome and it was just a damn shame that he let it get to his head or his ego or something and made “mistakes”.
Category 2 goes on to basically replicate the dynamics they learned in the high-demand group, but with enough savvy to remain just above social reproof. They might apply these strategies to leading a new yoga group, owning a studio, or they’ll skip sideways into an MLM (which gives you a sense of how they were thinking about yoga training to begin with).
The mechanisms are the same: puff yourself up in the name of inspiring others, whether you can follow through or not. For Category 2 people, charisma is not something to interrogate but to domesticate. Weber called it “routinization”. If they remove the rough edges it’ll all work out.
To switch examples for a moment, Category 2 people in the Ashtanga world seem to believe that they can keep all of the elements of Jois’s scheme — the implied consent, the absence of informed consent, the performative stress, the mystifications around the value of the postures and their relationships to spiritual development — and somehow it will all be cleaned up if they manage to not assault anyone. They may even honestly believe they’ve never injured anyone through cranking adjustments. The more savvy ones add stuff like brand-new concerns over cultural appropriation. Or they contort themselves into oblivion pretending that going to Mysore every year is coherent with feminism.
In the worst cases, Category 2 people form their own high-demand groups. The best recent example is Reggie Ray and his alleged coercive control over Dharma Ocean. Ray broke away from Shambhala.
It’s way better to work with (and especially for, if you’re junior) Category 1 people. They tend to be hyper-aware of issues of power and fairness, and if they have blindspots they’re happy to see and acknowledge them, and then take steps to mitigate. You’ll also find that they’re doing a wide range of supportive work within the industry, often for little to no pay. They’re writing, researching, mentoring, creating content that has no concrete market value.
Category 2 people, by contrast, fold all of their labour back into brand-building.
One thing that makes Category 2 people crappy to work with or for is that they view themselves as the ethical exiles of the first group — those who were doing Anusara “right”, those who weren’t so stupid as to have sex with their downline and have weed trafficked in over state lines. They were the ones who were able to see the value in the method and not screw it up with their selfish desires.
This particular grandiosity can make Category 2 people impervious to critique. I’ve noticed their politics can become even more neoliberal and responsibilist, because after all, they were individually able to steer clear of John’s train wreck, and they did that through their own grit and gumption, right?
This also means that many many maintain a long-term subtle contempt for Category 1 people who didn’t “get over it”, or who foster a “victim mentality”. Accordingly, they’ll be more resistant than Category 1 folks to new information about their student’s needs. If they jump on the trauma-sensitive train or start using woke-talk it will be because it’s a good biz plan.
In the cult literature, it’s widely accepted that there are no predictors for who gets recruited and who doesn’t. Similarly, I doubt there would be any predictors around who branches off into Category 1 and Category 2.
But if I were to speculate, I’d imagine that, while there might be psychological factors at play, Category 2 people were protected and supported by types of social privilege that insulated them from full disillusionment when the high-demand group fell apart. They had capital to move on with, for instance. Or perhaps they were always socially separated from those lower down in the group, and so they never had to learn from them about how terribly unequal things were.
Another factor might be that Category 2 people were more active as enablers in the original group (whereas Category 1 people might have done more bystanding), and so are better defended against self-examination. It’s a lot harder to cop to the fact that you enabled than to the fact that you were a bystander.
Bystanding in itself is an “off” feeling, through which it’s easier to access shame and perhaps even guilt. Those feelings are gold for disillusionment.
Somehow, the Category 1 person permitted themselves to be fully and wholly disillusioned, to such an extent that they would never be able again to rebuild in the same way.
Maybe disillusionment is not just something that happens. Maybe it’s also a skill that can be developed.
Psst: here’s a plug for my online seminar, coming up in February!
Talking with Carmen Spagnola about Attachment, High-Demand Groups, Responsibilism, and Grief (Transcript)
We talked about the intersection of aspirational and high-demand groups, getting over the guilt and shame of privilege-recognition, the somatic affect of charisma and how it leads to weird group habitus and the paradox of having to “market” things like community.
Carmen totally cracked me up when she described some of the well-intentioned jargon taking root in the deep ecology / revillaging circles she runs in. We talked about how highly evocative but undefinable terms like “grief-soaked” can brand a newly-commodified activism while also shutting down real-world convos. No, people probably don’t really talk like that. And when they do, there’s probably a little bit of trying-to-sell-shit-to-each-other going on. And loaded language is always a red flag for high-demand dynamics.
My favourite bits were when she asked me about how I stay connected to yoga practice while studying high-demand yoga groups, and how I manage rage and grief. This made me think about how I don’t actually know how well I’m taking care of myself — I mean, how would I? — even after all these years of yoga and meditation. Also it allowed me to describe how I have to split my brain in several ways in order to quarantine off certain things to get on with it.
I found the process of stumbling through answers to those two difficult questions was quite healing. Continue reading “Talking with Carmen Spagnola about Attachment, High-Demand Groups, Responsibilism, and Grief (Transcript)”