Intention vs. Impact, Trickle-down Violence, and Doing the Systemic Work: Francesca Cervero and Matthew Remski Discuss Practice and All is Coming
Francesca Cervero: 00:00:00
Hello and welcome to the Mentor Sessions. I’m your host Francesca Cervero. The Mentor Sessions is a meeting place for Yoga teachers who want to be supported and thinking critically about their teaching. While you’re here, expect to have your ideas about right and wrong challenged and your deepest need for nurturing and support met by a fellow sister on the pad. Today we have a really special guest talking about his newest book. I have Matthew Remski joining me on the podcast today and we’re talking about his new book Practice and All is Coming, Abuse, Cult Dynamics and Healing and Yoga and Beyond.
If you don’t know Matthew, let me just tell you a little bit about him before we get started. Matthew Remski is a yoga teacher, industry consultant and author of nine previous books including Threads of Yoga, a Remix of Patanjali’s Sutras with Commentary and Reverie. As a survivor of two cults, his work has been pivotal in illuminating the shadows of globalized Yoga and Buddhism and showing that disillusionment and critical inquiry can be gateways to mature spirituality. He facilitates modules in philosophy, history, culture and community health in yoga teacher training programs internationally. He lives in Toronto with his partner and their two children. Matthew, welcome. Thank you for being here.
Matthew Remski: 00:01:30
Thanks so much Francesca, it’s really great to hear your voice again and thanks for the opportunity to speak about the book.
Francesca Cervero: 00:01:36
So I know that this book actually began as the “What Are We Actually Doing in Asana?” Project. Can you tell us a little bit about how and why the focus of your research and writing shifted away from sort of the general conversation about injuries in Yoga and shifted towards cult dynamics and abuse and the yoga world?
Matthew Remski: 00:01:59
That’s a great question and it’s a story of something beginning in a relatively simple manner, becoming much more complex over time and then coming back to a simple question, but a different one than the one that I started out with. In about 2012 I had been teaching for long enough and had been involved in Yoga community for long enough that I was really troubled by the stories of injury and chronic pain that I had heard from my colleagues and from students, longterm students. And I wanted to dig into that a little bit. And as I started to speak to people who had been injured while practicing yoga I became fascinated with a subtext. And the subtext was for all of the positive aspirations that we are given, we are fed by yoga marketing: promises of empowerment of heightened agency of freedom, of interoceptive awareness — why do there seem to be both adverse experiences but also like unconscious or unprocessed drives that are pushing people forward in practice and how do those result? What comes of those things?
And this key focal point for that kind of thought was when I interviewed Victor Van Kooten very early on in the process and he was a senior student, Mr. Iyengar for many, many years. And he had been injured by Iyengar, who one day decided to push him over a saw horse and fractured his spine so that he could deepen a back bend or something. And he told me about this story that Iyengar told him when he was a young man, when Victor was a young man, the first time that they met actually in Switzerland. Iyengar said that he had this recurring dream that he was, that he had died and that he was waiting to enter the abode of heaven. I don’t quite understand how the metaphysics works here because it almost sounds like a Christian scene. But anyway, the story goes that he knocked on the gate of the temple of the celestial temple and he said, Can I come in now my work is done? And the divine voice said, No, you cannot come in. And Iyengar says in his dream, but I have worked so hard. I’ve perfected my body through yoga and the divine voice has, your body is not perfect through yoga. You may not come in. And Iyengar reports that in his dream, this recurring dream, he sat down on the steps of the temple and wept.
And so the notion that people are pursuing on mass, a kind of spiritual revelations through physical practice and they’re driving themselves so hard that they’re injuring themselves — and we know pretty much now that Mr Iyengar was in chronic pain for a good portion of the rest of his later life — that became kind of this driving influence. But as I progressed and trying to make this link between drives that are, it perhaps it filled with anxiety and based upon this sense of personal inadequacy that if those drives results in injury, the injuries can’t clearly be attributed to specific aspects of practice. And as I spoke to more and more sports doctors and physiotherapists and people like Jules Mitchell, it became harder and harder to be able to say that, Oh, a particular type of effort was directly causing this labral tear or this chronic back pain or this herniated disc complex. Doctors are just not willing to say outright that this particular posture is causally linked to this particular injury. I remember this pivotal conversation with Jules Mitchell who introduced herself to me by email by saying: I’m working on this thesis and my feeling is that at this point anyway — she changed this later —was the yoga community in general was dangerously fascinated — she might’ve used the word “addicted” to — tissue distension at end range of motion, like addicted to overstretching. And I want to talk to you about that. And I was like, great, I would love to talk to you about that.
But as we got further into our conversations, she became clearer and clearer that bodies are so different and people’s loading histories are so different, and their physical activity profiles are so different that it’s really, really difficult for anybody to say this action caused x pain or injury. And she said, but I do believe that there’s something else that causes injury. And that’s the kind of social context in which yoga practice unfolds. And I think we were having, we were on Skype or something like that and I had this moment where I was like, Oh, okay, you do the biomechanics and I’ll start to look at the sociology. I’ll start to look at the relationships with teaching. And we kind of did this handshake over that and that kind of released me to start looking at the part that I’d overlooked in this story about Victor, which was that, his spine was fractured by Iyengar adjusting him. And what did that actually mean? Like why was he pushed that way that day? What other types of, relational power dynamics were involved there? It didn’t come out of the blue.
So that’s when I started turning to this simpler question of, why are people getting hurt through the teaching and learning relationships that they have in the yoga world and what can I start to say about that? What can I find out about that? Oh. And also the other thing was that as my friend Diane Bruni got further involved in curating the Yoga and Movement Research page on Facebook, it became really clear to me that the passion with which people were talking about their injuries wasn’t, they weren’t talking about sports injuries, they weren’t talking about, I blew out my knee playing rugby and that really sucks. It was like: I tore my labrum and I feel intensely betrayed. There was something more going on. And it had to do with the spiritual promises and the therapeutic promises that they’d been made. But I started to get this sense that people were talking about injuries and beneath the surface they were also talking about the feeling of having been betrayed by teachers.
