“A Hamster Wheel of Self-Help.” Conversation with Rachel Bernstein on IndoctriNation Podcast (Pt. 2)
Here’s Part 2 of my conversation with Rachel Bernstein on her IndoctriNation podcast. Part 1 is here.Please consider supporting her work by subscribing to the podcast via Patreon.
Rachel Bernstein: 00:04
Welcome to IndoctriNation, a weekly conversation series about protecting yourself from systems of control. I am your host, Rachel Bernstein. Welcome to part two of my interview with Matthew Remski. He is the survivor of two yoga-related cults and is now the father of two with his partner. He’s also an instructor and an author. He has some very interesting insights and has done a lot of research. I look forward to having you hear him speak about his experiences and also how to get past a lot of what he went through and some good guidelines for others who have been through those kinds of experiences. Let’s talk to him now.
Rachel Bernstein: 00:47
So you were involved in [Michael Roach’s] group for how long?
Matthew Remski: 00:49
For just over three years. Okay. And then he took six or seven of his female students into retreat for three years, a private retreat. And that was started in 2000. That meant that he was kind of like out of the picture, but also he did a number of things at the end. I got fairly into, doing some of the… I said earlier that I had stopped writing, but I started writing for him actually, which was, I think was even more detrimental to my mental health. So one of the key things that happened was that I was, that I realized, I’ve written an entire book for this guy based upon transcripts from his long-winded talks. And I’ve actually made him sound good and he’s not even going to do anything with it. I realized this was a pattern: that everybody was getting these meaningless, dead-end tasks that were incredibly time intensive and labor intensive and really determined that people would be emotionally focused upon him. Then the projects would go nowhere. There’d be no final result. Even within the group, there was this sense of, Oh yeah, he’s helping you burn off your aspirations or your selfishness or he’s helping you see where your own narcissism is preventing you from understanding the nature of reality and so on. So there were explanations for that as well.
Rachel Bernstein: 02:34
Yeah. Explanations, justifications, they usually happen so that they can kind of uphold the idea that he is someone who is necessary in our lives in ways that are obvious to us and also ways that are not. And it keeps us from really seeing that were being used, um, that it’s this hamster wheel actually.
Matthew Remski: 03:08
I really like how Janja Lalich talks about “bounded reality” [correction: “bounded choice”] where there’s nothing that’s disconfirming. So if he gives you a task, you accomplish the task for the good of the Dharma worldwide or whatever. And if you don’t accomplish the task you’ve paid some sort of penance. But there’s no, there’s no universe in which you can say, Wait a minute, you just wasted my time. You just manipulated me and stole my labor.
Rachel Bernstein: 03:36
The closed system: you can’t get outside information.
Matthew Remski: 03:41
And any result confirms the nature of the system.
Rachel Bernstein: 03:45
And anything positive is because of him anything negative is because of you. That’s built into it. Yeah. Nice little things sprinkled on top of all of it. Thanks! Thanks for that. Like I needed something else to make me feel bad about me! So then through the help of a friend got involved in this next group. So tell me about your experiences there.
Matthew Remski: 04:20
Endeavor Academy I think still exists, but I don’t know how many people still live there. I’ve lost touch with the people who are still there. I’m still in touch with through social media with three or four of former members who were in residence there. It’s in Wisconsin Dells, Wisconsin. And it was founded by a guy named Charles Anderson who died in 2008 and so that would have been like five years after after I had left. And he was a recovered, well, not-quite-recovered, dry alcoholic, Alcoholics Anonymous, Blue-Book-thumping…. But also his main text was A Course in Miracles. And I think that what impressed — I mean I actually fell for this, which even though I was deceived, I still give myself a side-eye about this one.
When I first walked into one of his sessions, which would just be him teaching extemporaneously and often in a sort of of garbled, jazzy, scatty kind of way. He was quite a wordsmith and bullshit artist. He looked straight at me and he said, Oh, I see the Buddhist has arrived! And then he took his sock and he smacked me across the head. And there’s this conversion story in Tibetan Buddhism where one of the saints, Marpa, takes a sandal and hits Milarepa over the head with it. I found out later that that somebody had given some intel to him, right? I thought he had just intuited that and he said: You are free as God made you, so what are you going to do? Meditate about that?
