Image: Father Yod of the Source Family.
Yesterday, I learned something new about cult leaders from Philip Deslippe, a whip-smart Religious Studies scholar who focuses on the history of modern yoga and new religious movements.
He once interviewed an attorney who handled a number of high profile cases against cults. The attorney said that from his experience, leaders follow clear patterns:
At some point they realize how desperately co-dependent they are in relation to their students. They begin to regard their students as idiots, children, incompetents. They begin to loathe them not only for their immaturity, but even more intensely because they are dependent on that immaturity, that devotion, for their daily bread. They’re trapped. Some drink themselves senseless, others take drugs, hide out under mountains of cash, or think help. Some manage to kill themselves.
What impresses me about this analysis is that we’re always aghast when we hear of cruelty and abuse flowing downward from a spiritual leader. We can’t believe its inconsistency with their apparent spiritual mission. But what if instead of pathologizing it we considered a simpler answer: it’s an economy of loathing.
Sogyal Rinpoche punching a nun, Trungpa sexually assaulting public figures in a temple, Osho staring blankly at his followers from the window of his Rolls. Iyengar ranting about how students who have touched his feet for a decade are ignorant fools, and then hitting them, Michael Roach giving people meaningless unpaid tasks and joking with the inner circle: “Of course we’re in cult.”
The pattern I’ve seen seems to be that the cruelty increases in direct proportion to the “success” of the guru. Is power its own addictive feedback loop? Yes, but so is loathing. How can the guru not loathe himself, when he sees he’s propped up by the very people he’s broken? Then, if you’re a crazy wisdom dude like Sogyal or Adi Da you fold that very corruption back into the the content of your teaching: of course the world is an absurd illusion for you. What else do you know?
They hit their students, sexually dominate them, starve them, steal their labour and money, mock them. These are all morbid actions, but they also acts of retribution against the terms of their shameful imprisonment, which they blame on their students, and cannot own for themselves. And the most incredible part of all is that as the loathing escalates, so does the devotee’s need to say it is something else, all the way up to love, in order to stand it.
This is not a post about humanizing cult leaders, although everyone is human. They were all little boys once. It’s a post about standing outside the cult mechanisms in our lives to see that fantasy and idealization are the opposite of love, and that when directed en masse at a leader whose charisma flows out of some ungodly wound, a downward spiral ensues that belies the upward spiral of the group’s self-narrative.
Of course there’s another side of the loathing economy. A a part of the devotee secretly loathes the guru as well.
Because devotion is inseparable from fantasy and idealization, it must have a conflicted core. How can you love someone who towers above you in grace and humanness? How can love a person who builds his presence before you on the premise he knows you, knows your nature, knows the nature of the world? How can you really love a saviour, when the first thing a saviour must do to be a saviour is to concretize your sense of inadequacy?
My guess is that the tension holds true in both the flesh and the abstract. Who can truly love Jesus, whose nature excludes you from communion with God? Who can truly love Krishna, who knows enough about the universe that he can reverse your reason and moral doubt and send you off to war? That we eroticize both is a clue to how hard it is to really love them.
The shadow cast by fantasy and idealization is that of your presumed failure. The guru sits there and pontificates, and you are seduced. The secret of seduction is that “seduction” means: “being led away from yourself.” If you pay attention you can feel it happening. The body is running away from him as fast as it can. But the socialized self co-opts that kinetic energy, and aims you at his feet.
The disillusionment, already built-in to the structure of fantasy and idealization, becomes a little more palpable when the devotee subconsciously realizes their fantasy and idealization can’t be fulfilled. Somewhere they feel they don’t actually love the leader, or perhaps never did. But they’re in so deep they force themselves to. The leader smells the lie he brought on himself, and lashes out.
Really sorry this post is dark. I still believe that the more we can see this clearly, I believe, the less it will happen.
One thing that’s coming into clearer focus as I keep looking into the 1960s-90s period of the global yoga boom is that non-Indian students/consumers were attracted not just to notions of bodily freedom and the enhanced internal agency promised by meditation.
Through idealism and orientalist distortions, they were also attracted to an ostensibly older and more grounded mode of being.
On one hand, this was partially expressed through a nostalgia for conservatism. I believe this had a lot to do with being attracted to how Iyengar’s (and others’) colonial-era survivorship blended with post-war Fordism to value good posture, an independent work ethic, strongly defined gender roles, visions of the benevolent patriarch, obedience to a productive method, a fixation on the hero’s journey, and the notion that the world was improving, one sun salute at a time.