And then that led me towards really, ultimate betrayal that has exploded through the news since 2017 that is really at the heart of this book, which is when teachers are engaged in criminal acts against students, namely sexual abuse in the Ashtanga world. So that’s how it evolved. And I’m very, very grateful that people stuck out the journey with me. I tried to be like transparent especially with the people who funded the project, right in the beginning, I raised about $32,000 for the, What Are We Actually Doing in Asana” project on Indiegogo and when the book was supposed to come due, or a little bit before I was like: I’ve had to change direction. I hope this is okay with you all. And basically everybody came along and there are some people who dropped out and asked for their contributions back. But for the most part I think I was able to, show how the project had to change away from kind of a superficial investigation of why are people getting hurt when they aren’t really physically getting hurt in yoga at any greater rate in any other activity. So I thought there was something deeper there and, and I think a lot of people agreed.
Francesca Cervero: 00:09:39
Yes, clearly. in the introduction you make this point to say that you won’t be examining the intentions of the teachers that you talk about, but your focus is on the impact of the actions and behaviours. Can you just read us quote from the introduction that talks about that?
Matthew Remski: 00:09:56
Yeah, it comes out of introducing the fact that I’m going to be using cult analysis discourse to discuss the dynamics that enabled Pattabhi Jois to assault students for about 30 years and perhaps or likely everyday of his teaching life. And one of the key concepts in cults literature discourses is the notion of deception. That people who get drawn into the sphere of an abusive leader are deceived. They don’t know what they’re in for, they don’t know what they’re getting. And so when I introduce this to idea of deception, it’s tricky because most people feel as though deception implies intentionality. And so I’m trying to make a distinction there and to say that the students that wound up being assaulted by Pattabhi Jois, were definitely deceived into his sphere. But that doesn’t mean that he meant to lie to them because I don’t know, it doesn’t mean that — and nobody knows that.
It doesn’t mean that the students around him knew that or conscious of the fact that they were deceptively bringing more students to him and in this sort of really crucial space in which an analyst has to be honest that they can’t know what the intentionality is of a perpetrator, there’s another point that ends up being made, which is that it doesn’t really matter. The impact of 30 years of sexual assaults upon the students of Pattabhi Jois and physical assaults as well — the impacts are clear. They’re clear because we have the testimony of what happened in the aftermath of those assaults. They’re clear because people like TM and Karen Rain and Anneke Lucas and Marissa Sullivan can describe in detail what happened to them as the result of these assaults. It doesn’t really matter what Jois’s intention was.
And it’s really important, I think, to focus on intentions or impacts over intentions, especially because one of the first defensive responses that an apologist for an abusive system will — whether they know they’re in apologist or not — will invoke is they’ll say, Oh, he didn’t mean it. Oh, he was trying to help them. Oh, he was misunderstood. Oh, he’s not around, he’s dead. And we can’t ask him what his intentions were. Well, yes, he’s dead, and we don’t need to ask him what his intentions were. The impacts and the descriptions are all coherent and they’re clear.
And if we focus on the intentions of perpetrator, this also leads into this problem of focusing on the interpretations of the survivors, because the other side of the coin in this sort of personal analysis of Why did he do what he did leads right into this victim blaming territory of, Well, why did they stay? Or why didn’t they know they were being assaulted? Or why weren’t they smarter? Or why didn’t they like punch him in the face? Or something like that. So the whole question of intentionality really is a way consciously or not for people to avoid a kind of social and structural analysis of what actually happened.
Francesca Cervero: 00:13:03
And will you read us the little quote from the introduction that kind of ties that all together so well?
Matthew Remski: 00:13:09
Hey, right! I started talking about it and then… Okay, yeah, here it is. It says:
So the deceptive notions explored here: That Pattabhi Jois was a spiritual master, that his technique was ancient, that his touch was healing or that injuries were signs of positive advancement might have been consciously or unconsciously held by practitioners. They might have been communicated through earnest attempts at care. It’s impossible to say. We won’t be examining people’s intentions. Rather, we’ll focus on impacts by peering into the gap between what was said and believed about choice and his method and the reality of what was experienced. We’ll explore how this gap allowed the abuse to be initiated through social grooming, escalated through somatic dominance, framed as love and intimacy and allowed to continue for so long.
Francesca Cervero: 00:13:55
So Part One of this book is called “Learning to Listen.” I would like to hear a little bit about what you learned about listening through the process of researching this book and what the yoga teachers listening to this episode might learn from that experience.
Matthew Remski: 00:14:10
I learned about myself that I am super uncomfortable or I was super uncomfortable hearing really bad news. I learned about myself that to really listen to Karen Rain who said basically in one of our first phone calls, “You don’t want to hear what I have to say.” And I said, well, “I think I do.” And she said, “No, you don’t. Nobody wants to hear what I have to say.” And I was like, “Okay, well let’s give it a try anyway.” And she thankfully agreed — thankfully, but I’ll also say that it has cost her a lot in terms of time, energy and [inaudible].
And what I’d say is that I didn’t want to know because I had come to yoga as seeking out and feeling as though I had found a healing space. I had been involved in two yoga related cults prior for six years of my life. I hadn’t digested that fully. I wanted to simply move on. I wanted to find something that was safe and that was collegial. And that was, didn’t have the same types of power dynamics that I had been exposed to. And I really wanted to believe that the yoga world was somehow better than all of that. And it just isn’t. And that was a difficult pill to swallow. And then I also just felt that if what Karen was saying was true — but this started with hearing from Diane Bruni — if what Diane was saying was true, that the implications for not only Ashtanga Yoga and it’s pedagogy and its, community would be vast, but also the influence that Ashtanga Yoga has had on a broader yoga culture would have to be looked at in a profoundly different way. That the whole notion that the teacher somehow sees and understands and has authority over the students body comes out of this paradigm of implied consent that is rooted right back to the rooms of Mysore and Pune. And if it turns out that this beloved teacher who is presented in saintly terms throughout the entire literature and “He’s like a grandfather to me, he was father to me. He loved me so much. He was a brilliant philosopher” and on and on and on. If he was a daily sexual predatorial criminal, I could feel like the earth shattering really under my feet a little bit. And it just took me a while to say, Okay, so be it. Let the earth shatter under my feet.
