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.
1. A Personal Cult Memory
1. John of God is deluded:
2. John of God isn’t a big deal:
3. Let’s get John of God to come to Wisconsin so we can have a healing summit!
Blink. Blink. Blink.
2. Portraits in the Omega Institute Faculty Dining Room
This past fall I got to spend a great week with folks from the Yoga Service Council on a writing retreat at Omega. Omega donated the space. One of our breakout groups was allowed to use the faculty dining room, just off the main hall. This is where all Omega presenters come to eat, away from the crowds.
The walls of the room were lined with portraits of famous past guests. Like if you went to House of Blues and all the musicians are up there, holding silent court.
I took a video tour of the room. The lede photo above is a screenshot. Aside from Philip Glass in the top left, counterclockwise from the bottom left, we have:
John of God
What kind of a place, what kind of a generation stitches these figures together with some pretence of coherence?
There’s Steinem, hemmed in between two men. John of God sells snake oil and assaults women, and Tolle mumbles dissociative word salad to cool a burning world.
All three have been at Omega. All three have appeared on Oprah.
Under the assumption that they share something in common, these men are elevated on either side of the feminist activist who actually got shit done.
I had this conflicting impulse to either take Steinem’s picture out of there, or take the other ones down. Who really deserves to be there?
Who will tell us what this part of the Left’s history means? How activism was kneecapped by and equated with self-obsession on the workshop circuit?
Who will show how John of God has been valued at places like Omega because, in part, he posed an alternative to the medical realism so essential to things like the reproductive rights movement? Or because he represented an acceptable, “shamanic” version of how to dominate (mostly women’s) bodies with charisma?
Who will study how Tolle has been valued at Omega because he let people off the hook of agitating for structural change, by telling people that conflict is all story in their minds?
When I think about the fractured Left, I keep thinking about this room, this photo gallery, as incoherent as a family’s. John milking charisma with that smile. Eckhart perpetually out-of-focus. Gloria, beaming fullness and generous agency.
I try to feel better about the world because at least I’m eating a vegetarian meal, and the folks at the table next to me are working on their chakras.
And when the sarcasm subsides I look out the window and know that the woods are still dark and deep.
Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse Minimizes Clerical and Institutional Abuse in Christmas Message to Rigpa Students
On January 3rd, Rigpa International members received a letter from Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse, dated December 25th. It was emailed by Rigpa’s “Vision Board”. The Vision Board is the advisory committee now directing the global neo-Buddhist organization after the resignation of Sogyal Lakar in August, 2017.
In July of 2017, Lakar was accused of decades of physical, sexual, emotional and financial abuse in a now-famous letter written by eight former devotees. Lakar has not denied any of the allegations. After Lakar stepped down, Rigpa International commissioned an independent investigation that found the allegations to be credible and advised that Lakar be barred from all contact with Rigpa students.
The Christmas letter by Khyentse Norbu (Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse) minimizes the allegations against Lakar and suggests that critics of how Rigpa has handled the crisis are personally dissatisfied, are thirsting “for Rigpa’s ultimate destruction”, and intent on discrediting Buddhism in general.
Norbu was appointed as an advisor to the Vision Board after more than a year of vigorously supporting Lakar following the publication of the allegations. A month after the letter from “The Eight”, Norbu posted an essay in support of Lakar and Rigpa management. It was shared over a thousand times on Facebook. The essay, which Norbu insists must be read in its ten-thousand-word-entirety to fully grasp its wisdom, was lauded by his students around the world as a nuanced defence of the version of Tantric Buddhism proffered by Lakar and himself. In it, he criticized the letter-writers for their lack of spiritual maturity and loyalty.
“Frankly,” he wrote,
for a student of Sogyal Rinpoche who has consciously received abhisheka and therefore entered or stepped onto the Vajrayana path, to think of labelling Sogyal Rinpoche’s actions as ‘abusive,’ or to criticize a Vajrayana master even privately, let alone publicly and in print, or simply to reveal that such methods exist, is a breakage of samaya.1)“Abhisheka” indicates a Tantric initiation that binds the student to the teacher through a strict code of allegiance called “samaya”. Consequences of breaking samaya include rebirth in torturous realms.
In October, Norbu went further, and mocked the victims of Lakar, and all other victims of clerical sexual abuse. In a post he has since tried to delete, he presented a sixteen-page spoof contract produced by “Bender and Boner Lawyers” designed to ensure Rinpoches like himself “who desire to save all sentient beings yet also wish to have fulfilling sex lives” can do so with their students.
