Somatic Dominance: Climate Collapse & The Spectre Of Cultic Yearnings | convo with Patrick Farnsworth
I had the deep pleasure of speaking with Patrick Farnsworth, whose excellent podcast “Last Born in the Wilderness” has enriched my life over the past year. Here’s the episode. Lightly edited transcript below (minus intro/outro). You can support Patrick’s freelance work here.
So you were making all these connections I hadn’t made. I’m just starting to understand that these types of things that you’re discussing, while they make sense within the context of yoga, but you’re trying to bridge these different subjects together. You’re trying to make it more understandable and approachable for people that are outside of yoga. This isn’t just a phenomenon within yoga itself. But we can learn a lot from what you’ve at least explored in your research and in your particular experiences within this world.
Thank you for that. And it’s heartening to know because I think that is a bridge that I’m starting to try to build. I think that experience in history is showing within modern yoga and Buddhist groups that when we have aspirational communities, especially fronted by charismatic leaders in uncertain discourses or uncertain times, that the potential for cultic dynamics to emerge is really, really strong. And so as I see social power gathering in certain sectors of eco activism I’m concerned, about some of those behaviors began to develop as well. And I think that the last 50 years of spiritual seeking in a globalized modern sense has a lot to offer to eco activism, especially if we view it through a critical lens. So yeah, I’m really happy that you’re glomming onto that connection. And I hope we can unfold it.
Yeah. And I think just to make this note before we delve into your work more specifically in your journey, which I think is really interesting but just to make this connection for people, because for a long time, I just want to say this, is that when people become aware of these crises, the global climate crisis, for instance, it comes originally I think as a very data-driven thing. It’s like this is the data. This is the information, the science that surrounds it. More and more I’m at a point in my work at least where I’m still covering that and talking about that. And it’s important to keep up with that. But the ways in which people on a mass scale — we live within mass societies — and we have to acknowledge the ways in which large scale societies are going to react to these crises in real time. And so it’s really crazy when you really think about how there are people who have this agenda. You know. It’s about creating really unhealthy toxic environments that are really about their own, I guess, their own ego and their own, you know what I mean? Like really toxic behaviors, you can even say toxic masculinity in many cases. It is so strange to me because when we think of yoga, we think of this peaceful, loving, self affirming environment where people are there to better themselves, right? And something quite the opposite to happen in those environments often. And I find that really interesting. And so for me, what I want to say here is when it comes to my work and my end of it, with exploring the edges of this time we’re in, I really want people to be psychologically, emotionally, spiritually prepared for what human beings are going to do in this time. And it’s not something we can be adequately prepared for in any real sense. But when it comes to building communities and forms of resilience, um, we really have to be wary and be on the lookout for these signs of culting behaviors, cult-like environments, more and more. Yeah.
Right. One bridge between global yoga and Buddhist communities, because I also study Buddhist communities and I was part of a Buddhist cult from 96 to about 2000, — part of the premise of that content, that discourse is the notion of waking up to something and as you describe with regard to collapsology, there is a waking up that takes place in the form of education and there’s a waking up that takes place in the form of psychological realization or existential maturity. I think that, you know, the interview that you did with Dahr Jamail and Barbara Cecil expresses that kind of turning point where we have this polymathically skilled journalist and world traveler who is able to say, enough data has been produced and now I’m waking up to something deeper and that turn from living in the sort of rational, descriptive world of the facts that are happening on the ground to what does this mean on an existential level is something that, that particular turn has been the commodity of modern yoga and global Buddhism over the last 50 years.
The same language has been used to describe, you know, waking up from conventionality or waking up from your bourgeois Potemkin village life or waking up from normalcy. And so there’s a real overlap. It’s almost as if you know, new age spirituality, going back to the Human Potential Movement has primed this discourse of waking up to something. And so there’s a lot of lessons to be learned from how communities have, quote unquote, woken up to the nature of reality or to the need for compassion or to the thin veneer of superficiality that neo-liberalism provides, to waking up to, Oh my God, the world is actually dying. There’s a bridge there. There’s a similarity in discourse that we can learn a lot from because as Buddhist and yoga communities have marshaled that language and have talked about waking up and have theorized about what it means or tried to, you know, design societies around its principles… they’ve done some good things and a lot of bad things. And ecological movements can learn a lot from that.
I completely agree with you on that. Yeah it’s interesting cause I think there’s a lot of for me this queasiness or wariness of this language around being woke or being awake, which I know that in yoga and Eastern spiritual traditions and Buddhism, that’s kind of the premise: enlightenment. You know, you can achieve some sort of enlightenment. And I think the way it can be presented to the West is it is a commodifiable thing. It’s something you can go to retreat in Maui and you can attain something like that, you know, by spending six weeks with some guru or whatever. It’s always been a bit perplexing to me because I don’t think, there aren’t the connections made that I think that need to be made when it comes to the fact that you feel like you have to go to this, this Island that was colonized by Americans, you know, and you go there to have this little spiritual retreat. I don’t think those connections are often made by those that are participating in it. It’s like the materiality, the material conditions that we’re a part of are not really addressed. And to me, it kind of reinforces this idea, this false dichotomy between the split between spirit and matter. Maybe you could speak to that a bit, but this idea that what’s happening in the world isn’t really, that’s not gonna, that’s not gonna liberate you. You have to be liberated through your own will to wake up and be enlightened and to detach yourself from everything that’s happening around you to elevate yourself above it and…
Yeah and yet, and yet it will take material, resources and, and those will have consequences. But somehow, I mean the thing about the thing about the last 50 years of global Buddhism and yoga is that it in some ways, it’s provided a way for the neoliberal vision of freedom through consumerism to be spiritualized so that you know, you can convince yourself that you need to go to Costa Rica to find yourself. And if you, and if and if you drink fair trade coffee, but you also soak in the heat and the humidity of the jungle, that there will be some internal transformation that will create a new self that will then radiate back out into your urbanized, global, North environment and will change everything for the better. Like that’s the sort of subtext. I think it was about five years ago that I first had a conversation with this independent researcher named Brian Francis Culkin who researches gentrification in specific locations, especially Boston. We started talking about like, how did the modern yoga studio emerge? Like how did it, how did it come to be? And he pointed out that the yoga studio in the modern urban, global North setting only really comes into existence through the process of gentrification. In fact, it’s often on the leading edge of gentrification.
Naomi Klein in No Logo opens, in the first few pages she talks about one of the first major yoga studios in Toronto actually being established in the beautiful old warehouse space that used to be the home of a garment manufacturer in the garment district in Toronto. That was available for lease because free trade agreements in the mid-nineties sent all of those manufacturing jobs to Vietnam. Suddenly in global North spaces, we have these gorgeous brick buildings with hardwood floors and white walls and they’re empty of all of their machinery and nobody’s making anything in them anymore. And so people moved into them and begin these practices that are about remaking the self, right? And they’re usually wearing the yoga clothes that are made by the people whose labor got outsourced in Vietnam, who couldn’t possibly afford to go to those yoga classes.