And you know, there was something very compelling, not just about the deception but about this line, which he would feed to everybody, which is you are, as a human being, a perpetual tangle of doubt and uncertainty. Can you just get over it already? Like you’re not doing yourself any favors by contemplating or by meditating. Just understand that: you’re standing in the light of God right now or whatever. This was his pitch: Because I’m certain about who I am. You can be too.
So there was something, to this day there was something compelling and existentially impressive about that particular turn that I haven’t seen in any other set of exchanges. Maybe this sounds familiar to you, but the thing is that he was really a one-trick pony. Like that was the one cognitive challenge to people’s anxiety or depression that he could offer. And then everything that was built around that was, you know, financial, emotional, physical, sexual exploitation. So it took me about a year to recognize that. And then I think as is common with, with a lot of people’s experience, it takes a lot longer to leave than you want. That’s because it’s hard to find anybody to talk to. It’s because you’ve invested a lot already. It’s because what are you going to do outside anyway?
Rachel Bernstein: 08:33
You doubt yourself. I’ve heard people say that, by and large — and I’ve seen this with the former members that I work with — that they were unhappy for a very long time before they took action to leave. And still some are kind of half in, half out. They’re just… it’s a process. Sometimes it takes longer for different people. Certainly. It’s interesting you talk about his way of being with you and being on the stage and even though you saw that he was this one trick pony and it became that if you’re a hammer, everything is a nail. Like it all is sort of the same everywhere. think that there is something about someone being very sure, and that’s what works in sales.
Matthew Remski: 09:20
He was a salesman.
Rachel Bernstein: 09:21
Yeah. So he was confrontative and he also seemed insightful and psychic to a certain degree, even though he had gotten intel, which often happens. But I think the fact that he had this kind of challenge for you and also said that he was someone who had benefited from this and he is someone who is these things, and you can be this too. It is like every sales pitch wrapped into this perfect little package, so, you know, it made an impact. It’s every technique of influence all in this couple of sentences.
Matthew Remski: 10:00
He wrapped it up and tied it in a bow and he did it in a way that was alternating – and this is where I find Alexandra Stein’s work so incredibly useful — really sharply alternating between the seemingly loving and the absolutely wrathful. Putting one in the very confused position of “Oh, am I receiving love at this point or am I being dismissed or am I being abused? How can I tell those apart? Is one the function of the other? Does one depend upon the other? Yeah. So he was particularly good at that.
Rachel Bernstein: 10:46
It’s a very controlling thing to do. It’s something that I’ve talked about in the past about intermittent gratification. So you kind of wait around for it to feel good again for the person to be happy with you. You then learn that you need to stay there. You can’t abandon this because there might be a payout soon. So if you can learn how to do it right, then it’s going to feel really good. Cause when it feels bad, it feels bad and it’s right in front of people too. So you kind of want to have that resolution that’s in a public way in front of people.
Matthew Remski: 11:25
At Endeavor Academy — this gave me a little bit of insight moving into researching Ashtanga yoga — is that the feel-food drug that was on offer every day was fairly regular. There was an inconsistency for sure in whether or not Charles Anderson was going to love you or abuse you. So that, as I understand dopamine systems, that kind of uncertainty really jacks up the pleasure principle when it hits.
But then there was another mechanism which was called “session”. That was every morning from about 8 till 11. He would start by giving like a rambling sermon about, about the Course in Miracles or, you know, whatever he was thinking about. That would last for about an hour. Then he would have Mitch, one of his main students, play music, like really loud club music. And then we would all get up and Kundalini jitterbug all over the room, arms raised, jumping as high as we could, barking like dogs, smashed in together.
And when I came across this line in Stein’s book, I think she gets it from Hannah Arendt, she talks about like an “airless compression” between people within a totalitarian system. That was exactly it. Like we actually had a mosh pit dance party, which sounds great in some ways, but it was every single day, and you basically had to go, and it was intense physically. It was intense psychologically, and there was so much exertion involved that there was this feeling of like almost blankness for the rest of the day. So there was this stimulation like pseudo-euphoria.