Lama Tsultrim Allione denounced the post.
Norbu’s Christmas letter, reprinted below, characterizes the allegations of criminal wrongdoing against Lakar as administrative faux-pas:
“Sogyal Rinpoche appears,” Norbu writes, “to have mishandled, mismanaged and misread a number of events.”
The letter also conflates criticism of Rigpa’s handling of the abuse crisis with criticism of Buddhism in general, while suggesting that those who think critically about Lakar or Rigpa are somehow not discerning practitioners.
“I can’t help but feel frustrated,” Norbu writes, “when I hear that Buddhadharma is being labelled a ‘cult’. Perhaps more than any other world religion, Buddhadharma actively encourages its followers to apply critical thinking to everything it teaches.”
Norbu also offers high praise for those “Western” Rigpa students who are maintaining their loyalty.
His compassion for international students, however, remains selective.
More than a year after posting his satirical sex contract, he posted the following 4chan-flavoured troll video targeting his critics, complete with Tibetan throat-chanting in the background.
Text of Letter
Letter from Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche to the Rigpa Sangha
Dear Followers of the Rigpa Mandala, who have taken Guru Padmasambhava as their refuge in this life, the next life and the bardo states.2)Guru Padmasambhava is said to have brought Buddhism to Tibet from India in the 8th century. His archetypal legend, which involves civilizing a hostile climate and subduing local demons, is a favourite amongst Tibetan evangelists today. The “bardo” refers to the liminal realm inhabited by beings after death and before rebirth.
I write to you with a heart full of warmth and jubilation. There is no need for us to dwell on the rough and precarious road that the Rigpa Sangha has been traveling recently, but I must confess that for a while I wondered if you would manage to stick together. Now I realize that my doubts were the symptom of a kind of cultural conditioning that made me skeptical about whether westerners are even capable of grasping the Dharma, let alone that you possess the resilience and persistence to continue to follow the spiritual path in the face of such turmoil.
Make no mistake, we are in a very difficult situation. History has shown us that when faced with similar crises – both in the East and the West – whole Sanghas, lineages and institutions have became demoralized and discouraged. Some became so disheartened that they now no longer exist.
For many reasons – some known, some unknown – Sogyal Rinpoche appears to have mishandled, mismanaged and misread a number of events. This is why we find ourselves in the current situation. Yet, from what I hear, far from falling apart, the Rigpa Sangha is alive and well. Not only do you continue to function as an organization, but you still practise together and, in spite of all the uncertainty, you have maintained the continuity. How have you managed it? As I contemplate this question, I always remember one very important aspect of Rigpa: that Sogyal Rinpoche introduced an enormous number of people to a great and authentic lineage of teachings and to some of the most remarkable, learned and realized teachers of our time. You then thought about and contemplated everything you were taught and, as a result, have realized that there is much more to Buddhism in general and the Vajrayana in particular, than just one person. So the contemplation, study and all those introductions have borne fruit, and will continue to bear fruit long into the future.
Never forget that ours is a path that not only cherishes but also strongly encourages its followers to prepare themselves through ‘hearing and contemplation’ before they engage in any of the practices. The path of the Vajrayana is no exception. I can’t help but feel frustrated when I hear that Buddhadharma is being labelled a ‘cult’. Perhaps more than any other world religion, Buddhadharma actively encourages its followers to apply critical thinking to everything it teaches. By hearing, contemplating and analysing the Dharma, we develop an unshakable trust and devotion for the path. This must be what the Rigpa Sangha must have done because all over the world, despite of a roller-coaster eighteen months, you continue to gather together on the 10th day for the Guru Rinpoche tsok, the 25th day for the Dakini tsok, and for daily Riwo Sangchö, Tendrel Nyesel and Vajrakilaya practices. This suggests that somewhere along the way, you must have realized that the Buddhadharma is not just the Vajrayana and that the Vajrayana is not just a person called Sogyal Rinpoche. You must also have realized how much wisdom there is in the Buddhadharma and how many skilful means it offers to help both oneself and others. This is how you, as a Sangha, have kept the spirit of Rigpa alive. It is also why Rigpa hasn’t fallen apart. And for me, if this is not confirmation that the Dharma has taken root in the West, that firm foundations have been laid and that the Dharma in general, and especially the Vajrayana, are now sprouting shoots, I don’t know what is.
At the same time, I know that many of you are confused, disappointed, even desperate and depressed. And who wouldn’t be in such a situation? What’s impressive, though, is that however wretched you feel, you have all remained devoted to the path of Shakyamuni Buddha.