And so what I learned about listening is that if what you hear really has to alter your worldview about, the industry or in the community that you’re a part of, or even what the whole principle of yoga teaching has been based on over the last hundred years, you might want to plug your ears. And I certainly did for about a year. And then, when I finally kind of surrendered to the pathway of the story, then I had to listen to people that Karen and Anneke Lucas really with an acknowledgement that I had no idea what it was like to live with the aftermath of the experiences that they were describing. But I had to somehow open myself to the fact that the lives of some of my interview subjects were just completely unintelligible to me and unfathomable and that any assumptions that I had about “Well, they might be able to get better or they might, why didn’t they try psychotherapy? Or it’s too bad they weren’t able to… whatever… any kind of assumption I made — and especially about whether or not their trauma could be addressed or healed in some way — that every assumption that I made about that really I had to drop. And I had to recognize that in a way when you hear a story of trauma and you immediately start thinking of solutions, probably what you’re doing is you are trying to avoid the discomfort and perhaps even the devastation of realizing that the thing that you have valued has actually really harmed this other person. And that’s just not an easy place to be. But I also think that finding yourself there, becoming aware of yourself being there is the start of a different type of spiritual journey.
Francesca Cervero: 00:18:49
Yeah, absolutely. Waking up to the truth of the world that we live in is often really painful for people who have been privileged enough to be shielded from the very worst around us. And I think it’s supposed to be a little bit.
Matthew Remski: 00:19:04
It’s not just, Oh, I didn’t, that’s not my experience. And now I’m going to learn something more about that, about the world, but that privilege actually is built upon the silencing of traumatized voices in many ways. And this became really clear when I came across this Facebook comment by an Ashtanga practitioner named, Dimi Currey, who I ended up quoting the book. I just met her for the first time over the past weekend in person in Cambridge, which was cool. And she says, she’s only practiced Ashtanga Yoga for three, four years or something. There’s no plans to go to Mysore or to become a teacher or anything like that. But she said this amazing thing. She said, we go into the Yoga Shala and there’s pictures of the Jois family up on the altar, but the pictures that should really be on the altar are pictures of Karen and Anneke and Marissa and Maya Hammer and Micki Evslin and people like that because it’s because of their silence that this organization is still running. It’s because they’ve been silenced because their stories haven’t been heard that this organization is still running.
Like if Karen had been able to name her experience and find somebody to communicate with about it in 2001 would there be a KPJAYI would there be a local Ashtanga community? it might not have happened. It might have folded up right then because there could have been a flood of reports that were unleashed at that time instead of waiting for another 17 or 18 years. Uh, so, it’s not just that like, Oh, I’m white, I’m male. I have a middle class income sometimes and I have this privilege. It’s that my privilege is actually built on the backs of other people. And that’s an amazingly humbling thing to realize.
Francesca Cervero: 00:20:58
And an important distinction I’m glad you made. In section three, it’s all about developing discernment, which is something that I’ve been interested in my whole teaching career. So I really loved this section. Just as a quick aside, I have to tell you, I was remembering this. So I went back and I checked and the class that I taught to graduate from my 200 hour teacher training, we had to teach an hour and 40 minute advanced level asana practice. And I was remembering that this was the case and I went back to to confirm that it was that spiritual teaching or the Dharma theme that I interwove through the movement practice was the idea of engaging in a challenging physical practice from a place of discernment. How do you move towards challenge in a way that’s about curiosity and inquiry? So you know when to pull back and when to step forward and not about pushing.
So this is something that’s been like interwoven through my entire teaching life, but in this topic of developing discernment, there’s two sentences that I have underlined and highlighted like 20 times and one is “No one joins a cult.” Right? And the second is that “No one is free when they are being lied to.” Can you tell us more about those ideas and how they relate to the world of Ashtanga Yoga in particular?
Matthew Remski: 00:22:23
Well, yeah, it’s kind of an axiom within cult analysis discourse that because deception is the primary mode of recruitment — the Unification Church does not present itself as what people come to experiences the “Moonies”. Scientology does not present itself as, the vanity project, the abusive vanity project of L. Ron Hubbard. Because deception is so key. We have brilliant comments from cult theorists like Cathleen Mann who told me over the phone — you quoted it. But the second part is important too. “No one joins a cult. People delay leaving organizations that misrepresented themselves.” So that, I think I cite that sentence in a section where I’m discussing the fact that Ashtanga Yoga culture consciously or not has dressed itself up in a language of validation and authenticity and ancient value, and all of those claims are dubious.
So I focus a lot, for instance, on the words that’s used to describe the supposedly unchanging nature of Ashtanga Yoga practice through the eons. They use the word parampara, which in Sanskrit means something like “one after the other” and implies an unbroken line of teacher student relationships that communicate some sort of unchanging value and also communicate love. And there’s no way in which this word is reasonably applied to the method that’s innovated by Pattabhi Jois in order primarily to serve the western students that began showing up in the late sixties.
So if somebody, for instance, it goes to a yoga Shala and the DC area or in Baltimore or something like that and they are, impressed by the physical results of the practice and they feel like they’re well bonded with the community and they feel good life changes taking place, they might begin to glom on to the fact that, oh, this comes from somewhere. And it seems to be somewhere very special in. And in fact, all of these things that are making me feel good are the benefits of the ancient parampara that is communicated by the Jois family and their center is in Mysore, and maybe. I want to go to the source to, learn more to find out more or to really connect solidly with the stream of this ancient tradition. And if a person then goes on to do that, they, in cult dynamics terms, and they also experience things that they didn’t expect where they’re assaulted or they’re abused physically, emotionally, sexually or financially. Then the studio in Baltimore or in DC that has used the language of parampara to describe what they’re doing has consciously or not deceived the student and actually acted as a recruitment center for them to go on to the center of the organization. Now, let’s say that that happened in 2000 and the person that we’re talking about hypothetically is a 25 year old female practitioner who gets all excited about the holy parampara that she might be able to contact if she takes her teacher’s advice and goes to Mysore. Let’s say that she goes, and then on the first day she’s assaulted, which is actually an experience that’s reported on over and over again in the book. What then was the function of parampara, amongst many other words, what did it do?
And that’s where the second part of Cathleen Mann’s phrase is really important, that the cult is the organization that misrepresented itself. You didn’t join it, you somehow got recruited into it and then you didn’t know how to leave or you delayed leaving or you were delayed from leaving. And then the second sentence that you bring up is that, deception is something that we feel that we can protect ourselves against. But the truth is that everybody is vulnerable to being deceived. I think we just have to look into our social media landscape to understand how relevant that is.
