YO: The term Spiritual Bypassing (SB) is becoming more common – what does it mean?
MR: I want to say up front that I’m not that fond of how the term is used. Typically it reinforces an individualistic diagnosis of what’s really social problem. I’m a cult survivor and that’s my research area, and so my approach is to look at SB not as something individuals do because they’re psychologically lazy, but as something they are taught to do by spirituality organizations that benefit from indoctrinating them into the idea that their product will answer all questions.
That said; SB is when a spiritual ideology, jargon, or community leader encourages a person to believe that all problems are solved or solvable. But what’s really happening is that the person is avoiding or defending against more obvious and entrenched psychological or physical wounds.
In the worst cases, bypassing techniques assert that everything – including illness, violence, and sexual abuse – is divine or a manifestation of Oneness. There’s no need to confront abuse or seek medical help because these so-called problems are just part of the greater illusion of life.
Bypassing can be private: “My clinical depression is an issue between me and God/spirit/karma,” or interpersonal: “If only I worked on my relationship with God/spirit/karma my experience of racism or domestic violence would be purified.” It encourages surrender over resistance and boundary-setting. It denigrates critical thinking as defensive against the “Truth”, before which one should simply bow in ecstasy.
Above all, SB doesn’t serve the person: it serves the ideology and the group that promotes it. If members of a yoga group with cultic dynamics believe that its teachings about the divine answer all questions, the group authority is strengthened. With critiques and questions discouraged, individual agency is weakened.
YO: How would I know if I’m Spiritually Bypassing?
By definition, bypassing is unconscious, so it’s hard, if not impossible, to know when you’re doing it. All the more so if you’ve been manipulated to do it, which is what happens in high-demand groups.
That said, there are red flags:
- If you feel “engulfed” by a method or community, such that it becomes your main and constant reference point for reality, it doesn’t matter what you’re actually being taught. What matters is the closing-off of other perspectives.
- If the above happens really fast
- If the group demands that you radically change your behaviour or daily schedule
- If you’re encouraged toward a monochromatic feeling-state, i.e. always neutral or content
- If a group places exhausting demands on your time, money, or emotional labour.
Ultimately, the defenses against SB are the same as defenses against groups with cultic dynamics. Very hard to deploy in the moment, but easier to practice for with basic education.
YO: Are there certain types of people that are more at risk? Certain activities?
MR: Bypassing isn’t a character flaw or cognitive error. Nobody would choose to bypass if they could see it clearly, and they don’t see it clearly because they’ve usually been unduly influenced.
That teaching might come really early. In my case, the Baltimore Catechism informed my Catholic childhood, so the idea of following instructions from a religious leader seemed normal. In adulthood, high-demand groups were able to manipulate my tendency to trust. But the teaching lands in different ways; plenty of my schoolmates didn’t wind up in cults.
Bypassing, or recruitment to a cult, can happen to anyone because everyone is vulnerable to manipulation. The one thing cult literature does say is that some situations can increase your vulnerability. For example, the stress of a family death, divorce, or lost job might make you more susceptible to someone peddling a totalizing solution.
YO: In the West, Yoga often emphasizes self-improvement over spirituality. Does that mean we’re not at risk of spiritually bypassing?
MR:The content isn’t as important as the function, in my opinion. With cults, you might be employing group devotion to avoid individual problems. At yoga class, you might be using individual practises to avoid group or societal problems.
A yoga studio can be this weird place where you do something together but remain alone, boundaried by a strip of rubber, a Mona-Lisa smile, and a fixed gaze. The premise is that “going inside” is all that’s needed for your life — and all life — to improve. That can be framed in the jargons of self-improvement or spirituality, equally.
YO: What if you’re coming to yoga for therapeutic reasons rather than transcendent – is there anything wrong with that?
MR: Not really. However, people who are super-interested in history and cultural appropriation might start looking carefully at how therapeutic ideals can begin to occlude older values of practice that carry indigenous understandings. Indian practitioners prior to the 20th century were not particularly interested in wellness or self-care or functional movement: all of which are easily co-opted into the productivity addictions of neoliberalism. I think we all want to be careful that our self-care isn’t about making us more adaptable to the stress of late capitalism and the precariat.
YO: In other writings, you mention that yoga offers individualistic practices when what people need are relational practices. But isn’t going to a yoga class, or staying in an ashram, a communal experience? What is missing?
MR: Yoga and meditation in group classes is a 20th century phenomenon. Prior to this, practitioners would have shared experiences in ashram settings, and this might have been really nurturing — I don’t know.
But for the most part modern yoga and global Buddhism do a lot of religious work for neoliberalism: practices are for the individual, and must be carried out by the individual in order to be successful. When Pattabhi Jois says: “Just do your practice, and all is coming,” he’s not just exercising limited English to suppress critical thinking, he’s also laying the groundwork for yoga people to believe that what you do on your mat is the primary shaper of your reality.
When this is exported to and then proliferates through the US scene, for example, it becomes particularly worrisome, because many people are using yoga etc. as primary care in the absence of adequate health insurance.
YO: How does this relate to spiritual bypassing?
MR: It’s the idea that internal focus is the primary pathway to healing or justice. You can really get lost in that and avoid looking at all kinds of ways in which you’re being oppressed or traumatized by concrete and material relationships.
YO: In your book about Pattabhi Jois’s Ashtanga community – Practice and All is Coming – you talk to victims of sexual abuse, and also community members in denial of the abuse. Which of these groups is engaging in spiritual bypassing?
MR: Denial and bypassing might be synonymous. Members who rush to defend a leader who is obviously causing harm could be a serious example of spiritual bypassing. However, they could also be motivated by other reasons: safeguarding their positions within the community, defending against cognitive dissonance, or protecting sunken costs.
As for the victims of abuse, spiritual bypassing may be what initially motivated them to stay in an abusive relationship with their teacher. But survivors who find the support to be able to speak out are doing the opposite of bypassing. They’re forcing a confrontation with a material history and reality. They are providing reality-checking. In that sense, they are the spiritual teachers of our age, calling both individuals and organizations into transparency.
What would spirituality mean, if not transparency?
It was Brian Culkin who first got me thinking in socio-economic terms about modern yoga. He talks about yoga as the de facto religion of neoliberalism: preaching individualistic empowerment through flexibility, adaptability, leaning-in to challenges, self-reliance, lowering expectations for structural support and change, and creating facsimiles of community where real communities used to be. Later, my thinking was bumped along by an amazing essay by Lavrence and Lozanski on how Lululemon, especially in earlier days, wove these themes into its athleisure fabrics and stitched it all up with random orientalist clichés.
Along this trajectory it became clear that yoga infrastructure was inseparable from urban gentrification. I remember Diane Bruni telling me how much rent Downward Dog had to pay for its two-studio space in Toronto’s Parkdale in the mid 2000s. It was something like 10K/mo. She said that making that rent in the summers was touch-and-go. I was shocked: this was Toronto’s most popular/lucrative yoga space, and they were just hanging on? Moreover: this was their second home.
They had moved west and down-rent along Queen St. from their first space on Spadina, which was in a building that used to house garment factories. So the studio itself owed its birth to the shuttering of manufacturing in Toronto’s downtown core. They practiced in the rooms that used to make the clothes that they practiced in. Downward Dog was actually featured by Naomi Klein in the first pages of No Logo, who gives it as an example of who and what moves into a North American urban space when jobs get shipped to the lowest-paying labour market.
I’m willing to bet that the majority of iconic early urban yoga studios have a similar history. That’s what gives them their forlorn beauty: large empty spaces with exposed brick and plumbing and refinished b-grade hardwood floors, often stained with machine grease, now a patina, or fabric die. When they were manufacturing spaces, all of the aesthetic elements were signs of frugality: now they indicated rawness or authenticity. This didn’t even have to be urban: the first studio I co-owned was in Baraboo Wisconsin, pop 12K. It was in the former cafeteria space of a shuttered engine coil factory.
These are spaces in which people used to make things. Now the product is the aspirational self.
Downward Dog couldn’t afford the rent hike in the old Spadina building, so they moved out to the edge of the gentrification wave sweeping west into Parkdale. Who moved into their old space? A dot-com, of course! And then, like every studio in the gentrification landscape, DD had to diversify its product, always anticipating the next overhead rise.
The pious love to complain about runaway commercialization in the yoga industry, as if teachers and studio owners were uniquely greedy or venal. What they miss in a cloud of unprocessed shame is that it’s also a function of survival in a post-material, post-labour, service economy-centered world. I’ll bet that if someone runs the data some day, it will show that the growth curve of teacher training programmes and niche classes (pre-and-post natal, kids yoga, and now yoga for trauma survivors) maps perfectly onto the rise of overhead for yoga spaces.
The industry is not only filling consumer needs, it is creating programming to fill and pay for increasingly expensive spaces, owned by hedge funds. Another bet I’d take: the proliferation of 500-hour YTT programmes historically begins not only after the first waves of 200-hour YTT grads emerge between 2000 and 2010, but also in conjunction with the expiration of 5-year leases. When studio owners considered whether to sign on for another 5 years at a steep rent hike, many figured they could make it work by creating even more programmes in which people could “deepen their practice”. “Deepening their practice” became correlated with “managing my debt load.”
The globalization/commercialization/complexification of modern yoga (and Buddhism, etc.) is not some sign of moral decay so much as a feature of globalization itself, which outsources both slavery and trash to the most marginalized while making those at the centre feel as though they are living a reasonable and ethical life. As you sit in retreat and meditate on When Things Fall Apart, you can enjoy some real psychological benefit. But you can also be really effectively closing your eyes to where and how things are *actually* falling apart. This reaches peak irony if you do it in Costa Rica.
While the world is catching fire, Gen Ys and millennials are asked to increase their levels of self-inquiry and self-work in an increasingly precariat landscape. Their efforts to pay off student loans with gigs and side hustles mute all kinds of news from the Global South, where their clothes are made, and Greenland, where the glaciers are calving. They use credit cards to pay for time on the hamster wheel of self-inquiry and self-improvement while their consumption of self-inquiry / self-improvement products is expanding their carbon debt.
It’s not like the yoga world has accelerated the carbon crisis, but it is poignant to consider that in the crucial decades in which something could have been done, an entire generation of liberals was encouraged to spend money on self care in environments designed to give the impression that everything was fine and the only real problem was mental hygiene.
My job, made-up and largely accidental, can be really demoralizing. You pull on the Jois thread, or the Manos thread, or the Trungpa thread, and so many things unravel in your hands, to the point where you can wonder what is left. It seems endless.
And yet maybe — because it’s happening now — it’s also predictive.
Perhaps the ongoing collapse of spiritualities in the neoliberal era is a microcosmic sign. Theodora Wildcroft has shown that the sociology is expressing a profound shift: everything we relied on for authority and authenticity in modern yoga culture — historical beliefs, medical/scientific beliefs, moral beliefs — is in crisis. Aren’t these the same beliefs that on a macro level have kept industry and capital flowing? Hasn’t the entire culture been telling itself that its history is justified, its technology is salutary, and its morality is assured? On the basis of what? Temporary positive returns for the privileged?
The story of late capitalism itself carries a yoga overtone: that everything can infinitely rise and expand and converge in oneness. But the promise of globalized orientalism through yoga wellness and Buddhist moral rectitude is showing its cracks. Perhaps the interlocking crises Wildcroft describes, catalyzed mainly by women sick of abuse and betrayal, suggest that the yoga world on the whole is a canary in the broader coal mine of the world.
