Trigger warning: descriptions of sexual and physical assault.
Josh Summers: 00:00:06
Hi Matthew, how are you doing?
Matthew Remski: 00:00:07
I’m good. Thanks for having me, Josh.
Josh Summers: 00:00:09
Thanks so much for coming on. Let me introduce us. I am Josh Summers. I’m a yoga teacher and licensed acupuncturist. And this is Meaning of Life TV. You are Matthew Remski, a yoga teacher as well also an industry consultant in the Yoga Industry and an author of several books. Most recently you’ve written a book about problematic group dynamics in the yoga world and it’s called Practice and All is Coming: Abuse, Cult Dynamics and Healing in Yoga, and Beyond. So I should say, you know, is it’s really nice to meet you. This is kind of an odd sort of endorsement to you, but, right at this point I’d say you’re the main reason I go onto Facebook.
Matthew Remski: 00:01:00
That’s, that’s mixed. I’m happy to hear that. And I’m sorry to hear that all at the same time.
Josh Summers: 00:01:06
No, no. I mean, for me it’s positive because there isn’t that much, worth following on Facebook. But, I came across your work maybe two or three years ago. Someone shared something you had blogged about, about abuse and some of these problematic dynamics in the yoga world. And I just kind of got into following what you had to say about it and it really seemed like you had some trenchant analysis that was deeply missing in the broader conversation. So I want to dive into that. Talk about what’s going on in Yoga land, uh, what’s problematic about it and what might be some ways that things can be remedied. But as way of introduction. You are yourself a survivor of two cults, and I know that part of this work in this book has been a bit of a healing journey for you. But how did you come to a focus on the Ashtanga yoga situation in particular and what was going on in that that you felt needed to be highlighted?
Matthew Remski: 00:02:15
Well, I came to it reluctantly. The project that I had started with was a broader research project into injuries in yoga classes or in yoga practice. And the format was quite broad. I had started interviewing people from all communities and methods. And it had started with the strange realization that everybody that I knew who had professionalized into the yoga world or who was a really dedicated student was injured in some way. There were some people who were suffering from chronic pain or from repetitive stress injuries. And I found it very weird for a so-called therapeutic practice that people came to for spiritual benefit, but they also seem to be working themselves really hard in. And I started to wonder about that.
The book that started to emerge out of that research project was originally called Shadow Pose, and the project name was What Are We Actually Doing in Asana? And I still have Shadow Pose as kind of like a book structure. The first chapter was going to be an examination of the interview data of senior students of Mr Iyengar. And the second chapter was to be an analysis of interview data coming from the Ashtanga world. And at a certain point I realized that the injury question in the Ashtanga world, which is profound, it’s, it goes deep was still a surface question to the abuse issue that had been silent for many, many years, but also carried by a number of women survivors in a kind of whisper network as well. So once I started getting more and more attuned to the fact that that was an underlying story that Mr. Jois had actually assaulted women throughout his career, and nobody had really published on it, I realized that I couldn’t just put that into a chapter somehow. There was going to be a lot more work to do on that.
When I started to get a sense of how grave the issue was, I really resisted going into it because I thought that — my gut was that if it really was true that Pattabhi Jois was a serial sex abuser and that he did it in broad daylight and that there were an untold number of women victims and that none of them had been able really to speak out publicly about it until Anneke Lucas in 2010, and that the community had not done anything about it. And it was probably widely known within the upper echelons of the Ashtanga world, even into, even as early as 2012 — but of course, we now know it was far earlier than that.
But in 2012, there was a big hagiography published of Jois’s life featuring interviews with 40 students, and everybody talked about how wonderful he was and what a grandfather and father figure he was, and a spiritual teacher and all of that. So I had the sense around 2015 or 16 that if what I was hearing was true and I believed that it was true, that it would really rock the foundations of this particular community. And I was scared of that. And I also thought that it would rock the foundations of the broader yoga world because Jois is incredibly influential. Without him, there’s no vinyasa. Without him there’s no sense of the contemporary group yoga class as being a, an intense, ecstatic, immersive, silent experience filled with breath and sweat. Without him, there’s no adjustment protocol. Not that he really gave a protocol: he assaulted people. But the whole notion that the teachers should always have their hands or should have their hands on a student at all times that comes from his particular pedagogy. And so I just was terrified of the implications of what I was hearing and I resisted it for a long time actually.
Josh Summers: 00:06:52
Yeah. Some of our audience is definitely going to be familiar with the names in terms of that you just mentioned, but there’s, there’s probably a yogic un-literate audience, right, that is listening too, so can you put Ashtanga on the map and then put Pattabhi Jois in relationship to Ashtanga on the map in that?
Matthew Remski: 00:07:12
Yeah. So Pattabhi Jois is the innovator of a system that he named as Ashtanga Yoga, but it’s unclear when that name came into usage because it seems that he was calling his classes that he gave to the businessmen of Mysore up until the end of the Sixties, just “Yoga”. He had been trained in the Mysore Yoga Shala at a very crucial point in the development of modern yoga history. He was born in 1915. He met the person who many consider to be the father of modern yoga Tirumalai Krishnamacharya, when he was about 12 years old. And he actually describes being brutalized by Krishnamacharya being beaten as he learned to do asanas. And of course, he’s not describing that in terms of abuse, but rather as a badge of honor. He goes on to further his studies, later on in his life with Mr. Krishnamacharya and assumed a teaching position at the Mysore Yoga Shala sometime in the late Thirties. But also under Krishnamacharya’s tutelage was his brother-in-law BKS Iyengar. And so from this one gym which was set up by the Maharaja Wodiyar in 1934, we have two of the pillars of the modern yoga evangelical movement. Iyengar is responsible for the notion that the bodily postures that we assume in yoga should some sort of geometrical form and balance and symmetry and a kind of architecture of grace. But Jois is the person who puts postures into rigorous sequences and really gives the modern group class its fluid and intense feeling, going forward.
Josh Summers: 00:09:14
And the Ashtanga/Jois form has spawned into numerous side forms, right?
Matthew Remski: 00:09:20
Right. So if you’re new to all of this jargon, and you’ve been to a flow class you are benefiting from and perhaps being injured by Jois’s legacy. If you’ve been to a Vinyasa class, you are probably benefiting from Jois’s legacy if you’ve been in a class where rhythmic breathing has been timed with movement in some sort of coordinated way that’s all coming from Jois. And also I’d say that it’s Jois’s senior students coming out of his tutelage from the late Sixties, but then especially into the 80s that really give modern yoga its aesthetic in terms of its incredible athleticism, its beautiful, but sometimes scary contortionism. When you look on Instagram today at #yoga you will see images that really had their birthplace in terms of their sensuality their, their structure, the whole aesthetic really comes out of the Jois movement. It’s not Iyengar Yoga photographs that get the most clicks on Instagram. It’s really the beauty and the artistry and I would say the sensuality and the sublimated sexuality of — and sometimes not-sublimated sexuality of that imagery that is directly coming from Jois. And I think there’s something in there too around the connection between the yoga posture and a kind of sexualized performance. I mean, objectification aside, and all of those sort of image issues aside, I think the fact that, um, many of Joyce’s female students were learning in an environment in which he sexually objectified them, that’s really pertinent. So when we go to Instagram and we look at yoga images right now we’re looking at least part of a legacy of people really having to perform under the male gaze in more ways than one.
Josh Summers: 00:11:41
So talk about that: the sexual objectification, with Jois. And how did that lead to abuse both physical and sexual under, under him in his classes, and describe what that dynamic looked like.
Matthew Remski: 00:11:57
I mean, objectification is just dehumanizing. What all of the 16 women who gave their testimony for my book I describe is that you know, they weren’t people to him. “TM”, who is the one testimony giver who wanted to remain anonymous described feeling as though she was just a piece of ass who was there for him to hump her or to give him pleasure in some way. And so the assaults actually took place in plain view of everybody, but under the auspices or under this this story that he was adjusting people, that he was helping students attain postures that they couldn’t otherwise attain or even more kind of deceptively, and I would say creepily, that his touch was conveying some kind of spiritual knowledge.
And this really goes back to a very old and sacred idea in a part of Indian wisdom culture called Tantrism where the guru is said to embody a kind of bio-spiritual grace. And that by his, usually it’s his touch, or their gaze or they can strike you with a peacock feather that there’s a literal sort of a transmission of spiritual realization into the student’s body. And that’s a felt, phenomenological experience. And part of the story that started to accrue around what Jois was doing as he was sexually assaulting women and possibly men too, that’s not verified by first person testimony though. But part of the story that started building up around him was that this is what he was doing was that he wasn’t digitally raping that woman, he was helping her find her “mulabandha”, which is a term for an internal muscular, but also esoteric, sensation that is tied to the rise of Kundalini or esoteric energy. So he was doing that or he was helping her heal from sexual trauma. As Karen Rain says, this whole sort of slew of “cryptic justifications” arose around his behavior.
And the weirdest part is that he wasn’t the source of them. It was the students who said these things about him. I actually regret not making that clear in the book. I don’t say that he was the source of the explanations, but I also, I don’t think I’m explicit enough in saying that it’s pretty likely that he wasn’t. I don’t think that anybody asked him directly, what are you doing when you grope these women’s breasts or when you put your hands on their buttocks or when you put your fingers into their vaginas, like: “What are you doing?” When he was confronted about sexual assault, the few times that I have evidence of it, he was very embarrassed. He would burst into tears at one point. And apparently he would stop from time to time, but like somebody who had clearly an illness, he wasn’t able to stop for very long. So objectification was a felt reality by the women who he assaulted.
I think we have to then wonder what it means for his senior students and how they present asana or yoga practice to the world now. Like what were the conditions under which they learned? Because if they were assaulted while they were learning, that’s going to inform their bodily sense of who they are and what this means and what they’re feeling and who they’re doing it for. And if they were watching other people being assaulted, what kind of secrets are their body’s holding and as I said in the beginning, these are some of the reasons why I was scared to go into this material because it’s really deep. It suggests that at the heart of this, you know, venerable, lauded, beloved, you know, spiritual/wellness practice, there’s this really dark problem that, that hasn’t been looked at and hasn’t, and hasn’t been addressed.
Josh Summers: 00:16:39
Yeah. Major dark underbelly. As I’m listening to you, I’m imagining the listener that may not be familiar with the “Mysore” style of practice. So just to say that this is a style where unlike a typical led class: if someone were to go to a regular yoga studio or a gym and the teacher would sort of take them through a sequence, talking them through, maybe adjusting at times — but in the Mysore system, students show up quite early in the morning. Sometimes as early as 4, 4:30 AM. And they’re not following a led series of instructions from the teacher. They’re following a series of postures that they’ve been given in a successive stage-like manner. So you’re basically practicing independently and then the teacher comes around and adjust you or, quote-unquote assists you. And it’s that intimate contact of the adjustment or assist where this is the moment of abuse.
Matthew Remski: 00:17:45
Right. In Jois’s circumstance it becomes really complicated because one of the things that the Ashtanga world has prided itself on for the last 30 years is the sense that the teacher is able to learn and know about the student intimately because they are having personal interactions with them multiple times per morning, every morning, six mornings per week, two hours per session, two days off per month. That’s where we get into the notion of whether or not the method fosters communities that are actually high demand or cultic. How much time is actually occupied? But this feeling that people are getting individual attention and that when the teacher comes around and pays them that close attention. Meanwhile, their colleagues are not supposed to be looking. They’re supposed to be concentrating on their own stuff. They’re supposed to be concentrating on their breath or there’s even eye positions that people are supposed to take. There’s this sense that you and the teacher are alone and there are people who absolutely love and they thrive on that and there’s no reason they shouldn’t. They shouldn’t because it sounds like a really good thing. And I know that it works in practice in many circumstances, but it also sets up a very, very vulnerable situation in which, people can be exploited in plain sight.