We like to think of ourselves as not being gullible. But I can tell you that in the two cults that I was part of, there were people from all walks of life, all educational profiles, people who were professors and dentists and astronomers and and also hippie farmers. But there was no sort of predictor for who was going to be successfully deceived. And that’s a really key thing to get is that it’s hard to protect yourself against deception except through prior education. And that’s gonna have all kinds of holes in it. And it’s also not your fault if you’re deceived. It’s not, you’re not to blame if somebody convincingly lies to you about what they want you to get wrapped up in.
Francesca Cervero: 00:27:32
Yeah, of course. I said this book talks about both the physical injuries, especially that happen in the context of hands on adjustments by Pattabhi Jois and some of his senior teachers. And it also talks about the sexual assault that took place in the yoga studio. And there’s a quote, I’ll just read it quickly that sort of talks about the double bind that that brings up: “A student like Diane Bruni who suffered physical injuries related to practicing the Jois method were encouraged to trust the wisdom of the teacher. But when Diane was told that Jois was assaulting women, she was encouraged to trust the wisdom of the teaching.”
Matthew Remski: 00:28:13
Right? Yeah. So the double bind there is that regardless of what’s happening, the defender of the organizational abuse can kind of switch the focus from one thing to another and say that on one hand or in one circumstance that the teacher knows more than you do. And then if the teacher doesn’t know more than you do or is found to actually be a criminal than what he or she has offered is something that can be relied on. And this argument really depends upon the premise that these two things can be separated, that Jois’s method and Ashtanga yoga are two different things, that Ashtanga Yoga can somehow be abstractly considered a part from all of the relationships that have created it and communicated it and globalized it. And that’s a really dubious premise.
An obvious example that I can turn to that I think makes this conundrum clear is that would anybody really say that the hot 26 postures of the Bikram method are somehow separable from the somatic and psychological legacy of Bikram Choudhury? Given the fact that if you professionalized into that method, you did training with him, you went through six weeks of hazing and hell in one of those big tents. You somehow had to rationalize that or recover from it or move on and do something else but not reject it, if you kept telling yourself that you were a Bikram teacher and telling your community that.And you learned how to do it by reciting his script verbatim and that’s all you were allowed to do, then it becomes really like dicey as to whether or not the method is separable from the personality of teaching and from the interpersonal dynamics that really informed that teaching. And so yeah, when Diane said, well, you can trust the teacher if you get injured and then if the teacher is a criminal, then you can trust the teachings. We have this kind of like parsing of value. So that person who’s apologizing for the institutional abuse can never really be pinned down. Right? So that happens all the time.
And then in a sort of a softer sense, the very common objection to a project like this on the whole is, well, “So what Matthew, are we supposed to throw out the baby with the bathwater?” And that’s a really interesting sort of subtler, more nuanced version of the same problem where what the person is saying: But there was benefit in this and we don’t want to get rid of the benefit by canceling the teacher or canceling the community. How are we going to save the benefit? And my question to turnaround on that is, Well, where did the benefit actually come from? when the person who had a beneficial experience in a yoga community talks about that experience, how are they attributing the benefit? Was it really in the postures? Was it really in the method or did they have all kinds of other interwoven support mechanisms in their lives that contributed to an overall positive experience?
So one of the things I suggested I think to Katherine Bruni on a podcast is that, I think we have to recognize that we’re the baby. The baby is not the technique. The baby isn’t the breathwork, the baby isn’t the sequence. The baby is the value you already have that has been in a bath that is maybe dirty and maybe you want to take yourself out of that bath. I hope that becomes a more accessible way of looking at this problem because I really don’t think that methods and teaching landscapes can be separated from each other.
Francesca Cervero: 00:32:11
I really liked that reframing of the baby and the bathwater conundrum. I think that’s going to be really helpful as we continue to have these conversations moving forward.
Matthew Remski: 00:32:21
There’s always people in toxic groups who say, I had a great experience there and my question for them is: Well, did you have a great experience in the rest of your life too? Like were you supported by a loving partner? Did you have money? Did you avoid sickness or you in a vibrant community? There’s a lot of people who end up, especially if they’ve professionalized into yoga, I believe anyway, claiming that the benefits that they’ve accrued from practice are coming from practice because that bolsters their marketing narrative. But what they’re also talking about is I’ve been a generally privileged person too, but that kind of gets buried.
Francesca Cervero: 00:32:58
Yeah, and I didn’t pull up this quote out of the book, but I remember you saying somewhere there’s an important distinction between understanding, having personal positive experience and relief from physical and psychological pain and the power structures that enable longterm abuse to continue to go on and on. And Just because someone may have had a personal positive experience, can’t detract at all from the oppressive systems that allowed to be used to continue and I think people are strong enough, I would hope, to hold both truths at the same time.
Matthew Remski: 00:33:33
Well, it’s hard because the person who has been telling themselves that, yoga is at the center of their lives and it was life saving in some way or that it’s their primary value. It’s really hard. This is a listening challenge. It’s really hard to say, Oh well, exactly that same circumstance was the context in which I was assaulted or I was abused and that creates a lot of cognitive dissonance in the part of that person and it might force like a reconsideration of the story they’ve been telling themselves.
Francesca Cervero: 00:34:01
Right. Which can be really challenging to process. If we go back to this idea of trusting the teacher or trusting the teachings. That’s something that said I think really commonly and then a lot of the yoga world and for me it’s been a priority in my teaching that students never come away with the message that they should trust me, the teacher, or the teachings. It’s been important in my own teaching that I’m helping my students to develop a clear sense of their own agency and sharper discernment about their own experience. I’m wondering what you think are some of the best ways that yoga teachers listening can get that message across, help students develop a clear sense of their bodily autonomy and sharper discernment about what they’re doing and why while teaching a movement class?
Matthew Remski: 00:34:46
Well, yeah, I mean, first I just want to point out that you described trying to give your students the message that it’s not you are the teachings that they should trust, but I think their own experience and ironically by positioning your pedagogy, your technique like that, I think what you’re doing is you’re building trust in the relationship. And so it’s not about do you have enough knowledge about backbends or trikonasana or yoga philosophy, but are you holding power with equity? And I would say that that’s the primary task and if it’s adopted widely within the yoga industry, or at least we begin to talk about it, it will constitute a real reversal of about a hundred years of somatically dominant pedagogy in which teachers have felt as though they can and then have told themselves they can or should be really commanding or directing or demanding certain values to be expressed through their students’ bodies. And I think the tide is turning on that.
