Stories of abuse and betrayal tremble beneath the veneer of spiritual groups. Silently. For decades.
The veneer functions like money does in the Epstein world to write the laws, conceal the truth, and dispose of the evidence. Spiritual groups don’t have Epstein-level money, but they have other shiny objects to distract and confuse. They have stories of extraordinary men, spiritual transformations, and a coming enlightened age.
One type of question I often field is “what makes the Jois story a yoga story?” or: “What makes the Rigpa story a story about Buddhism?” I counter the deflection of this question by saying “It’s true: these are rape culture and high-demand group stories.”
Then I add: “But it’s important that we see how they play out in environments in which they are explicitly not meant to happen: places where vulnerable people come to be protected from abuse.”
But there’s another reason I believe stories of spiritual abuse are important to investigate and understand. In some cases, the group has an outsize impact upon the broader culture, usually through having found a way to conceal its origins, manage its image, and secularize and popularize its techniques.
I’m not talking about groups like Scientology, which unduly influence celebrities who carry a lot of social power, but which also have a hard time commodifying their core content. (One test here is that Dianetics has always been published in-house, while much of the “advanced” literature is hidden altogether.) With Shambhala, for example, the core content is sanitized, legitimized, and monetized through institutions like Naropa and a number of spiritual/self-help books that became touchstones in the 1990s neoliberalism that believed it was progressive.
That core content is a group effort. More importantly: the group effort conceals itself through the presentation of individual genius. Nowhere is this more efficient than in the spiritual book industry.
Spiritual books are marketed on the basis of the awakened personality and the intimacy of the author’s written “voice”. The public ends up thinking they’re encountering the realized presence of Pema Chödrön on the page, for example. That page, and the buzz around it, gets her onto Oprah.
But Chödrön’s ascent to Oprah isn’t driven by her personal wisdom or virtue. She gets that gig because she has risen to the top of a high-demand group as a spokesperson.
Donna Noble of Curvesome Yoga interviewed me about my new book. She was direct and to the point. An edited version of this interview has already appeared on the Accessible Yoga blog, edited by Nina Zolotow. The AY blog is definitely a must-read: bookmark it! This is the full version of the interview.
DN: Tell me about your yoga journey.
MR: I happened upon yoga for the first time in Manhattan just days after leaving a high-demand group, or cult. The simple instructions gave me permission to feel myself, to feel my own agency again. It was only one class at that point, but I never forgot the feeling, and would sometimes practice on my own. I was soon recruited into another high-demand group. And then, again, found yoga after leaving. It was 2003 by then. The first YTT boom was in full swing, with a lot of trainers beginning to offer one-month programmes. I had no other real prospects at the time, and so I signed up, plunged in, trained hard, and within a few years owned a studio and was teaching up to 20 classes per week. That lasted through a second studio and ten more years, and then I started researching the shadows of the industry.
What does the essence of yoga mean to you and has it changed since writing the book?
The book has only deepened my sense of what’s truly important to me in practice. My current understanding of moksha revolves around the possibility of seeing oneself, one’s relationships, and the world as clearly as possible. This means understanding projection, transference, idealization. It means seeing through the anxiety by which we organize our power structures. It means trying to understand interdependence and everything that invisibly makes up your world and your position in it. It means seeking out a pause when possible and feeling all of the threads of connection hum and vibrate.
Working on a book about abuse and healing in the yoga world amplified all of these things. It broke through my desire to idealize the yoga world — a habit that was wrapped up in spiritual bypassing. It forced me to listen carefully to the experiences of people who carry traumas I have never known. That exposure has opened me up to a vision of how necessary empathy is, and how supportive we can be when we feel it, if we’re also open to feedback.
As my interview database for the project expanded, the network connecting traumatic experiences became more visible. Eventually it revealed an entirely alternative yoga world, which didn’t look anything like the marketing at all. It looked like the rest of the world, only painted over in gold and sprinkled with goji berries and wishes for a perfect life. Isn’t that what coming to reality feels like? An evaporation of infatuation? Seeing things as they really are, and learning how to love again from ground zero?
“A Hamster Wheel of Self-Help.” Conversation with Rachel Bernstein on IndoctriNation Podcast (Pt. 2)
Note: I wrote this as an epilogue to Practice and All is Coming. For me, it rounded off the narrative journey of this 3+ years process. I’d gotten to know Karen Rain over several interviews, dozens of phone calls, and hundreds of emails. It was extraordinary to meet her in person finally, and go with her to a movement space where she didn’t have to speak her story anymore, but could show me something of what had helped her heal from being abused within the Ashtanga world. It really felt like the last word. However, as the book developed, its ending swerved away from the personal and towards the study of community health best practices. My editor and I eventually decided that this piece was ultimately distracting from that arc — even though it feels like the beating heart of how it all came together. So here it is, on its own, opening with a quote from Kathleen Rea, who hosted us that night.