When any system is transplanted to a new place and culture – political, commercial, educational or religious – it often faces innumerable difficulties and challenges for a very long time before it can be said to be firmly established. This is doubly true for the sacred path of the Dharma. No one ever said that following a spiritual path was going to be easy! The teachings are full of information about potential obstacles that will continually test a practitioner’s character, especially in the Vajrayana.
At this point, I would like to encourage all of you to continue to listen to and contemplate the Buddhadharma. In fact, I would like to request that you never stop listening to and contemplating the Dharma, particularly the Vajrayana, because by doing so, you will come to realize that it is utterly flawless. The more you listen and contemplate with an open mind, the more confident you will become about the path. As your confidence in the path and its result increases, even surrendering to a guru and following the path of the guru will become the exact opposite of precarious! In other words, what had seemed to be a risky path will instead be safe and secure.
Most of the Rigpa Sangha are practitioners of the Vajrayana, so undoubtedly, you will have taken the bodhisattva vow. As followers of the bodhisattvayana path, you know that your path is the path of long-term planning – in this case, your plan or aspiration is to enlighten all sentient beings. You also know that bodhisattvas mean what they say, so this aspiration is not just some kind of a feel-good fantasy. And having taken the bodhisattva vow, you know that the big vision of the bodhisattva path is to propagate, preserve and introduce the Buddhadharma to all those who have a karmic connection with it.
Rigpa has been a very effective vehicle for Buddhadharma. Through Rigpa, a great many people have been introduced to the Dharma. You should continue this activity. Never imagine that the propagation and preservation of the Dharma is the job of just one person. I have always considered Rigpa to be very important in terms of upholding, preserving and introducing the Dharma to the western world. I still see it that way, now more than ever. Each and every Rigpa student should bear this in mind. Of course, I don’t mean that you should all take on teaching roles! Rather that Rigpa’s network of Dharma centres around the world should continue to provide everything students and practitioners need to study and practice the Dharma, including a good teaching programme through which those who are interested can meet authentic Dharma teachers. Basically, that Rigpa continues to provide a vessel that creates the causes and conditions through which the Dharma is upheld, preserved and introduced for the benefit of all, now and for years to come. This activity is so important and it also sends out all the right signals.
Yes, Rigpa’s image has been tarnished over the past year or so. But for decades many of Rigpa’s activities earned it a good and wholesome reputation. Rigpa’s positive, beneficial contributions to the Dharma far outweigh the bad, so it would be silly to dwell on the difficulties. Instead, we must look at what we can learn from this situation, correct the misunderstandings and errors, and make Rigpa even better. This is what the bodhisattvayana path is all about. Bodhisattvas of the past have gone to extraordinary lengths to help sentient beings – some crossed oceans of fire and others willingly leapt into the hell realms in order to preserve the Dharma and for the sake of helping others. In the light of such heroism and valour, will we allow ourselves to be daunted by a few avoidable obstacles that are entirely transformable?
Many of you have taken the Vajrayana to heart. And despite everything that has happened, many of you also continue to feel an unwavering devotion for your master, Sogyal Rinpoche. This is your choice. If you choose to follow the Vajrayana path of your own free will, sensibly, soberly and with the utmost devotion – basically, if you know exactly what you are doing – all I can say is that I rejoice at your decision and am full of admiration for you. Other people may criticize your devotion for Sogyal Rinpoche, but their approval of your path is far less important than your decision to follow it.
There have been, are, and always will be people whose sense of personal dissatisfaction leads them to oppose, slander and, I dare say, even thirst for Rigpa’s ultimate destruction. Instead of wishing such people ill, we must always remember that we are followers of the Buddha. We must therefore feel compassion for all those who stand against us and try to understand the cause of their pain – especially if they were once our Dharma brothers and sisters. Try to embrace them with compassion and pure perception. And rest assured, if their pursuit of the Dharma is genuine, sooner or later they will see the truth and find a path back.
Yours in Devotion to Guru Padmasambhava,
Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche
25 December 2018
|↑1||“Abhisheka” indicates a Tantric initiation that binds the student to the teacher through a strict code of allegiance called “samaya”. Consequences of breaking samaya include rebirth in torturous realms.|
|↑2||Guru Padmasambhava is said to have brought Buddhism to Tibet from India in the 8th century. His archetypal legend, which involves civilizing a hostile climate and subduing local demons, is a favourite amongst Tibetan evangelists today. The “bardo” refers to the liminal realm inhabited by beings after death and before rebirth.|
J Brown’s 11/26 podcast with Karen Rain generated a lot of comments.