Beneath this simmered an attraction to something more primal: the very capacity for belief itself. Postmodernism had argued an “incredulity towards metanarratives”, such as “nationhood” or “religion” or “history” and even “self”. The 1970s academic deconstructionists attacked faith without mercy. Their work trickled down into a pervasive sense of irony within popular culture. It got so bad that at one point I realized that the feeling I had of understanding something was indistinguishable from the feeling I got when mocking it.
Somehow, the ground of yoga offered something more solid, less depressed. For the disillusioned global spiritual consumer, its homeland became the site of an unshifting reality or confidence, lived by those who had stood there and endured.
With privilege, you could travel to India as a tourist from historical and cultural bankruptcy, and try to soak some of that up, to fill the hole.
You could study there, get sick there, feel like a child again, without language or good toilet skills.
You could watch countless people flow by in an endless reaffirmation of your stereotypes and archetypes.
You could go to a temple and ask a nadi reader to retrieve your life story from a library of palm leaves. You could hear mantras recited, unchanged in tone or rhythm (or so they said) from before the dawn of time.
You could pretend to be guiltless, making yourself oblivious to the inequalities that allowed you to fly there in a plane and blend the reverie of gazing out at cloud cover with a vague sense of spiritual purpose.
But the one thing you couldn’t do as a spiritual traveller in India was to feel ironic. The feeling would instantly erase your visa from your passport.
That milky chai in a red clay cup as you waited for the rickety train was the sweet taste of relief from all doubt and skepticism and smugness. You could breathe its aroma deeply.
The Oneness everyone talked about had a somatic immediacy. There was nothing abstract about it. I felt it in the springs of the bus seat lurching up to Dharamsala, the punch of camphor in the sinuses. I thought I saw it in the cow pats drying on the mud walls.
How painful it is to become disillusioned with an authenticity project. To become ironic about yoga culture, skeptical of its pathways of authority, doubtful of its origin stories. How shameful to realize you were making yourself feel better by othering, by positively colonizing.
Or: to hear that this one made that up and the other one was in it for money or sexual gratification. To see that modern yoga in the U.S. and India both can prop up a politics you abhor. Didn’t we come to these mats and cushions to relax our cynicism?
From personal experience I know that irony can be the ironclad defence of the depressive. But if it retains just a little bit of sweet within its bitterness, it can serve a nobler role. If it’s a little less sneer and little more Mona Lisa, it can light a pathway to inquiry.
There really can be more to deconstruction than clever white men reliving their adolescence by claiming that all meaning – including the meanings that create power and inequality – is somehow a mirage.
Deeper than its flash, deconstruction shows that the heart is a garden of doubts to be carefully tended.
It shows that the attempt to fix meaning flows from patriarchal insecurities, that nostalgia for the father and the Word and for certainty cannot be healed through transference and projection, or fawning neocolonialism.
It shows how ultimately ridiculous it was – though not innocent – that you thought yoga was a specific thing you could grasp and possess and preach.
I had a teacher once who gave an eccentric etymology (of the “nirukta” or poetic variety) for “moksha”. He said that the “mo” pointed to “Mohini” who infatuates the yogi, and the “ksha” meant “removal”. Thus, he said, one way to think of “moksha” was as “the ending of infatuation.”
Infatuation ends in disillusionment. Irony comes in to soothe and protect.
But after a while, one may not need protection from vanished illusions.
It’s impossible to take a deep ironic breath, after all.
Maybe the Buddha is smiling through the other side of irony. The mature, humble, forgiving side.
There often comes a moment when I’m presenting on the tangled history of the modern yoga movement to a yoga traing group where the discomfort of the room makes me question what I’m doing.
Is it really important to look into the shadows of modern yoga gurus, and their first generation of students? Aren’t they all gone? Hasn’t their time passed? Haven’t Instagram stars made them invisible? Who really cares anymore? Continue reading “Why Focus on Yoga Shadows? A Brief Note”
I’d like to bite at a question Diane Bruni asked on the Yoga and Movement Research Group Facebook page, months ago:
Why are we still on the yoga boat? Given all the scandals, disillusionments, power dynamics, and injuries to tissues and psyches, why do we still care?
(This was before YMRG exploded in both numbers and flash-fires of hostility. Had she asked last week, she might have added: “And why are we still on the Facebook yoga-group boat? Isn’t it burning and sinking? Shouldn’t we be swimming?”)
When Diane and I present together on the more difficult sides of yoga practice and culture, I usually open my bit by saying something like: “Diane and I are coming to this from a combined 45 years of practice and teaching, so we’ve seen some things. The danger with a day like this is that we could just toilet our mid-life crises into your laps. We’ll try not to do that.”
And then we try to balance our critiques of how repetitive stress affects tissues and learning relationships with our sense of wonder and possibility. We’re here, after all, because we love yoga.
The shadow side of that question might be: what else are we going to do?