Explorations of different themes, such as intimacy, sensuality, surrendering control, anger, fighting, being contained, grief etc. are welcome as long as they are not explicitly sexual, and are created through a step-by-step verbal or non-verbal consent building process. Please note that a newcomer to contact dance improvisation sometimes has not yet acquired the language or skill through which to build consent for dances exploring intense themes. We, therefore, ask that you limit exploring intense themes with newcomers.
— Kathleen Rea, “Wednesday Contact Dance Improvisation Jam Boundary Guidelines”
It’s a Wednesday evening in Toronto, mid-March. It’s chilly, and Karen clutches her bulky sweater close as we walk from the car to Dovercourt House in Toronto’s west end. On Friday we’ll be filming our big interview at Diane Bruni’s house. We’re chatting about it, going over the questions. The plan for the interview is to have something raw and humanizing to accompany The Walrus article when it drops. We know that people will try to discredit her, and me, and we’ve calculated that the in-person format will minimize that. We know what it feels like to talk with each other, and we’re thinking that if people can eavesdrop, they’ll get it.
But she’s nervous about it, and I can feel she wants to stop talking. The evening is crystal clear. We’re heading to a dance.
It’s a Contact Improv Jam, to be specific. The host is Kathleen Rea. She was in the ballet world, and is now a psychotherapist. We slip out of our coats and shoes and into her class in the enormous third floor room, and watch from the sides as she guides a small group. The dancers pair off and turn around each other, touching hands, arms, hips, backs, slumping together, pushing off gently, rolling down to the ground, supporting each other, trading weight back and forth. I feel relaxed and slightly mesmerized.
The class ends and Rea announces that the Improv session will be starting in ten minutes. She asks that if anyone is new to the experience that they meet with her outside to hear the intro talk and some ground rules.
As we file back out into the hallway, more people arrive. A musician begins to set up. It’s Jeff Burke, who locals know from his haunting busking on the subway. He has dreadlocks reaching down to his ankles. He’s smiling and melancholic, and bent low under an enormous dufflebag. As he unpacks it seems like some musical tickle trunk that can never be completely empty. He draws out a black bassoon, a tin whistle, and a theremin.
Karen and I sit down cross-legged in the hallway with three millenials, also first-timers to this space. Karen isn’t new to Contact Improv, which, she’s told me, has been very helpful in her healing process, post-Ashtanga. It’s helped her feel her body in relation to other bodies again. In public spaces, in safety, in sensual but non-sexual ways. Karen suggested we come to Rea’s class because Rea is famous in the Contact Jam world for the clarity with which she runs her space. Like Rain, she has been a reformer, calling out abuses and problems with consent in her subculture.
Rea starts her intro talk from the groundwork of affirmative consent. This is an art-form, she explains, in which touch is common. It’s often evocative and nourishing, but it’s also not essential. She says that any dancer can and should say no to an invitation to dance at any time, and can also express withdrawal verbally or non-verbally. She says that we might notice that people who have been coming for a long time have unique and complex dance-stories that have evolved between them. That can be cool to watch, but probably not to try to imitate.
She explains that Contact Improv can bring up all kinds of complex sensations, feelings, and thoughts, some of which might be sexual in nature. This is nothing to be ashamed of, she says. But in this space we agree that those feelings will not be acted out. There are spaces in the subculture in which that’s part of the scene, she says. But here, sexualized contact is strictly forbidden. She assures us that while she’ll be participating in the dance, she’ll also be available for questions and to help us process any complexity that comes up.
So I’m sitting there and it’s starting to sink in. How extraordinary it is to be here with Karen, listening to a teacher give us a ten-minute safer-space talk about touch and consent. How would Karen’s life have turned out, I wonder, if this level of clarity had been available twenty-five years ago in the Ashtanga world?
I can feel also something else. A terror has built up in me while writing this book that there is no safety to be found in this world. That yoga classes and dance jams are somehow always and forever strained by unconscious desires and aggressions fanned by unequal power dynamics, and that there’s nothing to be done about it.
This is not true. We can do lots of things about it.