Josh Summers: 00:19:19
And just to be really explicit about it: you document this in your book, but what were the adjustments that were abusive?
Matthew Remski: 00:19:28
Yeah, well, he would grope women’s genitals and breasts and he would climb on top of them and actually thrust his genitals against their own genitals. He would come behind women and digitally rape them by actually pressing his fingers through their tights and into their genitals. It’s almost incredible to say, but you know, story after story, testimony after testimony, this is what we come up with and it doesn’t make sense for 30 years of such activities to to take place in plain sight without there being a network of complicity that’s supporting and enabling them. And, and that’s why I started to use the language of cult analysis to describe how it actually happened.
Josh Summers: 00:20:30
The network of complicity. I want to explore that more. It does hit me on a personal level. I never really pursued Ashtanga yoga myself. I have lots of friends in the Ashtanga Yoga world. Authorized teachers. Um, and I’ve taken a few classes here or there. But when I first got into yoga, just to put a context on this, when I first got into yoga and started hanging around and studios that had an Ashtanga Yoga program, I did hear these whispers around certain kinds of adjustments and that the euphemism that was given for this kind of very intimate genital touch was called a “mulabandha check”. And as you described, mulabundha is sort of this energetic muscular lock down in the perineum, and the teacher is coming around feeling that to make sure it’s in quote-unquote engaged. And I’m appalled at myself in a way, that I kinda joked along like, ha ha, like this is just a spiritual… I don’t understand it because I’m not far enough along to even perceive it myself or to see the value of it, to see how important it is — when it’s just bad shit.
Matthew Remski: 00:21:52
But there’s something plausible about it. There’s something plausible about it. And I don’t think I addressed this in the book either except, except where I get into the fact that especially a Tantric and Hatha Yoga history is filled with analysis and thought and practice around the sublimation of sexual energies. And so there’s a way in which people show up in spaces like this and they are working so extrovertedly with their bodies in very vulnerable positions and they’re told that this practice will have kind of like a total effect upon their bodies, minds, emotions, psyches. Why shouldn’t their sexuality somehow be included in that? Why shouldn’t the intimacy of their, you know, their deepest selves be somehow exposed? And isn’t that where so much strength lies?
This is all the language that surrounds the sexuality of yoga that I believe begins to soften a person up into not really going, Wait a minute! What’s more obvious here is that this guy’s sexually assaulting women. And that he’s doing it for his own gratification and that there’s no therapeutic benefit to this. And you could meditate your way into believing that there was perhaps, but most people are not actually having that experience and we shouldn’t be telling them that they should.
So you know, I appreciate your confession. But I also want to say that, you know, the notion that the notion that people should be liberated somehow in the way in which they conceive of their sexuality within yoga is part of yoga’s appeal actually. And so I don’t think it’s a big leap for people to go, Oh, well maybe I shouldn’t be so uptight about such and such, or maybe I shouldn’t, ask too many questions, or that’s private after all. But also we’re working on our private stuff. And so I think it’s very confusing. Again I’ll refer to TM in the book, who says that as soon as she was sexually assaulted, somebody who saw it happen came up to her and said, “Okay, so you realize that what just happened to you — that wasn’t sexual.” And she was very confused. She was like, “What do you mean it wasn’t sexual?” And they had some explanation about Shaktipat or spiritual transmission. And you know, she didn’t give the impression in the interview that she totally bought off on the idea then, but she bought off on it enough to be confused and to be disarmed and to be put in this position where she felt that her own critical thinking or her resistance to the idea was somehow problematic. And that it was going to stand in the way of her spiritual development or something like that. So it’s not, it’s not a surprise that these things get wrapped up to together and sold on and end up rationalizing abuse to me.
Josh Summers: 00:25:43
In following you, I know that you have your eyes on many different yoga and Buddhist meditative spiritual communities that have lots of these bad dynamics at play. What was it about the Ashtanga situation itself that made you want to put it in the forefront of your case study in the book?
Matthew Remski: 00:26:09
I think it’s really kind of awful serendipity really because it was reportable. The evidence was clear. The network of sources that I began to develop began to send me this cascade of information.
Josh Summers: 00:26:33
Let me interject for a sec. But in terms of evidence being clear, because this sometimes comes up when I have conversations with people about.They refer to the “allegations”. The thing that listeners need to know is that there’s ample video and photographic evidence documenting all of this.
Matthew Remski: 00:26:51
There’s also 16 women who said “He assaulted me, and this is how he did it.” One is enough. There’s no question anymore that we’re in “allegation” territory. That’s a really crucial moment actually because one of the things that comes up in each one of these yoga or Buddhist community, you know, spiritual, physical, emotional, sexual abuse cases is that the behavior of the actual actions of the leader of the perpetrator are always interpretable. There’s always something mysterious or like, or a little bit beyond or childlike or innocent or super spiritual about the leader, about Mr. Jois or about Manouso Manos. Or about Bikram Choudhury, although less so, more and more people would see him clearly for who he is.
But there’s always something mysterious about the leader or the guru — which is probably not a good word for these people — that allows their behaviors to be endlessly bandied about as though, Well, we can’t really know what he was doing. And you know, the relationship between the teacher and the student is sacred. And you know, we don’t know what’s going on. We can’t really interpret… You bring up the video evidence. People argued about that for years. They are watching sexual assault taking place like before their own eyes and they’re saying, Oh, we don’t know what’s happening. We don’t know what’s going on.
So it’s been a combination of forms of evidence that, I think have moved it out of allegation territory, but more importantly, out of the territory of interpretation where the leader who has perpetrated crimes is somehow beyond the realm of the normal citizen who can be evaluated according to the same standards of evidences as anybody else. And it’s something about that interpretability that is like essential to his magic, usually his magic that, that you never know quite what he’s doing. You never know whether it’s actually for your benefit or not. And you know, even if he’s abusing you, maybe he’s helping you get over ego. There were people who would say that.
I guess the other thing that Jois would do is that he would just steal money from students. He would cut short their stays or would say that they owed him more money than they actually did, or he would make up exchange rates between the US dollar and the rupee in his favor. When that came up, that was well known as well. And when that came up, people would say, Oh, he’s helping people with their money issues. You know, they’re attached to money. So people are capable of all kinds of BS when it comes to the interpretability of the magical person.
Josh Summers: 00:29:56
And that was one of the things I wanted to ask you about is what role does a kind of somewhat flaky, soft or even direct interpretation of ancient spiritual texts that draws on particular metaphysics? How do the spiritual metaphysics factor in to this cocktail of toxic group dynamic?
Matthew Remski: 00:30:30
I think I have two feelings about this question. One is that it’s hard to say, how pre-colonial, especially Indian wisdom tradition metaphysics play any kind of role in this at all because I don’t think global yoga practitioners have access really to those metaphysics. I don’t think we know the kinds of relationships that they’re grounded in. I don’t think we have a clear idea of what the commitments, the social and economic and relational commitments, there are or were or were supposed to have existed between teachers and students that might ground all of this stuff. I do know that whether they’re accurate interpretations or not, there are all kinds of yoga or Buddhist or pseudo-yoga or pseudo-Buddhist ideas around, emptiness, interpretability, the play of Lila, karma, all kinds of, of terms that are correctly or incorrectly used to describe or to rationalize things that we would rather not confront as being abusive.
I’ll give an example of a concept that carries both of these histories. I go into detail in the book, on a Sanskrit word that is “parampara”. Now, parampara in precolonial terms, and up until this point, even now in contemporary India, means something very specific about how knowledge is transferred, especially spiritual knowledge in this context. It can apply to other forms of knowledge as well. But it implies this unbroken, usually familial, certainly intimate relational transfer of knowledge that depends on a whole series of social commitments and contracts in order to keep it stable. Now it also implies that the knowledge that’s being transferred goes way back in history and has been tested by time. Well, modern yoga ashtanga practitioners or Jois method practitioners from America and Europe have started using the word parampara to describe what they belong to. And so what that means is that they’re saying that a technique that Jois developed in the late sixties and changed several times as his shala got busier, they’re implying that that is traditional in a way. They’re implying that it has the weight of several generations of validation behind it. They’re implying that they belong to a heritage rather than a branded family business. And so we have this beautiful word that carries an ancient heritage that I personally don’t have access to how that actually works, but I know it’s there and I hope that it can be recovered in some way or it can be made more known, or I can have more access to it at least. And then we have this sort of like contemporary bastardized version of the term that’s used to pretend that the people who are the people who are using it have something, you know, magical or special when that’s really deceptive.
Josh Summers: 00:34:10
And the deception around it too. I mean in the yoga landscape at large, at least in my experience, Ashtanga, has held this kind of vaunted position as the legit, hardcore, no nonsense, real authentic practice.
Matthew Remski: 00:34:31
Well, every group does say that though. Like the Iyengar fold will say that This is authentic. This is true. This is hardcore. It’s hard to know. I mean, every group makes proprietary and sort of like advocacy claims, self-advocacy claims. I don’t want to interrupt. I would agree.
Josh Summers: 00:34:56
Okay. Did you get into this in your book about the, like Mark Singleton’s work looking at the origin of modern postural yoga of which Jois’s system comes as part of?
Matthew Remski: 00:35:09
I refer to it here and there throughout the book because you can’t really avoid it. Singleton’s work I think dated 2010 really blew the lid off of the notion that postural sequences or postures themselves or the way in which they’re practiced in group class formats with adjustments, that any of that has any pre-modern heritage. It’s more like Indian anti-colonial activists in the 1920s and 1930s wanted to indigenize physical culture influences from Europe. Actually colonial influences: gymnastics, harmonial gymnastics, weight lifting, bodybuilding. They wanted to indigenize these physical culture practices, as forms of national physical culture, but also anti-colonial pride building. And it worked. It was really, really effective.
But what we have is something that pretends to have a stronger linkage to the medieval history of Hatha Yoga than it actually does. And then that’s what gets exported to the world is the notion that Jois’s system is ancient or that it goes back to Patanjali, or something like that when there’s no evidence for that at all. But it becomes a very powerful selling and marketing point. You know, it’s so common within the modern yoga world, and this is why I think Singleton’s book was so riveting and so outrageous to many people. And also so earth shattering is that you know — he doesn’t phrase it this way — but the research as he lays it out basically says what we have believed about the modern posture, about the modern yoga movement is mostly deceptive. It’s mostly a kind of clever elaboration or —
Josh Summers: 00:37:20
It’s an invention.
Matthew Remski: 00:37:23
It’s an invention. And we have endowed it with a kind of orientalist idealistic mysticism, and that has become one of its main selling points. It’s also what has made it resistant to contemporary biomechanics and contemporary kinesiology and contemporary physical therapy. So it’s really, it’s really complicated. Here’s another example. There’s part of this invocation of tradition that also shielded Pattabhi Jois from scrutiny because one of the things that his students would say, and they say it to this day actually, is that his adjustments, as brutal as they were, as injurious and as intrusive as they were, were traditional. Well, they might’ve been traditional in the sense that that’s what Krishnamacharya did to him. But we don’t have any evidence that physical adjustments in yoga existed prior to the 1920s. I proved that I think in my book by citing the work of several historians of medieval yoga, or one in particular, Dr Jason Birch, who says there’s no evidence for anybody physically assisting anybody else in a yoga posture prior to the 20th century.
Josh Summers: 00:38:46
And just to jump on that for a second — around the nature of the adjustments, because we’ve discussed how there’s a component of sexual assault in them, but the physical assault too… the stories of people just hearing ligaments snap or rip. I mean that was just sort of sending shivers down my spine as I read, the whole book in a way. It’s harrowing to read.