If yoga and Buddhism promised us a more connected and beneficent world, it did so in conjunction, functionally and psychologically, with the oneness and convergence promises of globalization. Survivors of yoga and Buddhist groups are telling us how those promises have been emptied out, and what we must now do to repair things. They share a voice with climate refugees, the bees, and sea coral.
Listening to survivors is actually a survival test.
It will soon be a matter of common knowledge that the integrity of globally successful yoga and Buddhism brands founded by charismatic evangelists have been grossly compromised by histories of abuse.
We don’t have to name names: they’ll just come to mind. Fill in the blank of “The ______ yoga community”, and you will likely have named an organization in which the leader and/or his/her key lieutenants have been abusers.
In some cases the relationship seems to express a morbid calculus: the more abusive the leadership, the more successful the organization.
The jury is out on whether abuse prevalence is higher in globalized-Indian-convert-spirituality groups than in other groups. But we can say that in a completely unregulated landscape confounded by idealization and orientalism in which charisma is the primary coin of the realm and consumers have little if any way of assessing the competency of producers — even in matters as tender as their own bodies, psyches, and inner selves — abuse is easy to pull off and devastating in effects.
Understanding how the abuse works systemically is impossible, IMO, without diving into cult studies, which provide a robust framework for how the behaviours, information, thoughts, and emotions of group members are controlled (cf Hassan) through the manipulating strategies and deceive and negate the self (cf. Mann).
When (not if) this analysis becomes normalized, the notion that these brands and their communities “protect” a particular kind of knowledge — a language that’s emboldened by references to “tradition” or “lineage” — will start to ring hollow. It will become clear that the shadow function of the organization has been at least dual. Aside from the good the organization has done, it has used the notion of
- Protecting proprietary/precious information to…
- Protect the image of the abusers said to hold it.
The vehemence of those who protect “purity” seems to rise in direct proportion to their shame.
The pressing question becomes “Who then was doing the protecting?” The answer is that it takes all types, from the goon-enforcer all the way up to the academic who gave the group uncritical validation by overlooking its cultic machine. But here I’d like to focus on the most respectable and popular types, who continued on in their careers after abuses became known, largely without changing tack. Let’s call them the Respectable Bystanders (RBs).
Think about the teacher who is well-respected for conflicting reasons:
- They have a strong relationship to a socially viable brand (i.e., they are “traditional”), but
- They have also tacitly distanced themselves from it (they are “independent”).
They often enjoy privileged status within the group, held up as paragons of virtue, as people who got the “true” message of the teachings, as luminaries who didn’t succumb to the foibles of the corrupt leadership. They were able to “separate the teacher from the teachings”. In public they’ll maintain enough of a relationship to the group to serve as an apparently safer or saner alternative to its darker regions. At the same time the RB will profess just enough ambivalence towards the group to not be dragged down by association.
The RB is not a safe person. They managed to capture the glow from the charismatic halo, bottle it up, and repackage it. They couldn’t have done that while also saying “My teacher was an abuser and together we have to heal his legacy.” And if they spent twenty years or more not speaking out against the abuse of the community in which they went on to attain mentor status, you can bet that they didn’t pay much attention to the power dynamics they themselves were creating.
More importantly, consider whether their mentor status now positions them to “save” the brand with their maturity and guidance. That’s not just cynical on their part. It’s dangerous. Because one thing that RBs generally share with the leaders they hold at arm’s length is a grandiosity that believes their internal goodness constitutes all the learning they need.
Theodora Wildcroft was just here in Toronto beginning her first post-doctoral foray into the mainstream yoga training sphere. Her research generated the concept of “Post-Lineage Yoga”, which does many things, including describing the way in which communities practice after their leadership is compromised by abuse revelations.
Because these revelations are now ubiquitous, and because sources of authority on movement and science and history are now horizontally networked instead bestowed from above, the truth is that we are all post-lineage practitioners now.
This goes for the bystanders and enablers as well, unless somehow they sealed themselves off from all other influences. In the case of the Respectable Bystanders, they didn’t. They diluted their socio-economic links to the abusive leader in part through being open to and sometimes taking on other influences.
Wildcroft is clear that post-lineage doesn’t mean anti-lineage, which is why the term also can describe the RB. What her scholarship has done, however, is to amplify some basic transparency questions that can only improve safety in the shadow of RBs and others:
“Do you know where you stand in relation to X group/method/tradition?” “Are you clear about the conflict between benefit and harm in your heritage?” “What are you doing to help those who were hurt by the system you benefited from?”
There are several friends and colleagues I’d like to thank for helping me crack this part of the code. Ironically, naming them here would make them targets of further harassment. They know who they are.
Summary: Several prominent and combative figures on yoga social media are or have been embedded within yoga cults. This post speculates that by not disclosing these connections, and by blending or obscuring their religious agendas with anti-racist and social justice oriented concerns, these figures free themselves to harass or troll targets with impunity, in ways that preserve familiar cultic behaviours, while avoiding responsibility for their complicity in abusive organizations. Their attacks consistently express paranoia regarding the traditionality of yoga practice, in which authenticity is measured by all-or-nothing, black-and-white litmus tests for religious and ethnic purity. This paranoia combines the absolutisms of religious purity and performative wokeness, but conceals the absolutism of cultic control. It helps explain why these figures rarely if ever criticize the rising tide of Hindu nationalism and its implications for global yoga culture, and why they consistently fail to criticize malignant power structures in yoga groups. Their attacks on the “inauthenticity” of others may also be a way in which they project and act out a displaced shame over the abuses and charlatanry of their own communities, none of which are “traditional” in this globalized era.
Who Are All These Nasty Yoga People?
For about the last five years, the questions have been gnawing.
Who are all these nasty yoga people? What motivates them to harass others online?
In some ways they present diverse and even competing interests. But their basic behaviour and go-to themes glue them together. So does, I believe, a shared demographic trait: many are current or former yoga cult people, continuing their culty behaviours under the cover of spiritual integrity, and, more recently, social justice.
On the face of it, these are folks who claim special authority over the history and spirituality of Yoga (note the capital Y) which they define in terms that are equal parts simplistic, mystifying, and exclusionary. Their voices gather in comment threads, often calling each other in with long strings of tags. They gang-roll through Facebook groups, mocking and abusing seemingly anybody for a range of sins against Yoga: insufficient piety, a fixation on the body or the material world, blind participation in commodification, being too American, too millennial, too “postmodern”, failing to recognize a particular philosophical position as forever correct, or harbouring an egotistical refusal to surrender to a “qualified” teacher or some vaguely-described Absolute Truth.
They would predictably challenge their targets on their training, always implying it is inadequate. They’re really, really fixated on this point: “Who’s your teacher? Who’s your teacher?”
When this was thrown at me — “Look, look! He doesn’t have a teacher!” — it put me back on my heels. The truth was that my core experiences with teachers had been distorted by cult dynamics. I had both learned in and been abused by cultic organizations. I was ashamed of that tangled history, and I didn’t know how to talk about it. Until I came out as a cult survivor, and fully reflected that in my full bio, I didn’t know how to respond to an accusation that was accurate in one sense, but victim-blaming in another.
Being on the defensive distracted me from something crucial. While harassing me for my lack of education, the troll would usually speak as though they were a Faithful Student of Somebody. But they would never name that Somebody. This was a red flag, and I missed it.
As time wore on and I started to numb out to the personal sting of these exchanges, it became apparent that this wasn’t just random nastiness. I could begin to predict who would be ganged up on. Favourite targets included yoga scholars studying the innovations and globalization of “Modern Postural Yoga”, non-Indian professional Sanskritists who do not translate yoga texts as an act of religious devotion but as a service to history, women asana teachers who became critical of the anatomical naïveté of early 20th century asana teachers and developed smarter ways of moving — and goals for movement, like functionality and strength. If those women also criticized the abusive pedagogy of some of those early Indian teachers, they were doubly hounded.
What all targets share in common is not their beliefs, content, or commitments, but their methods and sources of validation, which are networked, peer-reviewed, and interdisciplinary. Of course, if you happened to be the scholar who stood back and collated immense amounts of data in order to describe this mode of horizontalized authority as “Post-Lineage”, well, you were also in big trouble. Because you would be rightly seen as legitimizing all this creativity and free-thinking as a real social phenomenon worthy of study.
Finally, extra vitriol was spewed all over those who worked for, appreciated, or were merely ambivalent towards Yoga Alliance. This went way beyond all of the reasonable criticisms — that the organization has been ineffective, sloppy, marred by mediocre leadership, etc. The trolls turned the Yoga Alliance employee or sympathizer into Public Yoga Enemy #1. I now suspect that this too was about vertical vs. horizontal authority. Here was non-profit actually taking steps to crowd-source ways of making yoga safer and yoga schools more accountable. Yoga Alliance is attempting to democratize an industry so far built upon charismatic pyramid schemes. It’s calling for greater oversight and higher educational standards. What kind of a person, belonging to what kind of group, doesn’t want that?
Trolling from the Left
If you have experience with spotting religious fundamentalism, such attacks might be easy to counter with something direct, like: “Wow, it looks like you brought your hereditary authoritarianism to the mat with you. Didn’t we all come here to get away from that stuff?” For yoga people committed to liberal democracy and education, it’s easy to brush off evangelical trolling.
But what happens when the trolling comes from the left, and weaponizes the language of wokeness?
That’s what started to happen a year or two into all of this. Suddenly, it seemed, the theological arguments about the One True Path You Are Obviously Not On So Too Bad Loser began to merge with the language of anti-racism, decolonization, and social justice. The posturing and aggression was eerily familiar, but the content had changed in such a way that seemed at first to be legitimate, and even irrefutable.
Who would argue, after all, that cultural appropriation was not a thing? That global yoga does not emerge from and carry with it the trauma and inequalities of post-colonial economies? That Indian culture has not been objectified and commodified for export to allow the Global North to feel spiritual about conspicuous consumption? That Desi folks in the global diaspora don’t often feel excluded from yoga spaces? That everyone who benefits from yoga, especially according to their privilege, is responsible for engaging these issues?
This shift in focus was complicated by its diversity of sources. There are many South Asian writers who present the necessity for decolonization in a compelling and solution-based manner. (I’ve linked them elsewhere but will not here, because they will be harassed if I do. Yes, that’s already starting.) Their arguments are tight and their activism empathetic. So when trolls started link-dumping these excellent think-pieces into harassment threads, they gained new social and intellectual power. In a sense, they appropriated the discourse of cultural appropriation to bolster an already-held posture of moral and spiritual superiority.
Bizarrely, this new tactic began to attract other followers, whose main commitments were in fact oriented towards social justice and anti-colonialism. This strange romance between theological purity and political progressivism led to some very strange bedfellows. Like self-identified feminist/woke yoga scholars aiding and abetting Hindu nationalists, for example.
For me, sorting out the real from the manipulative — and the manipulated — in the cultural appropriation debate has pivoted on a single puzzle: who are all these white people who have taken up the issue like a crusade? Given the often-apolitical zeitgeist of the modern yoga movement, could they truly be allies? Did they have sudden conversions to political wokeness, or are they just doing white guilt sun salutations? Why do so many have Sanskritized names? Where are they coming from? Why are they so rarely self-reflective in relation to their own privilege? Do they have any actual history and training in anti-oppression movements, or has their Yoga made them an expert in everything?