Rea checks in to see if we have any further questions. A young woman asks about feeling shy or out of place. Rea nods and says, “You can just watch, too. And you can just wait for someone to ask, and see how you feel.”
I like that answer. It’s also for me.
We file back in and sit down against the wall. Jeff Burke has started to play. There’s a pickup plugged into the mouth of his bassoon. It sends a low drone through an amp and into a loop machine to keep it going. Some of the dancers are already up and at it.
I feel shy, not only about the dance, but about sitting there with Karen, not talking about Jois. We’ve put aside the history, and now there’s music.
Two days later, after our interview and over lunch, Karen summed up our awkward moment, and a few others.
“So when we stop talking about Ashtanga,” she says with wry smile, “will we have anything else to talk about? How likely is it that we’ll be friends after this is all over? Do we have anything else in common? I’m queer and you’re a straight guy with a partner and kids and very little free time. You’re also still in the yoga world.”
Half sad, half elated, I laughed. Of the many things this whole experience had done to and for Karen, it had above all else made her brutally honest. I know she doesn’t like this word, but I can’t think of any other that fits: for Karen, honesty is the highest form of spirituality.
As I drove her to the airport the day after that lunch, we talked about the sacrifice this spirituality demands. We were talking about the pros and cons of having gone through all of this, especially for her. How much it cost to disclose everything and remember, and retell, and weather the denials and rationalizations all over again. But also: how much clarity it had provided. How it had helped to change an entire culture.
“When I first dialed your number,” I said, “I had no idea that all this would happen.”
“Neither did I,” Karen said.
The landscape hurtled by.
“What can I say?” said Karen. “I hate you for this and I also love you for this.”
We laugh and cry.
Back in that dance room on that Wednesday night, I remember my shyness slowly turning into a pre-teen-style goofball shame that I wasn’t just getting up and dancing.
“So are you going to dance?” Karen asked me.
“I think I’m waiting for someone to ask me.”
“Okay.” She smiles. I’m sure I look funny to her. Just another man, used to thinking of himself as so confident. But really, deep down, afraid to dance.
“Would you like to dance with me?”
“Look,” she said. “I feel safe with you. I don’t think you’re a creep. But don’t give me all your body weight. You’re a big guy.”
I still felt too shy to look her in the eye. That was okay. We went to the centre of the room and sat down, back to back. The bassoon got louder and Karen leaned into me. As she pushed her back into mine I felt a flush of warmth and resolution and friendship.
And I was surprised, in a new way, by how strong she was.
J Brown’s 11/26 podcast with Karen Rain generated a lot of comments.
The response has been split, owing to the tension of the second part (from 1:25:00 onwards). This is the segment in which Karen and J have a followup conversation, which was scheduled after Karen sent an email to J about some misgivings she had about the first segment, and wanted to give him feedback about how he’d handled the Ashtanga abuse story generally. To his good credit, he accepted.
You should listen yourself, but Karen’s main objective was to show that in his guest schedule and interviewing style J has shown some of the common biases that helped suppress the abuse revelations and discouraged Jois’s victims from reporting. She doesn’t suggest he’s done this intentionally, and not in any active, overtly victim-blaming way to be ashamed of, but certainly in ways he might look at and work on.
Three key points Karen made were that
- J only really asked Kino MacGregor tough questions about Jois’s assaults, while lobbing softballs at Danny Paradise and Richard Freeman (who both admitted to knowing about the abuses, whereas MacGregor didn’t);
- J made an off-record agreement with Eddie Stern to not ask about the issue, even after Anneke Lucas had been on the podcast and disclosed she’d been assaulted during an event hosted by Stern; and that
- It was potentially hurtful to uncritically present the complaints of Ashtanga practitioners who now feel embarrassed or ashamed to identify as such, as though they’re the new victims.
On the podcast, J listened to all of Karen’s feedback pretty well, offered some explanations, some mildly prickly defences, and committed to looking more closely at the responsibilities of his role. As you’d expect, there were a few tense moments.
As of this writing, there are appreciative comments on the podcast page, neutral comments (“I can see both sides”), but also comments that range from mildly to strongly critical of Karen’s audacity in even bringing up these problems.
The critical comments orbit around three key feelings: that Karen is angry, that she is unfairly grilling J without knowing his style or the history of the podcast, and that J doesn’t deserve to be in the firing line because he’s just learning like everyone else. I have four thoughts on the critical comments.