This key thing that, that Culkin really helped me understand is that like the modern yoga space is exists because of paradigmatic changes in labor and the meaning of the body, in globalization through the ascendancy of technology and finance, and through the transformation of the urban landscape into the monotone of gentrification. And what’s amazing about that passage in No Logo is that like, I know the people who founded that yoga studio in 1996 in Toronto, like they’re my friends and their lease only lasted for a few years and guess who moved in afterwards? A dot-com company who could afford the latest rent. And so where did the yoga studio go? It went out West on Queen Street, farther out to the leading edge of gentrification at that point, and now it’s running out to the end of its lease. So anyway, yoga studios have like five year leases and then they have to move out to the leading edge of wherever the city is continuing to gentrify.
But the upshot of this is that what yoga practitioners don’t realize is that they’re participating in the kind of embodied neo-liberalization of the actual city and then they’re participating in this practice, and especially if they professionalize into it, they’re kind of participating in a way of making all of the aspects of new liberal economy — the fact that it works on flex time, the fact that it’s gig economy, the fact that it’s all about self motivation and self responsibility — all of these themes are embedded into this practice by which you’re supposed to take care of yourself and seek your own betterment, make yourself healthy, you know, become a better citizen. If you’re a woman, you’re supposed to be wear even more hats and be a feminist at the same time while you’re leaning into your postures and making more green shakes.
And so there’s all of this, all of these demands placed upon the person who basically is creating no product, but the aspirational self. And then yoga discourse and Buddhist discourse gives a kind of spiritual aspect to that. When those themes started to come together together about five years ago, I started to develop this political economy, analysis of the body and modern yoga as being— what is the person actually bowing down in front of? It’s not nature anymore. It’s not tradition particularly. It’s a kind of manufactured sense of individual freedom that is at the heart of the neoliberal project. That’s not all that’s going on. That sounds terribly cynical, but I mean that’s a big part of the story. That’s why the yoga world has exploded at the same time that we’ve seen this proliferation of the effects of globalization.
Well you make this point in the video, I did see of you talking about this subject to some in some depth, but you were saying as we see the neoliberal project really take off globally, that’s when we start seeing global carbon emissions rise. Global climate change is really taking off — that’s exactly when the global yoga popularity phenomenon really started to take off. They’re tied together.
And nobody really thinks about the fact that the global yoga economy booms in relationship to cheapening air travel and deregulated credit. All of the yoga communities that I have known and been involved in, especially those that develop into high demand groups — they’re all, everybody is overspending on their credit cards. Everybody is flying to this retreat and that retreat and accumulating trainings so that they can become even more self-actualized. The tie-ins are pretty, clear. And I think Brian said, you know, yoga is the de-facto spirituality of neoliberalism. It demands that people be flexible and receptive. It demands that people lean in, it demands that people become more self responsible. And I think particularly for an 80% female practice population that has like real grave implications for whether or not yoga is actually feminist.
That’s a great point. I never thought of it that way. I mean, drawing that connection there. Absolutely. So, you know, this is something I’ve also explored with psychedelics because that’s kind of my little foray in my personal life into spirituality or whatnot since leaving my, you know, religion that I grew up with behind as a teenager. But, you know, having my first psychedelic experiences, I just sort of took for granted that — let me just say this, with yoga obviously if done in the right way, the right context, it’s just like any sort of physical activity or spiritual practice if done properly. It’s really beneficial for the individual. And if done in a community context, it’s probably really good for the community as well. Right? And that’s what I think attracts people to it. They sense that, okay, this is obviously they feel better when they do it. It challenges them. There’s a lot of things going on. And the same thing for me with my psychedelic experiences.
So then I just took for granted that everything that was happening within the sort of growing popularity, again with psychedelics, that that was the case. But as I started to delve more deeply into it, the same phenomenon is happening with say, the ayuasca industry where you have people in the global North going down to Peru or other places in South and central America and engaging in this sort of theater that’s put on for them to sort of heal them of their very legitimate concerns about trauma. And obviously I think our population is pretty severely traumatized in general, right? So it makes sense why people are seeking it. But in a way it’s perpetuating things that have been going on for centuries, which is a form of colonialism. And it’s manifesting maybe as neo-liberalism or what have you, but, uh, people need to be conscious of this and have sort of political and social consciousness that I don’t think is often encouraged in these settings. There again it’s focusing so much on the individual self actualization, and is perpetuating this neoliberal ideal, uh, in the society and the people participating in it.
Let me just say that the parallel between the explosion in like ayuasca spirituality or the ayuasca economy and the global yoga economy, I think shares an aspect of the global North’s search for authenticity in the face of its rootless white settler status. And so one thing that I’ve become very aware of, not just through personal experience but through a lot of observation and research, is that the concept of looking for something authentic, close to nature, of-the-earth, from-a-location is like an obsession for people who feel, rootless and kind of erased from their location. People who grew up in subdivisions that look like the next subdivision or people who know that this Whole Foods has exactly the same stock as that Whole Foods. And when you don’t know where you are from and you have some maybe unconscious understanding that being from a place means that you can have some sort of reality or some sort of touchstone for actions that have integrity. Then global South becomes this sort of place where identity and rootedness and plant medicine and tradition can become very attractive to the point of fetishization.
You know, like this became super clear to me when, — I’m here in Montreal actually. I just finished, working in a training program here at a yoga school —and in this same city, maybe three or four years ago a person who has since become a friend of mine named Dexter, who’s Sri Lankan by background and is trying to like reconstitute the Buddhism that has been nurtured by his family lineage. Although, you know, they’re there in the diaspora and, and it’s hard to do that. It’s hard to figure out where that tradition is for the family now. They’re a super active political activist and agitator an ecological activist. And this is somebody I really, really admire, but there’s something about their connection with Indian wisdom culture that for me is kind of abstract still, even though I longed to be closer to it. Anyway, they were in this class three years ago and I’m at the front of the room and I’m supposed to be giving sort of like a learning outline for looking at this particular yoga text. And, they put up their hand and they say, you know, “What I want to understand better is why do you people,,” looking at me and around the room because the rest of the room was mostly white, “Why do people insist on playing with our old stuff? Why are you so interested in like playing with our old things?” And I said, “Oh, can you, can you say a little bit more about that?” Because I could feel myself start to sweat. And they said, well, you know, it’s like, “Don’t you have your own old things? Don’t you have your own culture, your own antiquities? I don’t even have access to my culture’s antiquities. Why do you have such an interest in them? I mean, aren’t they already in your museums?” And I’m like, Oh boy.
I realized at that moment that like having grown up Catholic, that for a large part of my teenage years, I was like fascinated in Catholic esotericism. I wanted to know everything that I could know about Hildegard of Bingen and the herbal blends that she made while she’s singing her heavenly songs and whatever. And like John of the Cross and I was so interested in that stuff. And then it just kind of all fell away because I was generally betrayed. I felt betrayed by the institution of the Catholic church and so it made me understand that when I am with my friend Dexter, like I know that they’re from somewhere, like I know that they have some thing, the culture of the identity is informed and shaped and like forever altered by oppression and colonialism, but they’re from somewhere. And I don’t feel like I’m from anywhere. And my attraction to Buddhism and yoga was in part about this, the emptiness of rootlessness that I think is part of the phenomenon of being white.