You mentioned that you wanted to help your students foster a sense of agency. I mean, that phrase alone was I think — I don’t think anybody was using language like that even seven years ago. Maybe Angela Farmer, maybe Donna Farhi were starting to say things like that in the early 2000s but that’s becoming, especially through the trauma awareness movement that’s becoming like central language now for Yoga pedagogy and I think that’s a really good advance and so that’s the first thing that I would say is that if people get some education and trauma sensitivity or trauma awareness they’ll automatically the more informed as to the subtle nuances of power dynamics in the classroom during movement classes. The other two things that I’d say is that, we really need to sharpen up what the scope of practice is for yoga teachers. I know the Yoga Alliance is working hard on this. I’ve been part of that project as a consultant. For there to be clarity in terms of scope of practice not only gives protection to the yoga teacher with regard to expressing competency, but it also gives a kind of possibility for informed consent to the student where they will know fairly simply, fairly accessibly: Oh this is what this teacher does and does not know or is or is not qualified to do.
And I would argue that that shouldn’t just be a thing within the health sciences of yoga practice where it’s obvious that yoga teachers are not nutritionists or it’s obvious that yoga teachers are not psychotherapists and it’s obvious that yoga teachers should not be prescribing asanas for frozen shoulder or something like that. Unless they have specific training in that. I would say it has to go farther than that and we have to let the learning population know that what our scope of practices with regard to yoga ideas as well or the study of the yoga humanities. Because there’s a lot of social influence that is generated and nurtured and protected by charismatic yoga figures who impress their students with their apparent knowledge about the Yoga Sutras or about the Upanishads or about the relationship between asana and the Gita or something like that. And those can be very powerful and intoxicating points of power that if they’re not well researched or evidence, then they can become modes of deception whereby students are kind of lulled into this sense that, Oh, my yoga teacher is a philosophical genius, so yes, I’m going to do what he tells me to do with my body because he’s, I don’t know, he’s understood the writing of God or something.
Francesco Cervero: 00:38:49
And you mentioned Donna Farhi and Angela Farmer and I would just add to that list. My teacher, Cindy Lee, I was taught to teach in 2005 I took my teacher training and I feel like I was taught to teach with this idea that we are not in authority. The students are the authority of their experience, of their body. Our job as a yoga teacher is to hold and create a container that supports thoughtful inquiry, that absolutely gives students a sense of their own agency. So just give a shout out to my lineage there. Yeah.
Matthew Remski: 00:39:24
Thank you for adding that. And yeah, and she would know, right? Because as I understand it, she comes from this dance and performance background in which some of the opposite values are at play with regard to what’s being demanded of the subject.
Francesca Cervero: 00:39:37
Right? Yeah. So another really important theme of this book is understanding what the idea of quote “opening” meant to teachers and practitioners in my store. And there’s a section, Matthew on page one 33 that really kind of clarifies this for us. Can you just read that section that we highlighted?
Matthew Remski: 00:39:58
So it starts with a quote.
“I felt like I was being dismembered,” said the late Jois devotee Brad Ramsey describing the sensation of being adjusted by Jois. (I’ll just make a note here and say that Brad Ramsey died of suicide in 2012. Ramsey describes giving the pain up to God. Ramsey’s stark view, examined more fully in Part Four points to the intersection between spiritual and relational meaning carried by the word “opening”. Opening to the postures equals opening to unknown experiences, which in turn can mean opening to the will of the teacher. “You had to surrender to his adjustments and then you would be safe,” New Zealander Peter Sanson told Guy Donahaye in a book called Guruji. “If you tried to resist anything, you were in serious trouble. Many times I could hear things tearing in my body like the sound of sheets ripping. I thought I was going to be finished, but in the end I would just let go and surrender up to him and allow him to take me into the different asanas and then I was safe.”
So, yeah, there’s so much going on in that. And it goes back to — I’m reminded of this first email that I received from Jules Mitchell where she says, I believe that yoga practitioners are dangerously fascinated with tissue distension. And as I continued to hear from practitioners, I kept hearing about this sort of crossover between the extreme sensation, the end range of motion and a kind of feeling of not only accomplishment but relief and pleasure and perhaps the mind going blank. But that was also mixed up with discourses around pain. But as I started to understand a little bit of the pain science, it became clear that one of the things that happens in the more extreme forms of Ashtanga practice is that when a person is in a highly contortioned and end-range-motion posture, they might well be releasing all kinds of adrenaline and internal opiates that override the sensations of pain, which, gentle or teachers might be asking them to pay attention to. if it hurts, then you know you’re doing it wrong or you pull back from the edge of pain or something.
But the problem is that the intensity of sensation itself can generate this internal masking of pain that can actually flip into a kind of ephemeral pleasure and that that pleasure itself — which is associated with a stress response now because it allows the person to keep going when they should probably be stopping — that pleasure is often than confused with a feeling of wellbeing or warmth or connectedness or even spiritual revelation. So, this goes deep into the phenomenon of pain and how people end up using it and understanding it. And what happens in the Ashtanga literature, especially when people are talking about their relationships with Jois that they speak about pain as though it’s this internal phenomenon, which it is, but often what’s happening is that they kind of ignore or wash over the fact that Jois is hurting them. it’s like, even if you can see in this quote where Peter is saying that if felt like sheets were ripping inside me, but the language doesn’t, it’s not active. It’s not “Jois was torquing me so that this is what happened.”
So there’s this kind of like focus upon the internal ecstasy of the pain response and how it might switch or ephemerally become pleasurable or become a sign of something that you could surrender into or relax into, which might actually be a freeze or fold response as well. Right. In terms of the nervous system action. But the notion that this person is actually doing this thing to the subject that gets buried. And realizing that it was getting buried was kind of a turning point in my own research because it flipped me out of thinking about how people were negotiating their internal experience and zooming out a little bit and saying, wait a minute. One person is assaulting another. Why is that happening? And I’m trying to figure out how that’s being rationalized in the group.