The response has been split, owing to the tension of the second part (from 1:25:00 onwards). This is the segment in which Karen and J have a followup conversation, which was scheduled after Karen sent an email to J about some misgivings she had about the first segment, and wanted to give him feedback about how he’d handled the Ashtanga abuse story generally. To his good credit, he accepted.
You should listen yourself, but Karen’s main objective was to show that in his guest schedule and interviewing style J has shown some of the common biases that helped suppress the abuse revelations and discouraged Jois’s victims from reporting. She doesn’t suggest he’s done this intentionally, and not in any active, overtly victim-blaming way to be ashamed of, but certainly in ways he might look at and work on.
Three key points Karen made were that
- J only really asked Kino MacGregor tough questions about Jois’s assaults, while lobbing softballs at Danny Paradise and Richard Freeman (who both admitted to knowing about the abuses, whereas MacGregor didn’t);
- J made an off-record agreement with Eddie Stern to not ask about the issue, even after Anneke Lucas had been on the podcast and disclosed she’d been assaulted during an event hosted by Stern; and that
- It was potentially hurtful to uncritically present the complaints of Ashtanga practitioners who now feel embarrassed or ashamed to identify as such, as though they’re the new victims.
On the podcast, J listened to all of Karen’s feedback pretty well, offered some explanations, some mildly prickly defences, and committed to looking more closely at the responsibilities of his role. As you’d expect, there were a few tense moments.
As of this writing, there are appreciative comments on the podcast page, neutral comments (“I can see both sides”), but also comments that range from mildly to strongly critical of Karen’s audacity in even bringing up these problems.
The critical comments orbit around three key feelings: that Karen is angry, that she is unfairly grilling J without knowing his style or the history of the podcast, and that J doesn’t deserve to be in the firing line because he’s just learning like everyone else. I have four thoughts on the critical comments.
It’s remarkable to see how intolerable it is for some to have the basic power structure of an interview overturned. Listeners got to spend more than an hour soaking up the disclosures and emotional labour of Karen, who has repeatedly described how hard it is to talk about and relive the personal and institutional abuse. But as soon as she adopts a different voice — a voice that does not confess but that asks for accountability around how that labour is used — that voice is described as “awful”, “angry”, “defensive”, “attacking”. One commentator maligned her changed “tone” in the second part, when what’s obvious is that the only thing that shifted between two parts of the podcast was her position, and the fact that making declarative rather than confessional statements meant that she was more likely to be interrupted, and would have less patience for it. The critics seem to like Karen as a victim, but not as an activist.
Critics of Karen seem to misunderstand the value proposition of the podcast format. J is skilled at yoga-fying digital platforms, networking and having his finger on hot-button yoga culture issues. But it’s the guest, the content provider, that brings the money. In Karen’s case, the play and share numbers will be through the roof. On iTunes this episode has already surpassed MacGregor’s in popularity (and my meta-review here will boost it some more). J’s podcast and brand benefits from having Karen on. So what should that cost him, as it supports the rest of his international platform? Looking in the mirror: what should it cost me to investigate stories like Karen’s? Answering tough questions about power and narrative — for which we are all responsible — is very small price for media producers like us to pay. We’re not doing Karen a favour by taking feedback. We’re undoing harm, which is something we should want to do, grateful for the incredible education.
Critics are missing something crucial in the fact that J’s podcast is small enough that he can personally choose to take a “risk” here, yet large enough that it will have broad impact. That’s powerful. How many times have you seen Yoga Journal take responsibility for platforming abusers? Jubilee Cooke describes going to Mysore — where Jois assaulted her for months — in part because she was inspired by the Feb 1995 edition of YJ, in which a load of Jois devotees talked about his magical hands etc. Were his abuses known in 1995? Oh yes they were. Did anyone at YJ do any real homework back then? Nope. Did YJ jump at the chance to make amends when Cooke’s article was offered to them for publication? Nope! Accountability does not tend to happen on a mass media scale. But it can happen on a phone call between two people, made public. That’s something to nourish, no matter how uncomfortable.