This an important thing to consider when the dominant propaganda of the precariat economy is “Surrender to your higher self and follow your truth.” It would be more honest if they said, “Surrender to your freelance uncertainty, and try to look abundant as you try to sustain your relevance.”
It can be liberating for those of us in this ambivalent mid-life position to acknowledge our age and investments and sunken costs and narrowing exit possibilities.
These things hem us in, but have their positive side as well. The more you’ve invested in an art form, the more you’ll need to continue exploring within it, creating meaning as you go.
I collect trolls. I’m not talking about loyal critics, to whom I’m indebted, but about people who make shit up. Even then, “troll” can be the wrong term, because outright lies can carry a shadow of truth. So I’ll call this one guy a half-troll. One of his favourite pastimes is to use several pseudonyms to crow that I’m writing about yoga because I couldn’t get another job except for flipping burgers.
Funny thing is: he’s partly right. Those were the breaks.
Part of why I’m on the yoga boat is because when I exited my second cult in 2004 I was 33 and hadn’t completed college. I’d had moderate success as a writer before that period, and had kept it up, but there wasn’t any money in it. Although there had been. In the early 1990s in Canada — if you were white and straight especially — you could make your way modestly in literary fiction easier than a decade later. It took me several post-cult years to really get that the writing world had changed — not the white/straight part so much as the fact that content hosts had figured out how to almost completely stop paying for content.
I’d been exposed to yoga and loved it, and taking a training seemed to be a no-brainer. Back then you could easily find a job upon getting a diploma. Or you could make one up, especially where I was living in rural Wisconsin. I opened a studio with my partner at the time and threw myself into it. I loved every part of it: personal practice, community building, continuing education in yoga therapy and ayurveda. Owning studios in Wisconsin and then in Toronto in 2006 locked my personal and professional identity up with the yoga world.
We get older and things change and alternative doorways close down. By 2012 I was injured, and a lot of people around me were as well. I realized my movement training was naïve. There was no way I could physically keep up with my schedule of 15 classes per week.
As my body pain increased, I began to teach more restorative classes. I also retreated into more writing. I consider this a kind of jnana yoga, though many disagree. They too, are sometimes right. Sometimes I write to avoid yoga. It’s tricky, because I can always claim it’s inner work, but at times it just retrenches my conditioning.
As I researched yoga injuries and abreactions to practice, new psychological doorways opened for me to explore. Namely: how do we sometimes use yoga and meditation to reinforce or bypass the very patterns we would most like to change?
I’ve told this story before: the WAWADIA? project was mainly inspired by conversations with my partner Alix Bemrose, but another key prod was the observation of my friend Scott Petrie, who said: “If you needed to hurt yourself, yoga would be a socially acceptable way of doing it.” What an amazing rabbit hole.
I’m still on the yoga boat partly because my half-troll is right about the burgers, but also because I believe yoga is self-inquiry, and yoga culture provides amazing tools towards this end, including the opportunity to critique it. I engage the yoga of meta-yoga. (That is an obscenely pretentious sentence. I’ll own that.)
What other artform flaunts its own paradoxes so blatantly: between improvement and acceptance, discipline and freedom? What other form of inquiry into conditioning shows how inquiry is bound by conditioning? Okay, the postmoderns did it, but it was disembodied and often joyless. I was there. I still have jackets in my closet that smell like Gauloises.
Sometimes I daydream about teaching movement/asana again, but really, there are too many geniuses out there doing it now in an intensely crowded field of new research. I would have to go back to asana school for years to feel competent again. And when I take classes with rockstars like Diane or Peter Blackaby or Daniel Clement or Donna Farhi or Frey Faust I’m like “What’s the point? This is not where I can add value.”
The real movement professionals are equal parts elite athlete and zen master. That’s not me.
I’m also somewhat over it, to be honest. I got what I needed out of asana practice personally. It woke me up. I still practice here and there, but I also have a blast swimming or playing handball with other middle-aged men, foaming at the mouth like a rabid dog.
I know other people are wired differently and will get a lot of juice out of life-long refinement and exploration on their mats. I admire and respect them. I don’t think I can do what they do in a healthy, non-obsessive way. My asana arc has gone from dissociative-disembodied in my late twenties to an acutely embodied late thirties, to a mid-forties meh, I’m embodied amongst other bodies, and so what: because climate change. That’s fine with me for now.
As much as I wonder whether I should just mothball the laptop for a year and commit myself to daily classes with Monica Voss or Susan Richardson here in town, it’s unlikely. There are two children running around now. Plus, weird things happen. Like I flew into Albuquerque on July 14th this year, excited to be a student of Donna Farhi for the weekend, and to round up my interviews with her. But that was the same day that Michael Stone fell into a coma. There was no way I could sit there and watch my breath and sensations, which were both screaming at me. I had to do a different yoga that day, and since, really.