When I saw a hidden camera stuff, footage in Wild, Wild Country where they captured some of what was going on in either in the Oregon ashram or in Poona in India where — did you see that? Where there was the group that sort of fly on the wall group therapy sessions that were, that were violence, you know, physical and sexual assault, you know, cast as therapy encounters. But the daily experience — now that might have been the most intense, pockets of that activity — but the daily experience where people were doing this kind of shaking and speaking in tongues and screaming and crying and all of this extroversion…
I really wish the filmmakers had actually interviewed people about what the impacts of that shit was. Because I know from personal experience that it’s an extremely effective control mechanism that, that nothing matters. You overload yourself with that kind of endorphin rush for a couple hours in the morning, you can’t think for the rest of the day. You’re going to be blank, you’re going to do what you can socially to get by. But really there’s going to be a glaze between you and the next person.
Ever since then, contemplating what the impact was on me. I’ve been fascinated in especially the bodily tactics of high control groups, and that shows up in the work that I do on Ashtanga yoga because the people who ended up being subjugated and assaulted by Pattabhi Jois were also involved in intense, intense physical activity that really lowered their defences. So yeah, that’s a point of fascination for me.
Rachel Bernstein: 15:51
Yeah, I think that there are a couple of things that are really interesting about it. One is that it does take you into a different headspace. There’s no question it exhausts you and exhilarates you at the same time. It sends you also off balance. But also it’s this: when it’s done in a perfunctory way, then it is not something that feels authentic. You’re pushing yourself to do it. Which means that it could have been beyond what your body could tolerate. You might’ve already come from a place of being underslept or underfed and it’s just depleting you more and more, but it leaves you in a confused state because there’s a rush and kind of a giddiness around it at times. And so I think just, it’s another way to keep people off-balance.
Matthew Remski: 16:43
It’s also terribly addictive because if there’s, you know, certain endorphin opiate release, at a high level, at a regular time per day, and that’s also involved in a kind of social contact, but it’s blindered, or it’s not an intersubjective social contact. There’s this sheen between people. It’s like you’re, you’re using each other for the contact high, but you’re simultaneously isolated. It’s really hard to break away from that. And I think, I think it was that daily experience that I held onto longest, actually, long after I realized that Charles Anderson is just, just babbling. Long after I realized that, you know, so a bunch of people are going personally bankrupt, taking out credit card loans to pay for his bullshit. Like I still, I hung onto that, that bodily experience because that was a really powerful drug.
Rachel Bernstein: 17:49
A very powerful drug. Right. And your body accommodates and acclimates to something that happens on a regular basis. So at that time of day, you know, your body can start to crave it or miss it and whether or not it’s healthy anymore. Yeah. And that becomes a confusing message for your system as well. I think also anything that’s done in that multisensory way also has more staying power within our systems afterwards because it was just more input from the experience. But yeah, it’d be interesting to talk to you more about that. And to expand on that. I think to bring us to Ashtanga yoga: first of all, how did you leave this group and then start doing your other research?
Matthew Remski: 18:34
In about 2003. One of the things that Anderson would do is that as that he would finish up session and he would tell Mitch to put the dance music on and, and then he would go upstairs. It was this old hotel, if anybody knows the Wisconsin Dells, it’s like filled with old mobster hotels that are kind of like falling in and you could buy them up in the 80s or whatever for cheap. And so he’d go to his upper room, and his, you know, the inner circle plus the kind of sycophants-du-jour would run up the stairs after him. And I remember, I don’t know why I went up one day, but I remember I was the first one there for some reason. And I knocked on his door and he said, Yeah.
And I came around the corner and it’s just like 1970s-80s hotel room. Totally sort of nondescript. And you know, you open the door and turn the corner and the bathroom is right to the right, just as it would be in a hotel room. And I looked in and I saw him just like, yeah, looking into the mirror, like, What the hell am I doing? He didn’t say that, but it was like: I’m exhausted.
And then I said, I said, Old man? That’s what we called him. And then I literally saw him put his face on back again. He turned, and then he was like, he did his googly eyes and he did his “I see who you are.” But I fucking saw that guy become his persona. And something something snapped in my brain. Something similar happened with, with Michael Roach. So that’s been key for me is to realize that…. To just see this veil crack.