Francesca Cervero: 00:44:31
That quote in particular — you know I told you Matthew, that I like binge-read the book this weekend because I’m a big procrastinator. And so my husband spent the whole weekend like sitting on the couch next to me while I read this and every now and then I would sort of read something and go, Ahh! You know like I do to the news The sound of sheets ripping. I mean that’s so intense. I think like a more mild version of that idea — the idea that physical quote opening is a sign of spiritual advancement or emotional release has sort of trickled down into the wider yoga world.
Now, I think many teachers and I’ve practiced with would never say that the sound of sheets ripping in your shoulder is spiritual advancement. But they might say, if you feel, if you’re hanging out in a passive pigeon pose and you feel a really deep stretch in your hips, there’s an emotional release that will happen there. What do you think about the way that idea has sort of trickled down and do you think that that idea should be dismantled from our own practice and teaching?
Matthew Remski: 00:45:32
I think it certainly has to be questioned and contextualized and I’m so glad that you’ve used this term “trickle-down “because I really hope that some of the more extreme examples that I use in the book are interesting in and of themselves, but that they can also point to subtler variations that impact a much broader population. When a teacher tells the person who is in pigeon posture and passively experiencing a deepening of the stretch involved and they say, If you have an upwelling of emotion that is constitutes a kind of purification or some experiences being released or trauma is being released from the hips — I mean first of all, show me the data.
First of all, show me like how you know that this is an adaptive cathartic experience in some physiological sense that will give a person a freer range of not only physical motion but also psychological resiliency —How can you show me that that’s true versus that simply being what you want to be true when what’s really happening is that you’re being overwhelmed with a stress response that might have to do with feeling captive within the posture while you’re experiencing pain, And then while you’re experiencing pain, especially if it’s accelerating, maybe you go into freeze or fold response where the only thing you can do is weep about it or tell yourself somehow, even biochemically, that it’s pleasurable. I would say that it’s a really dubious thing to say and it really serves teachers in what could be an opportunistic or manipulative way, because it lets the person off the hook if they’ve actually put their students into pain and there’s no good reason for it. So yeah, I think there’s a definite trickle-down impact there.
And I also want to leave room for the fact that people might very well want to explore discomfort and pain, but they have to know that that’s what they’re doing. And that’s where some form of informed consent starts to come in as well, is that it’s a perfectly reasonable activity to poke around at the edges of your physical capacity and to investigate what pain means to you and to feel what Joel Kramer called in 1976 the “edge” of practice for sure. But there’s this sort of narrative layer that’s put on top of that that says you should do this or it’s necessary that you do this or if you encounter pain, then that’s a good thing. And that’s where the marketing of yoga can really overtake the truth of what’s happening.
Francesca Cervero: 00:48:18
And I think for the teachers listening, if you’re feeling like, a little overwhelmed by this, if you have heard over and over again that the deep stretch that you feel in your hips and pigeon is trauma being released and that’s a good thing, and so you’ve repeated it. Let me make this just very gentle suggestion: that rather than telling your students what they’re experiencing, you ask them to be curious about what they’re experiencing and you ask them to investigate for themselves, but that we’re not in the teacher seat telling our students this is what’s happening to your body and this is a good thing, but notice what’s happening and here are some parameters that might help you decide whether you think it’s a good thing or not.
Like one thing that I always point towards and we can talk more about pain if we want, but I’ve come to the conclusion at this point in my study and research that intense sensation at a joint = not healthy — certainly for my body and I think for many students bodies — but if you’re feeling physical sensation more in the belly of the muscle, that that might be a safer place to play with discomfort. And offer your students those kind of parameters and have them investigate and decide for themselves rather than telling them about their experience. That just seems really dangerous path to go down.
Matthew Remski: 00:49:34
Right. I’m totally with you. And I think that’s like a core principle of the trauma sensitivity movement as I understand it. And I’d also say that like it would be really interesting to present the spectrum of possibilities with regard to describing experience that, I can imagine saying to a class that: Some people experience discomfort in this posture and that might trip over into what they would describe as being painful. And we’re not really sure what’s right for you with regard to that, that it might be of interest to you. You might want to test your stamina or your resilience in relationship to that discomfort. But also there might not be any point at all because putting yourself into a stress position to purposely feel pain may not be what your psychology or your trauma history actually needs it all. Maybe it would be if you stayed away from that sensation. So that’s pretty wordy for a class! But if that could be shrunk down to the presentation of it’s not altogether, clear what, how people deal with this. So here’s some questions to ask. I think that would be really cool.
Francesca Cervero: 00:50:45
Yeah. I think so to a topic that comes up when we’re understanding learning to understand the dynamics of high demand-groups is downplaying the ego, and even considering it an enemy I think is another idea that’s in its most intense form, very dangerous in high-demand groups, but that also has trickled down and spread out and more mild forms in the wider yoga world. I know I’ve had lots of friends, I had a friend not that long ago say to me something about like, Oh isn’t the ego just always getting in the way? Like it’s such a problem. We have to get rid of that and I didn’t know how to respond except to say like, that doesn’t really sound right. Because in our ego just be another part of ourselves that we get to know better and make friends with.
Matthew Remski: 00:51:32
Yeah, I mean I’m always interested in what people actually mean when they say things like that.
Francesca Cervero: 00:51:35
I know. I don’t think it’s always very clear.
Matthew Remski: 00:51:38
She might’ve, I wonder if she was talking about jealousy or some sort of petty concern that she felt ashamed about or it wasn’t worth for time. Like there’s this notion that when people use the word, it’s almost as if they’re saying there’s this petty or this uninformed and part of me that gets overexcited about meaningless shit and I would rather that just disappear. But the problem with using fairly at once grandiose but a also misunderstood term for that process is that there is no school of global psychology in which anybody wants to get rid of the ego or anybody wants to denigrate the strength of the ego. Ego strength itself is at the heart of individuation of boundary formation, of understanding yourself to be in relationship, understanding yourself to be separate from others but also connectable.
So yeah, in the yoga world, the notion of ego surrender or ego dissolution I think has historically been related to what happens during peak experiences. When a person, loses language and they don’t really care about outcomes and they feel a flood of connectedness and ecstasy that really takes away the notion temporarily of their individual identity. And sometimes that state is described as a state of egolessness. Where it gets dangerous is that often the pursuit of that state is linked to the notion of having the ego somehow deconstructed or smashed or obscured or throttled by somebody who has more spiritual power.