It’s remarkable to see how intolerable it is for some to have the basic power structure of an interview overturned. Listeners got to spend more than an hour soaking up the disclosures and emotional labour of Karen, who has repeatedly described how hard it is to talk about and relive the personal and institutional abuse. But as soon as she adopts a different voice — a voice that does not confess but that asks for accountability around how that labour is used — that voice is described as “awful”, “angry”, “defensive”, “attacking”. One commentator maligned her changed “tone” in the second part, when what’s obvious is that the only thing that shifted between two parts of the podcast was her position, and the fact that making declarative rather than confessional statements meant that she was more likely to be interrupted, and would have less patience for it. The critics seem to like Karen as a victim, but not as an activist.
Critics of Karen seem to misunderstand the value proposition of the podcast format. J is skilled at yoga-fying digital platforms, networking and having his finger on hot-button yoga culture issues. But it’s the guest, the content provider, that brings the money. In Karen’s case, the play and share numbers will be through the roof. On iTunes this episode has already surpassed MacGregor’s in popularity (and my meta-review here will boost it some more). J’s podcast and brand benefits from having Karen on. So what should that cost him, as it supports the rest of his international platform? Looking in the mirror: what should it cost me to investigate stories like Karen’s? Answering tough questions about power and narrative — for which we are all responsible — is very small price for media producers like us to pay. We’re not doing Karen a favour by taking feedback. We’re undoing harm, which is something we should want to do, grateful for the incredible education.
Critics are missing something crucial in the fact that J’s podcast is small enough that he can personally choose to take a “risk” here, yet large enough that it will have broad impact. That’s powerful. How many times have you seen Yoga Journal take responsibility for platforming abusers? Jubilee Cooke describes going to Mysore — where Jois assaulted her for months — in part because she was inspired by the Feb 1995 edition of YJ, in which a load of Jois devotees talked about his magical hands etc. Were his abuses known in 1995? Oh yes they were. Did anyone at YJ do any real homework back then? Nope. Did YJ jump at the chance to make amends when Cooke’s article was offered to them for publication? Nope! Accountability does not tend to happen on a mass media scale. But it can happen on a phone call between two people, made public. That’s something to nourish, no matter how uncomfortable.
One commenter wrote that “it kind of pisses me off that [Karen] is making you the whipping post for all men and perpetrators of sexual abuse.” Setting aside the exaggeration here (Karen neither said nor implied anything close to this), I believe this comment carries a deeper concern. J has always been seen as a kind of Yoga Everyman — unaffiliated with particular authority, respectful of pretty much everything, somebody you want to be friends with, identify with, share stories with. That’s a core appeal of the podcast: that J affects familiarity while he connects old and new things, and near and far places. He offers a fraternal embrace emerging out of, but not entirely clear of, the shadows of an earlier time. So while the commenter above exaggerates with the phrase “all men and perpetrators of sexual abuse”, she is illuminating this Everyman role within the yoga world. I think what’s so deeply uncomfortable about Karen confronting J is that her story begins with a revelation about Jois, but by implication impugns an entire culture for idealization, misogyny, and bypassing. Beneath Karen’s straightforward questions to J about how he’s handled a single news story is the drone of a deeper question posed to the Everyman: What exactly have we all been doing here over the past fifty years? Could there be a bigger yogic question?
Image: myself and Diane Bruni at the #WAWADIA event on May 29, 2014. I refer to this event in the interview. The write-up and (unfortunately) butchered video is here. I love how Diane is looking at me here, trying to figure out how full of shit I am.
Thank you to J. Brown for having me on his podcast, as part of his series about current news in the Ashtanga world. You can also tune in to his talks with Kino MacGregor, Scott Johnson, and Sarai Harvey-Smith.
Here’s our talk. Resources and transcript (trimmed of intro/outro) below.
Here’s where I’ve quoted Theodora Wildcroft on the fear of contagion elicited by the voice of the victim.
Here’s my conversation with Colin Hall and Sarah Garden.
I’ve posted the classic “Deception, Dependence, and Dread” summary from cult researcher Michael Langone here.
Hi, how are you?
I’m good, I’m good. I just listened to your intro to Scott Johnson. I didn’t listen to what Scott had to say, but I really appreciated the intro, it was good.
Well, thanks. There was still some debate about it, I guess. I just default to transparency and not everybody always thinks that’s a good idea. But for me, it’s where I feel most comfortable. So, thanks. But what else, what’s been going on, how’s your day going? It’s the middle of the day for you too, right?