It’s going to take someone years of quiet, incognito fieldwork to answer these questions. The absence of hard data leaves a gut feeling that all is not as it seems.
It’s well-established that the oxygen of all cultic mechanisms is deception. An abuser, dominator, or high-demand group deceives the public and its members about its purpose and methods. The falsehood might look progressive, virtuous, on the right side of history, and spiritually liberating. Both leaders and members can truly believe it. The falsehood can appeal to their deepest values and motivate their unique passions and skills. That’s what the falsehood wants: to co-opt and redirect passion and skill.
Online Cultism vs. IRL Cults
Before I get too far down this road, I want to be clear: a group of online yoga trolls do not constitute a cult in any clinical sense.
As a group, they can indeed present many cultic behaviours: black-and-white thinking, circular logic, a fetish for jargon, leader/follower pathologies, and disorganized attachments that oscillate between attacking and fawning. They can definitely cause material harm to their targets. In my case, my heath was negatively impacted and I lost at least one YTT job because my employer was trolled for planning to host me. That’s nothing, of course. In more extreme online environments, like in the gaming world, women are doxxed and sent death threats for merely pointing out misogyny.
But the online yoga troll landscape has far less cohesion than the IRL yoga cult. Allegiances are fleeting and made fragile through competition, because the trolls are also using these spaces to advertise their brands. There’s huge and fast turnover of eyeballs, coming out of a seemingly limitless supply of social media users. Online trolling groups may control language, thought, and information, but crucially, there are no strong group behavioural controls, such as are deployable in ashrams. When push comes to shove, the bonds between online yoga trolls are easily frayed. Participants can disappear at any time, and no-one asks after them. With the exception of one malignant dyad, I’ve often wondered whether there are any IRL relationships between them that have become stable. Most of them haven’t met each other.
So we are talking about a herd phenomenon that wouldn’t happen outside of social media. But the herd is rag-tag, and the environment and technology are profoundly isolating. We know from the crash of Bentinho Massaro that web-based cults are fragile, whereas Narcis Tarcau can survive being outed as a rapist in the international media and be back at work in a few months, because he has IRL capital assets maintained by IRL people, sequestered in Thailand.
This brings me back to considering the individuals involved. Like the ones I referenced above who talk about having sacred teachers, but never name them. Who are they, as individuals? Where do they come from?
What I’ll propose here is speculative, because I don’t know any of these people personally. I’m offering a reflection on some prominent clues that are beginning to form a pattern. I’m writing here out of my experiential understanding of cult mechanisms. Some say that this is a narrow and obsessive lens for me. I own that, and want to be clear that what I’m proposing is by no means complete, and only one lens of many. I hope as well that by speaking from personal experience I can encourage empathy.
Here’s the thing: off the top of my head I can think of at least ten highly active yoga enforcers who are or have been connected with or committed to high-demand yoga groups.
I’m not going to name names, because my point isn’t to shame but to inform. By not naming names, however, I do risk the perception of a form of McCarthyism, creating the impression that cult people are all around us. To this I’d answer: Chill out, everyone. If you’re in the yoga world, cult people are all around you. It’s no great aberration, but rather the natural outcome of an industry that in the absence of regulation has built itself up through networks of charisma. There’s no shame in it: it’s just something we have to understand better.
Whoever you imagine is being profiled in the following list shares traits with many others. The particular details don’t matter. What matters is whether a person harasses or bullies you, whether they’re telling you the truth about their commitments and values, whether they are manipulating your sense of justice in order to exercise their control issues.
- A devotee of Amma, who, when privately asked about Amma’s politics and alleged abuses, tries to distance themselves from her. But in public, the devotee enforces a yoga purity narrative that they legitimize, in part, by their devotionalism.
- A person who spends a lot of time policing yoga authenticity and waxing poetic about the perfection of indigenous knowledge while rarely if ever discussing the fact that they followed and propped up the pseudo-Tantric cult leader named “Dharma Bodhi” (look up “Kol Martens”) for years. This sojourn isn’t listed in their bio.
- A devotee of Gurumayi Chidvalisananda (Malti Shetty) of SYDA, founded by the sexual predator Muktananda. When working as his translator, Shetty allegedly helped procure women for Muktananda to assault while he was alive, and has gilded the turd of his legacy after his death. This devotee really likes to police the traditional-ness of even their close peers. In their bio for their yoga business, they claim authority through a “spiritual teacher”, but they don’t name Gurumayi.
- A whole yoga festival was derailed by members of a yoga-and-MLM cult who deployed an anti-racism argument to amplify their outrage that their leader had her speech clumsily shortened and wasn’t sufficiently lauded as a mystic saint. They attacked the organizer without mercy for months.
- An activist who implies they were empowered by Swami Dayananda to express the one holy truth of everything, but if you ask them about their relationship to Swami, or his connections to Hindu nationalism, or how those connections are incoherent with their own social justice values, they go ballistic and turn it back on your own alleged lack of education.
- A bullying tag team who back up their “devotion” to protecting “tradition” in part through their allegiance to a student of a student of Pattabhi Jois.
- A gaggle of White Hindus who are clearly keyboard warrior-ing from the mess halls of American ashrams. They’ll never tell you where they’re from. They demand to see and judge everyone’s yoga credentials from the great beyond of jargon. Their brand of authenticity has nothing to do with personal disclosure and everything to do with litigating their faith and who can practice it.
This is not a cult. It’s a parade of people with cult issues who may be metabolizing the stress of their group experiences by finding each other, endorsing each other’s frustration, and rallying against a common enemy: anyone who’s moderately successful in the yoga world, and who shows they are free from authoritarian commitments.
Social Justice as Cover
Adopting the language of anti-colonialism and anti-racism might have earnest roots for some or all of these people. It might be baked into their lived experience as Desi women and men. And it might actually do real educational good in some cases. But I also believe it might be serving them personally within a broad range of unhealed cultic wounds:
- If they are current group members, it may serve them in the public sphere by creating an attractive and unimpeachable front for their real commitments. This involves hedging bets on whether the social capital of wokeness will surpass the social capital of being a spiritual devotee.
- If they are on the brink of leaving, it may serve them by allowing them to selectively promote the (apparently) more socially relevant content of their experience, while ignoring abuses or downplaying those parts with which they have become secretly disenchanted.
- Finally, it may serve the ex-cult member who hasn’t been to therapy or had the benefit of anti-cult resources by allowing them to release an exhilarating self-righteous revenge in all directions except that which points back to the leader or their enablers.
The language of wokeness can easily be used in the same all-or-nothing, proselytize-and-punish way that characterizes cult language. It can express absolute values that energetically dovetail with a pre-existing authoritarianism, which itself has often been bolstered by an absolutist ideology of Oneness.
The best analysis of the intersection between “Oneness” doctrines (of which yoga trolls are very fond) and authoritarianism is Alstad and Kramer’s classic book, The Guru Papers. But the very title of this now decades-old text throws gas on a particular fire where all of this complexity coalesces:
The trolls listed above consistently complain about the implicit racism of criticizing “gurus”. The guru-shishya paradigm is indigenous and traditional, they say, and essential to the preservation and transmission of yoga lineages. They are correct. But can contemporary international-celebrity charismatics be “gurus” in any traditional or premodern sense? Because I doubt this possibility, I’ve stopped using the word to describe figures like Jois, Gurumayi, Amma, Yogi Bhajan, Muktananda, etc. In terms of ethics and the outsize scale of their operations, they’re not worthy of the term.
What “guru” experience do these trolls actually have? If it’s with any of the leaders above, they are not defending “tradition” by arguing over the correct usage of the word. They are defending an authoritarian power structure they associate with safety. They are defending the way in which their leaders have propagandized themselves. They are defending their own postcolonial distortion. This is tragic, because they are likely victims of it too.
They also might be in mourning for an ideal: a protective, nurturing, intimate relationship with someone who could rightfully be called “guru”. Is such a thing possible? Anything’s possible. If it exists, it should be verifiable in some way other than in dubious claims about a students’ attainments. The least we should ask for is an absence of abuse allegations. As it turns out, this is a tall order in the yoga world, whether we’re talking about Rochester, Rome, or Rishikesh.
For cultists-cum-activists, running woke software through the old cult hardware might preserve those familiar warm feelings of self-certainty that cult participation promises, briefly delivers, and then withholds.
At the same time, it allows them to conceal the shameful source of that certainty. There’s a reason so few of these people are transparent about their teachers, even as they demand transparency from everyone else. If they are current devotees, they may feel that the abuse allegations against their leaders are a conspiracy against truth and love, but choose to maintain enough pragmatism to know that flaunting their membership carries social risk. If they are ex devotees, they might be ashamed of who they loved, and of how they harmed others with that love.
In the borderland between present doubt and past regret, generating a sense of certainty can be super-important for the cult-wounded. What else do they have, after all? Often, there are no relationships they can trust. Often they are alienated from family. If their primary commitments are religious instead of political, they might feel self-conscious and exposed in secular activist spaces.
They’ve bet everything on a leader or organization. What happens if the cracks begin to show? At least they have the “dharma”. And they have to make it work, until it can’t. And they might be enraged at anyone who doesn’t share their burden, their sacrifice for the Holy Truth.
Now: imagine that they’ve secretly gotten to the point of despair in relation to the organization or the leader. At the same time, they can’t imagine themselves leaving. Who then would be more loathsome to them than the yoga person who has no high-demand commitments, who seems to have taught themselves, who seems to be happy?
Might this be close to the root of the hatred slung at the white yoga women who they troll mercilessly? That they seem to be happy? That they’re oblivious to the pain of searching for, suffering for, and holding onto Eternal Truth? That in their sometimes goofy, consumerist, postmodern, eclectic way, they’re happy with those postures, that breathing, that mindfulness? That they are not compelled to love an abuser?
Yes, the stereotyped white yoga woman can embody privilege and all of the Stepford violence of white heteropatriarchy. But insofar as she has no authoritarian teacher nor belongs to any totalist group, she can also embody a type of secular freedom. In some ways, she’s figured it out on her own. And there’s nothing the cultist craves or fears or hates more than a person with agency.
In case it’s not clear: it totally sucks to be in a cult, or to carry unresolved cultic wounds. The harassment and manipulation presented by certain trolls comes, I’m convinced, from a combination of training and trauma. My advice is to be kind with these folks, but also boundaried.
And first: do a quick search to inform yourself. If someone you’ve never met, and who seems like a super-devout yoga person on their home page, starts attacking your integrity or education with language that’s full of jargon and blends theological demands with social justice platitudes — look them up. If they immediately launch into ad-hominem attacks, change subjects abruptly, or deflect every issue back onto you — look them up. If they seem to be energy vampires — look them up.
See what they say about themselves. If they’re showing an obsession with your background when you’re just trying to chat about something, look into their background. If they make mysterious reference to an unnamed Teacher, let your eyebrows rise. If you ask about who that teacher is and they give a weird or defensive answer, that’s a red flag.
If you find out that they’re a devotee of Amma, try to see if they’ve issued an accountability statement in response to Gail Tredwell’s book.
If you find out that they’re a devotee of Gurumayi, try to see if they’ve issued an accountability statement in relation to documented abuses and enabling at SYDA.
And so on. You get the picture.
After a few minutes of research, you might find yourself blurting out things like:
“Hey — are you really schooling me on authenticity when you’re devoted to an abusive cult leader who’s hiding out in upstate New York?”
“Are we really going to compete in the Wokeness Olympics when you’re prostrating yourself in front of rapist?”