For now my seat on the yoga boat is as an analyst for how things change, and why. I can still practice and meditate and reflect. That is still labour, and if it does or doesn’t have value, people will let me know.
But here’s the biggest reason I’m still on the boat: I love the personal, social, and increasingly political moment called the YTT. I’m grateful to work in that context.
Say what you will about industry standards and commodification. You’ll be right about a lot of things, and I’ll agree with you. For my part I’ve also seen that every YTT I know provides space that doesn’t exist anywhere else: space to consider the meaning of everything in one’s life, from bones to soul. People wind up there during life transitions: after divorces, deaths, illnesses. They show up with a level of existential gravitas that is rare, and which opens them up to discussing the great mysteries of philosophy and esotericism.
Yes there are probably too many programmes, and running YTTs often involves beating back against hidden financial pressures with a smile, and the teacher market is saturated, and trainings can be thin on diversity and accessibility. These are all problems to be worked on. And when they are, the contemplative environment of the YTT can, I believe, be a quietly powerful influence on the broader culture.
There’s some exciting lemonade. The YTT industry has been created and sustained by consumerism, gentrification, and the pressures of a fragmenting labour market. Those who go into these programmes expecting to professionalize will be increasingly aware of all of this. Can this provoke a tipping point in attitude?
What I believe will happen, over time, is that more and more serious students will look at the YTT as personal enrichment, and that that if they want to convert that enrichment into work, they’ll look for and create possibilities in yoga service, rather than yoga sales. They’ll be less interested in getting yoga right than in figuring out how they can share it.
Finally, there’s all the new content. Within a few years, how many YTT programmes will include units on trauma sensitivity? Who won’t want to be able to offer a trauma-sensitive environment?
Can trauma-sensitivity discourse be the gateway to broader considerations? Its premises, after all, point to intersectional truths: the world is not even, the playing field is not level. We are all different. We come from different experiential backgrounds. Those backgrounds are seared into and onto our flesh, and it takes work to acknowledge, respect, and support these differences on the mat.
(I’m not sure we’re fully aware of how radically the TS discourse challenges the dominant ideology of modern yoga, expressed in endless refrains of universality and oneness. The language is shifting away from aspirations to — or presumptions of — unity, to a humble listening to the unknown other. Is this what the ṛṣis did? Didn’t they listen to something they could not understand, but listened carefully enough to memorize what they heard, intuiting how important it was?)
How would the fundamentals of TSY, related to single bodies seeking healing, not ripple out into the social fabric of practice? How would they not expand conversations around inclusivity, and even cultural appropriation? How would they not force discussions around accessibility and accommodation — so far only aspirational — into actionable territory?
Imagine it: the YTT as a non-denominational ritual that offers accessible space for social inquiry, rooted in the rhythms and techniques of self-awareness. Isn’t that where this boat has always been going?
A few months ago there was an interesting thread on Yoga and Movement Research Community about the difficulty in establishing medical causality for yoga injury. The debate was vigorous as always, but this time reached a pitch that suggested to me that there are many things beneath the surface.
What I’ve learned in talking with the medical people who treat yoga-related injuries is that they are cautious about attributing exact causation to any particular moment or movement. They know that there are simply too many pre-existing injuries, repetitive stresses and loading patterns at play to pinpoint a particular action definitively as the cause of a new injury. Continue reading “Talking About Yoga Injuries Can Be a Way of Talking About Other Things”
Enough people have asked me my thoughts about Byron Katie and “The Work” that I’ll give a few here in relation to the following video.
In it, Katie “helps” a woman understand that her fears of the Trump administration are unwise, with an undercurrent of “deluded”. Katie does this using several techniques of charismatic dominance. This is ironic, to say the least. Continue reading “Byron Katie’s Domination Technique: a Case Study”
I want to push back a little against an inaccurate and often cruel stereotype of the 200-hour YTT graduate that’s been gaining steam in Yogaland over the past couple of years.
It frames out like this:
The recent YTT grad (80% likely it’s a “she”) is millennial, hasn’t practiced for long enough to be taking a training to start with, thinks that shapes are the point and has the Insta account to prove it. She got conned by a McStudio into signing up for a watered-down curriculum and is being taught by only slightly older entrepreneurial hacks who needed to run a programme to make their rent. Her knowledge of biomechanics is scant and of yoga philosophy worse. She has no connection to the “sacred”, and believes that yoga is a personal lifestyle choice, indistinguishable from fashion. Continue reading “Against the “Recent YTT Grad” Stereotype”