One commenter wrote that “it kind of pisses me off that [Karen] is making you the whipping post for all men and perpetrators of sexual abuse.” Setting aside the exaggeration here (Karen neither said nor implied anything close to this), I believe this comment carries a deeper concern. J has always been seen as a kind of Yoga Everyman — unaffiliated with particular authority, respectful of pretty much everything, somebody you want to be friends with, identify with, share stories with. That’s a core appeal of the podcast: that J affects familiarity while he connects old and new things, and near and far places. He offers a fraternal embrace emerging out of, but not entirely clear of, the shadows of an earlier time. So while the commenter above exaggerates with the phrase “all men and perpetrators of sexual abuse”, she is illuminating this Everyman role within the yoga world. I think what’s so deeply uncomfortable about Karen confronting J is that her story begins with a revelation about Jois, but by implication impugns an entire culture for idealization, misogyny, and bypassing. Beneath Karen’s straightforward questions to J about how he’s handled a single news story is the drone of a deeper question posed to the Everyman: What exactly have we all been doing here over the past fifty years? Could there be a bigger yogic question?
As reported previously, the Shambhala International Interim Board of Directors was sworn in on October 17th with a religious oath that pledges allegiance to the now-resigned spiritual leader of the organization, Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche (Mipham Mukpo). Mukpo has been accused of sexual assault by several community members.
On December 1, Kevin Anderson, a former coordinator of the Sackville Meditation Group in Sackville, New Brunswick, wrote the following letter to the Interim Board. By email, Anderson explains that the group has recently “taken a first step away from Shambhala due to the recent allegations” against Mukpo. (Correspondence shared with permission.)
Dear Shambhala Interim Board,
I’m writing you because a discussion arose between some members of the
Sackville Meditation Group, concerning the appointment of the new
Interim Board. I am hoping you can help us deepen and nuance our
understanding of this.
According to some media outlets, the new interim board has “Sworn a
Religious Oath to Leader Accused of Sexual Assault”. The article proceeds to discuss the implications of this, and provides what purports to be a copy of this oath.
The questions that arose are threefold:
1. Is this oath text accurate as reported?
2. Who authored the text?
3. If SMR [Mukpo] has “stepped back” from the organisation for the time being,
why then was the oath worded with direct references to him?
I personally am quite concerned that the optics of this kind of language
can undermine the credibility of the Interim Board. Therefore I look
forward to your input on this matter.
Thank you for taking the time to write to the Interim Board. You may know it is traditional for leaders in any leadership position in Shambhala to take a oath when they begin their position. Shambhala oaths are a statement of loyalty to the principles of our community. The Shambhala Interim Board was appointed by the Transition Task Force, and is not a governing body appointed by the Sakyong. The Board functions independently of the Sakyong in terms of our legal and fiduciary responsibilities.
We are currently focused on understanding the financial, operational and ethical issues before us and plan to make regular reports of progress to the community. We appreciate you taking time to contact us and will include your comments in our considerations.
Yours in the Vision of Shambhala,
The Shambhala Interim Board
Veronika Bauer, Martina Bouey, Mark Blumenfeld, John Cobb, Jennifer Crow, Sara Lewis, Susan Ryan, Paulina Varas
Dear Interim Board,
Thanks for your reply.
I will comment here, but probably not pursue this further. Imagine, for a moment, that I had asked a trusted person (a friend, or a spouse, a child, a spiritual friend) those very direct, and very reasonable (though uncomfortable) questions. If they had avoided my questions as starkly as you have, it would have eroded my trust. In that light I’m finding your answers to be dishonest.
Commenting each question:
1. You could have said, “yes the wording is accurate”. Since the oath is on your website, it would have been easy to say that.
2. You avoided the question of authorship – it would have been easy to say “We don’t generally reveal authorship, but we can assure you it was not SMR”. Since you didn’t answer, that leaves open the possibility that Mr. Mukpo authored it.
3. I’m really not surprised that you didn’t address this, but in any other organization it would have made sense to build trust by at least temporarily distancing oneself from a leader. It erodes my trust that you have chosen not to do that, or somehow because of “guru logic, samaya logic” you feel unable to do so. An honest answer would have been to at least address the question in some fashion.
With kind regards,
Credible sources say a petition letter (copied below) is being circulated amongst the inner circles of the Rigpa International organization, and is gathering signatures of support. It has been translated into English, most likely from Dutch.
The petition letter asks for the Rigpa “Vision Board” to reinstall Sogyal Lakar (aka Sogyal Rinpoche) as the public spiritual guide for the organization.
The petition letter lists seventeen original signatories. Emails to six of these signatories requesting comment have gone unanswered. The names have been redacted in the copy below, pending a response.
A source says that most of the signatories make up part of a core practice group at Rigpa’s Lerab Ling temple, located in southern France.