Or maybe something a little more give-and-take, like:
“Sure, I’ll talk with you about my implicit biases and ignorance of social justice and decolonization issues. But first, can you explain to me what you’ve done to take action to repair the harm that the cult you’re in has caused?”
Saying such things out loud, however, might drive the person further into their rationalized self. It’s really hard to know what to do with these folks. In defence of my physical and mental health, my policy is to block.
However you do it, the outcome should be that you don’t feel the need to be schooled by people with grossly conflicted personal agendas. There are plenty of people who do justice work because that’s their real commitment and training. You can learn from them.
Bottom line: if a person’s activism is truly intersectional, they will have examined it and purged it of all cultic violence. If they haven’t, wish them well in your heart if you can, and avoid them.
I just had the pleasure of answering some interview questions posed by an old friend about the health care needs of ex-cult members.
Such a great topic. I talked about digestive issues and depression and how reading Harry Potter to my five year-old has helped me recover from the abject disenchantment of spiritual abuse.
It also made me remember a few other things, or see them slightly differently.
I came to yoga after my cult years (1996-2003), and quickly began to professionalize into it. It made sense: I hadn’t finished college, had travelled too much, didn’t feel settled or productive, wanted and needed to connect with people and show value, etc. Part of what worked about that is that it offered an alternative/unconventional pathway towards a job in which I wouldn’t have to answer for the lost years.
(As an aside: all this anxiety around yoga teacher’s education and “authenticity” is IMO heavily wrapped up not only in the fact that nobody’s in charge, but in the biographical havoc and shame that high-demand groups wreck on people’s lives. My gut says that most of those who accuse me and others of not having proper teachers — and therefore nothing worthwhile to say — are either covering up or spiritualizing their own cult abuse stories.)
The other part that worked was that both the practice and its professionalization seemed to grant a sense of agency and maybe even autonomy. Yoga culture wasn’t a cult, or at least I hadn’t run into specific yoga cults, yet. As a recovery zone, it seemed as wide-open as any new economy. Studios were opening with DIY pluck on the leading edge of gentrification, alongside art/design shops and digital marketing startups. There was a sense that the world was wide open and everything was material to excavate, and that the basic premises of psychosomatic exploration would yield private but shareable wealth.
I now understand this was a late crest on the Human Potential Movement wave, which began to roll in 70s. And I suspect that the neoliberalism that these movements both fronted for and concealed managed to capitalize on whole swaths of people who felt the need to escape systems of control. Yoga really did become the religion of neoliberalism, not just because it was commodified as the sign of freedom and spiritualized flexibility in relation to the precariat, but because it really did embody freedom for people leaving abusive constellations. In many cases, it made only bodily demands upon devotees. It felt “grounded” that way.
In my specific case, the post-cult need for autonomy, playing out in the yoga zone, meant that I had no instinct nor education towards the protection of indigenous sources or modes of learning. The basics of cultural appropriation — detach, reframe, commodify — were built into the globalizing economy, but also intersected with a personal need to have something of my own following years of being manipulated.
I now see what I was using and why and am doing my best to realize my own sense of unreality did not give me permission to plant a flag over real things from real places. Travel there, yes. Dialogue with, yes. Live “your yoga” as though you were the center of the universe, detached from global injustice and inequality? No.
My education in and fascination with Ayurveda allowed me similar leeway. A premodern self-care regime based on intuitive poetry gave me a sense of autonomy over a body that cults had taught me was disgusting or unreal. But it also protected me from the scrutiny of diagnostic medicine, which I subconsciously feared would force me to ask hard questions about whether in fact I needed more professional help.
I survived depressive episodes without self-harming, but I’m very concerned that the self-reliance expressed through these practices — itself a trauma-related response — can at times go too far, convincing people that the vata will eventually calm down with a little more sesame oil, or that everything will improve when Jupiter enters Aquarius, so long as you’re attuned to it and have merited the blessings of the transit, etc. People can really jeopardize themselves through shaky mechanisms of self-reliance, which aren’t really self-reliant at all if they rely on mystification.
When the yoga world showed its cultic ass to me, I really didn’t want to believe it. I really didn’t want to see what I saw on that video of Jois, or hear what I heard from students of Iyengar or Choudhury. I went so far as to shut down my friend Diane’s story of Jois’s assaults. More on that in the upcoming book.
Yoga was a zone of freedom, I insisted, and if people didn’t find it there, that was on them.
Oh yes, I really thought that, and not just from my layers of privilege, but from the perspective of not having digested the shame of having been in cults.
My response was out-of-phase. I was hearing cult abuse stories in my zone of cult recovery. I was angry about the contamination. But I got over it.
So now I’m wondering how much of the blowback that yoga cult victims get is not just generated by the cults themselves, but by the more general belief and marketing that yoga was the zone so many of us went to for agency — and, in lock step with neoliberalism, we had to believe in it to feel functional or even survive.
As a specialized subgroup, we yoga people were indoctrinated to blame the victim. We were under the illusion that we had autonomy, and that our healing could come from within ourselves alone.
What a joy that it does not.
I was honoured to be contacted by Giada Consoli with the following questions related to her graduate work on contemporary yoga culture. She is an Ashtanga Yoga practitioner and works as yoga teacher, naturopath and Bach Flower therapist in Rome, Italy. She has attended the Master in Yoga Studies at the Ca’ Foscari University in Venice. Some of this discussion will be included in her final thesis, which is titled:
How Yoga Ruins Your Life: Body politics, Dispositif, Counter-Dispositif.
(You can listen to/view a reading of this post here, on my Facebook author’s page.)
In my research on contemporary yoga, I’m analyzing the concepts of biopower and biopolitics, how power constructs and defines subjects, and how the body, as a social artifact, incorporates power dynamics but can also be a place of resilience and resistance.
I’m looking at the concept of dispositif, both in Foucault and Agamben, as everything in our life as modern consumers which captures, controls, determines and models our gestures, behavior, opinions, discourses.
My main question is if yoga can still have a countercultural potential, if we can consider it a tool of individual and collective liberation or if, as a consumer culture product, a multimillionaire industry, it is just another way to reinforce the status quo, another type of social control developed by neoliberal governments.
This is such a rich area, and I’m so glad you’re diving into it! I believe contemporary yoga can only benefit from more and better discussion about its most painful paradoxes, all sharpened by the fact that its growth arc and the rise of neoliberalism are inseparable.
As the sign of a globalized product with ever-more tenuous relationships to its wisdom roots, the term “yoga”:
- promises an equitable space of community gathering, yet too often spiritualizes continued class and racial segregation;
- promises a renewal of bodily agency, but too often delivers a more sophisticated form of objectification;
- promises empowerment through exquisite messages of inadequacy;
- promises authenticity but too often demands you perform it;
- promises self-inquiry, but too often delivers self-surveillance;
- can deploy a language of feminism to reinforce gender essentialism;
In short, the stretching and twisting too often embody the contortions of co-optation. The deep breathing can become a strategy for acclimatizing to stresses that yoga as a culture too often only pretends to resist.
In reading your fascinating intro, two definitional points come to mind straight out of the gate, which you’ve probably considered, so I hope you forgive me for making them explicit.
First I think we have to speak of “the body” under neoliberalism in the radical plural, lest we replicate its own false premise of equality. There are so many bodies. In neoliberalism we are constantly asked to believe in the even playing field of a fantasized freedom, where some idealized body, unmarked by race or class, gallivants through the duty free.
Lululemon published a blog in 2011, during their Ayn-Rand-and-yoga-pants campaign. They wrote:
Think about it: we are all born with magical machines, aka human bodies, able to think, jump, laugh and run . . . . We are able to control our careers, where we live, how much money we make, and how we spend our days through the choices we make . . . many of us choose mediocrity without even realizing it.
They use the plural, but they’re only talking about one body. The narcissistic body that believes it is everywhere and everything. This homogenization is crucial to be aware of in yoga discourse, which often uses notions of oneness as aspirational fodder.
This is only one of the ways in which the global yoga industry spiritualizes neoliberalism’s greatest lie: that all bodies possess equal potential and therefore are equally liable to self-caused failure and shame.
As white interlocutors, we have to foreground the fact that bodies of PoC, for instance, incorporate power dynamics and express resilience in ways that we aren’t able to imagine. The diversity and intersectionality of trauma loads would be another example.
Secondly, my personal and research background is in cult studies. I can’t help but to view neoliberalism as a macro-cult within which more tightly organized micro-cults flourish under the tyranny of aspirational charisma. All cults run on deception, and the deception of the macro-cult is that its leaders in deregulation tell citizens that they can be free if they gladly accept policies of economic and environmental coercion. As micro-cult leaders, Tony Robbins or John Friend tell students that they are free if they gladly undertake practices of indoctrination, which, paradoxically, can feel euphoric.
But — has anyone developed this stuff, consciously? Is there intentionality here? I don’t think so. I can’t see a conspiracy of governments or leaders to implement yoga or mindfulness practices as a means of social control. When you study cults you quickly realize that groups that want to concentrate power simply do whatever works. There’s a lot of trial and error involved. If yoga both expands and spiritualizes neoliberalism, there may be the cold calculations of a few sociopaths at play, but mainly it’s happening through the unconscious biohacking that comes from doing whatever we must to make ourselves feel good within a high-stress landscape, while disowning shame and responsibility.
The genius of neoliberalism is that it makes self-control and self-monitoring into a virtue because it really does offer — unequally and unpredictably — addictive doses of pleasure. It doesn’t need a puppet master: it teaches us how to pull our own strings.
Can we read yoga, in its current commodification, exactly as another kind of dispositif which trains and manages our bodies and minds according to the logic of neoliberalism? Most of all, do we have any counter-dispositif?
I’m more familiar with the term habitus, which I think is getting at a similar thing, but narrowed down to the felt sense. I understand it as somatic contagion. As in: what does it feel like, in our diverse bodies, to walk into a room filled with ballet dancers? Poker players? Rappers? MMA fighters?
When I close my eyes and imagine myself walking into a yoga room, I absolutely have an entrained felt sense that overtakes my body. I straighten up, I slow my breath, I soften my eyes into what feels like equanimity but might also be dissociation, with a touch of disdain. I want to feel and appear to feel as though I am self-contained and self-sufficient. I also really want to radiate humility, which isn’t very humble at all.
Beneath all of that poise is the memory of a threat: if you don’t perform well, you will be punished.
Iyengar’s Tadasana has inspired millions of people to stand taller. But it has done so, I believe, by resonating with and spiritualizing the anxiety of impending punishment. Many of us may be of that younger generation in which we do not have the bodily memory of the corporal abuse that deeply impacted his relationship with his teacher. But it’s in the air, nonetheless, sanitized to feel like it’s something we want.
How does it work? There’s a direct line from the self-protective / anal-retentive postural detailing of Iyengar — presented as “awakening every cell”, but carrying a distinct hypervigilance in relation to both home-grown and colonial violence — and the performance of self-worth carried out by someone like John Friend.
When Friend asked his students — many of whom became pyramid scheme members — to “open to grace”, this was to be embodied through spinal extension and a Mona Lisa smile. He was taking the lessons of his teacher, Iyengar, to the next level of performance and commodification. He made Iyengar All-American. He turned postural discipline into an emotional prosperity gospel for those who already had money.
Back to the intersectional piece for a moment: I’m fantasizing about all of these sensations in relation to walking into a white, dominant-culture, gentrified, commercial studio. The design, colour palette, and finishes are all shaping my body into a performance of self-worth.