That adds another layer of weirdness to traveling down to the jungles of South America to find the shaman who’s going to administer ayauasca or traveling to South India so that I can stay in a Tibetan monastery for six weeks and try to learn something from somebody who comes from a totally, completely different experience of life than I do. But I want the realness of their experience. I want the locale, the connection to the earth. I want all of the things that they have and that paradoxically, my culture has stolen. And so it’s an amazing thing to contemplate, uh, and then to bear witness to its lives. It’s not like I can solve these things, but I can I can certainly stop being a consumer of them and start being a critic of my own participation.
I’m very sympathetic with this. We’re both white and we both are talking about this. And I think white people need to have this conversation in general because whiteness itself is a social construct. There’s a historical dimension to it that needs to be acknowledged and addressed and all of this. I’m sympathetic with because I feel it in myself that rootlessness you’re talking about that lack of… I don’t know where I’m from. I don’t know what traditions do I have to draw upon here? You mentioned people that are practicing whatever they’re practicing, they have at least something to draw on, even if it was, you know, through centuries of colonization and oppression and all the horrible things that come with these things. They, at least it seems to, to us that they have something like tangible that they can draw on. And for us it’s deeply, it’s just, it’s not there.
It’s not there because I think we want it to be everywhere. That’s not just the settler mindset and psychology, but it’s also the sort of casual imperialism that comes along with it. It’s like, Oh, I can go anywhere. How did I travel to India in 1997? Like, how did I do that? Who gave me the credit card? How was I able to be off work for that amount of time to be able to try to find myself in somebody else’s country? Part of privilege is its invisibleness to you, right, is that you don’t know how you got the opportunity to kind of walk around the world as though you owned it. And that comes with a price that you then sort of try to I think outsource onto other people At least in my case.
Yeah. I, I have a lot I could say about that. Maybe I’ll tell you about it after regarding something. But I do want to shift gears a bit just because I like, it’s so funny…
We got to talk about cults, right?
Exactly. Yeah. We got to get into the nitty gritty here. It’s always how it goes though. It’s like once you get into the flow of it, I never want to disrupt that. That’s kind of the magic of doing these podcasts is like, okay, well here we are. This is, I’m not going to try to disrupt this flow at all. But I do really want to get into the culting what you’ve explored within these yoga communities. So there’s a few like terms I’m going to throw out and I really want to delve into them. So you talk about cultic dynamics, trauma bonding, another term that you use is somatic dominance. No, these are all different. They’re all connected of course. But you know, reading your work, I didn’t really get, cause when I think about going to a yoga class, got a group of people, they’re all, to me what just looked like really intense poses and stretches and you have a person there who’s the teacher, the instructor who’s guiding you through that. And it’s always, to me seemed very like very chill. It’s difficult, it’s hard. But nonetheless, people are there to try to better themselves and you sweat it out and that’s it. You, for me at least has revealed a whole world of, I wanted to say crazy, but that diminishes it. But this sense of like there’s a lot going on in yoga that I’m completely oblivious to.
So I want to say this first. This’ll be my first question for you. This maybe will frame it a little better. So we’ve talked about neoliberalism and the way in which yoga has exploded globally and all that ties into all the things that that ties into. But if you could make this really simple comparison. So yoga is a very old practice. I don’t know how old it is, but I assume it’s been around for a very, very long time. And if you could compare, say the way in which yoga is practiced in the modern context in the Western world versus what it may have been like to exist in its original context, the pre modern context and that way we can have a framework to work within and then from there, delve into the abuses and the, the power dynamics and all of that that come up in the modern context.
It’s a great place to start. So first of all, if we’re speaking in pre-modern terms or pre 20th century terms, we have to speak of a plurality of yogas and yoga traditions and streams of practice. In general terms, if people are practicing physical postures and breath work and meditation practices prior to the 20th century they’re doing so not in group class format, but in individually instructed, oral instructions, oral instruction transmission: “Here are six or seven poses for you to do. Go away and do them on your own and tell them, come back and tell me what you’ve learned about yourself.” The primary mechanism of learning within the pre 20th century period would have been interoception or, the practitioner’s internal capacity to feel sensations. The sensation of breath, the sensation of bodily orientation in a strange position or a novel position. The sensation of warmth during a breathing exercise. Internal sensations would have been the primary focus and the practices would have done it and been done primarily in isolation. And they would have been done gently. So one of the things that’s come to light in modern research into medieval Hatha yoga would be that the refrain in most of the texts is that the postures are to be performed sanaih, sanaih, or gently, gently. That’s a refrain in a bunch of key texts. And so this whole notion that yoga postures should be strenuous or people should be sweating really hard, or teachers should be climbing on them to prove the power of mind over body or something like that, that has nothing to do with anything prior to the 20th century.
With regard to adjustments or the notion that the teacher would touch the student that has no history prior to the 1930s, probably at all. Nothing whatsoever. There’s nothing traditional about it. What happens? Uh, it to change. All of that is a series of geopolitical, post-colonial and technological changes, that begin to globalize yoga, but according to a particular modern framework. What begins to happen that Indian innovators and modernizers who generally are anti-colonialists and making plans for a new nationalist culture, a new national, ethos — because independence comes in 1947 — begin to think of physical education and physical culture, especially as influenced by Europe, as a way to reinvigorate the Indian body politic. And what happens then is they don’t want to simply import the gymnastics from Sweden or the bodybuilding from Germany or the things that are quite popular actually at the time. They don’t just want to do what the YMCA is teaching in various Indian cities because weirdly, they’re there. So what they do is they look back into their own medieval history for you physical practices that have some relationship to Indian culture, to indigenous culture. And these postures begin to make their way into group class formats that also end up becoming demonstrative in the sense that many of the early Indian yoga teachers of this period — primarily Krishnamacharya, who ends up teaching Pattabhi Jois and BKS Iyengar, who then go on to globalize the entire industry — he’s paid actually by his patron to promote yoga through demonstrations and performances to school boards, town councils, and city squares and stuff like that.
And at the same time, people begin taking photographs and as they take photographs, photography becomes the primary way in which yoga, the idea of yoga is communicated in a transcultural sense. Then we have this transition from the pre 20th century focus on internal bodily sensations to the 20th century, focus on what does the body look like in the posture. And in order to do that, or as that happens, all of these elaborate notions related to bodybuilding, related to gymnastics begin to evolve, that transform the yoga body into something that must perform a virtue through symmetry, through strength, through balance, through all of those sort of physical practices that are now the bread and butter of the industry.
That leads to what I call the landscape of somatic dominance, where the teacher is telling the student how exactly they must organize their bodies in space in order to be good, in order to be true, in order to be awake or enlightened. And then that domination becomes internalized in practitioners as well to the point where people begin trying very hard to perfect postures when these are, these are completely new ideas that have nothing to do with anything that yoga was about prior to the 20th century. And the somatic dominance also becomes explicit through training protocols that involve corporal punishment if there are children involved. And also other forms of physical discipline, including physical adjustments where teachers are manipulating students’ bodies deeper into postures that they can’t attain themselves. And that leads to injury. But it also provides cover for physical assault. And then in the worst cases it provides cover for sexual assault.
So that’s the book that I just published, about how Pattabhi Jois, who was a student of Krishnamacharya, comes out of this environment and then sexually assaults, his students pretty much every day of his working life for about 30 years. And how that’s enabled, covered over whitewashed. And that happens because of cult dynamics, which is the other thing that emerges in this modern period is that we go from very small groups of practitioners kind of learning about postures together to the entrepreneurial and charismatic model of leadership that we see in the modern yoga world.