Rigpa’s Vision Board took over organizational leadership in August of 2017, after Lakar was forced to retire following accusations of physical, sexual, emotional and financial abuses brought against him by eight former devotees in an open letter published a month earlier.
The petition letter asks for Lakar to be effectively reinstalled as spiritual figurehead of Rigpa. It uses the language of inclusivity to argue that Rigpa students who “don’t have a problem” with the abuse allegations against Lakar are now unfairly marginalized because of the controversy.
The petition letter rebuffs the recommendations made by a recent independent investigation into the allegations, commissioned by Rigpa. The investigation, conducted by the London law firm Lewis Silkin, confirmed that Sogyal Lakar committed “serious physical, sexual, and emotional abuse” and that for decades, senior Rigpa management enabled Lakar’s behaviors and “failed to address them, leaving others at risk.”
The first recommendation of the 50-page report was that “Sogyal Lakar should not take part in any future event organised by Rigpa or otherwise have contact with its students” and that Rigpa should “disassociate itself from Sogyal Lakar as fully as possible. Following the independent investigation, Rigpa issued a statement that said, “Rigpa commits to act upon the report’s recommendations.”
The petition letter ignores the recommendations, saying, “…we continue to have full confidence in Sogyal Rinpoche. We will always take him to be our root teacher…”
It makes no concrete suggestions as to what Lakar’s rehabilitation within the organization would look like. Lakar, 71, has recently received treatment for colon cancer.
The Dalai Lama has repeatedly spoken out in the last 18 months about Lakar’s abusive behavior and Rigpa’s exploitation of students.
The Vision Board, to whom the petition letter is addressed, is staffed by five non-Tibetan devotees, and advised by three Tibetan lamas.
One of the lamas is Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche, who mocked the eight original complainants in October 2017 with a satirical “Sex Contract” that would purportedly secure consent from devotees for various sex acts with their teachers. More recently, he trolled Rohingya refugees with a rambling letter of praise for Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi.
Another Vision Board lama is Khenchen Namdrol Rinpoche, who gave a speech at Lerab Ling in September condemning the eight letter writers, suggesting they are possessed by demonic spirits. The speech was live-translated for a cheering audience by Shambhala Publications author Sangye Khandro (Nancy Gay Gustafson).
A source says that most of the signatories are part of the “Lerab Ling Practicing Sangha.” The Practicing Sangha was formed at Lerab Ling after its founding in 1992 and are distinguished by their high degree of loyalty and devotion to Lakar.
Lerab Ling functions as the organization’s administrative and spiritual headquarters. It was home to Sogyal Lakar before he fled French authorities after accusations against him were first made public. In May 2018 French police raided Lerab Ling as part of an ongoing investigation in Lakar’s abuse. Rigpa and Lerab Ling temple were both suspended by the French Buddhist Union following the open letter by the eight original complainants.
Lerab Ling continues to host programmes for both the public and dedicated Rigpa students. The next public event, “Living in Harmony with what Really Matters”, is scheduled for over the holidays.
In the summers, the centre also hosts Buddhist camps for children and teens.
A letter to the Vision Board about our concerns regarding the current direction.
Firstly. Thank you for all you do to preserve the Dharma and Sangha. We are so happy to be part of the effort you have made so far to take care of those in the Rigpa Sangha who have been hurt. Sangha unity is foremost in our minds as advised – for us it means a Sangha where each and every member is allowed to hold views and openly practice as we believe in.
It has been more than a year of healing and the direction we now seem to be heading, is of concern to us. The profile of retreats and courses that are being promoted and views being held are of concern to us.
We now feel that slowly, the needs of those in the Sangha who don’t have a problem is perhaps being over-looked or just not highlighted. We worry that by continuing to remain quiet in order to give space to our dharma siblings who were hurt, might indeed be mis-construed to mean we hold the same views.
So this letter is to state that we continue to have full confidence in Sogyal Rinpoche. We will always take him to be our root teacher and we bring this body of students to your kind attention. We request to be provided forums where we are able to openly express our devotion and practice the lineage of which Sogyal Rinpoche is an integral part. The peaceful co-existence of these events together with the ones already taking place will make for real sangha inclusivity.
The question of spiritual integrity is of concern to us. No matter how noble a reason, we believe there are certain lines which cannot be crossed. Commitments and rules for students following the path of Dzogchen is one of them. What we hear to be occurring at Dzogchen retreats is of great concern to us.
In the same vein, we have full confidence that you will hold any rules and commitments that pertain all level of the spiritual path – Vinaya, Mahayana, Vajrayana – in their entirety and not make them flexible to accommodate varying views and conveniences. We will be grateful if you continue to uphold spiritual integrity above and beyond the success of an organization.