But this is not the totality of the yoga space. I don’t feel this way when I enter a room of yoga people at the Yoga Service Council. They can slouch a bit and smile more broadly, and make warm (not intrusive) eye contact. I’m not queer or trans but when I am around my queer and trans colleagues I feel a tenderness overtake my body that I believe is emanating from the struggle and exhaustion and persistence that flows through their bodies. That melts my armour a bit. I say this knowing that their struggle has not been for me, but despite me.
And when I talk to women like Maya Breuer and Jana Long, they tell me about hosting the Black Yoga Teacher’s Alliance convention, and how it sometimes reminds them of gospel church. I haven’t been there, but I’m imagining that that is outside of my familiar, whiter space of sealed-off individualism. I imagine a lot more eye contact and dancing and smiling than I’m comfortable with. Some people smile so broadly and openly it seems to come from knowing that connection rather than power is the only thing we can really store up.
So yes, I think there are spaces of counter-habitus, if you’ll indulge my substitute term. These spaces are less commercial. They are made by people who needed to make them, and organically made them, as part of their resistance practice. Very clear examples are provided in the spaces that are anti-ableist (which may eliminate most mainstream forms like Ashtanga and its derivatives). Like, when you walk into Jivana Heyman’s room as he teaches Accessible Yoga, you are explicitly plucked out of the dissociation and bodily anxiety of the dominant culture and invited into a place where, as their t-shirts (designed by Amber Karnes) say: Outer ability ≠ Inner peace.
How can we challenge — if we can — the logic of neoliberalism from the inside out and experience yoga in a way that is different from the mainstream ‘face’ of the yoga industry?
I tell my YTT students to take less pictures, get trauma-sensitive training, and get involved with yoga service organizations. The basic message is that yoga is not something to perform or perfect so much as it is something to share.
“From the inside out” is a crucial phrase. It points us to what neoliberalism and its technologies function to amputate and deaden: interoception. In a world of spectacles and surfaces, we are asked to continually externalize. I think yoga is a charged practice in part because we know we’re supposed to be doing the opposite of what its visual marketing tells us it is.
In yoga as everywhere else, we are often being told we must look a certain way, arrange ourselves in a more orderly or symmetrical or correct fashion, display more flexibility or “openness” or vulnerability. These performances can be meaningful. They can move us. But at the same time we suspect that we should be doing it all with our eyes closed. We know we are performing something that bodies cannot show, but must show nonetheless in order to be believed or to be marketable.
There is tragedy in this conflict, and I think tuning into that tragedy is a real starting point. We’re in a performative culture, and yoga offers a rich vocabulary for either giving that performance gravitas, or tricking us into thinking we’re doing something special. In a way, I believe some of us are trying to gild the lily, to find spirituality in places where it goes to die. Perhaps after enough performance, and all of the stress injuries it causes, we have no choice but to turn inside.
Looking at the current yoga landscape, we find a kind of separation: the yoga industry on one side and those who want to distance themselves from it on the other. There is a growing discussion on the blogosphere. Many refer to a lost of authenticity and purity of yoga, others are striving to challenge the dominant power dynamics in the yoga world, making yoga accessible for marginalized and discriminated communities. I’m thinking about the work of non-profit such as Off the Mat, Into the World, Race and Yoga, Decolonizing Yoga, Yoga Activist …How do you read this situation? And what do you think about the connection between yoga and activism, yoga in service of social justice, does it work? Is it a real alternative?
Be Scofield, who founded Decolonizing Yoga, has argued convincingly that there are no dependable correlations between any spiritual practice and progressive, anti-oppressive citizenship, and further, that believing there are causes great social harm. I’m with her on that.
Yoga practice, however earnest, will only be earnest according to the practitioner’s pre-existing values and social milieu. Two equally earnest practitioners can easily think of each other as being garbage people. Ethics gleaned from several-times-removed translations of Iron Age meditation texts can never offer a stable morality for late capitalism. Neither pre-modern nor modern yoga explicitly teaches us about rape culture or white supremacy or deep ecology.
Moreover, look how easy it is for alt-right charismatics to infiltrate the yoga space with parodies of self-awareness or self care. Witness the rise of Jordan Peterson as a guru to many yoga bros, or how many yoga people go bananas when Marianne Williamson announces a narcissistic bid for the White House.
People ask: why is Scofield, a trans activist (among other things) interested in yoga at all in a social justice context? She’s a Martin Luther King scholar, and understands religio-spiritual organizations less as moral structures than as power structures. There’s embodied energy and money and privilege in the studio and service network. Yoga isn’t a force for social change because breathing deeply makes you suddenly recognize that Steve Bannon is a liar and the promises of populism are corrupt. It’s a force because it organizes money and time and attention. But administrators who want to mobilize that towards the common good have to stick their necks out by actively politicizing their spaces.
For me the real relationship between yoga and social justice is that the former gives me the resilience to undertake the latter. I was a really good yoga practitioner while still way more of a racist than I am now. Taking care of my internal ecology made it easier for me to learn about and engage with my white privilege. But that learning came from PoC activists, not from Patanjali.
As for the yearning for authenticity and purity, I believe we have to look at two things —
First: late capitalism hollows out anything that we would understand as original, from land use to inherited culture, and sell it back to us. When people long for authenticity and purity in a yoga practice, I believe that they are longing for a stable sense of self, something that can be trusted within, something they didn’t have to buy.
There are no authority or purity claims, no matter how loudly trumpeted, that can truly satisfy this ache. In fact, the louder a claim is performed, I believe, the more it conceals its doubt. It’s not an accident that the Kundalini celebrity who proclaims yoga to be 40,000 years old has to wear a jewelled crown while she’s saying it, ostensibly to feel certain about it.
Second: the yearning for authenticity and purity intersects very easily with nationalism and even fascism. That’s what we can detect with some of the Hindutva claims around the supposedly eternal and unchanging Hindu nature of yoga practice, as if Jains, Buddhist, and Muslims don’t practice. It’s tragic to see white social justice activists jump on board with this, thinking that they are supporting an inclusive or anti-racist politics. I believe their longing for something noble and trustworthy is being manipulated.
Looking closely at this relation between yoga and neoliberal ideology, it seems to me clear how yoga is sold as a technique of self-development, a tool of optimization of our capabilities. In this sense it risks reinforcing the neoliberal concept of selfhood: we are constantly pushed to be a better version of ourselves, we are obsessed with the idea that we can do more, that we can be more than who we are. Perfectionism and success are our daily mantra. How can we escape from that? How about if we raise the idea of failure for example?
Perhaps you’re not thinking of it this way, but my worry with the concept of “failure” as a restorative is that it can also be mobilized by neoliberalism as a temporary experience of vulnerability through which we are meant to find renewed strength. It’s demanded of us, in fact. So when we’re asked to “lean into” our tenderness or be grateful about things falling apart — as per Pema Chödrön — I sometimes feel as if disappointment and even trauma themselves are being stolen by the machine of self-improvement.
The crude form of neoliberalism says that failure is not an option. The sophisticated form, marketed to us by what sometimes sounds to me like a co-opted feminism, says that failure and tenderness is something through which we can find transcendent strength, not by resisting it, but by fully surrendering to it.
The only pathway out of this that I can feel personally is to relax — when it’s relaxing — into some kind of existential mundaneness. I recognize and accept my suffering, my mental health fluctuations, my trauma. I don’t brush them away, nor do I view them as opportunities to sell myself remedies or encourage others to brighten up. At times it feels like I’m valuing a state of normalized depression, but there’s something more real about this, and therefore more stable and comforting, than the bipolar oscillation of the culture at large. I say this all recognizing that being able to bear “normalized depression” is a mark of privilege that many won’t have.
Isn’t this pressure on the individual another way to cover institutional and political mistakes and deficiencies? If you are unemployed, poor, ill, whatever, they let you think that it is your responsibility because you made the wrong choice, and this is such a pervasive message. So even if we appreciate the work that yoga can do in service of social justice, challenging stereotypes and working on inclusivity, how can we address these questions on a political level? What can we do to get a real institutional response?
Part of the answer is to de-Americanize the conversation. I don’t know what it’s like in Italy, but I can tell you that the differences between US and Canadian yoga discourses are notable. Not on social media, but in actual classrooms and training venues. It makes sense that American Yoga is far more anxious — and therefore more evangelical — than what we have and feel in a country with universal health care.
The global yoga market and its media is dominated by citizens of a country that has forgotten the last shreds of expectation in relation to the common good. American yoga people literally have to practice harder and with more idealization than almost anyone else, because nobody is taking care of them in a structural sense.
I think this is why American yoga also has to tend towards the anti-intellectual: it lives in a place that makes no sense. And it generates a pressure that neatly overlaps with the survivalist mentality of entrepreneurs like Iyengar and Bikram, whose self-narratives both involve solitary recoveries from illness through their intensive yoga practice.
But the Americans also have some great non-profit yoga organizations that are actively attracting international membership. I mentioned the Yoga Service Council. And a lot of people don’t like the Yoga Alliance, and there’s a lot of history there, and it is not free of its American biases. But at the same time it holds enormous potential for facilitating a global conversation and sharing of resources.
Beyond that, there’s the regulatory discussion, which is currently also dominated by American yoga libertarianism, but which might come into sharper focus once it’s more widely acknowledged that virtually all yoga communities have unresolved histories of abuse. If yoga teaching becomes a licensed profession in the US or elsewhere, it will automatically begin to distinguish itself from neoliberal personal responsibility and move towards a more collective type of responsibility. This might not lead to overt politicization, but I can imagine that if yoga teachers were part of an American Psychological Association type structure — something with more heft than bling — they would actually feel a little more coherent in relation to social and political issues.
How can we rethink the concept of self-care and care for the others in the era of ‘the wellness syndrome’ where yoga is ‘the way’ to feel good and be healthy? Since yoga is a social practice, and as practitioners we reflect and incorporate the value of the environment in which we practice, how important is community and how the concept of care can be lived and experienced today in our community of practitioners?
It’s no secret that one of the most pernicious bits of propaganda that the wellness industry promotes is the notion that health is a personal concern and accomplishment. This is not true. There is very little space between herd health and personal health, no matter how much we bubble ourselves in technology or aseptic gentrification. I don’t think that mainstream yoga is a social practice, yet. Or at least it’s something that many people do together but alone. This is where the value of the non-mainstream communities discussed above comes into vibrant relief.
We have to be aware that late capitalism functions by commodifying literally everything. This includes concepts like “community” or “tribe”, which very often these days stand in for “branded market” or “downstream assets”. It doesn’t help when charismatic leaders promote what Kelly Diels calls the “Female Lifestyle Empowerment Brand” to manipulate social isolation as they build pyramid-style sales forces.
For me the antidote to this is to do hard self-inquiry into the question of why you want to be around people who are more like you than not. Can we find the daylight between community as “lifestyle choices our social status lets us make together”, and community as the “place where I actually live with others and our differences”? This comes up for me when I realize that I’m spending more time in yoga studios than in community centres, like the one where I play handball with men who don’t care about yoga. They care about their wages, strike actions, road works, and the schools their children go to.
In your work on WAWADIA you pose the essential question of ‘What Are We Actually Doing in Asana?’ Body and movement are key elements of the discussion. How can we live through the yoga practice an embodied idea of subjectivity. I mean, how do we shift from ‘the body that we have’ (the useful body that society require from us) to ‘the body that we are’? Can yoga work against a depersonalization of the body? And how can we experience, in the practice, a movement that is not staged, performative and finalized?