Just to break this down a little bit, so I think, I don’t know if I said this at the actual beginning of the recording or before…. This is why I wanted to talk to you. I wanted to get this deeper understanding. So I think it’s become more commonly understood that sexual abuse and assault and just bodily violation or you know the violation of someone’s boundaries is far more common within yoga classes, then maybe people would even even…
It’s actually the norm.
It’s actually the norm. And that’s so upsetting, right? I mean, I can’t express how upsetting that really is and especially if you are a yoga practitioner like yourself. So this my question for you. So you’ve been doing this for a very long time. What I find more, almost more disturbing than the actual abuse that I’m seeing is the ways in which people rationalize gloss over, just completely excuse it. Because I see this in family dynamics where you have an abusive father, abusive whoever, and the family just sort of, well, we don’t want to cause any problems. Let’s just pretend it doesn’t exist. And we see that all kinds of group dynamics.
Or it goes farther than that. It goes, let’s pretend that it doesn’t exist. It can flip into well, actually these are signs of love.
Yeah, that’s incredibly disturbing.
And one of the cult researchers that I cite in my book and that I really appreciate as Janja Lalich who describes that particular flip in terms of… her phrase is “bounded choice” or “bounded reality” where the basic premise is that anything that the charismatic leader does is reinterpreted to be of benefit to them, to the group member or to the student or the client or whatever. So if they physically injure you, they’re teaching you something about your body, about the vulnerability of your body. If they sexually assault you, then they’re freeing your psychological hangups that have to do with sexual trauma. If they financially abuse you, then they are helping you get over the illusion that money is worth something. So there’s a number of ways. The ways of abuse rationalization or well-documented within the cult literature and they’re part of the M.O. of how groups like this end up working. I think I interrupted you.
No, I think I was just sort of pointing to… I think I was just saying something about the documentary that came out recently on Netflix about Bikram yoga. And it was interesting watching that because all the interviews they were doing with, with the women that were assaulted by him, and the other people that were there that knew what was going on, but they just, like you said, they rationalize it. They even see it as, Oh, he’s being loving. And how he is as you say, with the body posture corrections or, or touching the body, you know, when you’re writing, for instance, I read this where I think you mentioned an injury that you had where somebody pushed you into a pose more deeply and actually, you know, you injured your back. And you, I think you maybe even said that you rationalized the injury.
Absolutely. The premises of the implied consent space or those somatic dominance space is that the teacher has ownership over your body, but also mystical insight into what your body needs. And so you ostensibly abdicate agency and autonomy at the door. Like that’s the way it’s been over the last 50 years or so. I do want to make the point though, that that’s changing in the culture through some very powerful new social movements that are gaining some traction. Not enough and not fast enough, I don’t think. But, so I’ve had the personal experience of a senior teacher within the Iyengar world, which is kind of like the, I dunno, Harvard of yoga, without warning and without explaining why he was doing what he was doing, he torqued my spine in a very sort of sharp and acute fashion, to the point where there was a sound of Velcro ripping all the way up my spine. It happens so quickly and it’s so sharp and we can have paradoxical injury or pain responses, that give us mixed messages. So in my interviews with practitioners — as you know, I compiled my book and I’ve done other research projects — It’s not uncommon for the practitioner to say that it felt pleasurable to be assaulted in such a way that they would be flooded with adrenaline ori nternal opiates. What I remember is feeling this rush of warmth throughout me, as I fell to the floor actually. And my first thought was: I actually hope he comes back and does that to me on the other side.
And it was by reflecting on that, that I could really understand the capacity within those spaces for what’s known as trauma bonding, or the capacity of a victim of physical violence to actually feel neurologically that what’s better to do in a given circumstance spontaneously is to seek more care from the abuser, or to fawn in front of them or to immediately believe, because the cognitive dissonance is so radical, that what they’ve done is actually loving instead of dangerous or violating. So yeah, that’s a very clear personal experience for me. And I think it’s replicated in many of the elite environments of yoga practice all over the world, especially amongst those who professionalize into the industry because they have to do like really hard trainings with very charismatic people.
But let me turn to why does this person have power in the room? Because that’s where we get closer to the pervasion of cultic dynamics in yoga and Buddhist communities. And I think it’s super important for people who are doing ecological activism to start looking at this carefully. Because in the yoga and Buddhist worlds, there are no scopes of practice. There are no codes of informed consent for why people teach certain things or why teachers suggest interventions for students. There are no regulatory agencies. There are no tests for competency. And so in unregulated environments, the only thing that has real currency is charisma. The only thing that allows a figure, usually a male figure in the yoga and Buddhist worlds to rise to some kind of prominence is the social phenomenon of charisma. And this is not a personal quality of the individual. Uh, it is a social phenomenon. It’s a way in which people respond to a particular kind of activity within a bound group.
And so what I hope my particular study of charismatic leadership and the cultic dynamics that surrounded in the yoga and Buddhist worlds is helpful for as we move deeper into collapse awareness is that we’ll be able to see that in the field of climate crisis discourse, the same kind of landscape applies. There is no sort of measurement for competency. You can’t get a degree in, in collapsology where, where you have peer-reviewed support. There are no regulatory agencies that give you permission to talk about collapsology in a legitimate or a safe way. And if somebody begins to lead a social movement in eco activism that you know, has ethical issues or becomes abusive of its membership, where’s the accountability going to be? It’s kind of like a wide open field, a wild-West field. And I hope that some understanding of what’s happening in a similar field — which is also about waking up to reality, which is also about self regulation, which is also about apparently trying to form healthy communities — I hope that data from that experience over the last 50 years will be useful here because what I see emerging in the movements that I think you and I are like very interested in and that we’re proximal to is we’re seeing the rise of charismatic figures. I’m not saying they have negative intentions. I’m not saying that I distrust any of them, but I am saying that we’ve got to be aware of the power of the charismatic phenomenon in leadership situations. And we have to be aware of how cultic dynamics function so that we don’t tear each other apart as we try to actually, you know, come closer together in community at the end of the world.
That is absolutely what I wanted to draw on in this discussion with you because I see it happening in small ways, I suppose, or an isolated cases. Like you say, there are charismatic figures. I’m not going to name particular people. It’s not really useful. But the point of that is just to say that it’s a couple of things I can see happening here. Within these doomer communities and groups, there’s a lot of amazing support groups, people that are just trying to help process the unfolding process of accepting and coming to terms with what’s happening and what the implications are for the future and all of that. But it’s become really interesting to me. I’ve been really reflecting on this more and more in my life. I grew up in a religious environment in which the apocalypse was a very real thing that within my lifetime, Jesus Christ will come back, the second coming is happening, the anti antichrist will be coming within my lifetime. All of these things, right? I was from a very young age, told this and then.
I did not know that Patrick, I’m sorry.
No, it’s okay. No, it’s just, it’s fine. It’s something that’s incredibly common and I think in the United States, there’s a lot of that happening in general. But what I thought was interesting is that, you know, that was really deeply imprinted in me. So I wonder how much of my interest in the apocalypse is tied to this religion.