And so throughout the Ashtanga literature there is this general sense, this repeated refrain that what Jois was doing was he was deconstructing this smaller self that believed in its limitations and didn’t understand that it was ultimately free and so on, but that is then associated with, or it becomes a rationalization for the fact that he’s also deconstructing people’s bodies and their sexual integrity at the same time. So yeah, I think it’s a misunderstood term from the point of view of most psychological schools. I think it’s a term that ends up being misused in an interpersonal context to somehow describe the notion that it would be valuable to give up your sense of autonomy to somebody else or that’s necessary for you to have a spiritual experience. Yeah. I hope that we all get a little bit smarter about that. It’s not that we want to give up our egos, but rather understand more deeply how our individuality connects to our interpersonal reality.
Francesca Cervero: 00:54:38
The way our culture has often thought about ego and even fear is summed up really well in this quote where you’re talking about your own personal experience standing at the threshold of walking into the Endeavor Academy, a high-demand group. Would you just read a couple of short sentences?
Matthew Remski: 00:55:00
“The tension was intoxicating. It held me in a grip. There seemed to be only one possible pathway to relief to walk straight into the thing that terrified me. This wasn’t a new feeling, but something I’ve gotten used to. In fact, I’d had at the first moment I’d walked up the steps of the building before I knew anything about Endeavor Academy or Charles Anderson or what the next three years of my life were to be like. Lightning jolted, my limbic system. I paused on the threshold, stunned. Then I quickly interpreted the fear as a sign that I was embarking on a positive and necessary growth. I had been exposed to a lot of propaganda leading up to that moment and my best friend had sworn by the place. I had been told that my ego was standing in the way of my happiness and that it would have to die. Of course, I should be scared. I thought fear was a good sign.”
Francesca Cervero: 00:55:48
It’s powerful. It’s really spoke to me because we hear that all the time. You know that Feel the fear and do it anyway. Do one thing that scares you every day. And I’ve, over the course of my now 14 years of teaching really come to a place where I’ve decided that — and it was kind of already in this place — but I’m really strongly standing in this place now to speak about publicly fears to be listened to, period. And so I’ve started working with a framework when I teach so that when I offer a cue, when I offer direction, when I tell my students to do something with their bodies, I asked them to run that direction through a filter and to check and see if they get a green light. Like, yeah, that sounds good. I want to do that. The yellow light, Huh? That sounds a little…I’m not sure about that, but I’m willing to, to step towards it carefully or red light. And I say, if you get a red light, you don’t push through that. we may find six months down the road that that red light was actually keeping you stuck in a physical patterns actually causing you more discomfort and that, creating change required. moving through a little bit of that discomfort, but you’ll learn that when you learn that, when you’re not getting a red light about it anymore. I do not want my students to use their physical practice to practice ignoring the red light. I want them to practice listening to that.
Matthew Remski: 00:57:15
It’s so great and I think the push back that you’ll get maybe not from your students, but from listeners who have grown up in a yoga paradigm in which a big value has been questioning the value of the cognitive brain or questioning the value of your thought processes or that people will accuse you of saying that Well you’re depriving your students of the trans-rational or the non-cognitive, the silent capacity to explore a new territory. Right? Like, and so I’m totally with you and I can also see how you’re saying something quite radical with regard to how yoga has been taught over the last hundred years.
Francesca Cervero: 00:57:59
And this is where like I have to say, reading this book sort of opened my eyes in a new way to that because I just grew up in a yoga culture that was different and I didn’t realize that it was maybe a little bit unique. I went to an Ashtanga shala, and I tore my hamstring doing primary series, you know? I mean I’ve had some experiences in other yoga cultures, but I thought that they were the outlier, so I’m like sort of just realizing that maybe I grew up in an outlier and I didn’t know that.
Matthew Remski: 00:58:30
Good. That’s a lucky thing. And then hopefully the value of your education will become even more apparent to you that, Oh, this has mainstream application because there’s a whole chunk of this culture that’s coming from a totally different place and they’re looking for something new.
Francesca Cervero: 00:58:46
On page two 42 you write “Harm is not inflicted in a vacuum and healing is not accomplished alone.” Can you tell us about what you see to be critical on the path forward?
Matthew Remski: 00:59:03
Yeah. Those two axiomatic statements come out of firstly understanding and asserting that there’s no way that Pattabhi Jois could have assaulted as many people as he did over close to three decades without having been surrounded by what some academics call a network of complicity. There’s just too many factors of social toxicity involved that prevented people from people like Karen and TM and Anneke from communicating with their colleagues, with their fellows about what had happened to them, what was done to them. And there were all kinds of idealizing pressures directed towards Mysore, directed towards Jois, that would have made it even more difficult to tell a different story. To say: actually this person is not a saint, or how can this person be a saint when he also does this? So the network of complicity is like this key study area too, which I apply the language of cult analysis in the book.
But this amazing thing happens when abuse histories begin to come to light. And you know I was actually interviewed by, because of this work, I was interviewed by a business management scholar named Peggy Cunningham, who’s running a project in Halifax at Dartmouth University currently where she’s trying to figure out how do whistleblowers in situations of institutional abuse actually, how do they succeed? When they succeed, how do they succeed? Like what is it about somebody like Karen Rain in the Ashtanga example who is able to have their message heard and who is able to find allies and who is able to find advocates? What are the conditions that allow for a victim of institutional abuse to basically become networked within empowerment? What resources do they need? Because they don’t do it alone, right.
Like I was talking with Karen for maybe, I don’t know exactly, maybe a year and a half before she posted her #metoo statement on her Facebook page and then I shared it and then at that point she makes this boatload of connections with old colleagues, with women who shared her experience with women and men who validated her experience. And that network begins to build kind of momentum that eventually shifts the conversation so that we’re no longer talking about isolated individuals who are the survivors of abuse. But we’re talking about people who are now at the center of a conversation of reform and yeah, that just doesn’t happen alone. It happens because bonds are formed, because this survivor runs into that survivor and together they connect with the journalist or with a person who’s filing the lawsuit. So people find common cause as they are working towards justice and reform and I mean it’s just proof positive from my point of view that the healing that comes out of that is not just happening on a personal level. It’s happening because people are working together.