To repeat and rephrase a little, I’d say that trauma-sensitive discourse brings us back to interoception, and therefore away from visual epistemology, where being real means being seen. The trauma discourse makes sensation the reality principle.
Yes, yoga can work against depersonalization. But we have to be careful from at least two different angles. Trance states related to the Ganzfeld Effect or repetitive motions or chanting can actually lead to depersonalization or dissociation, especially for people who carry heavy trauma loads. In a way, this can work in favour of the dominant paradigm, as you suggest. Donald Trump is totally cool with yoga people checking out. After all, he depends upon his own people falling into altered states as well.
Secondly, depersonalization can itself be spiritualized as the out-of-body or transcendent gift of practice. In cultic systems, this is easily and often used as a gateway to compliance. Yuval Laor, who studies the evolution of religiosity, argues that when these moments of euphoria lead to sensations of “knowing everything” the practitioner may be gripped with awe, which, if it leads to fervour, can be easily manipulated.
I’m glad you’re talking about the “useful” body — and its discontents. Something to watch out for as the “functional movement” discourse gets more deeply embedded in the yoga world — for good reason, as it will increase physical safety — is that it might reinforce the notion that bodies are worthy or even sacred to the extent that they are productive and efficient.
This could be terrible for women and minorities. There’s a lot of people who don’t need to be more productive. They need to be seen and heard and respected as they are.
This functionality theme is also quietly opening up an entirely new front in the cultural appropriation debate, because the functionality of good citizenship was arguably not the point of the medieval traditions that helped inspire what Mark Singleton calls the “Mysore Asana Revival”.
Yoga today is mainly sold a way to ‘fit-in’, an easy self-help tool for spiritual consolation, stress-relief or increasing productivity, a mean to survive in our ‘automatic’ society. So does it still make any sense to talk about moksha, to talk about yoga as a personal and collective transformative practice? Do we have any space of resistance?
What I can add to the above comments is that moksha as a term does seem to have completely disappeared from contemporary yoga discourse. I know because I talk to teachers and trainees all the time. Perhaps it’s because taking it seriously presupposes beliefs in samsara and reincarnation. But I also believe that its disappearance is a mark of how the wellness aspect of yoga, and its seamless integration with spa culture, is a very effective way of erasing death and reinforcing the propaganda that life has no costs, or at least that costs can all be externalized, or paid for in goji berries.
However — has the drive towards moksha disappeared entirely? I don’t believe so. I don’t think we’ve changed that much. We may be better at medicating it away with technology and consumerism than previously, but my bet is that many people still crave some kind of ultimate release. And whether the term moksha is uttered or not, yoga spaces have the potential of encouraging contemplation on what it might mean or feel like.
Finally, which is your idea about the future of yoga? Where are we going? What do we need to work on both as individuals and as a community of practitioners and human beings?
At the risk of repeating myself, and suggesting that I have good answers:
I believe we need to work on trauma awareness, dismantling ableism, moving towards yoga service instead of the hoarding of private religion.
We need to flip “Practice and all is coming” into “Serve and be connected.”
We need to listen to the other, and do this in conjunction with listening to the estranged other within us, silenced by the tyranny of happiness.
We need to platform the voices that celebrity, privilege, and ableism have silenced.
We need to listen to how trauma victims have healed themselves — to the extent they have — and take note of what help they needed, what relationships were restorative to them. They are the canaries in the coal mine of the culture, as Theo Wildcroft says. They can tell us about the deepest patterns of life. They can help us realize, as Anneke Lucas points out, how we ourselves might be traumatized in ways we do not recognize. Of course we want to offer them whatever they need, because we suspect that we will need it too — if not now, than surely some day.
Thank you so much for these wonderful questions.
(Some rough, opinionated notes.)
I’m realizing that reading the dynamics of high-demand yoga and meditation groups through a cult psychology lens is necessary work and personal to me. I get hate mail for it, but the grateful notes outnumber the missiles by about three to one.
However, using this language doesn’t answer a crucial set of questions:
Why do groups like Michael Roach’s Diamond Mountain, Rajneeshpuram, Rigpa, Shambhala, and Agama exist? Not: where do the ideas and personalities come from? Not: what unmet needs do they pretend to fill?
But: what are the basic political and economic conditions that allowed so many of these groups to mushroom in the post-war era, and so easily construct a pretence of value? What did the culture at large have to first commodify for these groups to then come along and upsell?
Political cults run on the premise of political action. Warlord cults run on the premise of revolutionary struggle. Psychotherapy cults like the Newman Tendency ran on the premise of transforming a therapeutic mode into a social justice tool. In each of these contexts, I sense a product.
But yoga and Dharma cults? What broadly-accepted social discourse and value allows them to be a thing, to project a plausible relationship to positive, pro-social human labour? What do they promise to make? Continue reading “Don’t Deepen Your Practice”
When I talk with my yoga friends these days, there’s only one topic: the forest fire of reform sweeping through our sub-culture. Or at least the social media layer of it (the thickness of which is hard to gauge).
We talk about Rachel Brathen’s #metoo post, and what will happen when she connects her correspondents and supports them in taking further action, whether legally, or in the mainstream media. We talk about Karen Rain’s statements. This one, and this one.
We also worry about the smoke inhalation. About the toll taken on faith and hope, about the 30M yoga practitioners in the U.S. alone who are getting dusted in ash, the majority of whom may not know or care about the venerated names, what Yogi Bhajan was really up to, or may have no feeling at all that the memorized script of Bikram’s method might be inseparable from the man.
But it’s not right to infantilize the innocent practitioner. I’ve spoken with several older devotees of these teachers. They question the value of airing “old stuff”. “Why disturb the faith of new students?” they ask. I tell them they sound like Catholics filibustering inquiries into the clergy.
This morning I’m thinking about how one wise friend said, “there will always be yoga tomorrow.”
It’s a good thing. Countless people will wake up at 4 to get to the shala at 5 to perform a candlelit ritual of bodily testing and reclamation. They’ll head to the gym after work. They’ll go to restorative class, or a therapeutics class with those Iyengar backbending props. People will treasure the waves of warmth and sensitivity and tender self-observations that ripple out through their day. The vast majority will feel supported, nurtured, even liberated.
The vast majority — millions — practice in the space between two poles: the fires of reform and the marketing of an industry that has tried to pretend it has no shadows. How can we support this space on a daily basis?
Further, I have to ask every day: what’s my responsibility, with this strange platform, cobbled together out of critique? I spend half of my working life burning the roof. How do I show the less visible work of those I admire, shoring up foundations in the clay and the mud?
I have a more robust list in mind. What do they call these things? Gratitude lists?
It’s a jumble of precious moments and articles of faith, both personal and social. They perform two actions for me: they counter the demoralizing content, and they provide space. This is a list with candlelight instead of fire.
- A long breath, deep or shallow, never gets old.
- Nor does that feeling I had rolling out of my first savasana, gazing at my hand lit up by the sun, and thinking I am That.
- There are radiant heating coils in the polished concrete floors of Lacombe Yoga, in rural Alberta. It’s -31C this morning in Lacombe. My friend Tiffany runs the place. She’s a trauma expert. She taught over 500 classes in 2017 and barely broke even.
- Yoga Service Council. I’m not as involved as I want to be, because time and other excuses, but wow, what great work that network does. YSC is like the Canada of modern global yoga. (Canada on a good day.)
- I love talking with Jivana Heyman. Social media allows me to fantasize a wonderful IRL community.
- I get to talk with almost all of these people on a panel looking to build an actionable and aspirational code of conduct for yoga teachers.
- What’s left of movies in the wake of Weinstein? Lady Bird opens. Patty Jenkins champions Wonder Woman. In the yoga world too, what was always underneath will rise up.
- I go to a Community Centre in the basement of a public housing complex to play handball and swim. On Tuesday and Thursday mornings, one of the activity rooms is packed with Indian women in saris and punjabis doing yoga. The door is open and I can hear the breath count and see the simple stretches of people taking a holy hour for themselves. The drab room has a cold tile floor and florescent lights. It’s about as far away as you can get from the gentrified spaces I identify with yoga. The class is free. I listen at the door and realize I don’t know anything about yoga yet, and this makes me happy.
- So many of us are coming out of cults. Tuning in to the deception, dependency, and dread-of-leaving. We’re learning that everyone comes out at a different pace. We all have different needs, different privileges. We really can learn to respect each other’s pathways. Maybe the fires are burning the cultic to fertilize the permaculture.
- I’ve learned that yoga trolls are like vrittis, and yes they can be stopped. With single-pointed concentration on the “Block” button.
- Several years ago, Dexter Xurukulasuriya in Montreal humbled me during a global yoga culture 101 presentation for a YTT with the best yoga cultural appropriation questions ever. Their family is from Sri Lanka. They reminded me of their comments by DM: “Since EVERY culture has its own rich, complex treasury of inspirational poetry, imagery, mythology and holy scripture,” Dexter wrote, “shouldn’t we ask why some people feel so comfortable and are so drawn to re-work and update other people’s traditions rather than their own? Isn’t it a form of privilege to be able pick and choose whatever aspects of a culture you want to adopt when so many of us have been so forcibly estranged from our cultures through colonial and imperial violence and while your own still-living traditions are actively oppressing millions of people? Isn’t this reworking of our cultures a kind of colonization? Isn’t abandoning rather than reworking your own traditions an abdication of responsibility?” Um, uh, I said. Yes. You’re right.
- I recently visited Dexter and they prepared incredible food. “Bonchi curry, parippu, vambatu moju,” they said, “and Sri Lankan red rice with cardamum & cinnamon, and an arugula salad topped with purple carrots, Quebec cranberries and crickets from the local market.” They taught me to eat it with my fingers. Two trips to India, and nobody ever showed me how to do this. We talked about a lot of things. When we circled back around to appropriation, I said: “The thing is, non-Indians aren’t just enthralled by the yoga, or some romantic idea of India. And it’s not just that our churches are dead to a lot of us, or that our mystics haven’t been taken seriously for centuries. This yoga fascination is also about falling in love with the families of the gurus.” I said that at least one aspect of the yoga cultural appropriation story evolves out of the Euro-American wish for stable, predictable, orderly relationships. A conservative family, with strong gender roles, in which everyone understands their place in the universe. Where dad isn’t drinking the war away, but instead lighting the oil lamps in front of the divine and the ancestors every morning. As Dexter and I talked and listened to each other I could feel the bits and pieces of love we might recover through all of our jumbled history. We fell in love with your families. They smiled, then served something chocolatey.
- Yoga and Movement Research Community. Hurray. Sometimes a multiple car pile-up, but people are getting better at keeping it moving, limiting their rubber-necking.
- I’ve been working with a friend on an app that aims to take the yoga conversation out of the Facebook trench and into a creative, talking-circle space, with professional moderation. We can always dream.
- Some yoga researchers are so generous. Like this one. And these ones.
- Uma Dinsmore-Tuli suggests that all of the wild alchemical aspirations of medieval yoga may be a cultural case of womb-envy. Woah.
- When I enter the room to give a presentation at Queen Street Yoga, I walk by framed statement on the wall about how the studio occupies the land of the Anishnawbe and Haudenosaunee people. A while back, on the opposite wall, there was a “Body-Positivity Blackboard”, where students were encouraged to finish the sentence, “My body is great because…”. Different hands have written: “It made a baby”, “Its squishiness makes me good at cuddling”. I picked up the chalk as people filed past, murmuring cheerfully. “Through depression, anxiety, and neglect,” I wrote, “my body has always been here, holding me.”