And so anyway, I can’t remember, it wasn’t that long afterwards that I was like just edging away and trying to pull my roots out without breaking them and withdraw, without being amputated and preserve some friendships and preserve the relationship that I was in at the time. And so then there was a long period of waiting on tables and learning yoga and wandering and as I said, I came into yoga because I found it to be a recovery space. I could feel my body as mine again. I remember the first time I rolled over after a class, I looked at my hand and I went, oh, hello, I’m here and I’m, I’m okay. And, and so there was something about, there was, there was something about the very simple instructions that were very powerful to me and, you know, but honestly, it didn’t take that long before I started hearing about, about some toxic dynamics.
I just didn’t want to know though. I didn’t want to hear that much about it and maybe, you know, about eight or nine years into my teaching career, owning two studios by that time, I started to hear more and more stories about not only sexual misconduct and financial shenanigans within various yoga organizations, but then really specifically, “Oh, you know Pattabhi Jois, who is probably responsible for more responsible for the global expansion and commodification of yoga practice then anybody else except for Mr. Iyengar — this guy was understood to be a sexual predator and that he got away with it.”
And that stayed on the level of rumor as far as I was concerned, except that in 2010, one of the women who he assaulted named Anneka Lucas finally published about it 10 years after the assault happened. And you know, people didn’t look at it very carefully, and it kind of disappeared on the website that it was on went under and it took, you know, me actually realizing that I was ignoring the story of a friend of mine. Her name is Diane Bruni here in Toronto. And she had been aware of the sexual assault. She was part of the Ashtanga Yoga world. You know, she told this story and I just, I realized at a certain point that I had not wanted to hear it. And then when I realized that, I was like, Nope, I’m gonna figure this out cause this is extraordinary.
I was particularly taken aback by the fact that it was a mainstream story. I was fearful. I was fearful of the fact that this was not, we’re not talking about some weird leader of some weird group that I was in Wisconsin. We were talking about somebody who had had more influence over this global industry than almost anybody else. And that some key ways in which the postures are practiced, namely that teachers and students have been operating in these spaces of implied consent with regard to touch, that teachers have felt free for the last 20 years to just touch people’s bodies even though they have no training whatsoever in manual therapy or whatever. But that all comes from that guy. And others, but very strongly from that guy.
And he was adjusting people. He was adjusting women, primarily, so that he could sexually assault them. And he was adjusting men, I would argue, primarily so that he could physically assault them. People do say they had wonderful experiences being, being adjusted by him. But then, you know, if you scratch the surface, they’ll also describe being hurt or being an utter terror and, you know, somehow willing themselves to, to feel better about it. So I dug up Anneka Lucas’s story and then another writer on another journalist named Elizabeth Kadetsky said, “You should try to get in touch with Karen Haberman, ’cause she might have a story to tell. But Karen Haberman has changed her name.”
I had to do this detective work to find her. I phoned her out of the blue. If people look her up, she’s actually become, through her own activism, one of the most prominent voices in the yoga reform movement, even though she doesn’t really care about the yoga world anymore.
So about three years of making connections like that, slowly put me in touch with a total of 16 people who gave testimony as to having been assaulted by Jois over a 30 year period. And I think that, just to return to like my main fascination is that this is somebody with like mainstream, mainstream, mainstream influence. I remember when I pitched the feature article that got published to The Walrus, my pitch line was this is the Harvey Weinstein of Yoga. I said, except that nobody thought of Harvey Weinstein as being a spiritual master. But what I really wanted to convey to the public and in part through this book was that, you know, in an unregulated industry in which people are seeking physical, emotional, and perhaps therapeutic and sometimes spiritual benefits, we have to look at where the material comes from really carefully. We have to look at who’s behind it, who’s created it, what kind of, what kind of power dynamics have created this teaching structure that has now spread across the world. So this is not to say that everybody who’s engaged in modern postural yoga is somehow abusing people. It’s still going to be a minority, a very small minority. But hopefully the work starts to expose that minority. And
Rachel Bernstein: 27:29
That would be really quite wonderful because you know, I hear about different yoga organizations run by people who were brought up on different charges, others where it really stays under the radar and you don’t really know about them until you get involved. And then it turns out, you know, Oops! The leader thinks he’s the messiah, like it wasn’t in the brochure.