Francesca Cervero: 01:02:28
And what should the wider Yoga community think about as they move forward in their lives and their teaching and hopefully their desire to create safe spaces?
Matthew Remski: 01:02:40
I’d say that it’s good to recognize that what happened with Pattabhi Jois and his inner circle of Ashtanga followers is a case study, and it’s a case study that has implications and relevance to many, many, many other yoga organizations. In fact, as Shannon Roche says in a video released in January of 2018: sexual harassment and abuse is a problem that impacts almost every tradition in the modern yoga movement. And when you run down the list of organizations that have abuse histories, it’s kind of harrowing because you wind up with a question of, well, who’s left out? Where is their safe community to practice them? Because chances are good that whoever you learned from has some kind of either close or peripheral connection to a yoga organization with an unresolved abuse history or perhaps unresolved or undiagnosed cultic dynamics.
And so what I advise in the last section of the book, along with a whole boatload of inquiry exercises for people in training and yoga administrators and yoga service providers, is something that I call the PRISM method, which allows, I hope, people to look very closely at the methods and the communities that they are using from which they’re drawing information with the object of not passing along blindly their histories of harm as well. So, for instance, if you got introduced to the Ashtanga primary series and you feel as though it changed your life — maybe you had an epiphany or you had some peak experience and you felt connected with the entire universe for five minutes on Tuesday morning and that feels like a pivotal moment in your life — you start getting excited about that and you say, well, how can I give this beautiful thing to other people?
That’s where the first part of PRISM comes in, which is “pause“, take a little pause and recognize that every yoga method and community probably has something of benefit to offer, but it likely also has an unresolved abuse history. And so before you start to professionalize, before you become an evangelist, before you get too excited, take a step back and say, Hmm, okay, this feels great for me. Let’s see whether that’s true for other people as well. And that speaks to the principle of the prism as well, that, whatever yoga is, it’s throwing off, a whole spectrum of experiences. And then the other steps are to research the method to see what the hidden history is. Because Yoga history is sometimes indistinguishable from yoga marketing.
Then investigate whether if there is a history of harm, whether it’s been addressed in any appropriate way, it usually hasn’t. And then just show what you’re going to do if you get involved in this method to neither bypass the harm of the community that the community holds, nor pass it along, but also pass along what is good from it. And then finally the end is to model engaged ethics for future practitioners. So there’s a number of tools like that in the book that I hope are helpful moving forward. There are no quick fixes are silver bullets and this is an unregulated industry in which people have to be super self-responsible. And that’s hard. But I do hope there’s some helpful ideas there for people.
Francesca Cervero: 01:06:17
There are so many really helpful ideas. I absolutely recommend that every single teacher listening to this, please, please: it couldn’t be more important for you to read this book, both to understand the cultural history of the world that we inhabit. It also has so many thought-provoking ideas, questions, comments about what we’re doing in our own yoga studios and the way we’re engaging with our students. So it’s both sort of a macro overview of our world and it also brings to light lots of little moments that we have in the seat of teacher to do good rather than do harm. So I think it’s absolutely vital that anyone teaching yoga read this book. And I really appreciate Matthew, the work that you did to bring all of these stories to light.
Matthew Remski: 01:07:07
Well, thank you. That’s really, really kind and I’m really humbled by your enthusiasm and I do hope it’s of help. And thanks for all of your excellent questions.
Francesca Cervero: 01:07:16
Yeah, absolutely. And before I let you go, I want to ask you one more thing. The, in the front cover of this book, it says Volume One of the “What Are We Actually Doing in Asana?” project Does that mean there’s a volume two?
Matthew Remski: 01:07:30
Yeah. Well it means what I’m saying is to the contributors to the project: Yes, this is the book that came. That’s one thing that I’m doing, but the second thing that I’m doing is I am or shadowing the possible next volume — I say possible next volume because the larger picture is that we’re facing climate catastrophe and civilizational breakdown. So I don’t know how much time, personally I feel like I have to keep investigating this particular topic, but I do feel very interested in going a little bit more deeply into the the broader history of the modern yoga movement and to flesh out the abuse histories of all of the main methods so that there is something that is fact-checked and evidentiary and well documented. And then I can ask questions like deeper questions like, Well where do these cultic impulses come from? And that’s where I’d like to study a little bit more into the research of Yuval Laor and other cult theorists.The working title that etched out for volume two would be From Culture to Cult and Back Again. Because I do believe that we’ve got some pre 20th century models of equitable relationship and good learning that we can start to remember and flesh out a little bit more. But I think we also have to reckon with this strange 20th century globalization process that saw so many instances of institutional abuse crop up.
Francesca Cervero: 01:09:08
That sounds really important and interesting and I wish you all the best of luck. Thanks for that project. Yeah, we’ll put links to where you can buy the book and any other resources associated with the book in the podcast. Show notes at my website, francescacervero.com/podcast we’ll put links there where people can find you. Did you want to tell people briefly Matthew, how best to contact you, how to get the book?
Matthew Remski: 01:09:35
Yeah, my website is http://matthewremski.com/wordpress/. The publisher is http://embodiedwisdom.pub and the link to that is on my website. You can follow me on Facebook. I have an author’s page and-a personal page and I host, book related news fairly regularly as well as the other, research and journalism that I do. So yeah, pretty easy to get in touch with me and the book is available from all the usual places. It’s nice if you order directly from the publisher embodied wisdom in their site, but it’s also available on all of the Amazon channels, et cetera.
Francesca Cervero: 01:10:12
Wonderful. Thank you again so much, Matthew.
Matthew Remski: 01:10:15
Thank you for your time. It was a real pleasure.
Francesca Cervero: 01:10:18
Thank you so much for listening. I would love to have you join my community to continue this conversation and you can do that by going to my website, teach private yoga.com when you go to that site and give me your name and email address, you’ll get a totally free three part video series that’s all about how to teach better private lessons. Plus, you’ll get access to lots of other great free resources for Yoga teachers, including an invitation to my Facebook group that’s teachprivateyoga.com I’m so grateful to have you here and remember fellow yoga teachers that anytime you need me, this podcast is a place you can come for support and strategy.