- Consent cards.
- Talking about my late friend Michael Stone with one of his students. He’s been diagnosed with bipolar disorder as well. He disclosed this on social media, saying he wanted it to be an open part of his discourse around teaching yoga. We sat on the patio on College Street in the late summer sun. He explained to me little about what he thought might have been going on for Michael. Part of his practice is knowing which parts of yoga work for his diagnosis, and which parts don’t. He has the most gentle, self-aware voice.
- TFW I’m texting with Be Scofield about plans for a cult-busting website while she’s driving across the rural South. We also text about how much she adores a good Kundalini class. Then we throw potential cult-infiltrator code-names back and forth. She turns down “Maya Honeypot”. I never argue with her. She’s the boss.
- I’m in class with Peter Blackaby at Esther Myers Yoga Studio. He says: “It’s not quite exercise. It’s not quite therapy. I’m not quite sure what ‘good alignment’ means. The only term that makes sense to me is ‘self-inquiry’.”
- I get a stack of papers in a big brown envelope all the way from New Zealand. Donna Farhi has sent me a file of her notes on the ethical complaints she collected from throughout yogaland in the 1990s. The contents are heavy: Donna has been doing the heavy lifting.
- At Esther Myers again, sitting with Monica Voss on the tatami mats. She tells me she’s never been injured practicing yoga. I look puzzled, and she looks back at me, puzzled that I’m puzzled. Like — why is that even a question? We talk about Vanda Scaravelli. Then we talk about the relationship between teaching yoga and the hospice work she does. Her voice is quiet. I can hardly hear it when I listen to the recording afterward. I turn my phone off and just try to remember. That’s oral tradition, creeping back in.
- Before dawn, I unroll my mat in my cramped space. The black rubber absorbs a landing strip of scant light against the sheen of the hardwood. Around me, the books are mute with shadow. On the harmonium-case that serves as my writing table, my laptop sits like a window closed against the storm. I light a candle.
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OP: Hi everybody! I love this group! I hope you can help. I have a question about this thing in yoga: [insert whatever]. I’m wondering if you have any advice or resources to share. I’m writing this OP in good faith with an upbeat tone. I know that I might not be using the most correct language — after all, I’m just starting out as a teacher! I’m hoping that won’t matter, because we’re all learning together, and you all want to help, right? Thanks!
Commenter 1 (C1): [That thing in yoga you’re asking about] has nothing to do with real yoga. Can’t believe you’re going to be teaching.
OP: um okay well I’m just starting out thanks Continue reading “Facebook Yoga Group Thread From Hell (Hopefully, a Requiem)”
Please support Michael’s partner Carina and children through this fund.
Photo courtesy of Ian MacKenzie.
Content warning: description of organ harvest.
I started writing this the day my friend Michael Stone died. On that day, the surgeons carefully cut into the body associated with him, to take the parts that used to be him and give them to others in need.
I wasn’t there, but I picture the following:
Their scalpels slide under the skin that was him, and was scanned a hundred thousand times in vipassana meditation.
They poke through the webbing of fascia that was him, and was stretched and twisted through a hundred thousand yoga postures.
Their blue-gloved hands, splashed with blood, pluck out two kidneys like sleeping fish.
They saw through the ribcage, softened by a decade of exhaling visualized light in the Tibetan style. They lift out the still-pulsing lungs, and watch them shudder to stillness on the ice pack. As though Michael were still practicing to lengthen and smooth his breath into that single point of silence he craved.
The transplant team demonstrates an ancient proof in Buddhist logic:
If you look for the person among the parts, you will not find him. “Michael” and “my friend” and “Buddhist teacher” are designations applied to a collection of skin, blood, voice, eyes, behaviors, images, and mysteries. All of which are ultimately ownerless.
One of the mantras Michael sought comfort from was: There is no “me” or “mine.” It’s an assertion of emptiness, but it hides a multiplicity: Michael, like any person, was many.
There was Carina’s Michael: doting and vulnerable. The Michael who stood large beside his brother Jayme and sister Sunny. The Michael of his parents, his teenage friends, his first partner. His friends from many walks of life. Those who didn’t care about Buddhism or yoga.
The Michaels of his children: Arlyn, and the two boys he had with Carina. The thirteen year-old, the four year-old, and the toddler knew different fathers. Baby-to-be heard a resonant voice to be remembered in dreams.
In rings circling outwards, more Michaels appear, each one a little less knowable: therapist, sometimes-monk, public speaker, heartthrob, author, entrepreneur. And of course, Michael the dharma teacher, sitting at the front of the room, by turns radiant, startled, or wooden.
Which Michael did his Buddhist teachers see? His therapists? His psychotherapy supervisor? What about his doctors?
Who was Michael to the man who sold him that little white pill?
The surgeons murmur over the body, and it sounds like prayers.
If you knew and loved Michael through his work, you beat the surgeons to that harvest.
You harvested the voice of his writing and podcasts, marked by the rhythm of the practices he loved and depended on. His penchant for boiling the broadest themes down to taut aphorisms. And for finding the Buddha everywhere he wanted to find him: novels, obscure Canadian poetry, cool apps, superior espresso, pop music, therapy, laundry, mountains, streetcars, his motorcycle, and hospitals.
If you were a student who went to his retreats, you harvested other things. Like how so many mirrored his exquisite posture with equal parts earnestness and piety. You absorbed a dynamic silence – at times anxious, haunted, or womblike. The talks he gave were metronomic, as though he needed the entire world to slow down and listen at the exact pace that soothed him. Then, his quirky yoga instructions tangled you up on your mat, made you teeter and laugh.
Perhaps you had a meeting with him about your meditation or yoga practice and he dispensed advice that connected, perhaps miraculously. Was he intuitive, or lucky? You can’t honestly say. Or maybe the meeting made no sense at all, and you felt odd about that – maybe even apologetic, like you were letting him down. Or: he outright frustrated you with those blue eyes that could seem to know you, love you, judge you, or be lost, all in quick succession.
You collected the countless steps of walking meditation, and the group chants Michael loved. They may have stirred you deeply. Or you may have found that in the English translations from Sanskrit or Japanese he collected and tweaked, they sounded angular and explicit to the point of embarrassment:
Don’t squander your life!
Does anyone really squander their life?
2013. We were walking through Mile End in Montreal, looking for the perfect cortado. Michael was telling me he’d backed off on the rigidity of practice in recent years, as we tend to do.
“I’m leaving just enough discipline to hold the shape of something,” he said, on the step of Café Névé. He gestured in the cold air with his hands.
That something was always meticulous, artistic, and intense. It felt like his longing for ritual order emerged, as much religion does, as an artistic response to internal and external chaos.
I remember when he rented my old space in Cabbagetown for several month-long retreats in 2006. One was in February. He’d ride his Danish bicycle over from Parkdale, and come in with snow in his beard that melted into the cup of coffee I handed him. Through the day, I sat at the desk outside the room, working to the rhythm of his somnambulant baritone, lulled by the vowels.
The students were Gen X, Y, and millennials, countercultural. Three-quarters women. When they trickled out to the bathroom they moved quietly and kept their heads down. It seemed like they were under a thrall they couldn’t risk breaking. When the studio door was left open, I could see the cohort encircle him. Some sat very close, absorbed in him.
I was impressed, and uneasy. What was going on? How did he manage to make all of that attention directed at him seem natural?
The fragments of his talks I overheard rung with a single note. It wasn’t from Buddhism or yoga. The texts were delivery devices for a sense of collective certainty, expressed through the first person plural.
“When we feel… we often find… and then we get caught up in… and so we practice because… and we fail… our hearts are like… our armour falls away… we are open to… we can be receptive to… we touch intimacy… we continue on with our work, not knowing.”
Michael’s register of wisdom could make people feel merged with each other, and with him. It created a feeling of group confession that generalized and depersonalized towards an unboundaried warmth. It seemed to hold nothing in private.
When the group left at dusk, the building vibrated. I’d sweep the room and then pause for a while by the altar they’d made by the window. I took note not only of the personal artifacts people had brought, but also the pristine and eccentric aesthetic Michael inspired. Japanese paper, quirky calligraphy, microbrew beer coasters folded into squat origami turtles.
The style was hipster zen, years before it was a thing. But instead of irony, it was imbued with what his brother Jayme described over the phone as Michael’s sense of the “ceremonious”. That same sense, Jayme said, that made the scene of Michael’s death so uncharacteristic of him.
I was never Michael’s student. I was his peer, colleague, co-author, and eventually, his friend.
I was that friend – I’m sure there were others – who made fun of him for having students. I would say:
Look at the mess you’re in now. People expect you to give them spiritual advice!
He smiled and shrugged, a little bashful. Sometimes he laughed. It was like he didn’t know how it all happened, even if he knew how to nudge it along. He didn’t stop it, because it seemed to be working. The glowing feedback he got burned everything else away. It’s hard to imagine anyone around him being large enough to persuade him to slow down.
But he asked everyone else to slow down, and look within. I wonder if he needed those around him to find the answers he couldn’t.
Friends harvested more hidden things:
His bouts of social unease, his obsession with dorky trivia and dark humour. You saw him long for guidance from senior teachers, like a prodigal son. He would connect with them, misfire with them.
You saw him draw conflict, get defensive, take a breath, take inventory, try to make amends. He would drift away from these people over here, become infatuated with others over there. You saw the acrimony from his divorce spill out and polarize a community. You understood that his prescription to always practice intimacy and forgiveness was the one he had written for himself.
You saw his effect on women, of all ages. They adored him and confessed to him. They poured their labour into his projects. Some became angry when they realized the imbalances. When they ghosted away, others came to replace them.
In such seemingly progressive spaces, it can be hard to call out hierarchy. The spirituality industry wants to make Iron Age yoga and medieval Zen look like they aren’t patriarchal in theme, form, and division of labour.
If you were a close friend, you saw how Michael’s doubts about his direction and competence were punctuated by flourishes of manic creativity. You saw how easy it was for his vision to outpace his introversion, and his appetite to outpace his digestion.
When he was flying high, his intellect became very porous, consuming and repackaging every idea he loved with dizzying speed. He was a DJ of ambient Buddhism, mixing freely from whatever tracks he could find.
If you were close to him, you collected his surges of warmth. These became more poignant when you realized that he often had to climb up out of a dark well to let them flow. You collected things that were hidden by his stylishness, his supermodel looks, and by the gold paint that people sprayed on him in their minds and online.
Maybe you were close enough to soak up what he was like with his family in its various constellations. How he loved and baffled them, how he thrilled but could also disappoint. How relatives orbited his sun in seasons of estrangement and reconciliation.
When he touched Carina’s hand or when his sons clung to his arms, or when he listened to Jayme play the banjo, or when he watched his sister Sunny whip up her cooking magic, you could feel his love come out in a flood of bewildered tenderness.
He ended our book together with a distillation of such moments:
Everything was in its right place and everything was heading in the same direction. In my body I felt something new about life: not my own life, but about the whole parade of humans moving through the world, of which my family was only one small part, but the largest part of the world I could ever know.
If you worked with him, like I did on his talk about struggling with the danger of his own charisma, you harvested the giddiness of his concentration. You understood that he survived in part by taking risks.
After their first son was born, Carina asked him to sell the motorcycle a psychic had told him he should buy. He did as she asked. But he kept driving too fast in his mind.
