When The Goodness of a Yoga Group Comes From Those It Abuses
Here’s something I wasn’t able to fit into the Sivananda Yoga feature, because it veers into commentary/opinion, and because it would have stretched the word count beyond breaking.
There was a guest on Rachel Bernstein’s IndoctriNation podcast (can’t recall the name or find it now) who said something I’ll paraphrase: “The cult takes the best part of a person. It takes their altruism, their youth, their compassion, their discipline and drive to work. It clothes itself in this energy.”
It rang true in my own experience when I heard it. I remember how my own natural skills (and hopes) were mobilized and manipulated by the groups that recruited me. Now I feel like I’m understanding it on a deeper level.
When I report on institutional abuse in yoga and Buddhism I invariably discover that the survivors were stripped of time, attention, money, social capital, earning potential, bodily autonomy and dignity. Those spoils contribute to the total value of the organization. In a previous post I focused on the material assets derived from “karma yoga”, which would include facility maintenance, gardening, hospitality, cooking. To take Sivananda Yoga as the example, this would be everything that makes the possibility of the “yoga vacation” or a training programme a viable commodity.
I’m seeing now that it goes much deeper than that. I think the pictures curated for the article really let it sink in. In one image, we see Julie holding a coconut for Nair to sip. In another, we see her in an old-timey Indian phone centre, speaking on his behalf. (Few others could understand him after his stroke.) Staring at the images, I realized that my first impulse was to identify with her, but in relation to him: to feel the anxious compliance, to share in the hope that the service was adequate. Meditating like this instantly positions Nair as the moral or spiritual authority who we must wonder about, be concerned for, or fear.
But at some point I felt my brain click over into a different track. It’s not Nair who is the special person in these photographs, but Julie. He’s an old, debilitated man. He’s not why people were drawn to the organization, at least at that point. In earlier years he presents a puckish radiance that surely attracted some. But even then he was never alone. He was always surrounded by people who made him important by their presence. I suggest we look at them, first and foremost, to try to answer: was it their attractiveness and altruism that made the organization what it was?
One picture that GEN didn’t print (see the lede, above) features Pamela Kyssa marching in a small group with Nair through the bullet-riddled streets of Belfast, on one of Nair’s “Peace Missions”. It’s the early 1980s. Kyssa is holding a pasteboard sign with a peace message carefully written out in Gaelic. I don’t know whether she knows Gaelic or had to learn it to write it out. But I do know that Nair walking through those streets alone would not have been a story. There’s a strong young woman beside him, holding a sign in the language that makes his message communicable.
It’s not just Julie’s labour, attention, and so on that was exploited. It was her virtue, service, and faith in ideals that Nair couldn’t uphold, and for all we know, never believed in himself. It was her affect, her visible devotion. More than Nair’s face or voice or words, I believe these goodnesses constitute the core social and economic value of Nair’s organization.
This misattribution of value is plainly visible in other cases of institutional abuse. Sarah Baughn’s devotional athleticism was the face of Bikram Yoga for years, during which time Bikram raped her. Karen Rain’s superhuman focus in the famous Ashtanga Primary Series video helped to market the practice — deceptively, because the video showed no “adjustments” — to the global market. Jois assaulted her regularly. Leslie Hays’ “promotion” to “spiritual wife” of Trungpa Rinpoche (one of seven) allowed the organization to consolidate its branding as traditional-yet-edgy, transcendent of “conventional” morality, etc.
When people accuse these women of trying to “destroy” their former organizations by coming forward with their abuse disclosures, they are delusional. They have it backwards.
Julie isn’t destroying Sivananda Yoga. If people still come to those ashrams, it’s because of the energy that people like Julie invested and displayed. If people come, it is despite the institution and its abuse, which all the karma yoga concealed. Julie and others alongside her literally built the organization. They formed its moral and altruistic core. It’s exactly this that elevates those ashrams and retreat centres above the level of rather shabby vacay spots.
At the height of the Ashtanga Yoga crisis, an Ashtanga practitioner named Dimi Currey wrote the following about the centrality of the survivor to organizational “success”. I quoted her in my book on p. 88. .
These women’s suffering is as much a part of why we have Ashtanga today, as David Williams’, or Norman Allen’s contributions. [Williams and Allen are early Jois students.] If these women had filed charges back then (and there were some that wanted to), maybe the system would not have spread as it has? These women suffered through it, in some ways sacrificing themselves for what seemed to be a greater cause. And the system has lived on.
Now those women who were hurt, would like the wrongs done to them to be recognized. It doesn’t seem like any of them are out to publicly shame others regarding the situation. Only that their suffering be recognized, so that steps can be taken to insure that others are not hurt as they were. I think there should be some action—very clear action taken to recognize this. I think it should become part of the history of the lineage. It is the truth. History is supposed to be factual.
So, maybe we should know the faces and names of these women who were hurt by P. Jois, but carried on the lineage? Because, it is in part due to their suffering that we have Ashtanga today. Maybe instead of his picture in studios, on altars, etc. Maybe it is their pictures that belong there.
There is a continuing irony in all this:
In uncovering the facts of institutional abuse, survivors actually continue their selfless service to the organization and its ideals. Their activism actually embodies the stated goals of the group, better than the group ever did. They become leaders. In addition to reparations, they deserve consulting fees.
My sense is that this continuation of labour sometimes seems to show that the good will and zest for life that they brought to the group may not have been entirely erased.
In cult studies there’s this idea that the pre-cult self may not ever be entirely killed off, and that re-acclimating to the outside world — and especially to former relationships — may well resuscitate it from its dissociative sleep. Alongside this, the skills and talents that the group exploited might re-emerge to support that reconnection.
In my case, the groups I was in sought to exploit my writing skill. Both did so so successfully that after six years I couldn’t do my own writing. I no longer had an internal voice. I couldn’t string two sentences together. It took me about a decade to begin to feel like I had a voice again, an internal coherence I could call my own. It’s significant that I knew a major part of that healing was done when I started writing about cults. At that moment, a certain natural flow returned, and the content itself lifted me out of isolation, connecting me with other survivors, but also writing friends who knew me from before, and recognized me again.
But it’s not just about the pre-cult self. There are also positive skills and connections that people make within groups, and which sustain them after leaving.
The big one for me is cooking. Some of the most fun I’ve had in my life was learning how to cook for 300 people with my friend Rupi, who was a cooking genius. To this day that exuberant love gets stirred into every meal I make for my family.
My bet is that the Sivananda karma yogis, who bonded over the ideals of selfless service that their leaders may not have even have believed in, may find that the joy they took in the skills the group exploited can return to them. If they entered with accounting skills that the group used, it’s possible that doing accounts for real clients in the real world will feel immensely satisfying again. If they were the ashram photographer they might now delight in new images.
And if they learned how to garden or do carpentry while in the group, they may yet take great joy in growing vegetables for the family or the neighbourhood, and in building that clubhouse out back for the children.