Matthew Remski: 00:39:17
And it also shows how effective and immersive the propaganda was around Jois’s power that the senior students openly joke about how they all crawled crying out of practice everyday. They all openly talk about how, Oh yeah, he blew out my knee and he was doing this, but I got the posture or he led me towards a more advanced position in the series or something like that. The way in which this group of people was inculturated to withstand pain is extraordinary. And I think it’s had a huge ripple effect. Or kind of like a trickle down effect into the next generation with regard to how we regard the body and effort and pain in general. You know, there are very few, I would imagine in North America and Europe, yoga teachers who are cranking people today the way that Jois cranked people in his day. But I think that the basic ideas around what pain means, what injury means, what pushing yourself means, what being pushed by a teacher means: those have all remained intact in places.
Josh Summers: 00:40:47
So you’ve sort of discussed a little bit about the spiritual interpretation and reframe of a lot of this behavior. What has been some of the response you’ve received or seen in light of the stuff coming out and also in light of your book. How is the community both within Ashtanga and th yoga community outside of Ashtanga receiving this?
Matthew Remski: 00:41:13
There’s a huge spectrum and there’s kind of a line in the sand as it were, of that spectrum between people who identify as Ashtanga practitioners and people who don’t. Amongst the people who do, this is a difficult book to read and some people have really negative reactions to it. Although it’s not like the reactions that they’ve had to my more informal blog work over the years, which a lot of people have just been able to dismiss or to say it’s agenda driven or something like that or that, “You just hate our community”, or something.
Josh Summers: 00:41:56
Again, this is very personal for me. I have friends who I’ve tried to talking about your work with both here and in Europe and there has been this view that you’re, this opportunist, you’re your swooping in on this thing just to elevate your own work and your own, your own profile, and I’ve always gone cross-eyed when that’s come up. I’m like, this is not what he’s doing.
Matthew Remski: 00:42:20
It’s opportunist in a sense that nobody was doing it for one thing. And I would say that anybody in the Ashtanga world who calls me an opportunist should really ask themselves the question, “If you knew about this, where was your book? Where was your newspaper report? Why didn’t you go to a journalist? I mean it didn’t have to be me. Why was it me? Why was it me? It’s like, it’s 2010 and Anneke Lucas published her account and it got buried on Facebook. There was like five likes to it. Nobody shared it. You know, there’s one comment saying, “You know lot of people are going to say you’re a very brave person sometime in the future.” Fast forward six years later, she republishes her blog. By that point, I’m talking to Karen Rain for two years. People asked for like a decade. “Where did Karen Haberman go? Where did she disappear to?” She got so far away from the Ashtanga scene in the yoga world in general, she changed her name and it’s like nobody wanted to ask a little bit further?
So I mean, okay. Opportunistic. Yes. But that’s because there’s this great big vacuum. And with regard to my profile, well, we all have jobs and you know, my job as strange as it is and as self-made as it is, is that I look at abuse and spiritual communities. And so, yeah. Does it raise my profile? Yes. Does it make me fame and fortune? Um, no. I mean, anybody who thinks that somehow I’ve gotten rich on this just doesn’t know anything about what writing a book means or what it means to sell it or anything about it. And, and, you know, it’s like, did you, did anybody say that, Ronan Farrow was opportunistic for reporting on Harvey Weinstein? I don’t think so. They looked at the work and they said, Wow, he gained the trust of, what was it, eight women who he published on in that first New Yorker. He gained the trust. He was able to publish their testimonies. He pretty much stayed out of the way. And he created a victim-centered narrative. And so I didn’t actually — you asked the question and I didn’t want to go on a rant about —
Josh Summers: 00:44:43
Well actually, you know, I just want to interject too, is that the people that I’m in contact with, that had said that actually have read the book and have actually completely changed their tune. Oh, okay. So even with people that were initially critical, they’ve read the book and they feel that this is a very fair, balanced treatment and important that it’s out now.
Matthew Remski: 00:45:05
Yeah. I hope that slowly gets in. I think part of that maybe the threshold has to do with, it’s not like I was a professional journalist in sports or something like that, and I got wind of this story and people didn’t know who I was, but, you know, I’ve been writing as a cultural critic within the yoga world for the last five years. My book on Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras was in 2012. And there’s been a lot of divided opinion about the value of what I do ever since then. So as a cultural critic, as I’ve reported on various abuse stories, the Anusara implosion, the Jivamukti lawsuit, the Satyananda Yoga thing, Shambhala, Rigpa… As I’ve done that work, I’ve made a lot of allies and I’ve made a lot of enemies. And all of that really is in the sort of public, very jousty sphere of blog work and social media.
A book is a different thing, you know, when it’s editorialized and fact checked and there’s legal backing of publication behind it, it’s 380 pages long and there’s 380 foot notes or whatever, it’s well-cooked. And so I think it’s unfortunate that I already had a name coming into this particular work, that I carried the baggage of past work with me. But at the same time, I don’t think I would’ve gotten the book contract without that. So it just is what it is. I hate that phrase, but I think there’s there’s nothing to have been done about it.
Josh Summers: 00:47:13
Well I won’t repeat it is what it is, but, one of the things I really appreciated about the book was the level of analysis that you went into, sort of deconstructing the dynamics in these high demand groups that that broadens the conversation from just saying, Oh, well the perpetrator was just a bad apple. Like he was, he was a bad man. And, we can throw him out but keep, keep this very valuable and integral practice intact. Right. Or the opposite, which I hear a lot too is Okay, well if these people, like with Karen Rain going back again and again and getting continually assaulted: What’s going on in her psychology or someone’s psychology like that, that keeps them there? Why aren’t we talking about that more? And I know you’re excellent at eviscerating both of those, those, those veins, right?
Matthew Remski: 00:48:18
Yeah. So on one hand, yeah, on one hand the bad apple argument just doesn’t work because nobody assaults… Jubilee Cooke estimates that there’s 30,000 — her conservative estimate is that there’s 30,000 distinct episodes of abuse or assault —
Josh Summers: 00:48:35
Just briefly take me through the math on that.
Matthew Remski: 00:48:42
Jubilee Cooke is one of the women who gave testimony and she was one of one of the women who was there for eight months. And so I’ll talk about her in the second section as well, in the second part of this answer, and she was assaulted repeatedly, but she said, you know, this happened to me in three different postures every single morning. This is the number of mornings. Every morning that I was there in Mysore, I saw three other women who, who got assaulted in those three postures. So she starts to build numbers out of what she personally experienced and what she personally witnessed. And then she just counts up the years she counts up the tours. I think she uses, no, I don’t think she uses my research to try to figure out how many women he actually came into contact with when he’s away from the Mysore shala on world tour, you know, in California or New York or Boston or whatever, or Hawaii. And she comes up with a conservative estimate of 300 or, sorry, 30,000 individual sexual assaults over what’s likely a 30 year period.
That’s not a bad apple. That’s a whole orchard. That’s like a bad apple and a whole bunch of people saying, No, this is great. This is a great apple. This is a great apple! In a more contemporary story, what we’re seeing with Manouso Manos right now.
Josh Summers: 00:50:21
Just for reference, who is he?
Matthew Remski: 00:50:24
He’s probably BKS Iyengar’s most famous, most prominent, most senior student, and the one who most embodies his own teaching persona. BKS’s gruffness, his shouting, his way of both electrifying and terrifying a room at the same time. He has recently had allegations, numerous allegations of sexual assault verified against him by an independent investigation that was commissioned by the Iyengar Yoga Association of the United State, or IYNAUS. And so in that ongoing story, which is still unfolding, we have this sense administratively within IYNAUS that you know, he’s been delisted, he’s been decertified and the Iyengar family has removed his right in light of these crimes, which can’t be prosecuted — they’re all outside of the statute of limitations — but in light of these behaviors, he’s been prevented from using the Iyengar trademark in his teaching going forward.
And that’s it, right? Like, this is not a regulated profession. He can go on and teach whatever he wants. He can teach Manouso Manos Yoga tomorrow and open up shop wherever, maybe in Bali or something. But the thing is, is that administratively we have this sense that while he’s been excised, somehow he’s been amputated and, you know, we’re all fine now. Well, here’s somebody who had such teacherly influence for such a long time and such administrative influence over the entire organization for such a long time. Now I would say what the organization has to do is say, “Okay, who actually trained under this guy and who would attribute their certification to him and who was tested by him?”
Because everybody involved in that is going to have to answer some questions about, Well, what did you actually learn from him? Here’s somebody who is probably less of a yoga teacher than a sexual predator posing as a yoga teacher. “What did you actually learn? And how can we help you learn some more? Or how can we help you mitigate this educational stain?”
And then on the other side of it, it’s like anybody who asks, why did Karen Rain keep going back to get assaulted by Pattabhi Jois every, every year — doesn’t know anything about trauma, doesn’t know anything about domestic violence, doesn’t know anything about a trauma bond, doesn’t know anything about being gaslighted. That response, which is very common and I would say, you know, it’s so common, it shouldn’t be shameful. I just think people should be open to correcting it.
People who have that response really have to get educated in what it means to be in a toxic power dynamic, that confuses your basic capacity to feel as though you have agency. Like I bring up the metaphor in the book that if you broke a person’s leg and there they were on the ground, you wouldn’t blame them for not running away from you as you came in to damage them further. But somehow with sexual assault, we look at the survivor or the victim or the survivor and we say, why didn’t you run away when actually the sexual and the physical assault have deprived them in many cases of their capacity to feel as though they are autonomous, to feel as though they can have individual agency, to feel as though they have their own bodies even.
Josh Summers: 00:54:41
Right. That’s a huge, hugely important piece that I think gets overlooked. I know you’re not found at this guy and I think I have mixed feelings about myself, but I was glancing through Jordan, Jordan Peterson’s book and he makes some comment that I think is really relevant here where he says you know, if we deny a victim response, some responsibility, we deny them agency.
Matthew Remski: 00:55:04
Right? Yeah. Except that he’s going to use that to say that we somehow as observers of the victim have to give them responsibility within our assessment of what happened during a particular crime. Right. The problem with that is that there might be some, some therapeutic application of that principle of well, You know, in this moment, do you feel as though you have agency with regard to how you’re moving forward coming out of this experience. That might happen privately in therapy later, but what happens is, and I can hear it in that quote, is that the notion of victim is turned into a kind of psychological state instead of a label for somebody against whom a crime has been committed.
The further problem with assigning responsibility, regardless of what that even means — like what does that mean? Is it about the clothing? Is it about the fact that you went that morning? Is it about the fact that your voice froze when you wanted to say No? Like what, what responsibility are we actually talking about and can that discussion survive the fact that one of the reasons that Karen Rain was assaulted over and over again was because the group had deceived her about what was going on?
The problem that I don’t think Jordan Peterson or any of his kind of like alt right bros want to really face is that you cannot be responsible for having been deceived. I’d even say his own fans aren’t responsible for him deceiving them! It’s very, very difficult to protect yourself against being deceived. That’s what deception is. It happens to intelligent people. It happens to mediocrely educated people. It happens to people who aren’t educated at all. If you are deceived about why you are in a place, about what is going to offer you, then you’ve really already had your agency taken away. It’s not like you’re going to give it. In both cults that I was a recruited into, they presented themselves as, other than what they actually were.
No, there’s no part of Ashtanga Yoga that said to Karen Rain, Hey, this is a cult in which you’ll be sexually assaulted every day! No, that’s not what they said. They said: This practice will give you spiritual liberation and if you follow this teacher’s instructions as closely as you can and you surrender your body up to them, your process will go a lot faster. That’s what they said. That’s what they said. And if she’s to blame for believing that, well, you know, let’s have another conversation about what people actually end up believing.