Now you just mentioned that you’re not comfortable naming names, but if you’re comfortable with me talking about a particular figure, I’d like to do so, not in a way that like impugns them, but I think it’s really good to have concrete examples. So I’m going to talk about Roger Hallam for a moment who I’ve never met, but who has risen to a kind of prominence within Extinction Rebellion. And here’s what I’ve noticed: he is incredibly compelling for me to listen to. I could listen to him all day. I mean, I’m not sure about that, now. There was a time where I was like: I want to listen. I want to listen to this guy speak. I want to be inspired by his gritty, existentialist realism. I want to soak up his Welsh-green-thumb-organic-farming wisdom, right? Like, I want all of this. I want all of this stuff. And I know because I’ve been in many different groups, that the power of that capacity for articulation and to inspire people is at the heart of why people gather.
Now, here’s the thing, is that when I step back a little bit and I look at the three demands of XR: Tell the truth: that governments have got to declare climate crises, that we have to commit to net zero carbon by 2025, and that we’re going to put citizen assemblies in place in order to make all decisions and depoliticize, this apolitical issue. Um, so great. At first I go, Oh, they actually have a plan, right? Or they actually have a series of policies. But then when you go and dig a little bit deeper and you look at the first principle of “tell the truth”, and then you start looking at how the group has mobilized the research of Chenoweth in a way that’s inaccurate…. In a way that applies an argument about civil disobedience in the overthrow of oppressive regimes and tries to apply it to liberal democracies, for getting people to vote differently or something like that. And you realize that that doesn’t work. And then you realize that the second premise, that we have to get people, we have to get governments to go net zero by 2025 just ain’t gonna happen. Like it’s just not anywhere close to being reasonable to believe that that’s going to happen. And as an aspirational demand it’s okay.
But here’s the thing: how many young people are super-gluing their hands to train rails or whatever in the belief that the Chenoweth research is validly applied in this discourse, and in the belief that it will be possible for net zero to be achieved by 2025. If young people are stirred by charisma to make unreasonable or uninformed choices, we have the beginnings of cultic dynamics. Because what happens is that people are actually deceived by what’s going on. They may not understand that the demands are aspirational. They may not understand that the decision-making process of XR is not transparent. They may not understand that they’re not actually engaging in a community dialogue in which everybody has their cards on the table.
Whenever I’m in an XR environment, and I have a question about policy that I ask, what invariably happens is that the group leader will say, “I can communicate with you about that privately.” I’ve had that answer over and over and over again. And that’s a red flag for me because, because cultic dynamics emerged in secret. They emerge when the membership doesn’t know what the leadership is doing. Does anybody really understand how “holocracy” works or how the decision-making process of XR is actually being deployed? I haven’t met anybody who’s given me an explanation for that and I’ve asked a lot of questions. And so what we have to understand about cultic dynamics — and I’m not saying XR is a cult, I’m saying that these dynamics can begin to emerge where there’s a lot of social charge around a particular issue and where there’s charismatic leadership — cultic dynamics begin to emerge when people do things because they’re deceived.
Do you really need to tell the 19 year old person to get arrested while chanting “We love the police?” While they’re being kettled or while they’re being deprived of their wheelchairs or while they’re not being allowed to go to the bathroom. To what extent do we have middle-aged charismatic figures telling young people to sacrifice themselves on dubious pretences. Also when the money is not transparent — like everything that XR does is, is crowdfunded, right? — I actually appreciate a lot of this movement, but I just want to communicate to the listeners that when you don’t feel that a group is being transparent with you and when there is charismatic leadership at play, follow your instincts and ask really good questions. And if you don’t get answers, then there’s something fishy going on. And if there’s something fishy going on, there might, there’s probably manipulation. And people are probably ending up committing to things that then produce sunken costs, cognitive dissonance, and then they don’t feel like they can back out of. And the three gateways for cultic analysis or standards for assessing cultic dynamics would be deception as to what the group is doing and what the leaders actually want, dependence that people have upon the group, whether it’s emotional, financial, psychological or whatever, and then a dread of leaving. Like, what would you give up if you left? So I hope that that cult analysis language is destigmatized enough through conversations like this that we can honestly look at the health of our communities as we form them in resistance, in the quest to nurture resilience.
I feel like my comment about my own personal history with this, I just want to clarify something really quickly, which is just this: I really want people to acknowledge something about the climate crisis and the existential despair dread that comes with it, that it actually can produce something like, it sounds very strange, but a religious experience. And that’s something that I wanted to just acknowledge. And so particularly with the climate crisis, it’s absolutely real. I’m not discrediting, I’m saying, you know, I’ve made my opinions and my thoughts on it very clear. But I do want to acknowledge that I do get the sense from people that this is like a truly an apocalyptic in the religious sense subject for many people. Um, whether or not you’re like a God fearing person or whatever. It’s not about that particular side of the religious experience.
But it does say something about our general view of human beings and human nature. And I think that our view of human nature can often be so skewed as to make room for what you mentioned there with Extinction Rebellion or other people and other groups that can make space a certain kind of politics, a certain kind of group dynamics, power dynamics that if not adequately addressed, and like you said, having more of this, normalizing the language around cult dynamics, culting behaviors, then we could actually identify it and we can speak out against it and we can then do what we can as activists as those that are conscious of this to steer people away from very abusive group dynamics that don’t really get us anywhere except to just confuse and I guess maybe lead to some sort of abuse as well within these these contexts. It’s something I’m very much on alert now because I think we are shifting right now. I could say that, you’re aware of the data. I feel like we have crossed very specific tipping points just in the past year or two. So I think we’re heading into a state here in the next several years of accelerating change and we don’t know what that’s going to look like or feel like exactly. But we can certainly make an assessment that it’s probably not going to be good for certain.
I just want to honour the fact that you’re transparent about this tendency, within yourself, but also in the general discourse that climate collapsology proposes a kind of spiritual doorway for people. And that’s super important to understand because, I acknowledge that too, it means that for me as well, like it changes everything about my life yet again. And at the same time, I know that once people walk through that doorway, they are in a sociology that has vulnerabilities attached to it, and we’ve got to be really aware of what kind of discourse we’re moving out of and then into.
So one example that is really interesting for me in terms of this transition from a data-driven discussion to a psychologically drip driven discussion is watching what’s happening with Positive Deep Adaptation, and the group inspired by the work of Jem Bendell. So he releases this paper. It’s been downloaded half a million times. I’ve never met him, but that is a charismatic event. He becomes a charismatic figure now suddenly, or at least very quickly. The implications of that paper provoke intense… that’s what the paper is about too. It’s like: I’m familiar with data and I’m an academic and I think that we’ve got to make a transition as data crunchers to this emotional reality that our rational appraisal of things has almost suppressed. And so that’s embedded in the paper. And then people have those responses to the paper as well. And then suddenly he’s catapulted into this position in which it’s almost expected that he’s supposed to provide some sort of psychological wisdom for people. And then he starts doing interviews where like he’s talking to Joanna Macy and they’re talking about feelings and spirituality and how to cope.
And what I’m seeing is that certain climate figures are becoming spiritual leaders. And that might be appropriate. There might be no other way for it to happen. But what I want to say from my experience in the yoga and Buddhism worlds is that when you move into a kind of spiritual leadership, there’s all kinds of things that you want to be aware of because it’s a really vulnerable environment. And the first thing to be aware of is like, what’s your scope of practice? Like what’s your actual expertise? You know, if you’re going to start talking about psychology or psychotherapy or Buddhism in an online format that’s very performative because there’s 50,000 people watching you, what kind of training do you need to do that in a safe way? How are you going to manage aspects of your charisma?