Matthew Remski: 27:54
Right. Yeah. And there’s a basic safety issue involved too with regards to the dishonesty of groups that harbor abuse histories. So some of what I’m doing, not only in the book but also as a consultant, is trying to figure out and then also call out people who are basing their authority for their spiritual content upon an organization that has an abuse history, but not being clear with that and not showing the public: Okay, well this is how I’ve actually understood it, or this is how I’ve interrogated the power dynamics, that I actually don’t want to replicate.
You know, some of your listeners would probably know of a popular writer here in Canada named Doctor Gabor Maté, who’s a GP but has written a lot about trauma and adverse childhood experiences and addiction and stuff like that. He has a program that he collaborates on with another teacher and it seeks to bring Yoga practices into his addictions recovery program, or he lends support to a program that’s called Beyond Addiction. And the yoga portion is provided by members of the Kundalini Yoga Group. And, you know, this is a group with a really problematic history that — because I don’t think Dr. Maté investigated it — they just sort of get a free pass into providing services ostensibly for traumatized people. And then anybody attending these programs, however, can Google “Kundalini cult” or “Kundalini Yoga abuse”. And then suddenly they realize they’re in a training program in which somebody is promoting the benefits of the ideas and the practices they got from somebody who was clearly either unethical or an abusive person.
And then we have to wonder about, Okay, well what else are they passing on? Or has that history been digested in any kind of transparent way? So I think that’s going to be a big growth industry actually: people in the Yoga and Buddhism worlds figuring out: Oh, I learned this stuff and some of it was really helpful to me and I teach it, but I also learned it from a very problematic place and from a problematic person, you know, whose failures conscious or unconscious — and perhaps their crimes — I certainly don’t want to either rationalize or normalize or elevate or just not look at. So yeah, I think transparency is going to be the keyword of the next 30 years of the Yoga and Buddhism worlds.
Rachel Bernstein: 30:59
And I think it’s a very important thing also for there to be some sort of system of checks and balances. You know, with so many of these groups that don’t have a kind of an overarching governing body, then anything can happen without oversight. And so how do you set that up without it being kind of a police state? But still where there’s somebody to call if something happens and that they do something to protect you. I feel like that needs to be more set in place and I’m glad that you’re, you know, you’re talking about this transparency. What’s also interesting, I’m sure you found is that some people care about that more than others. When they hear that there’s a group that has kind of a checkered history or a leader that has a checkered history, they might say, that’s enough for me to not want to be involved in other people saying, yeah, but the practice really feels good. Or I really like it.
Matthew Remski: 31:51
And the dividing line might be really trauma awareness, either of the person’s own history… Nobody has an easy go of it, but if you don’t identify as having a trauma load, you might be in that latter category of like, well, I’m going to take what I can. But if you do know a little bit of what you carry, then I think that transparency is going to be more important. And I think it means that those who are aware of their trauma loads are really the canaries in the mine for everybody else. To use the phrase of a friend of mine, Theo Wildcroft, who says that in order to create a really safe space it has to be safe for the most vulnerable person there. It would be good if we could start holding ourselves to that ideal.
But it’s difficult because Yoga and Buddhism, like life coaching, are all unregulated. And they’re resistant to regulation, not just because people want to continue to be under the radar, but also because at least in the yoga world, the discourse is heavily Americanized. There’s a very characteristically American approach to keep your hands off of my spirituality: this is my private stuff. That’s a factor too.
Rachel Bernstein: 33:24
Right? So how does strike a balance so that it’s not tampered with and there isn’t so much of that kind of regulatory force where it doesn’t work anymore as kind of a spiritual endeavor. Because it’s too tense, but also that there are safeguards because that has been lacking. I’m really glad that you’re pinpointing the problems, the pitfalls. And I am curious as we finish up: What have you found, what have you found that you’ve learned just in terms of the vulnerability that we all have and why we might have it. I know we touched on it a little bit, but you’ve done so much research and you’ve talked to so many people. I’m just curious about your insights as we finish up.