Thirdly and most importantly.
The upholding of the spiritual lineage carried through by Sogyal Rinpoche. For us, we believe what differentiates Dharma centres is their spiritual lineage. At Rigpa we had the greatest fortune to be blessed with the lineage of the unsurpassed Dzogpa-chenpo. This is our crown jewel, our greatest blessing, our glory -which sets us apart from any other centre. Most importantly it our gift to give the world, for all sentient beings and the future of Dharma. This most precious gift – the greatest of compassions – we can only give if we have it ourselves.
We believe that this is a living lineage of blessing, transmitted person to person and it is embodied in the person of Sogyal Rinpoche as an irreplaceable link in this chain. And it is simply not possible to uphold this lineage without him being squarely at the centre of it. Hence it is unclear to us how we can preserve this our most precious possession in the current direction of barely being able to say his name.
Thank you again for all you do. We hope that together we will be able to exit this period of difficulty – stronger and wiser – and continue to keep Rigpa as the gift it is to the world.
[names of 17 signatories]
Yesterday, Toronto yoga and movement trainer Cecily Milne (@yogadetour) shared an Instagram post from the account of @ashtangatoronto. The post features a photo of teacher David Robson manipulating @lisaasana in an advanced backbend.
The post is captioned with a quote from meditation instructor Stephen Levine. The quote either compares or conflates the mental or psychological discomfort experienced in meditation with the physical discomfort of an extreme posture. The quote suggests that the best choice a student can make in relation to discomfort is to surrender.
“That surrender,” part of the Levine quote says, “that letting go of wanting anything to be other than it is right in the moment, is what frees us from hell.”
Robson is an Ashtanga yoga teacher, authorized to teach by Sharath Rangaswamy. Rangaswamy is the grandson of Pattabhi Jois, who has recently been outed for sexually assaulting female students over several decades. The revelations, along with the continued activism of survivors like Karen Rain, have prompted soul-searching throughout the Ashtanga world, and some steps towards accountability.
Milne’s commentary focuses on the message communicated by the image paired with the Levine quote. She makes reference to her own training with Robson at Ashtanga Yoga Centre of Toronto, where Robson claims to lead “one of the world’s largest Mysore programs outside of India.”
View this post on Instagram
I saw this post last night and when I read the caption my first thought was – “This is fucked. This message is so problematic” (original caption below). ⠀ I used to practice at this studio. I’ve received this adjustment. And while I’m not trying to make a habit of putting others choices down in order to give strength to my own, I believe it’s my responsibility to use my work to spread awareness around the fact that asking people to surrender to discomfort is NOT ok. ⠀ Should we avoid discomfort? No. It’s inevitable. Life is uncomfortable. But let’s confront that discomfort. Let’s understand where it’s coming from and learn to understand it. Let’s use discomfort to grow, not to surrender. ⠀ As @stopchasingpain reminds us: Pain is a request for change. ⠀ Change is here. Finally. ⠀ #Repost @ashtangatoronto with @get_repost ・・・ “When you can accept discomfort, doing so allows a balance of mind. That surrender, that letting go of wanting anything to be other than it is right in the moment, is what frees us from hell. When we see resistance in the mind, stiffness in the mind, boredom, restlessness … that is the meditation.“ – Stephen Levine __ Photo of @lisaasana moving into #kapotasana in Friday’s Mysore with @davidrobsonyoga __ #yogadetour #followthedetour #movementeducation #yogarevolution #bethechange
The 300+ comments under Milne’s post feature several reports of similar experiences at Ashtanga Yoga Center Toronto.
“Ughhh, I used to practice here too…” wrote one commenter. “I remember those adjustments. I remember the breath cues to relax into it…”. Another describes how the value of “surrender” in the environment led her to tears.
In a separate post, Milne described the “surge of anxiety” that preceded speaking out against the post, knowing that some might retaliate.
View this post on Instagram
I don’t shy away from discomfort because it always has something to teach me. ⠀ Just ask anyone who takes my class what my opinion is of a muscle cramp – uncomfortable, but a sign that progress is being made! ⠀ But there’s a big difference between leaning into discomfort and surrendering to it in potentially damaging ways. ⠀ To all those who have raised their voices in support on my last post – thank you. Thank you for getting it. Thank you for expecting more from this community. ⠀ I’ll be writing more about this in my next email. If you want to receive it, make sure you’re on the list (link in bio). ⠀ ⠀ #movementeducation #yogarevolution #yogadetour #ashtangayoga #yogateachertraining #bethechange
In response, Robson posted the following to his Facebook page. The statement interprets criticism of the notion that a student should physically surrender as a form of discrimination against the global Ashtanga community.