Like, this is something that I want to talk more to Dahr Jamail about because as soon as he starts getting into what he got into with the interview that you did with him, I’m like: people are gonna flock to you, dude. As a kind of sage and I think you’ve earned it. Like, that’s my impression so far. I think you’ve earned it, but I don’t know if there’s anything in your background or your education that’s gonna provide you with, that’s going to prepare you for the amount of bullshit that gets sent your way and the amount of transference and the feelings that that’s going to produce. And whether or not that’s going to be gratifying to you in ways you’re unconscious to.
It’s like: there’s nothing I love more than listening to how he has oriented his life and how his story is going. I’ve never met him in person, but I love this guy and I can imagine that so many other people do as well. And that’s something that I hope he really gets support with because when a lot of people start loving you, weird shit happens. And so, I hope that all of these people, I hope that all of these people get reach out and get support from psychotherapists and people who know, understand group and cultic dynamics and start educating themselves on how do you diffuse that stuff because it’s going to be super important.
You know, the rules would be: Don’t ever speak out of your expertise, ever. Do not speculate. Never ever come close to doing anything that’s deceptive. Make sure your money is completely transparent. If you’re going to sell something, you know, be very clear about why you’re selling something. If you’re going to start leading group classes in something or hosting, talking circles or something like that. Be aware that people train in doing group therapy for years before they’re allowed to do it legally. This stuff isn’t a joke. And then there’s a whole bunch of like really earnest people who are moving into this kind of spiritual territory. And I’m here to tell you that fucking landscape is a mess. And it has been, and it has been over the last 50 years, so I don’t think it needs to continue that way, but, but we can certainly learn a lot, that’s for sure.
I was just smiling and laughing about Dahr in particular. I know him pretty well at this point. So I will say, he’s the one, for instance, I mentioned my interview with Milton Bennett. He’s the one that hooked me up with that guy about culting in particular because Dahr is very conscious of this. And doing his own work in journalism for as long as he has and seeing just this whole spectrum of human nature, the human condition — I’ll speak confidently as his friend that he’s very much in tune with what you’re saying. I hope he listens to this episode and appreciates what we’re saying right now because he and I have had numerous conversations about this very thing.
He is such a great example of the power of integrity becoming potentially becoming a charismatic phenomenon. It’s just like, here’s a guy, he speaks in full paragraphs, right? Broad, beautiful, you know, late-Texan accent that’s been like burnished by all his world travels. And so there’s something super compelling about listening to the guy and that is power, and power makes for responsibility. And so, I’m really happy to hear that he’s tuned into that and not surprised too cause like, you know, he’s super smart.
That’s the thing, right? And that’s the real challenge that I would pose on an individual level to those in these positions that they kind of get thrust into. It’s of course a combination of personal decisions they make to get there, but it’s also thrust upon them and it’s absolutely imperative that it’s your sacred responsibility to not fuck over people in their vulnerabilities, in their most vulnerable space. Like nothing is more reprehensible to me and more disgusting, then when I hear about these yoga practitioners you mentioned taking advantage of women in particular, but human beings in a very general sense in their most vulnerable spaces, literally the most vulnerable physical position they could be in.
Understanding trauma on a certain level, it really deeply, it’s repulsive and even makes me feel almost violent in my reaction to it because it’s really the worst thing a person can do. It’s one thing to be able to work with somebody and be abusive on almost a level playing field, if that makes sense. Like you’re you and I’m me and I’m going to be abusive. It’s another thing when you take advantage of people in these very vulnerable spaces, which is what these people do. And so I think, just to tie this into the climate crisis and the very vulnerable spaces that people are entering into, if you are a person that is engaging with this material on a spiritual level, on a scientific level, however you’re doing it I or anybody in my work that I respect, if we sense that you’re a snake oil salesman or that you’re trying to take advantage of people’s vulnerability, I promise you that we’ll call you out publicly. Like it has to be done.
Matthew, you’re so good at that. I read this article that you published about going to, I think it was back in 2017 I wish I could remember the name of it. You went to a yoga class, in the capacity of writing your book and being a journalist, you were like, you experienced trauma-bonding and you witnessed it in a group dynamic and that person, that yoga practitioner was calling you out and abusing you in front of everybody. And like I have no patience for that shit anymore or ever. I mean, I guess I’ve come to a place personally where I’m like, I have no patience for that. So I think specifically in the work that I’m doing with this podcast, in my own capacities with it there has to be a point where you have to call people out in a good way. I mean, there’s a way to do it where it’s appropriate, but there’s a way to do it where you’re able to articulate and point to this very specific reasons why these people are taking advantage of others in their most vulnerable states. That is not your responsibility. That is not what you’re supposed to be doing right now. And so I just want to say that clearly now that we’re talking about this particular subject, that that’s my, that’s my end of it.
And the vulnerability of the yoga posture that the person is in and then is assaulted… I think there’s a real analogy there. It’s a microcosm of the sort of catatonic, sometimes paralyzed and fetal position of grief and despair that many people feel themselves to be is all the time in relation to climate collapse. People are, people are super vulnerable and the leaders that they reached to have to be like, exemplary and their ethics and in their standard of care. And one thing that I want to… I don’t know how much more time you have, but I wanted to make sure too that I highlighted the, the potential vulnerability of how Buddhist and yoga discourse might start to enter — I think it’s already started to enter —eco-activism. I mean, there’s some good parts to that. So I think the work of Joanna Macy is really effective and it’s been helpful for so many people. Catherine Ingram is also well-learned in Buddhism, and I think she uses that in a really good way.
But I want people to know that Buddhist communities over the last 30 or 40 years have been racked by scandal and abuse. And most of that is unacknowledged or unresolved. And so when Buddhist teachers start showing up in ecoactivist spaces, providing wisdom or knowledge or what have you, some of that might be really useful, but I want people to be aware and vigilant to the fact that if organizing principles begin to grow around these figures, you want to look carefully at where they’re coming from. Because when Buddhist communities fall apart because of abuse crises, those teachers have to go somewhere. They’ve got to work somewhere else.
And what I’m starting to see is some of those folks showing up in eco-activism circles because that’s where they can sell their books or their programs or their meditations or whatever. And so just take things with a grain of salt, right? Like, I don’t wanna, you know, make people freaked out about everybody else because there’s enough horizontal hostility. But, you know, if somebody is claiming to have answers with regard to community health and critical thinking, take a look at where they’re coming from because, you know, if they belong to the Shambhala community or the Rigpa Buddhist community or something like that, then you know, you will want to know what kind of work they did to recover from the compromise of that institutional abuse.
I would ask this of you actually, if you could maybe provide something. So this could fit really easily within these Buddhist communities, yoga communities, and in these eco activist circles as well… When it comes to these dynamics, you mentioned, if there are things that maybe very specific signs of things that people can look out for. Because we’re talking about it in pretty general sense. We have some specific examples that are may very particular to yoga practitioners specifically with body and consent and boundaries and all of this, but maybe within a more general sense. So if people can have a takeaway, I guess you could say from this discussion of like what to look out for, both in positive ways. I think you mentioned something about Extinction Rebellion in a general sense: transparency is extremely important in these group settings and in these organizations. I completely agree. Look out for that, have respect for that. Try to embody that. If you are in fact leading a group, be very transparent in what you do know and what you don’t know. Don’t pretend to be something you’re not. Don’t pretend to be an expert in something you’re not. But as far as like abusive, potentially abusive, um, group dynamics, I mean, what can you point people towards?