Rachel Bernstein: 34:17
This book that’s coming out just wouldn’t exist without the bravery of the women who were able to find a voice to speak about how they were abused within this group. Learning how to listen to that experience has, I almost want to say, it’s become a kind — it’s suggested a different type of spirituality to me. When I tried to put myself in the place of somebody like Karen Rain who has taken 20 years to recover from these daily assaults, I realize something about how much care people actually need and how much support they need. Not care directly from me. But structural support and how important it is for people to be believed when they describe their trauma experiences and how important it is for people to be advocated for.
When the prevailing ideology of the culture is to blame the victim for having been so stupid, for staying, or to foster this belief that your freewill and your common sense should have just turned you away from that toxic environment and why didn’t it? These are all really ignorant responses that lead me back to something that Anneka Lucas actually told me in the first interview that we did with her about her story. And this has always stuck with me. She said “I believe that we can recognize the trauma of other people to the extent that we recognize that we ourselves have been traumatized.” That’s become a mantra for me.
So by listening to Karen, in making a lot of mistakes, you know, screwing up a lot, interrupting her or you know, whatever I’ve done over the last couple of years of interviewing, I have been able to understand something more about my own experience and I’ve also stopped being afraid, I think, of the fact that the traumatized person is somehow a danger to my sense of order in the world. My friend Theo Wildcraft says that society regards the trauma victim or the cult survivor, we could say also, as a contagious. If you really take on their story, if you really go into: Oh, this is how you were completely overwhelmed, this is how you were totally taken over and this is the profound material and perhaps unchangeable effects that you’ve experienced. If you really go into that as a listener, you might both have to connect with your own experience of that or you might have to start asking questions about the whole thing. You might have to start asking questions about all of your relationships, about all of the systems of power that you participate in. And I think that’s very profound and I’m not so scared of that any more. I wouldn’t say I’m free of the fear of questions, but I’m certainly more free than I have been.
Rachel Bernstein: 37:34
That’s all very beautiful. And I think it’s so important that we’re talking about people who have been through trauma and then they’re retraumatized by being sequestered in that kind of group of people who might do us harm or might give uncomfortable insights that we’re not quite ready for many things, but it is very true. And to not be afraid of it, to be able to kind of protect yourself along the way. Finding ways to do that so that you can invite their experiences into your world and their pain into your world without taking you over. I think it’s a nice way of finding that balance of connection to other people in the world and their experiences. Beautiful. I can’t wait for people to read your book. I mean, I wrote down some phrases as you were talking. I can see that you’re a wordsmith. I wrote down, “Kundalini jitterbug” and “sycophants du jour”. They were great. And when I hear one of those little nuggets, you know, I have to write it down. But that is a, it’s really great to be able to talk to you. I know you have many more stories, so hopefully we can, we can speak again and not only more stories but more insights and just in terms of your own way of kind of navigating so many different realms and worlds and trying to be open to things and, and that in healthy environment that’s wonderful and inunhealthy environments, you’re damaged and hurt and you can be deprived of openness, which is really a such a crime to the people who are just there with their open mind and open heart. But thank you so much and tell people also where they are going to be able to find your book.
Matthew Remski: 39:10
So the book is being published by Embodied Wisdom Publishing, but the announcements for it will be all over my Facebook page. I’ve, there’s an author’s page and there’s my personal page. But my website homepage is going to have a preorder button for it. It’s just my name is matthewremski.com And it’s March 14th that it’s dropping. And then who knows? There’s a whole storm after that. I don’t know what my life was going to look like after that, so we’ll see. Yeah.
Rachel Bernstein: 39:44
Busy. Yeah, it’ll be, it’ll be and good. And you’re going to, it’d be, you’re going to be hearing a lot more of people’s stories, you know, and it’s good to be prepared for that ahead of time, but it’s really wonderful, you know, it’s a nice thing to not feel that your experience was so sort of terminally unique and that you don’t have to feel isolated with it. It happens.
Matthew Remski: 40:06
And that’s where I just have to thank you again because, because you’re, the sharing of the stories that you do is so profoundly helpful. And it’s part of a kind of a golden age I think in that is dawning in cult studies and research and transparency so you’re a big part of that. Thank you so much for your work.
Rachel Bernstein: 40:24
Thank you. Thank you for your nice words. It was a pleasure to talk to you.
Matthew Remski: 40:27
All right. All right. I’ll talk to you soon. Thanks a lot Rachel.