Josh Summers: 00:58:38
Yeah. I thought that that part in the book was great. And you also from there, you then expand into an analysis of sort of structural, systemic conditions that do kind of disorient and confuse and create this kind of vertiginous internal phenomenology for the person that makes it very difficult to see one way or the other.
Matthew Remski: 00:59:06
And I think I really have the work of Alexandra Stein to thank for that because she uses this basic — so just a caveat here, when we talk about the psychology of person who’s victimized by a cult, it’s not to say that, you know, there was something inside them that made them more vulnerable. The deception is the threshold. And then there are a psychological processes that can take over that make recruitment easier, dependency, easier, dread of leading, easier — but what she says is that the main thing that the cult does is it rewires your way of relating to people, to everyone, really towards the end of the attachment spectrum, known as disorganized, where you’re actually in a constant state of love and fear of approaching, but withdrawing, of going to a person for love who on some level is also hurting you, but you feel dependent upon.
And one of the things that she says this creates is this amazing — I say it’s amazing, it’s awful, but it’s amazing to me because it articulates my own cult experience so well — she describes a triple isolation in which you’re isolated from the outside world. You’ve lost your old friends probably, or you’ve written them off or they’re not enlightened enough for you, or you’re just separated from them because you’re in an ashram or something. And then you’re isolated also from people within the group because there are certain things that are taboo to talk about. And in the Ashtanga world, you couldn’t say around the breakfast table at Mysore: He sexually assaulted me. Or if you tried to, you’d be told, Oh no, that’s not what it was.
And then that second layer of isolation leads to a kind of internal isolation from your own moral sense, where it’s like you had values that helped you navigate the world. You had a compass that was a shining light for you, but now it’s kind of broken or it’s been occluded and the wisdom of the group has entered in and has kind of overwhelmed what you’ve been able to decide for yourself in terms of your moral values throughout your life. So that triple isolation is like this amazing idea. You’re with other people, but you’re totally all alone at the same time. And the only person who really is the reality principle is the leader, is Mr Jois, is Mr Iyengar, is, Manouso Manos. In my case, it was, in my case, it was Michael Roach of the Asian Classics Institute or Charles Anderson at Endeavor Academy. Like that guy was the reality principle.
Josh Summers: 01:02:01
Right. They have all the answers.
Matthew Remski: 01:02:04
Right, and that’s part of what alienates you from your own, even your will to, to propose an alternative or to ask questions, which of course you’re not allowed to do.
Josh Summers: 01:02:19
Yeah. I thought the inclusion of attachment theory there was, was pretty helpful, for just for shifting the blame on the victim and, or the blame on the leader,
Matthew Remski: 01:02:34
Yeah. It’s a system. They’re working together. I would like people to just reflect on the fact that you have no idea who Jim Jones was. You have no idea what was going on in Chogyam Trungpa’s head, you have no idea what, what the inner life of Bikram Choudhury is like. The, what is it called, the Eisenhower Rule? What psychiatrists came up with in the 1950s where they self imposed — they’re starting to break it with Trump now — but a lot of professional clinicians, have this self-imposed rule that they’re not going to diagnose people that they’re not in clinical practice with. I think that’s a really sound principle. You don’t know, I don’t know what’s going on in Pattabhi Jois’s head. I don’t know what his internal constellation is like. I’ve spent two years interviewing Karen Rain. I feel like I know her a lot better than I know him, but I still wouldn’t presume to know why she makes choices that she does. All of that intentionality, all of that speculation on people’s internal states, what it usually does is it overshadows the fact that a crime has been committed and we can obviously set up ways of preventing it from happening again. [Correction: it’s the Goldwater Rule. Woops.]
Josh Summers: 01:03:58
I know we’re closing in on your time a bit and I do want to get into maybe the path ahead. You know, I know you hold that intention in the book of, of offering some sort of roadmap forward with better practices. So one of the things that I as a teacher, myself, and I do trainings in various yoga studios. One thing that’s come up from me is that I’ve had some studios on my schedule that still have photographs of Pattabhi Jois in their altar corner of the studio. And there haven’t been, to my satisfaction, statements of distancing and denouncing and separation and all that. And I have to say, I’m deeply grateful to you for your work because it’s helped me sort through how to engage with that. But one of the things that has come up for me and trying to talk about it with these hosts and these other studios is, it’s hard to escape a little bit the idea of or the dynamic of virtue signaling, where you kind of come off pious or sanctimonious: Look, you have this photograph up and you’re silencing victims and doing your part of an institutional enablement. And I think that’s really all important to say, but it actually hasn’t gone very well for me with these places. I get labeled as being judgmental. I’m not understanding them, not letting them handle it in their own way.
Matthew Remski: 01:05:33
You know, but you don’t have to do that work because the survivors have done it for you. Really. Like, Karen Rain and Jubilee Cook published this amazing — I hope this goes into the show notes — this amazing essay in Yoga International that the title is something like “What do survivors of sexual abuse in Yoga communities need?” And it’s like a white paper that basically lays it out and says, Look, here we are, we’re sexual assault survivors of a 20th century yoga master. And this is what happened to us and this is how we feel about what will create safety and respect, not only for us, but for students going forward. And, you know, I think anybody who reads through that and you know, there’s stuff around: don’t venerate people who are sexual assaulters or rapists. That’s not safe for the people who come to your studio. You know: you have to make a distinction between people that you love because you love them and people who are triggering to your students. I mean, that’s just, that’s basic adulting for one thing.
But anyway, their list of the things that you can do is all laid out for you. And I don’t think you have to be worried about virtue-signaling by referring to what survivors of sexual assault need. To me, virtue signaling is, you know, some sort of opportunistic self aggrandizement based upon associating yourself with you a fashionable social cause. But you’re not getting anything out of those confrontations if you’re trying to teach there.
And as far as like being judgmental goes, I mean, well, asking for basic justice and respect isn’t judgmental. What’s judgmental or perhaps the better word is just inept, is to continue to keep your head in the sand about what the person that you love did to people. You can still love him, but it doesn’t mean that you have to venerate him or say that he was somebody that he wasn’t in public terms.
You know, I think the whole notion of the veneration of the photograph is so difficult for so many people because there was an intensity with which he would gaze at them or they would gaze at him. And often that would happen within the of adjustments. And I believe that if, if in some cases, if those portraits on those altars are looked at from just the right angle, the person might go, Oh my God, actually he’s not who I thought I was, who he was after all. It’s almost as if the portrait will stay on the altar to preserve something that if it cracks will crack the entire world along with it. And that’s a tough place to be in. I would acknowledge it.
But if you’re running a public space, and people who are sexual assault survivors are going to it and they can Google Pattabhi Jois’s name and that story is the first thing that comes up… how are they going to feel safe and how were they going to feel as though you’re not somehow excusing or aiding and abetting or minimizing or just not caring about sexual assault. That doesn’t make sense. Right? If one in four women are survivors of sexual assault — and it’s probably higher than that — do you really want to almost emotionally haze or gaslight a quarter of your potential practice population? It doesn’t make any sense. My main point is that is that you don’t have to do that work because it’s already been done for you in, in Rain and Cooke’s essay. And so that’s really cool.
Josh Summers: 01:09:44
That crossed my desk a little while ago and I did very much appreciate that. I feel like if I’m going to these places,I’m coming in not as a regular teacher, I’m coming in for a workshop or a training. I feel like if I’m going to a place that still venerates put a Jois-type figure that in some ways my, my showing up is complicit with this network of complicity.
Matthew Remski: 01:10:10
That’s a hard one, right? You’d have to make some personal choices around whether you’re using that privilege, the fees that you’re getting from the training to push back against that idealization. There’s going to be a lot of calculations in there. There’s people who are at certain points in their career where they can say, well, I’m not going to work with so and so anymore, and they can make that public and that will be very, very effective. And they won’t hurt because of it financially. But, you know, I think people who are in different financial circumstances might find it more effective to preserve the relationship with their Ashtanga Yoga shala hosts than to separate altogether and to slowly encourage them to change. So, you know, those are individual choices for sure.
Josh Summers: 01:11:12
Yeah. Within the Ashtanga world in general, what reforms do movements do you see happening and what, what gives you a sense of hope?
Matthew Remski: 01:11:27
The reform so far has been strong in some areas in the zone of sentiment, rather than action. But that’s gonna take a long time. It’s not like it’s not going to happen. I’m sure. I’m sure things will improve. But when you asked me that question, I think of an amazing accountability statement made by Sarai Harvey Monk who is authorized by Sharath Jois sometime in the 2010s, something like that. And you know, she laid out this five point, “this is how my participation in this organization is complicit with this abuse history and here are the five things that I’m going to do now in my classes to make sure that I don’t carry any of those impacts on.” There has been a couple of other statements like that, but hers is a real standout. There’s a guy named Guy Donahaye, who actually was the co editor with Eddie Stern of a very popular book in 2012 called Guruji which I describe in my book, and I criticize very closely and heavily as being a hagiography of Jois that was published with the cultural knowledge of what was being left out. So, Guy is the co-editor, Eddie Stern is the other editor, but Guy has gone on kind of like this solo truth and reconciliation tear on his blog. And he’s published a lot of really beautiful pieces about that are basically, What the heck were we doing? What did we overlook? Who did we not listen to? What does Karen Rain have to say? How can I make this up to her? Like he’s doing an amazing amount of public vulnerable, accountability work.
And he recently also sponsored a petition that’s on Facebook, trying to get Ashtanga certified and authorized teachers to make accountability statements. That’s moving kind of slowly because I think there’s a lot of fear around the control that the family still has over the finances and the copyrights and the ability to practice, uh, or to teach the, the, the method, quote-unquote legally or with the validation of the family. So that’s moving slowly.
And then on the logistic or the sort of material front, there is a group that’s in formation and I think it’s called the Amayu collective. And two of its leads are Scott Johnson from London and the UK. And Greg Nardi from Orlando or Fort Lauderdale, Florida. They’re coordinating with a few other second generation of Ashtanga teachers. So it’s a young group, I think about five, and one of them isn’t a teacher, I think her name is Emma. She’s actually a women’s studies professor in southern England somewhere. And she’s a student and I think she’s also an educational specialist. I think this group of five people are putting together a kind of alternative training program to what’s on offer through Sharath Jois and KPJAYI. I don’t think that has really gotten off the ground yet. There’s a lot of aspirations involved there. I know that the group will have some challenges with diversity with inclusion and also. I would say that they probably have to do a better job of making sure that they’re professionally consulting with survivors like Karen Rain and Anneke Lucas and Jubilee Cooke. Because I think that’s essential. Any reform movement that isn’t asking Jois’s survivors exactly what to do and exactly what they need and exactly what they would have needed to keep safe is not really a reform movement at all.
Josh Summers: 01:15:43
And in Yoga at large, I know yoga is kind of like the wild, wild west of, industries. What kind of reform… I know you mentioned things like more of a consent culture in terms of adjustments and scope of practice considerations. What would you like to see, see moving forward?
Matthew Remski: 01:16:04
Well the last part of my book is written as a workbook for the yoga teacher training industry. It summarizes the analysis of the Jois event and the cult literature that I use. I try to lay out a number of tools that I think — I’m not an expert in this — but I think will be helpful as teachers, students and administrators and yoga service providers and yoga academics as well go forward in figuring out how to identify toxic group dynamics. So there’s tools in there and the tools are accompanied by personal essay questions for review. So there’s something in there called the PRISM method. There’s eight best practices for avoiding cultic dynamics. There is also, as you mentioned, a scope of practice for the yoga humanities that I think would be a good idea.