A very simple model for looking at a group dynamics from a cultic studies perspective would be Steve Hassan’s BITE model where he describes the elements of behavioral, informational, thought, and emotion control. There are lists of examples that he provides where you can pretty easily sort of assess whether or not the group that you’re involved with is asking you to behave, asking you to control any of those aspects of your experience. Cathleen Mann has a model called the MIND model where, uh, she describes the group dynamics of manipulation, negation and deception. And then the “I” I’m forgetting, that’s embarrassing, but you can look up Cathleen Mann and the MIND model.
Probably the most breakthrough text that I’ve come across in terms of de-stigmatizing normalizing and making more accessible, the whole cult studies genre is Love Terror and Brainwashing by Alexandra Stein where she uses the principles of attachment theory to describe how cultic organizations rewire members for a disorganized attachment, which in the simplest terms is really the confusion between love and terror.And this speaks a lot to the capacity for cultic groups to nurture trauma bonding where members are actually always feel compelled to move towards the abuser because they also believe that the abuser is providing love or an answer or a safe Haven. So there are resources that people can look for.
You’ve really skillfully summed up the need for looking at transparency. The transparency also should be about where the leader is coming from, what their background is and what they actually have competency in speaking about. In the yoga and Buddhist worlds, it’s really hard to suss out who knows what because often people are quoting from Sanskrit or Pali or Tibetan and it’s hard for most people to know whether they’re competent or not. So I think that that climate science can actually be manipulable in the same way. People who have research positions where they have a certain level of education can be automatically endowed with a kind of authority that lay people can’t really assess. So that’s something to look at too.
If people become more aware of the processes of idealization and transference and countertransference — that’s very helpful that if you get involved in a group where the leadership or the ideology is framed as being total or all-good or unquestionable. That’s really difficult if you can’t ask questions openly, if you can’t offer critique in a way that’s received with openness. These are red flags.
I wrote this article about how Buddhist organizations and yoga organizations over the last 50 years have been plagued by abuse histories. I think it was the title was like, if you’re an eco-activist looking to Buddhism for answers, here’s some things to be aware of. And it wasn’t about Buddhism, it was about Buddhist organizations and about how many of them have failed their members in terms of safety and protection. I posted that article to Positive Deep Adaptation and there was nothing but, “Hey, thanks. That’s really good information. Wow. That really opened my eyes to something. I’m really grateful for that. That’s really cool.”
Then I posted it to Extinction Rebellion Buddhists page and there was a discussion about whether or not they were going to delete it — a long discussion about like whether my article was disrespecting the Dharma or something like that. That’s not a good sign. Like, you’re kind of proving my point guys.
And so if there’s resistance to critique or if people want to privatize difficult discussions, move them offline, or situations where they’re out of the public eye, that’s a red flag. If there seems to be a concentration of social power that’s gathering around an ideology, you know, start asking questions, right? Like: Did you want to belong to a human community or did you want to belong to an activist community? You know, does it make sense to really pour money into somebody’s online platform who’s located in England when you don’t even know who your neighbours are? You know what I mean? So yeah: think locally, be aware of the impact of charisma, demand transparency, make sure that you can ask questions, and then you’re probably going to be more confident that you’re in a power-sharing environment, instead of a manipulative environment.
My little thing I would say is: Be an anarchist question authority. You know, just question everything. I mean, obviously there’s a point where that’s obnoxious and not really helpful, but just be aware that we live in a very peculiar time. This is very peculiar time that we’re in. Just have your wits about you. I know it’s difficult. This is a very difficult time to be alive, I would say for its own very specific reasons, but have your wits about you and there’s plenty of people like I think you and probably many others that you’ve cited as well that provide the tools and the frameworks to understand these things. And so I just asked people to.
Hopefully, hopefully a little bit, yes.
Well I think your, your writing is beautiful and that you come from a deeply compassionate place. And I imagine for you it was as much a personal journey as anything else to come to terms with these things. So I do admire you for that. That does take strength and courage. You are calling out people very specifically for their abuses and abusive people act abusively. So when you start to really talk openly about it, it creates all kinds of blowback. So I do want to say I admire you for that courage that you have demonstrated in that.
Thank you Patrick and just returning the compliment. I think you’re doing great work. It’s a great podcast, amazing series of people. And it’s changed my life for the better. So thank you for that.
1. It’s Not Just Men
In YTT groups, I introduce the theme that the last century of global yoga has largely run on the fuel of “somatic dominance” by which teachers assume possession and authority over student’s bodies, and the body itself is an object of surveillance and discipline that must perform its virtue.
In discussion, most groups rightly dive into truths about male violence, male charisma, bullying, and sexual assault.
So then I trouble the gendering of that story a little by showing clips from this Jivamukti class from 2014. Check out the teacher’s entrance into the space after about 20 minutes of fawning speeches.
Take a look at that bowing sequence. You can’t see the whole room but I assure you everyone is bowing right back in this parody of Tibetan monkdom. I know that’s where it’s from because they started the bowing thing after teaming up with Michael Roach over a decade ago. But he never took it that far. The teacher seems to be making intrusive eye contact with every person in the room; Roach never bothered with that. (Maybe he didn’t have to, being male and 6’+, 200+ lbs.)
After I show the clip I ask:
What would it cost you socially to be in that room and not mirror the teacher with the bowing thing?
What would it cost you to chew gum, slouch on your mat, blow a fart, or yell out “Hey, are we getting started yet or WHAT”?
People get the point. They know they would feel way out of line, which is another way of saying that they’d feel controlled.
What I believe the teacher is doing here, unconsciously but habitually, is establishing a coerced “habitus” (via Bourdieu, very nice intro video below), or rules of somatic behaviour or ethos for that space.
Right from the beginning of class, there is a contagious way to be there. It’s sophisticated, because it looks like respect, surrender, and even gentleness. And the teacher and some students might even feel all those things deeply and authentically. But the impact is that the people in that room who show strong buy-in for what she’s doing are now under her somatic influence.
And so when, inexplicably, she lies fully on top of women at 1:57 and 1:58 or sits right down on the thighs of a woman in supta virasana at time cue 1:11:50, and gives a lecture about not finding fault in others, it’s just par for the course. Implied consent, and intimacy conflated with care.
If there’s a next stage in examining somatic dominance in Yogaland, it might involve seeing how it translated, in cycles, between generations and across genders in the 1980s and 90s, how it could be coded to express female strength and empowerment (even though it was an overflow of male violence), and how this further impeded survivors of Jois, Manos and the rest from being heard.
2. What Does Somatic Dominance Feel Like When You’re Doing It?
How would you know if your somatic dominance circuits were turned on? I’m sure it feels different for everyone, but here’s how it felt for me.
I’m using the past tense, not because I’m totally over it, but because it’s very easy to remember how I did it when I was teaching active yoga classes, which I haven’t done since about 2014. I also remember having to stop teaching in part because I was becoming more aware of my somatic dominance tendencies.