Soon after Robson’s response, his supporters began using the hashtags #bullying, #stopbullying, #troll, and #dontbeabully, referring to Milne.
Labelling criticism of a power imbalance as an attack is part of the DARVO mechanism, described by psychologist Jennifer Freyd. In the DARVO maneuver, a criticism or accusation is denied, the whistleblower attacked, and the roles of victim and aggressor are reversed.
The social media exchange comes as competencies for Ashtanga yoga teaching are being contested by a number of younger Ashtanga-affiliated teachers. This is a developing story.
On October 17th, eight Shambhala students chosen by the Transition Task Force to form an Interim Board of Directors were sworn into service for a twelve month period.
The move comes as the global neo-Buddhist organization navigates allegations of sexual assault committed by its spiritual leader, Ösel Mukpo, also known as Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche.
The allegations against Mukpo were first publicized by Buddhist Project Sunshine in February. BPS is headed up by Andrea Winn, a life-long Shambhala member, along with independent investigator Carol Merchasin. The team’s three reports also contain allegations of intergenerational and institutional abuse within the organization, which was founded by Mukpo’s father, Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, in 1971.
The revelations have shaken Shambhala International to the core, triggering the resignation of its Board and forcing Mukpo to step down from his administrative role. Recent financial reports show that the organization, which posted 18M in North American revenue in 2017, is now in financial crisis. Some local centres, including the one in New York City, will soon be closing.
Winn’s team, along with the women who provided their testimony, also prompted Shambhala to commission its own independent investigation, led by the Halifax firm Wickwire Holm. Some community members have doubted the impartiality of the investigation and its gag order on complainants.
According to its new website, the Interim Board is charged with several tasks, including keeping the crippled organization solvent, coordinating international affairs, and communicating the results of Shambhala’s collaboration with An Olive Branch, an American Zen-based group that consults on ethics policies for Buddhist groups.
The website also states that the Interim Board will “Release to the community as much of the Wickwire Holm report as is legally and ethically possible while respecting confidentiality.”
The report is due out in early January. In early December, the Interim Board will convene in Halifax, where they plan to meet with Mukpo.
Additionally, the Interim Board is to keep Mukpo “apprised” of their work, “even though he is not responding to any administrative aspects of Shambhala or the Interim Board.”
The installation of the Interim Board required that members swear this oath:
While highly unusual for any not-for-profit, this oath is consistent with Shambhala’s culture and mythology, which posits that members are living in, aspiring to live in, or trying to manifest an enlightened world, parallel to this one, governed by supernatural beings.
The “Rigden” to which Interim Board members are bowing is an archetypal ruler of that world, linked to the divine realms described in medieval Tibetan tantric literature. (The lede image for this article is of an incomplete painting of the “Primordial Ridgen”. The image is featured on many Shambhala Centre altars around the world.)
“Dorje Dradül” is an epithet for Chögyam Trungpa, who died of alcoholism in 1987, and was believed to be in telepathic communication with the rigdens.
“Kongma Sakyong, Jampal Trinley Dradül, and the Sakyong Wangmo, Dechen Chöying Sangmo” are epithets for Ösel Mukpo, Trungpa’s son and business heir, and his wife, Semo Tseyang Palmo. The term “dralas” refers to the embodied nature spirits that were a feature of Tibetan indigenous religion, prior to the arrival of Indian Buddhism in the 8th century.
The Interim Board was appointed by the Transition Task Force, led by senior Trungpa devotees, including Pema Chödrön. It is comprised of long-term Shambhala students and leaders, including the Chair of the Shastri (teachers) Council, a former President of Naropa University (founded by Trungpa in 1976), and a feminist anthropologist and psychotherapist who will teach at Naropa beginning in 2019.
Three of the Interim Board members are also practitioners of the “Scorpion Seal”, an initiated ritual meditation said to be divinely received by Chögyam Trungpa, and later revealed by his son. Part of the ritual, which is kept secret, involves visualizing the Mukpos as enlightened beings, as seen in this more introductory practice.
On their website, the Interim Board asserts that “We are especially sensitive to resisting a top-down approach that seeks to polish or smooth over harm that has already occurred.”
However, they did not respond to a request for comment on how they planned to impartially oversee the investigation of Mukpo, given their religious commitments to him as leader.
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.