And it’s something that Yoga Alliance may adopt in part, not because I wrote it or anything, but because it’s in the air now they’re doing a renovation of their standards after 19 years. Scope of practice or defining a scope of practice for a yoga teacher is a keystone of that effort. And that’s super important because one of the reasons that Jois was allowed to be who he was is that nobody gave him any limits. He was given kind of free reign to pontificate about every aspect of a person’s life, you know, so it’s not just that he was teaching people asana, but he was also telling them to stop taking their medication or he was telling them that their back didn’t need surgery or, you know, he was giving them spiritual advice perhaps or, or what have you. It’s like the modern yoga movement has been built on the charismatic personalities that did not have a scope of practice because it was thought or they assume they could do anything. And that is about to get checked. And that’s a really good thing. Like if you’ve trained as an asana, a teacher, let’s stay in our lane: let’s not give dietary advice. Let’s not pretend you’re a marriage counsellor. Let’s not start talking about the chakras. Let’s not give psychological advice or talk about people’s medications.
Also let’s not BS about history and philosophy either because it’s becoming increasingly clear — and I want to cite my colleagues Theodore Wildcroft here for coming up with this analogy — it’s becoming increasingly clear that Yoga teachers are not physiotherapists. They’re not going to be trained to take care of your subluxated disc in your back, and they’re not going to be trained to fix your labral tear. Now that’s new. What the public is less aware of is that it’s fairly easy for your run of the mill yoga teacher to manipulate a whole class of people intellectually and then psychologically by claiming that they know more about yoga philosophy than they actually do. So one of these tools that I offer in the sixth part is: are you really clear as a yoga teacher about what the limits of your humanities knowledge is? Or are you giving people the impression that you know, what yoga philosophy says when actually very few people know what or understand the depth and breadth of yoga philosophy? So I hope those are helpful ideas. I hope that people are able to begin to look at the communities that they live in a little bit more critically, to look at the kind of leadership that they have a little bit more critically and start modelling that critical thinking.
Josh Summers: 01:20:26
I think it’s a great direction forward. I’m getting drowned out, I think, I don’t know if you can hear, I’m getting drowned out by leafblowers, lawnmowers, unfortunately. But look, it’s been great. I’ve really enjoyed talking to you and I’m really super appreciative of the work you’re doing. I know it’s tough sledding. I follow you also in the common threads and you’ve rolled up your sleeves, the knuckles are out and it’s bit of a knife fight in there, but you’re fighting the good fight. And I just want to thank you for that.
Matthew Remski: 01:20:55
Thank you, Josh. It’s a pleasure to talk with you. Great questions. Thank you.
Josh Summers: 01:20:58
Great to chat.
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?
(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? Continue reading “How Good Book Stores Become Unwitting Retailers for Yoga and Buddhism Cults”
“A Hamster Wheel of Self-Help.” Conversation with Rachel Bernstein on IndoctriNation Podcast (Pt. 2)
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?
Kathryn Bruni-Young is a fellow Toronto (post)yoga friend who I’ve known for over ten years. It’s been amazing to watch her change and expand her practice over that time, and very cool to visit with her on her excellent podcast and share some thoughts how my path has swerved alongside her own.
We also got pretty deep into what it was like for both of us — her as a 2nd-gen insider, and me as a reluctant researcher — to come to grips with the shadows of Ashtanga Yoga. We also spent a good deal of time on the “What now?” question. Kathryn’s thoughts provoked a new take on it that I like.
The disillusionment phase that so many folks go through always brings up the “baby and bathwater” metaphor. When institutional abuse and enabling become clear within an organization, leaders often caution: “Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater.” What they generally mean is: “Stay with us. Don’t give up. At least keep a foot in. It’s not all bad.” It makes sense in some ways. It’s an appeal to preserve the relationships of a group, to guard against the pain of sunken costs, and to develop a kind of maturity around extracting the good from the bad.
But it’s always felt to me like there was something off about the advice. After all, it does suggest that feeling disillusioned is like harming a child. In chatting with Kathryn, I suddenly wondered: “Who’s the baby here?” I think the answer is that we’re the baby, trying to learn and grow. Of course we’re not going to throw ourselves out. We’re realizing the bath is dirty, and we’re looking for new water. We’re going to get out and find it.
Karen Rain \\ Ashtanga Yoga and Me Too
Norman Blair \\ Essay: Ashtanga Yoga Stories
Anneke Lucas \\ annekelucas.com
Mark Singleton \\ Modern Yoga Research
Sarai Harvey-Smith \\ Article
- The Sexual Misconduct of Pattabhi Jois: My Thoughts, Accountability, and 5 Changes to Pledge my Support for the Victims
Hi everyone, welcome back to the mindful strength podcast. I’m your host, Kathryn Bruni-Young. Today I have an old friend on the podcast with me, Matthew Remski. I’ve known Matthew since I was a kid. He’s been a friend of my mom’s for quite a while. We were there with him right at the beginning of his What Are We Doing in Asana? project that he started, which has turned into something even bigger now. And that’s what we talk about in this episode. Matthew has done hundreds of interviews with yoga practitioners. He’s put together some really powerful information and he’s been also doing lots of research on cult behavior and cult mentalities. And I’m just so excited to have Matthew here with me today. His work is controversial and we might not all agree on these topics, but I think that it’s an important part of the conversation. Welcome to the podcast, Matthew.
Thank you, Kathryn. It’s good to hear your voice.
It’s good to talk to you. I have known Matthew for years. I feel like I’ve known you since I was a kid since I was a teenager back when you had a studio. I remember when I did my advanced teacher training program with Downward Dog. They were renting your studio space and I think that those were some of my first memories of you.
That is totally true. I think that that would have been 2006 or so. Does that sound right? And I remember your mom — I think she knew about the space because I had come to town the year before my move back to Toronto and I think I had asked her if she needed any presenting help in her YTT program for subjects like Ayurveda. And so I’d started to do that with her. And yeah, I suppose she needed extra space and I remember the whole group piling in and I remember Soleil being there, and I remember, of course, you know, the intensity of the whole experience and for all of you. And I also remember, I think it’s still in storage somewhere — I have this, this plastic container filled with sewing measuring tapes that your mother was using for something. I’m not sure what it was. It was, I don’t know what she was doing. Spinal measurements, or using it as some sort of strange prop, but I remember they never got back to her and so it’s one of those things that several moves later, you know — I talk with her on the phone once a week or something like that, and it’s sort of in the back of my mind. I know that I still have a piece of her old studio in my house. So yeah, I remember and I, and I, I don’t remember you from that, from I don’t remember. Like I don’t have a visual memory memory of you coming into the space. Um, but I do remember you from Downward Dog and in 20, in 2006. How old would you have been…
now? I’m 29. I just turned 29, so
… 13 years ago. So 16. Yeah. And I remember I remember you as being like incredibly motivated and adept of course at everything you were learning. Um, and I just had this feeling of Wow, that is really interesting to be Diane Bruni’s daughter, and to be and to be learning, learning in this environment and to become so proficient. And then I know a little bit about your story afterwards, but, but yeah, it’s, it’s an amazing thing to reflect back on because you’ve had such a journey.
Yeah. I mean when I was 16 I was, I had, I was probably doing the teacher training program at that time and then the next year I had, I had started teaching other teenagers. But I mean, oh my goodness, looking back to that time in my life, I was like super focused on learning yoga and, and hanging out with my mom and it’s just so funny to think back to all those years ago.
And you really mirrored each other as well. And, and, and I think, and it’s what I was amazed by was, was how you kind of came to the same sorts of realizations around, you know, what movement meant to you at the same time. And in fact, you know, that became really important like 10 years later when, when your mom was the first interview that I did for this research project and you were there in the room, in the house in Parkdale. Um, so yeah, we’ve got, we’ve got a couple of intersection points.
Yeah, I think I remember that first interview that I did with my mom and I remember at that point no one was talking really openly about anything. And I remember like kind of weighing in on some of the things and at the same time feeling like, oh my God, don’t quote me, don’t quote me on any of this. And like I’m not saying anybody’s name and I’m not really giving you any concrete information.
And, and, well, we went back and forth too because, because I think I published parts of that interview, but I mean it’s more of it is going to be in this upcoming book. And, and I remember that you, yes, didn’t want to be quoted, but she wanted to say some very specific things. Like I remember you were, you were, you were kind of like a, you’re sitting almost across the room. And I think Diane, your mom said, you know, do you mind if Kathryn’s here and I said, of course not. And you know, she asked you, do you want to hang out? And you were like, yeah, okay, sort of. And then we got into it and then we got into it. And she came to the point, I still have this on the transcript. She came to the point where she’s describing how she’s developing severe knee pain and you know, she’s finally going to go and get an ultrasound and she discovers that there’s a big cyst in the middle of her joint because she’s been doing all of these, you know, knee pressure postures and she says the line, um, “So I thought it was like a meniscus injury and then you break in and you say “Like, everybody in Ashtanga has!” And then I have in the, in the, um, I have in my notes, uh, “Kathryn rolls her eyes.”
And then the other comment was, was you said something really, really special about, the kind of addictive cycle of pain and pleasure in going to end range of motion. You said that, um, you know, when your, when your mother was saying we needed to, we always needed to progress and go deeper in order to nurture the sensations we were chasing. And you said something like, “Oh yeah. And you have to go deeper because those, those, those receptors, uh, get um, what, acclimatized.” I don’t know what kind of language you used, but I was like, oh, you studied, you studied the neurology of this too, right? Like, you know, you’re, you’re looking at your, you actually have an analysis around what it means to be chasing a sensation by going farther into something. Uh, so that was pretty, that was a really cool moment. And, and to see that you kind of been on this journey together and, and yeah, it was cool.
There’s so much in all of that. I mean, I remember when my mom was going through this situation where she had this cyst and she thought she had the meniscus tear and whatever. Um, I started to really feel like at that point, like I had also been having some knee issues and I started to feel like that was almost normal. Like all of my friends who are all yoga teachers also had these same issues. And I think that was the turning point where I started to think like “Maybe this isn’t totally normal.” Yes. Lots of people have knee issues and lots of those people will never do yoga day in their lives like knee issues come from all kinds of things, but at the same time like the normalization of the injuries that so many of us were having in common. I think that was the turning point where I started to think, hmm, maybe we could be doing things differently.
Right. Well, there was a turning point in that actual interview that was really important for me where, you know, your mom said that with this knee pain and probably moving onto the description of her hip injury when she had gone to her colleagues and said, you know, Well A, what should I do about this? And they really didn’t have any answers except more stretching. And then B, she went to her colleagues and said, well, this is what my sports medicine doctor said about passive stretching and end range of motion and they didn’t want to listen to her. We started talking about the, this explanation that was given in the culture around the necessity of pain and the inevitability of the injury and how injury actually signified that your body was changing into something else or it was going to become more resilient or it was breaking down so that it can be reformed. And, and I said, “Okay, so was that a therapeutic belief or was that a spiritual belief?” And she said, “It was a spiritual belief that we thought was a therapeutic belief.”
And I think that sentence alone set me off on an entire like research jag, because I think that particular confusion is at the heart of, of so many of the things that you’ve gone, you’ve gone on to study and to, and to try to resolve. You know, it’s like there, there are these very entrenched attitudes around discipline and pain and struggle that have to do with some very old notions of what the body is. And you know, whether it should be denied or whether it should be cared for or whether you can use activity and even discomfort to purify yourself in some way. And then, you know, the therapeutic movement in yoga is going the other direction and saying, no, you, we kind of want to be more functional. We would like to use breath and movement and mindfulness to actually enjoy being alive instead of instead of, um, instead of, you know, using our bodies as some sort of like a test, a philosophical test, you know? Um, so yeah, there’s… And you grew up in all of those messages too, right? Like it must have been such a trip for you to start saying, well, wait a minute, wait a minute. What do I actually believe?