I remember distinctly crossing over a threshold into the teaching space. It could have been in the parking lot, at the front door, or in the lobby. If the studio was particularly modern and sleek and minimalist, the feeling was more acute: in some way the bare lines and white walls and flower arrangement were contagious with a kind of meticulous aesthetic attention that called perfection out of my body. I remember holding my breath more, standing up even more straight, feeling my skin glaze over with smooth hardness.
In some ways I’m describing basic somatic defensiveness via grandiosity, and I would have felt a degree of these things when stepping into any professional environment. If there was a suit involved it would have started at home with subtle fretting over how crisp my collar was going to stay on the commute — the collar signifying my armored skin.
But what made this particularly yoga-related was that as I was both holding my breath and puffing myself up, I was also aware of the pre-verbal tape-loop of all of the Iyengar instructions that were then embedded in my back-brain. In other words: I was turning basic social discomfort and self-defensiveness into a somatic virtue — a sign of transcendence over those very things.
I never met Iyengar but I’ve heard enough and I’ve met enough men like him that my gut says there were threads of intense social awkwardness and maybe even shame that the demonstration of asana mastery helped him overpower.
So the first somatic dominance is over myself. How does it pivot to take power over others?
Of the thousands of students I encountered in my classes, I’ll imagine here someone generic: male or female doesn’t matter. As soon as I instinctually identified that this person was NOT as erect as I was, I remember turning towards them and subtly doubling down, both trying to model something, and encouraging them to mirror me. I remember now with some shame the sense of gratification I had when they did mirror me, either then or in the class, and I understood it then as a good thing: that I had inspired a new confidence. But perhaps what I did in some if not many instances is that I procured a kind of compliance, and the gratification was not from having given them something, but from having their mirroring of me make me feel better about my own strained efforts to achieve comfort and dignity.
And the irony is that the person who came in slouchy or melancholic may well have been far healthier than I in their psyche-soma. If they were feeling crushed and drained of dignity that’s one thing — and I assumed this was the case for everyone — but if they were just being themselves in somatic honesty, and were able to do that because they were less bound to our systems of self-objectification, I actually disrupted that out of a projective need for bodily validation. I created a problem were there was none, and I called it yoga or mindfulness, and I got paid.
All of this took place on a subtle level that created a nameless power dynamic that normalized the standard adjustments I then went on to apply, without clear consent or even the notion of what clear consent would mean or how it could be affirmative or informed.
One more thing about how stealthy this was. We used to say “strong and soft”, which I suppose echoed the old “sthiram sukham”, and gave me at least a sense of somatic continuity with an ancient nobility. I still appreciate this double instruction, but I think it can nurture the seeds of what I’m describing above:
In the Iyengar instructions, the strength and firmness was always built first, upwards from the ground. Strong feet, knees like so, quads engaged, do something something with your perineum and navel, micromanage you rib cage and especially your floaty ribs and don’t forget the mystical kidneys etc. And after this pillar of nobility or self-defence was built, the teacher would ask you to “soften your eyes”.
What was the eye thing about? It felt interesting to have this play of tension between skeletal firmness and eyeball softness, so there was that. But I also think the soft eyes managed to spiritualize or Mona-Lisa-ize the entire presentation. So that you could be armored but also inviting and wise. So that if you were actually defending your body against your neighbour with a thousand muscular actions in your butt, you could also affect openness and intimacy with the person you were asking to mirror you.
What does this all have to do with charisma?
As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, charisma doesn’t have to look like anything in particular. It’s not how you hold yourself or defend yourself, as I’ve described here.
I believe that charisma is the somatically contagious feedback loop that initiates when all of the stuff I’ve described above begins to work to the advantage of the person performing it. And so they escalate it. Before long, it becomes their “method”. The content doesn’t matter. It could be Iyengar or it could be Ru Paul or it could be Donald Trump: charisma is the commodification of somatic defence, which, at a certain saturation point, can flip into habitual bullying.
3. Somatic Dominance, Buddhist-Style
In Yogaland, somatic dominance is explicitly part of the wellness programme, where posture is the sign of multiple levels of attainment. While lately I’m pretty consistent about pointing these critiques at “Yoga/Buddhism”, I’d like to bring out the “Buddhism” presentations of somatic dominance a little more clearly.
There’s no doubt that sitting with relative stability and stillness makes sense for whatever meditation is for whoever is practicing it. So I’m not talking here about what people do when they’re sitting at home. I’m talking about how the posture of meditation gets translated in group settings into the somatics of control. How things like stillness, erectness, a wide and/or vacant gaze, a quizzical smile — can all be virally transmitted through a group so that suddenly it feels taboo to slouch, even if by slouching you would relieve the pain in your spine.
In the crudest examples, the Zen master literally beats you with a stick to force your posture into compliance. But how much more effective is it if you can encourage the student to straighten themselves, through manners alone?
I remember distinctly walking into Karme Choling in about 1995 and developing a wicked headache and backache from sitting up way too straight to listen to the warrior talk. I had no idea what was going on inside me, and no tools for investigating it. It would be decades before I understood the coercive stiffness at the root of the culture and its links to repression.
Trungpa himself modelled upright posture in most of his talks. They called him “perky”, “inscrutable”, “spacious” and other things, when the truth was that he had to maintain that posture as a defence against being shit-faced drunk most of the time. He was erect because if he wasn’t he’d fall over. Of course he had to bring this somatic control into all areas of life. I’m sure teaching people to use utensils as though they were on the set of Downton Abbey helped keep a lot of them from keeling over into their plates.
When the next year I was brought to a Michael Roach event I interpreted the same feelings of erectness as excitement or “receptivity”, especially in relation to the more natural transference that overcame me. The Shambhala shrine room explicitly reminded me of 1970s Sicilian Catholic kitsch, so I was less inclined to interpret the Shambhala headache positively. Michael’s group was fringey and boho, so the headache I got from all the sitting there was more easily interpreted as a “blockage” related to my own hang-ups.
If I had had the tools I would have understood that what was really happening was a new form of repressive behavioural control. There were proper ways to be in Michael’s presence. You could deviate from those ways in your body if the deviations expressed special insight or closeness to him. That’s why we watched Ian Thorson tremble and spasm and bark and quiver and sometimes even fall over out of meditation posture and chalked it all up to his devotion to Michael tickling his kundalini. I didn’t know him in the last ten years of his life, but back then I don’t remember anyone asking whether he needed medical care.
Most of us weren’t as “blessed” as Ian. We sat upright and still and got filled up with instructions to such an extent that there was no room for internal questioning, let alone breaking the spell in the room with any kind of challenge.
This happened in other contexts as well, subtler ones, and way closer to home. I remember the first time I hired my friend Michael Stone to teach at Yoga Festival Toronto. I passed by the room as they were setting up and 50 people surrounded him, all sitting stock still, mirroring him, arranged like a Renaissance painting. This is just part of what made his chaotic death so shocking to almost everyone.
As for myself: I remember leading meditation classes where I would open with the basic instructions about sitting upright, but then also model that uprightness myself, and lay it on thicker than I actually felt like doing, and then continued to straighten and ground and whatever as the people around me mirrored me.
And I kept going as I felt the relief of having others validate the sublimation of my bodily anxiety and shame.