When we worked he would pause, waiting for the words to come. I could feel him teeter on the edge of something. One March day, I prodded him a little harder. I could hear his tapping keys over the phone as he murmured:
“I came to understand the shadow of charisma — of my charisma — was dependency.”
There was that feeling I often had around him. A lightning bolt of clarity, and then something fuzzy and frenetic rushing back in.
He was impatient with whatever couldn’t be finished with the speed of a zen brush painting. I would offer a paragraph of commentary; he parried with a sentence. I built things up, and he hacked them away. He loved the koans that could be answered in a single word. He was acutely aware of the shortness of time, and he’d learned that art must be made from the simplicity of panic.
I can hear him saying now: “This elegy is too damned long. And you always go too far!”
I yell into my silent phone:
Dude, I’m just getting started. And you’re the one who went too far. Gone, gone beyond, and all that, right?
I wait for his laugh.
During a snowstorm three years ago, Michael and I met for lunch to finish work on our book. At one point he stopped and leaned over to ask me something that wasn’t really a question.
“Hey – do you generally feel even-keeled?”
“I guess. Can you say more?”
“I mean – do you feel in control of your emotions?”
After I fumbled through an answer, he told me he was struggling with his mental health. That it had been going on for as long as he could remember. Suddenly many things made sense.
We got very still and gazed at each other. After a moment, I realized he was gapping out. I’d seen this before, but now it was clear that he had to struggle to come back to the table.
It occurred to me that this oscillation between intense focus and vacancy was part of what drew people to him. Like he could see you, and that felt so intoxicating, but then you’d have to chase after him to feel that again. Like he was profoundly okay in one moment, but you wanted to save him in the next. Or maybe you thought he was regularly falling into a meditative trance.
Things became more transparent between us, but never fully. I loved him more, even as – or because – I felt more uncertain about where he was going. I knew I’d been drawn to him without understanding a crucial thing. I was in his sphere because he’d cast a spell over me. Part of me resented that, but now I could love him closer to where he was.
We deepened things by trading war stories about our health. On the phone he’d tell me about crushing insomnia. About having to fly places and teach meditation on autopilot because he was exhausted and agitated. I told him about my heart palpitations in the middle of the night. He’d had that too. Once, I picked him up from the hospital when he went for knee surgery to fix the damage from that stupid lotus pose. Or was it skateboarding?
I developed a pulmonary embolism a few months after our book was published. I could easily have died. He was the first person outside of my family I called. I knew he would say something luminous and comforting. But there was also the feeling that I wanted him to know I was joining him at the edge of something.
We talked a lot about self-regulation. He told me that he’d stopped meditating everyday as an experiment to see if meditation was actually making his swings worse. He suspected it was. This was around the time he taped an interview with the world’s leading researcher in the neuroscience of negative meditation experiences. I’ll bet the turns of his research interests map perfectly onto his internal labyrinth.
I had to take warfarin to thin out my blood clots. He told me that lithium seemed to help even out his moods. We joked about it: after years of studying Ayurvedic diet and self-care, here I was, kept alive on rat poison. And for him — after scouring the library of scriptures, he’d found the answer in the periodic table. A single molecule, labeled “3”.
I said it was the chemical version of the triple jewel of Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha. He laughed his broad broken laugh.
Over the next few years I saw Michael increasingly exhausted by a race against the pressures of his persona, the tightening claustrophobia of his brain, his search for better medications, and the possibility that disclosing it all would help, or at least give him the next thing to work with. I thought about the growing distance between what he saw in the mirror and the headshots staring out at him from the screen.
His public life went viral, even as he seemed to become more isolated. He kept preaching the necessity of practice, even as I knew practice was less accessible to him. His sermons were about place and connection and sustainability. But he composed them on airplanes. He preached about community from the remote island he moved to after leaving the community he had founded.
When he was getting ready to move out west with Carina and their first child, he called me to say that he wanted to give me a bunch of his books on psychoanalysis. Two titles stood out: Being a Character, by Christopher Bollas, and Terrors and Experts, by Adam Phillips, who Michael and I had recently gone to see lecture.
Bollas describes the devastating results of living in the prison of other peoples’ idealizations. Phillips opens his book by quoting Iris Murdoch on how philosophers show you what they fear through what they become experts in.
We thumbed through his books, stacked in the front hallway. “I really think psychoanalysis,” he said, “gave us the most beautiful literature we have.”
He sounded wistful. I don’t know whether he was giving me a message, telling me about what had helped him find peace for a while, or parting with things that hadn’t worked. He handed over the books with a generous smile, and his body pulsed with warmth when we hugged. But as I drove away I felt like a thief.
As time wore on, Michael became an ever stronger advocate of the thing he struggled to do. Show each other your face, he would say.
I wondered whether his ideas got larger as his internal space and room to breathe narrowed. Not only did he constantly push himself to break new ground in Buddhist thought, he wanted to carve out a leadership role in the movement to renovate yoga postures. There was talk of building a new centre in the western mountains, and landing a university fellowship. He told me about one of his next books, in which he was going to be more transparent about his mental health. He was searching for the right hook. Something that could go mainstream.
If he was going to own his mental illness, he was going to learn and write and teach his way through it. It’s what he had always done.
It is perhaps what the Buddha himself had done.
A main difference being: Siddhartha Gautama wasn’t preceded in the world by the images of his own enlightenment. He didn’t need to feed the insatiable hunger of wellness culture. He did not have to live up to – nor compete with – the branding of spirituality.
The poet John Ashbury just died at the ripe old age of ninety. He once wrote:
Most reckless things are beautiful in some way, and recklessness is what makes experimental art beautiful, just as religions are beautiful because of the strong possibility that they are founded on nothing.
Don’t squander your life!
Sometimes the group whispered it. At the memorial, one of his students shouted it at the top of his lungs. Who was he shouting it at?
Those who harbour anger at Michael right now – and feel so guilty because of it – might feel sucker-punched by that line. Doesn’t it open a cut of hypocrisy? Did he really recite it a hundred thousand times? Who was he talking to?
The stigma Michael faced is real. But the broader story must include the fact that thousands of us paid him for the creative side of his mania, which was hard to separate from his talent. A portion of our money poured directly into a small industry of marketing and publicity that reflected our desires back to us. It paid for gorgeous photography and design, for occasional ghostwriting, and for partnerships that gave structure and anchoring to his flow states.
The yoga and meditation economy embraced him with open arms. And enabled him. He was working on four different books, all in different subject areas, when he died.
He may not have wanted to disclose. But if anyone could have turned stigma into stigmata, it was him. The spirituality industry, however, would suffer for it.
A disclosure like Michael’s would continue to erode the arbitrary distinctions between sane and insane spiritual leaders. It would be that much harder to read Pema Chodron or Alan Watts without wondering how much of Buddhism amongst postmodern converts is an elaborate way of covering over a hidden story.
If Michael had disclosed, we would look at our shelves full of Shambhala titles and wonder how many trees were felled to print them. We’d remember that the press that launched him was itself launched by the mercurial genius of Chogyam Trungpa: alcoholic, womanizing, surely undiagnosed. We would not be talking about the fall of a single hero, but the clay feet of a culture. We might sense the deep feelings of shame and inadequacy that drive so many men to the front of the room to prove themselves. We think they are vibrating, when really they are trembling.
After that line about squandering your life, Michael’s assistant would strike the gong while holding the rim, so it couldn’t ring to its natural end.
I was always a crappy Buddhist. Over that surreal weekend of his coma, I felt so identified with Michael’s body that I felt some shadow part of myself on that ventilator, forcing me to breathe, waiting for it to be switched off. A more solid part of me was here, not believing that he couldn’t taste this coffee, couldn’t stand in this garden, couldn’t smile at his wife, couldn’t hold his toddler.
Even two weeks later, his death still seemed a spectacle to me, I expected him to step out from behind a tree, or send a text from the edge of Algonquin Park, where he disappeared to when he was twenty. As though he’d just been out of cell phone range, and had no clue there was such a fuss.
It only really hit home as I sat with my family on a driftwood log on a Pender Island beach with a hundred others at the memorial. The children waited patiently through the chanting, holding the paper lanterns they would release after the last bell.
Jayme stood behind the altar with his partner Laura and cracked open the Zen liturgy with his banjo and a southern spiritual. His voice, braided with hers, carried light and ash. Their three year-old son pulled at Laura’s dress, asking to be picked up.
If you’re a Canadian Gen Xer like Michael and me, you’ll probably remember a little Québécois film from 1989 by Denys Arcand called “Jesus of Montreal”. I went to the Carleton Cinema over and over again to soak it in. I wouldn’t at all be surprised if Michael was sitting there during one of those screenings. I was eighteen; he would have been fifteen.
The movie tells a simple, predictable story. A wandering actor returns to his hometown and is hired to direct and star in a revamp of the Cathedral’s chintzy Passion play. He’s silent, magnetic, dreamboaty. Also a little wonky. He electrifies an unlikely cohort of disciples and leads them in pulling their art and their lives out of banality.
At the peak of his influence, while performing Jesus, and not really knowing what he was doing, the actor accidentally dies.
The concluding montage leaves the main characters behind. It cuts from one hospital room to the next, showing patient after patient waking up after their surgery to receive an organ, donated by the actor who played Jesus.
An old man wakes up with a new heart. A middle-aged woman has the bandages removed so that she can blink at her daughter with new eyes, and call out her name.
This is my body, which will be given up for you, as they say in the church to which I once belonged.
I cried harder during that scene than almost ever before or since, and couldn’t move from my seat until the janitor tapped me on the arm at closing time.
Whenever I crest over this present edge of numbness and am finally able to cry about Michael, I think the tears will join the river that started in that theatre. They’ll flow from the material realizations of love:
I’ll feel how one body becomes other bodies.
I’ll feel that this is all there ever was or needs to be: a recycling of flesh into new joys and troubles. This is the way biology grants forgiveness. The process itself is the only soul we need to speculate about.
I’ll feel that in death, as in life, a person is both visible and invisible. Charisma magnifies this split.
Visible or invisible, Michael couldn’t be found or boxed in. I was foolish to think he could be. So it goes for those burdened with charisma. They are who they are because they seem so much larger and more permanent than you, even when they desperately want to be equal, normal, not-special; even when they want to disappear.
I know this tune: I’ve spent years deconstructing the light and shadow of spiritual teachers. On the surface my crusade has been related to healing from being in two cults. But the deeper drives that both attracted me to those men and led me to loathe them flow from my own need to be special, to heal attachment wounds, to be seen and praised — and then the shame of recognizing these things.
Pegging Michael as charismatic, and feeling smug about it, let me off the hook for years. I could only truly love him when I began to understand that he was living an amplified version of my own needs.
Part of why I wanted to be his friend was that I wanted to see myself more clearly. Knowing he did many of the things I work against, I tried to forgive him because he was ill and couldn’t seem to do otherwise. Perhaps he was my dharma teacher after all, teaching me about love in that sideways land of the unconscious.
My eventual tears will tally all I harvested in every moment I knew him – over years, and not just suddenly. The organs are just the last parts to be offered.
I’ll understand that those who speak most about community and ethics and family and forgiveness and intimacy are those who most long for such things.
I’ll sense that the pain of watching a person you love shattering into emptiness can be soothed by the feeling that he’s already inside you, transplanted, flaws and all. He lends you the heart, for the brief time we have, to take care of others.