Yeah. I mean, when I really started to, when I start, when I stopped going to yoga classes seven days a week and I started going to the gym and I started learning from different people. I think I at that point started to realize like a lot of the things that I had grown up with, I wasn’t sure if I was really going to believe those things anymore. I mean, I feel like I, I grew up in this bubble of Ashtanga Yoga, but also along with that comes as like, I don’t know, kind of like pseudo spiritual practice thing where we all, I don’t know, maybe I’m not going to speak for everyone in my, in my crew, but I definitely feel like I grew up with the notion that you go to the studio really early in the morning, you don’t eat anything before you go there. You do this practice and everything in your life is going to be good and it’s very spiritual and you’re mindful and it’s all gonna work out. And there was this notion of like, you know, people could have like these opening kinda healing crisis events, which I think is what you’re talking about with these injury states and you know, that that was somewhat normal. And in some cases “just part of the practice” and part of the whole experience. And I also grew up, you know, where people would like go out and do like shamanic drugs in the frickin Don Valley. And that was also kind of normal. Like, my mom had friends who were, you know, going into the forest of Toronto, which is like not really a forest at all and like taking ayauasca and like hearing about that and that also seem to be this like healing crisis of a, you have to go do this thing and like puke your brains out. And I’m sure I’m sure some of the listeners who are listening are like really into that. And so I, I don’t want to speak badly because, you know, I’ve never done that, but it’s not really my thing.
But yeah, it’s like I grew up thinking that all of those things where just like a normal part of whatever yoga evolution and spiritual evolution. And now like looking back on that, it’s a bit crazy. It’s a bit nuts. And when I started to go to the gym and like hang out with people who had not grown up with that, I then I started to realize how weird the whole thing was and how weird a lot of those thoughts were that I had grown up with. And you know, just starting to look at movement practice in a completely different way. And yeah, I mean I think the intersection between like spirituality and movement is really interesting. I’ve interviewed a lot of people on the podcast and a lot of people who I’ve interviewed have said something like, “No, when I go to the gym I’m doing something different than when I’m doing my yoga practice.” But also I’ve interviewed lots of people who say “When I go to the gym and I lift weights, I’m having the same embodied experiences I would have doing yoga.”
You said so much there. And one thing that I want to pick out is you used the word “bubble” and coming into a different community as you start going to the gym presents you with different world views and different attitudes towards the body. But it seems like the primary one or the primary shift would have been away from this notion that human being ssomehow have to go through crises in order to improve themselves. I’m wondering as a 16 year old or even younger and a little bit older, I’m wondering — I know you’re supposed to be interviewing me — but I’m wondering what, what it, it, uh, like what, what you end up having to, to break through about, you know, what you believe about yourself and the body in order to like take this very positive, “I’m going to build strength in these ways and I’m going to become an enjoyer of movement in these ways.” You know, you’re not, it doesn’t sound like you’re chasing crises anymore.
Yeah, I mean I think at some point you realize that you don’t have to punish yourself with movement or anything to improve if you want to improve and you know, like you can be enjoying this whole thing. And I think that when I moved from like more of whatever yoga mentality to like going to the gym and doing different types of movements, I realized how much, building strength in the body I think does more than just build strength in the body. I think it develops confidence and gives people their power back as opposed to the other method that I had been involved in, which was like, kind of like breaking people down and taking their power away from them and then they will follow the leader more and more.
Well, you know, it’s, I, I’m so glad that you brought that up because one of the things that I did notice, you know, meeting you when you were 16 and then, you know, probably once a year or every couple of years after that up until up until recently, is that people develop and change and you know, there would have been a natural developmental arc to, to your life regardless of what you did. But you know, you became strong. You became — what I did, remember what I there, I remember there was some turning point where I thought, and I think maybe it was when we did that event at your mom’s house, uh, and you stood up and you said, “Look, yoga people, yoga movement is like this percentage.” You made like a little pinchy gesture with your fingers, “this percentage of the available movement on the spectrum of possible movement, uh, and we, let’s just get straight about that. It’s a very limited vocabulary, and we can do more things and the movement world is actually enormous.” And I remember you standing up and speaking in a voice that I hadn’t heard before and it really wasn’t the voice of “I’m going to do what other people tell me to do. I’m going to do somebody else’s sequence or I’m going to, you know, I’m, I’m going to submit or surrender to a healing crisis.” So when you say, when you say building strength also builds confidence, I could literally see that happen with you in a way. Or at least I had that impression.
And I think it’s a very powerful a story, especially given the gender demographics of Yoga, because, you know, with an 80 percent, women practicing population roughly globally, I think we really have to wonder whether like, repetitive, perhaps deconstructing and maybe, and maybe stress-building movements that exhaust us when we’re doing a low protein diets — I think we have to ask whether or not that contributes to the kind of empowerment that so many people say they want to get from Yoga. So yeah, that’s a fascinating transition. I don’t think that yoga, the Yoga postural vocabulary has been about strength building for the most part.
And going back into medieval history, it certainly wasn’t about becoming more functional. It wasn’t about becoming a better mover or being able to do your daily job better or taking care of your kids. It was about doing weird things, strange things with your body to experience eccentric sensations or perhaps esoteric sensations and, all of the metaphors around the movement we’re about, you know, I think you suggested it really not just breaking the body down, but pulling the body apart as though it contains something that needed to be released and you know, to move towards all of this strength training where we’re talking about pulling things towards the midline and creating, you know, central stability and, you know, being able to squat and do those wild pistol movements that you do, like all of that really shifts the conversation around what the body is for. And it’s super important and really, really interesting. And we’ve got to square it somehow with, with, well, “Are we still interested in yoga if we’re interested in all of these things?”
So I know that you are a great researcher and I haven’t talked to anyone about this on the podcast yet. So I’m going to ask you, will you tell us a little bit about where this modern postural yoga comes from?
I think the brief story is that around the turn of the century, amongst a certain class of educated Indians who were also, anti colonialists, they were interested in fostering many aspects of culture and nation building that would contribute to an independence movement. And, you know, and some of those activities were outright revolutionary, but others were more about liberalizing education and, you know, modernizing institutions and introducing new public health practices. At a certain point, according to Mark Singleton, whose thesis is controversial, but I don’t think it’s really been challenged in any substantial way, in around the 1920s or 1930s, the influence of what was called physical culture as a practice of personal hygiene citizen empowerment to public health in various European nations began to make profound inroads influentially India, to the point where, you know, there were certain, you know, luminaries like the Rajah of Aundh, who, owned all of the books and the tools and the apparatuses of one of these famous bodybuilders whose name I forget who he was, a German guy. [Eugen Sandow is the name I was forgetting.] He was like one of the first sort of performance bodybuilders. And he would go on tours of India that were wildly successful.
And there was this interest amongst this class of relatively educated and somewhat westernized Indian reformers to find a kind of physical practice that could be said to be, indigenous, but also competitive or at least comparative with the physical culture movements that were coming out of Europe. And they began to turn towards a kind of cultural memory of what medieval Asana had been. Now, this is not to say that there weren’t awesome practitioners who were practicing run right up until the modern period, but they were doing in sadhu were communities that were generally apart from the mainstream population, and their physical practices were generally regarded as being weird or heterodox like — they were not practices for householders. They were about bodily experimentation and often they were associated with alchemy and magic.
And some key figures began to, I’m gonna, use the word “appropriate”, these older physical forms into this program of creating an indigenous and nationalized health practice that began to take shape as the group asana class. And there was a couple, there were a number of key figures in this. There was Sri Yogendra, a Swami Kuvalyananda, who began to research the effectiveness of postures from a biomedical slash public health perspective, but without a lot of, you know, good research tools. And then of course, the figure that is probably most important in all of this is Tirumalai Krishnamacharya who has a kind of mysterious background and biography prior to being hired by the Maharaja of Wodiyar or who of the richest men in the world at that point. His, I think his fortune, his personal fortune in modern terms is estimated at being at about 40 million dollars. He was so wealthy that when he went on tours like a diplomatic tours to Europe, he would take like entire orchestras of, you know, 50 musicians and dancers in order to accompany him. And he would like put his Rolls Royces onto his boats and stuff. He was amazing, a modernizer and philanthropist within Karnataka province. And he did all kinds of public works within Mysore. He did wonderful things like, you know, initiated public school for girls in the region. And he also at his palace, set up a pilot program for physical culture, projects that by which young boys, especially those who were financially disadvantaged or who were orphaned, could come and learn wrestling and weightlifting and gymnastics and also yoga.
So Krishnamacharya was hired to run the yoga room, but it was alongside these other disciplines, almost everybody that is responsible for why you and I are having a conversation right now, why your mother got into Yoga, why I got into Yoga, why there are yoga studios, almost everybody who is of any importance came through Krishnamacharya’s classroom from about 1934 through the early Forties. There is a little bit of controversy about when he actually ended. But, you know, these wouldn’t be Pattabhi Jois, BKS Iyengar, and a number of other lesser knowns. And then, and then he also taught Indra Devi, and I think that was in 1936 or so, and she went off from there after about three months of education and started yoga schools all over the world. Finally ending up in Hollywood would teaching people like Marilyn Monroe how to do shoulder stand.
The question that arises is, where did Krishnamacharya’s material come from? And the big debate is how much is old? How much is new? What was developed for the group class process? How much therapeutic knowledge did he have? You know, how much did he really connect his, practice of Asana with older and more well known philosophical traditions and practices within Indian wisdom culture? Those things are all sort of part of a raging debate now when people are looking back to the roots of the modern yoga movement to decide whether or not it has some bearing on the prior history of Yoga in India or some relationship to it. What I have focused on in my study is not about where the postures come from or their connection to the medieval period, but, I’d rather focused on the pedagogical methods that come to us from the Mysore Palace.
We know, unfortunately, from the accounts of Iyengar and Pattabhi Jois, that Krishnmacharya was, you know, not unlike or untypically of teachers of his generation, he was quite a disciplinarian and that he, like other teachers of his generation, liberally used corporal punishment while he was teaching the boys under his charge. And, you know, many historians have noted this, but nobody has really followed through on the implications of that, you know, BKS Iyengar and Pattabhi Jois , for example, learned how to do yoga, which we associate with openness and receptivity and softness and therapeutic value and, you know, becoming more loving and all of that — they learned their art within a very brutal environment, of both corporal punishment and an emotional abuse.
So my research pathway has been trained to try to trace how that particular dynamic becomes intergenerational. And is then correlated with some of the attitudes towards the body that show up when Diane asks her colleagues, you know, “What’s going on with my knee?” And they tell her, “You know, knee injury is just the way it goes. It’s not only for your spiritual benefit, but it’s also just part of the discipline. And if you’re going to be dedicated to this, then that’s what you’re going to go through.” So, that’s the arc that I’m tracing.
And then further beyond that, the next part of the story is how do people like your mom and you and, and Donna Farhi and Theo Wildcroft and Angela Farmer and you know, too many to name — Judith Lasater — how do they inherit tradition of authoritarianism and, you know, the glorification of bodily pain, and how do they overturn it? How do they turn it into something else? How do they inject it with their own values? How do they turn this thing that really used to be about mastering the body into, you know… what’s the primary value now in modern postural yoga? Trauma awareness, really. I would say strength building is one primary value. And then trauma awareness is the other. And these two values, you know, you’re a representative of one of them, if not the other, if not both. And these two values have emerged in response to this darker history. So that was a little bit long winded, but, but, that I hope that gives you your listeners a little bit of a doorway.