It is. And I just got up from a nap with alongside the almost two-year-old, Owen. And that was really good because I was up until about 1:30 in the morning after doing another interview with my friends Colin Hall and Sarah Garden at Bodhi Tree in Regina. It took me a while to come down off of that. But the sun is shining, we got some backyard cleaning done over the weekend, we emptied out the basement. Things are heading in an upward arc it feels in many ways.
Yeah. You know what, you mentioned two and a half years for your son and-
Almost two, he’s going to be two on May 17th.
Well, we last spoke, the last time you were on the podcast was May 2016.
Oh, my goodness. Was he born or not?
I guess he wouldn’t have been born because it’s exactly two years ago. But we spoke about that book that you wrote with Michael Stone about becoming fathers and stuff. I remember that. I can’t believe it’s been two years.
Yeah, it’s been a long time. We’ve been in touch since. The difference between the podcast and being on the phone is a little bit thin.
That’s true actually. That’s a good point because sometimes, I had Peter Blackaby on and I had not had other conversations with him other than the two that you hear on the podcast, but you and I had had many conversations. There is a three line there. And gosh, so much has happened. When we last spoke, we were talking about WAWADIA still. And right at the end of that, we were saying, “Oh, it’s going in different directions.” And people were sort of, I think upset back then and maybe still that it was started out as what poses hurt you, what poses don’t hurt you. People wanted to sort of have some how to practice safe in clear, simple answers. And you were like, “I looked at it and I don’t know that pose exists. And you were saying that it was going in this direction of the interpersonal dynamics that were going on.
Yeah. That’s a good summary actually. It took about two years to figure out that I was barking up kind of a dissociative tree, that when the hard data is really laid out as I think you yourself suggested those years ago and perhaps before that as well, we don’t really see that yoga is any more damaging physically to anybody than any other physical activity. In fact, it’s probably safer. When that was clear, for a moment I held on to this notion that the problem with yoga injuries is the problem of expectation, that people get involved in this practice for therapy and spiritual healing. And why it seems very bizarre that they would hurt themselves, that they would develop repetitive stress or chronic pain.
I held on to that for a while. But trying to hang a research narrative on that premise became a lot less important than realizing the kinds of stories I was overlooking or I was papering over in the midst of all of the interviews that I was doing with people who had injured themselves or who had been injured by teachers. And a couple of key things happened that kind of spun me around. And one of them was that Diane Bruni was an early supporter of the work and she was one of my first interviews. And she told me about the correlation between overuse, repetitive stress and her hip injury coming out of the Ashtanga world.
And I interviewed her, it was a really compelling interview. She loved the project, she was a big supporter and she wanted to host this event at her home studio in Parkdale here in Toronto. We advertised it, it was going to be under the banner / branding of WAWADIA or my project. And 60 people showed up, and she was going to speak on her injury experience. I was going to give my initial research that was related to psychosocial dynamics of injury. And then we had also a sports medicine doctor who was going to come, and he was going to do a little bit of statistical analysis on who got hurt when and where and how. And Diane was going first, and she just did not follow the plan. That’s not really her jam.
It wasn’t unexpected, but at the same time, what she began talking about was really outside of what I felt the scope of my project should be. She started talking about the whisper network that she had encountered in the late 1990s that informed her that Pattabhi Jois was allegedly assaulting female students. And she described how that led her into a kind of crisis of faith and professional choices like how was she going to associate herself with a system where this was true? And the information that she had was credible. She told the story, and I was sitting there gripping my meditation cushion listening to her say it and thinking, “This wasn’t in the program, this wasn’t part of the deal.”
Karen Rain Speaks About Pattabhi Jois and Recovering from Sexual and Spiritual Abuse — Video Interview
Thank you for visiting this page. If you scroll down past these intro notes, you will see the full transcript of the interview offered below, for easy citation.
We’d like to start with a trigger warning:
This interview conveys details of sexual assault and the silencing of a victim of sexual assault. The descriptions are detailed and emotionally charged.
One of our supportive advisors offered the following feedback: viewers should leave good time for self-care while engaging with this video.
It was suggested that this might be especially important not only for those whose trauma occurred in yoga spaces, but also those who have gone to yoga for healing.
We’d also like to offer the following resources, notes, clarifications, and links.
- The Walrus: Yoga’s Culture of Sexual Abuse: Nine Women Tell Their Stories
- Karen Rain’s blog.
- Anneke Lucas’ 2010 disclosure (republished in 2016). This is to my knowledge the first public disclosure.
- Bodhi Tree Yoga, Regina, SK. (Thanks, Colin and Sarah.)