Yeah. So I remember when you had your first, What Are We Doing in Asana things at the house. It was very much about injuries and I felt that when you interviewed us that’s what we’re really focusing on and now it seems like you’re focusing on like the bigger picture and the cult like behavior and the, you know, years of abuse that are finally coming out and like, why does that happen? Why were these people put on these pedestals? Why did nobody say anything? I’m so curious like how that natural progression started to happen.
Well, it wasn’t natural in the sense that people like your mom had to like, really give me a yank to swing me around. You know, you probably remember from that meeting — I just, I just told this story to J Brown as well — but, you know, we, at the gathering, there were 60 people there and our plan was to, you know, speak about injury in yoga practice and your mom opened was an account of, what a senior, Ashtanga teacher had told her about Pattabhi Jois assaulting students for years on end. And you know, you might remember that the room was absolutely silent. You could hear a pin drop. I was gripping the corners of my cushion, listening to her, because it wasn’t in the plan. And my thought was “This is really a rabbit hole that we’re going down here.”
And I think the discussion around safety with regard to Asana, is a relatively easy one to have, but this is a lot deeper. What I came to understand was that was that, you know, the injury question within modern yoga practice is really not as important as the power imbalance and the abuse question. People get injured doing all kinds of physical activities. They get injured because they’re unaware, they get injured because they’re addicted to sensation. They’re injured because they drive themselves forward out of a sense of inadequacy. That’s just across the board. It happens in an asana class and it happens in spinning class. But, but you know, when your mom tells me about this injury to her hip and she tells me about the betrayal she feels, with regard to the lack of advice that she got from her peers, you know, how she just didn’t feel supported and she wanted to try to change the practices in her business. But you know, the business actually wouldn’t let her. She was… there was such an anger driving this story and it really wasn’t the anger of, “Oh, I got injured while I was training.” It was an anger about something else. It was an anger, it felt like it was an anger about how she had been treated.
And that was a real big clue to me, is that, you know, in the online discussion that has surrounded the, the injury problem in Yoga, I think a lot of people would notice or resonate with the fact that it’s incredibly contentious and, and passionate. I mean, have you seen this? It’s like people are really, really like, charged about, about how their hamstring was injured in a particular class and, and they’re really upset about being told to do headstand, and then winding up with neck pain. And while these things are… Certainly they shouldn’t happen and, they feel unjust and our education should be improved, I started to understand that the feelings that were underneath the data were really about betrayal. They weren’t about, you know, normal and expectable injuries. They were about “Somebody was supposed to be taking care of me here and they weren’t.”
And the most obvious and loudest expression of that becomes clear when we encounter revelations around Pattabhi Jois, who is regarded as a Guru and yet he is sexually assaulting women in class on a regular basis. And because that story can’t be told because of silencing and rape culture and all of that, I started to understand that the passion that was driving the injury conversation was actually a way of expressing a deeper pain, a deeper pain that couldn’t yet been named. It couldn’t be out in the open. And the fact that it couldn’t be out in the open is just borne out by the fact that, that, you know, it took three years for me to find enough on-record testimonies and get consent from all of those people, all of those women to publish them. It was really, really hard.
And so I think the injury discussion is, masking something else. And transitioning over to looking at that directly, it was really difficult. Because I just didn’t want to, you know, I thought that I wasn’t, I wasn’t…
Okay, so in my history, I have been in two yoga-related cults and I really wanted to believe that the mainstream yoga culture that I was involved with, through people like your mom and, and, my teachers who were influenced by Iyengar, I wanted to believe that those mainstream yoga cultures were free of those influences and mechanisms and dynamics. And so I just didn’t. I was like, “I’ve been here twice before. I refuse to believe this is going on here.” That was one of my attitudes, the other attitude was, I just didn’t want to… I didn’t want to open such a mainstream can of worms. Like, you know, Ashtanga Yoga is so incredibly influential, worldwide.
I wanted to start the Walrus article with, the sentence, the first sentence was actually, you know, over 30 million people or approximately 30 million people in the United States alone practice a style of yoga that is inspired by Pattabhi Jois…. They changed it to millions of people because we couldn’t quite verify or they, they, they didn’t feel that my extrapolation of the numbers was accurate or could be substantiated. But the point is, it’s a hell of a lot of people.
Everybody who’s practicing Vinyasa, Flow, Power: this all goes back to that little room in Mysore. The clothes that are worn. It all goes back to that little room in Mysore. The notion that you are sweating intensely in contorted postures and, and, and having a blissful experience maybe or a painful experience that you can frame is blissful — all of that goes back to that little room in Mysore. And so when I started to really contemplate, “Oh, is this what you’re saying about this little room in Mysore? Is this what these people are describing? Is that really true?” I thought, “Oh, it’s too much to bear.” And so yeah, I just resisted going there for a long time. It did not come naturally.
Yeah, I mean it definitely feels like a much bigger thing. It seems like to say that a style of movement is physically injuring people like is unfortunate, but it doesn’t seem like that big of a deal. But to say that, you know, the person who was responsible for this style of movement has actually been highly abusive to a number of his students, you know, that definitely casts a different light on the whole organization and I think that to tackle that, you know, you’re going to have a lot, a lot more people who are potentially going to support you and then potentially going to fight against you.
Oh totally. Yeah. And, and this is where on the most reactive pole of the response spectrum, there’s a claim: “Oh, that guy is out to destroy Ashtanga Yoga. And it’s a very interesting claim because on one hand it’s completely absurd. Like I, I have good friends who practice, I remember practicing with your mom and I know what people got out of it… I don’t personally choose to do movement practices that are injurious to me, but I don’t have a problem with people choosing to do that. People’s bodies are their bodies and if they really want to, you know, pursue this edge between between pleasure and pain and test themselves and explore extreme sensations, all the more power to them. Literally I am an advocate for freedom.
But on the other hand, on the other hand, if suddenly the method and the community that communicates that method is implicated in a cycle of abuse, and some very basic principles within that method, like the principle of an adjustment itself has now become muddied by the question of
“Why was he doing that? Was he doing that to help people or was he doing that to gain access to them? Was he doing that to abuse them? Was it a mixture of both? How can we tell that apart? Did he teach his students to adjust in the same way that he did? Have some of them gone on to become assaulters themselves? Is there a correlation between that?”
That opens a huge, huge problem and it becomes very, very difficult. I think for some devotees is to really ask this deeper question of: does Ashtanga yoga exist without the influence of this man?
And so when they say “You’re trying to destroy Ashtanga Yoga,” on one hand it’s like, “No, you do whatever you want. That’s absurd. Don’t give me that power. That’s totally grandiose as well. I couldn’t do that.” I’m trying to, I’m trying to question abuse.
But if you think that there’s something abusive wrapped up foundationally in your practice or method or community, yes, that’s a problem you’re going to have to face I think. And, I also… but I don’t say that flippantly. Like I also want to hear from people and platform people who are talking about how to do that. You know, how to take those elements out of the practice culture that they found really valuable and really, really elevate them in contexts of explicit consent and bodily empowerment. Um, and so yeah, it’s definitely charged and, and I think I could sense how problematic and inflammatory this would become a in those early moments listening to your mother speak that night. Uh, and I just wasn’t ready. So I edited that part of her talk out to my shame and, and you know as she might’ve told you, we’ve patched that up. I’ve apologized for that and you know, we’re good friends and you know, I hope I can be as supportive of her work as she has been with mine. But um, yeah, it’s opened up a huge set of questions.
I think another thing that’s so interesting is I have told, obviously I’ve told many people over the course of my life that I’m a yoga teacher. I teach yoga and oftentimes, especially with people who like don’t know very much about yoga at all, I always get this question that follows, which is, well, “Did you train in India?” Almost to mean like, well you’re not really like the real deal yoga teacher unless you’ve trained in India. And I mean my mom had known about this abuse that was happening in Mysore like my entire life. And so as I was growing up as a young person, it never even occurred to me to go there. I was just like, ugh, “Why would I go do that after like what my mom has told me?”
And I think that, you know, obviously that information is not in the mainstream and maybe even if it was, I don’t really know what people would think, but it’s almost like as a yoga teacher, if you. And especially like as someone who was practicing Ashtanga Yoga and like teaching it a little bit. Like if you weren’t going to Mysore you weren’t really the real deal. But at the same time no one really understands why you’re choosing not to go to Mysore. And even if they, I mean, I’m sure lots of people knew about what was happening and still send their students there and, and still recommended that people go, you know, it seems like a little bit problematic.
I would say yeah, this is where we get into, I think, whether or not the language of cult analysis begins to apply because, you know, the senior students who are sending their students to Mysore, if they have knowledge of the abuse, then they are implicated in furthering it and enabling it. But then also, you know, we have to look at really carefully what was the social benefit of them doing that? Did that help them in their own, in their own communities? Did it further their connection to the Jois family? Did it mean that they were more apt to host the family when they came on tour? That sort of thing.
There’s a whole sort of network of potential social values in allowing that abuse to be silenced or to be kept silent. Um, so yeah, that, that becomes really complex, but you bring up this really interesting point of, well, you know, I didn’t want to go because it was obvious that wasn’t something that I wanted, But uh, I also couldn’t and say, well, Hey, I didn’t want to go. That’s a real mess. It’s a difficult position to be in.
And I mean I felt like on the one hand, so my mom had known a couple people who had gone and had this really negative experience and come back and told her and then she told me. And to some extent you almost feel like if it didn’t happen to you or it didn’t happen to someone really close to you, like you heard it from them, then it’s like, “Well, is this really happening? But I’m pretty sure it is.” But at the same time there is this feeling of like, you don’t want to be the one to say something in the event that is not true. It’s, it’s just this like, I mean, it’s further perpetuating the whole thing and further protecting the whole organization where like, something is wrong. You have this gut feeling that something is wrong and still you don’t want to say anything.
Right? So, so here’s where the statistics on false reporting become really, I think important and there’s a little bit of data around it, but, you know, the best numbers I think that are accepted right now or somewhere between only four and eight percent of claims of sexual assault and rape are false. So you know, the gut feeling is, is usually right, especially if there is news, especially if there is stuff coming through the whisper network.
But this problem of “I didn’t hear it directly” is something that I heard from senior students all the way through this research, all the way through preparing this article. You know: “I did hear about that, but I didn’t have direct knowledge of it. I didn’t see it directly. I didn’t…” And I think there’s a lot of things going on there. There’s the person who is saying that is appealing to a kind of sense of epistemological honesty. Like, “Because I didn’t see it directly, I can’t say that it’s true, so I’m not gonna say anything,”
But they would do that in relation to the video of adjustments, right? They’ll see it, they’ll see it happen and then they’ll say, “Well, I don’t know what those practitioners would say about it.” Or “I don’t know what, you know, they’re obviously advanced students and they probably have, you know, a good longterm understanding with Guruji about how they’re going to be touched and so on. And you know, it looks like he’s touching men and women in the same way. And so I really can’t. I’m really not in a position to judge.”
Well that, that unwillingness to be in a position to judge, as you say, it reinforces or encourages, it continues to enable the behavior and it’s based upon one primary unwillingness, which is: Why does nobody reached out to the victims to ask them what happened? Like how long does that video have to be out in the world before somebody tries to track down one of the women in it? How long does Anneke Lucas’s blog posts have to be up about being assaulted by Jois in New York City in 2000 before somebody reaches out and asks her, “Can you tell me a little bit more about that?”
How many, you know — you actually have to go out and do the work in order to really say that you have investigated it. It’s not good enough to sit back and say, “Well, I heard this thing but I can’t verify it.” You know, if false reporting is between four and eight percent, the real, the, the ethical response is: “Well, I heard this thing and I went out to try to find out if it was true.” That second part takes a lot of guts. It takes a lot of resolve because what it ends up doing is it ends up automatically isolating you from the group because nobody else is doing that, for one.
But also as soon as you go out and you start looking for the victim’s voice, and you start listening to it, you’re going to get a completely different picture of the community that you belong to. And that might be very fearful. It might overturn a whole bunch of things that you have, you know, thought about it or you’ve assumed about it. You may not want to find out. And this is where my friend, Theo Wildcroft’s notion of contagion is really important, I think is that, is that the closer you get to listening to somebody like Karen Rain, the more questions you have to ask about what you were involved with, the more you will feel that her experience will almost infect your own and cause you to ask questions about what you’re actually doing. So yeah, it’s, it’s hard to make that leap from “Ah! I can’t really tell,” to: “Yeah, I’m going to find out. ”
And I think that it’s just, it’s also showing us how kind of backwards we have been about assault in general. Like even as a teenager hearing those stories. My first response was like, “Well, I’m not sure if it actually happened.” As opposed to like, “Why don’t we just believe the people who say it happened?” Like that needs to turn over because if you say that false reporting is between four and eight percent, like that’s a huge percentage of accurate reporting. And why are we not just jumping to the conclusion that of course this person is telling the truth. And of course this, this is actually happening.
Can I ask you a question about this though because I think your listeners and everybody would really benefit from hearing more about that moment when you hear it from your mom, and she’s telling you who I assume because you know, there’s many, there’s many things that she’s telling you…
She is being protective. She is telling you about, the less radiant and positive nature, the industry that she has brought you into and, and that you’re part of. But when you have the response that “I’m not really sure if it happened.” I’m wondering what was at stake for you in that? Because I imagine if you, if you had just believed her, wouldn’t you have had to have had a whole different conversation with her about how you were going to proceed in relation to Ashtanga?
Yeah. So I think there’s a couple of things. I think that on the one hand I did believe her because I then always had this idea of like, “Oh, why would I go there if this thing is happening?” Like even just the potential that this is what the environment is like there. I’m not going to go. I think on the one hand I did believe her. And then on the other hand, I mean, oh my goodness, I think now it feels like, “Well if you knew that this was happening, like why are we all still toeing the party line? Why on the website does it say that we’re practicing this thing that was taught by this guy who’s like doing things that are, that are not really cool?”
But at the same time it’s like, I don’t know, I’m not really much of a historian or a researcher, but I feel like to some extent most of our civilization and culture is built upon mass systems of oppression and abuse. And so are we going to abandon the whole thing? Like it widened so much further. I’m like, “Okay, so this thing is happening with a stronger yoga. Are we going to abandon it because this has been happening. And then if we abandon that then it’s like everything…”
Right? I think you’re saying something so like really concise and, and precious about the moment of disillusionment where… and I get, I encounter this response a lot like you know, “Let’s make sure that we don’t throw out the baby with the bathwater. What would we have left? Are you trying to destroy Ashtanga Yoga?” And, and I would say that I would say that like as an emotional response, that is like a really necessary, a healthy and normal response to the problem, the problem being: “Oh, I have been involved with something that has caused harm to others and possibly to myself but I’m also deeply enmeshed in it and it’s part of my livelihood and my entire social life revolves around it. How am I going to extract myself from it without feeling totally amputated or without dying in a way?”
I think everybody goes through that. I think everybody goes through that. And that’s why I think, I think the language of cult analysis is really crucial too, because everybody who’s part of a high demand group, if they are heading towards the door, if they are beginning to exit it, they’re going to feel groundless. They’re going to feel like they have nothing left to them. Um, and this is why I really liked the work of Alexandra Stein who says that the most successful transition from within a high demand group to outside of it is really facilitated by other relationships. So, you know, you kind of hinted at it a little bit in your story about how you went from practicing yoga six days a week to starting to hang out at the gym and talking to other people who had different ideas about the body.
And so it’s not like the baby went out with the bathwater. The baby started swimming in a new bath, right? Like you were finding value in a Ashtanga Yoga. And then there were these, you know, dysfunctional or toxic elements to it and you moved into a different set of relationships and self perceptions and maybe you took some of the yoga with you and maybe you left something behind. But, but that, that immediate, “Oh my God, what’s going to happen now?” is just going to be. It’s going to be a moment in time that people just go through and hopefully they will be able to see that with transparency, with self study, with outside sources of support, with different tools. They will… their lives will continue. They will probably reorient themselves towards Ashtanga yoga in some way. If they want to create a really safe environment, they’ll get really specific about that if they also want to keep an association with a Ashtanga Yoga.
So there’s a lot of teachers right now like Sarai Harvey-Smith and, and Greg Nardi and Jean Byrne who are kind of revisioning Ashtanga Yoga with consent cards and with, you know, switching up the sequences and with all kinds of ideas of student empowerment. But they have retained something. It’s like, it’s like they have taken the, the whatever they found most valuable from the practice, the intensity, the breath, the notion of sequencing, the silence, the drishti, all of those things that they loved and which — I understand that love — and they have, and they have lifted them up out of this other context in which all of those things actually functioned as grooming mechanisms for abuse.
You know, because the bodily intensity, um, you know, can break down people’s resistance to critical thinking. The drishti can make people not look around and the rest of the room and see what the guru is doing to other people. The Ujjayi breathing can be, can put you into a trance state in which you don’t really register the pain that you’re experiencing in a reasonable way. And so all of those are really precious aspects of Ashtanga Yoga can be reframed towards empowerment.
But it takes transparency. It takes you, you know, I don’t think you get there without looking directly at, “Oh, you know, there was a real problem here.” And, and, and then really negotiating what you loved about it anyway. And maybe having a little bit of faith that those things can be lifted up and out and, and shared with others without the abuse.
And so where do you see the Ashtanga culture moving from here? So I, you know, I never went to Mysore. I was practicing with Ashtanga teachers in Canada and the United States and those teachers I was working with like were exceptional. And to my knowledge there was no abuse going on and it was always very positive learning experience. And so I think that just because someone is an Ashtanga teacher doesn’t necessarily mean they’re, you know, practicing in community in a negative way. And where do you think it’s going from here?
Yeah. So, so this where in the book that’s emerging out of this article, I want to finish with, I want to platform the voices of leaders within the community who have responded to these revelations in the most progressive and productive way. But I can see I’m going to miss some of course, but, uh, you know, I’ve named a few already. Um, I really think that….
Okay. One problem with using the language of cult analysis is that a people hear it and then they believe that, somehow there’s a hard line between being in and out it’s not really like that. It’s more like there’s a, there’s a very vibrant and magnetic and radiant center to the organization and then there are layers of association that move outwards in kind of like you know, an onion-type fashion and the people who were on the outermost layers — and I would say that that’s where you were actually, you know, it’s like your association was not to the center. It wasn’t too, you know, you didn’t look to the Jois family for your validation. You probably got maybe one or two layers closer to the center when you go to, you know, Richard Freeman and study with him or he comes to Toronto and whoever else that you studied with. You might’ve encountered other practitioners that were closer in towards the center. But you probably stayed on the outside of it.
And on that outside, we really have, you know, the probably the highest amount of benefit that the culture and the teaching offers to people, you know. People don’t necessarily have to engage with the toxic social dynamics that are pulling people in towards the center.
But the thing is, is that in a way, even Downward Dog as a yoga studio functioned as what, you know, a number of theorists would call a front organization for the center, in the sense that people would learn the method, they would hear about Pattabhi Jois. They might get fascinated by learning more, and they might be motivated to go to Mysore.
There’s a way in which being on that outside layer is not entirely benign, but it’s also where people can either plunge further in or they can just stay where they are. And I would say that, the really positive future of Ashtanga Yoga will be comprised of people who were on the outer layer and who learned the techniques and didn’t really have to engage in the toxic social dynamics. And also there will be leadership from people who are close to the center who made their way out and who say, “No, this is not what was valuable about the practice, the devotional aspect, the, the hierarchy, the dominance — that was not what I was actually wanting for my life. But I really do love the postures and the sensations of the breath work. AndI’m going to try to make something creative out of that.”
And I think that’s already happening. The Ashtanga world is decentralized enough that there are people who are already doing that work. You know, I just spoke with Matthew Sweeney, and, you know, he’s kind of been on that outer layer for the last 15 years and he’s cast a critical eye towards the center. And when I asked him, you know, “So what, what are the essential things that you value about this method that have nothing to do with these toxic dynamics that are being revealed right now?” He talks about those, those somatic tools, breath and movement together as some sort of modulation between intensity and ease, some sort of connection towards the Yamas and Niyamas, developing a focal point, the value of, of regular concentration practice, I mean, pretty basic stuff that really does not rely upon a kind of fealty to a set of commitments to the center of the organization.
And so in a way, you know, you asked where do you think it’s going to go? I think it’s already, it’s already gone. It’s already gone. And I think they will, the voices that express independence, and, but also love for the techniques, I think they will continue to develop the future of the community. I think a good reference here would be the work of my friend Norman Blair in London who published a wonderful essay that maybe we can maybe we can link for your readers.
What’s the essay called?
Oh, it’s called “Ashtanga Yoga Stories.” Cool. Yeah. Uh, the subtitle is “delights, insights and difficulties.”
Great. We will link to that in the show notes for sure along with all of the other resources and people who you mentioned. This has been such a pleasure. Matthew. Thank you so much for doing this with me.
Yeah, thank you Kathryn and I’m so happy to talk to you. It feels like some kind of circle is being completed. I mean we, you know, we met what, 12 years ago and, and, and, and there’s, there’s so much that we’ve shared on sort of parallel tracks. It’s really good to meet this way.
So for anyone who wants to get in touch with you or see some of the work that you’ve done, how can they do that?
Just my web site is my name, Matthew Remski .com. And people can also find me on Facebook and I’m, I’m happy to take any questions and, and respond to any emails I try to get back to everybody.
Awesome. All right everyone. Thanks again for tuning in and as usual, if you want to get in touch with me, you can do that on my website, which is Kathryn Bruni, Young .com, or on social media. Under my name. Thanks for listening. Everyone.
Accountability Or Apologia? Reading Between the Lines When Yoga and Buddhism Leaders Issue Crisis Statements
Many of today’s leaders in yoga and Buddhism built themselves through online marketing. This means that when abuse in their communities is revealed, they must be prepared to make online responses. It’s good to be able to see where the responses are continuous with the marketing: this may give clues as to how earnest, considered and educated those responses are.
The speed at which it all happens is both terrible and revealing. Terrible insofar as it suppresses sober second thought. Revealing because it lays bare microdynamics of cultic control that in the pre-digital age were invisible outside of the group. Today we can watch cults get penetrated by reporting and instantly try to circle the wagons. It’s easy to see the crude damage control of the attempt to discredit victims or reporters. What’s harder to see is how the reporting can be deflected by selective acknowledgement or yes-but statements. Whatever the responses are, they play out in the open field, like some kind of cult-exit obstacle course reality show.
We have to learn the difference between structural change and rebranding. Especially as people are getting better at co-opting and monetizing discourses around trauma-awareness and justice. There’s a lot of leaders in the Shambhala org right now who will be ramping up the trauma awareness language and dusting off their Naropa psychology chops. But if they don’t simultaneously call for the Sakyong to be removed and the org to be investigated independently, they are abusing that language and those tools. This may not at all be their fault. They may be under the illusion that those values actually came from the Trungpa legacy, instead of having been co-opted by it. Continue reading “Accountability Or Apologia? Reading Between the Lines When Yoga and Buddhism Leaders Issue Crisis Statements”
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.)