On “Practice and All is Coming”: Matthew Remski Interviewed by Donna Noble
Donna Noble of Curvesome Yoga interviewed me about my new book. She was direct and to the point. An edited version of this interview has already appeared on the Accessible Yoga blog, edited by Nina Zolotow. The AY blog is definitely a must-read: bookmark it! This is the full version of the interview.
DN: Tell me about your yoga journey.
MR: I happened upon yoga for the first time in Manhattan just days after leaving a high-demand group, or cult. The simple instructions gave me permission to feel myself, to feel my own agency again. It was only one class at that point, but I never forgot the feeling, and would sometimes practice on my own. I was soon recruited into another high-demand group. And then, again, found yoga after leaving. It was 2003 by then. The first YTT boom was in full swing, with a lot of trainers beginning to offer one-month programmes. I had no other real prospects at the time, and so I signed up, plunged in, trained hard, and within a few years owned a studio and was teaching up to 20 classes per week. That lasted through a second studio and ten more years, and then I started researching the shadows of the industry.
What does the essence of yoga mean to you and has it changed since writing the book?
The book has only deepened my sense of what’s truly important to me in practice. My current understanding of moksha revolves around the possibility of seeing oneself, one’s relationships, and the world as clearly as possible. This means understanding projection, transference, idealization. It means seeing through the anxiety by which we organize our power structures. It means trying to understand interdependence and everything that invisibly makes up your world and your position in it. It means seeking out a pause when possible and feeling all of the threads of connection hum and vibrate.
Working on a book about abuse and healing in the yoga world amplified all of these things. It broke through my desire to idealize the yoga world — a habit that was wrapped up in spiritual bypassing. It forced me to listen carefully to the experiences of people who carry traumas I have never known. That exposure has opened me up to a vision of how necessary empathy is, and how supportive we can be when we feel it, if we’re also open to feedback.
As my interview database for the project expanded, the network connecting traumatic experiences became more visible. Eventually it revealed an entirely alternative yoga world, which didn’t look anything like the marketing at all. It looked like the rest of the world, only painted over in gold and sprinkled with goji berries and wishes for a perfect life. Isn’t that what coming to reality feels like? An evaporation of infatuation? Seeing things as they really are, and learning how to love again from ground zero?
How has yoga evolved since you started practising?
I can’t speak to more indigenous forms of yoga, which may not evolve so much as they are disrupted by globalization. The roots of the modern global yoga movement into which I’ve professionalized have been pretty stable for the past century. Group classes and visual learning aids have all been standard. There’s been a strong overlap between somatic self-inquiry and physical performance and demonstration, and this overlap has often hurt practitioners who were taught to conflate gymnastics with altered states of consciousness. None of that has gone away. Rather it has intensified, become more visible, and now signifies “wellness” in the feeds of the social media surveillance state. This is super-weird for a practice that’s supposed to be about self-inquiry, but it’s not a surprise. It’s also crowded: the YTT explosion that began 15 years ago has now made yoga teaching into a fixture of the precariat economy, especially for millenials.
The wellness industry has seamlessly converted the physicality of asana practice into the image of — rather than the reality of — health. I say “image” because it presents health as an individual, ableist virtue rather than a social value. Again, not new. But more pervasive and therefore less visible.
What is currently changing, however, gives me a lot of hope. People who study and practice within the “trauma aware” paradigm are by definition challenging many of these constructs.
You can’t be trauma aware and also be fixated on group-class homogeneity.
You can’t be trauma aware and not question the objectification or sexualisation of bodies in yoga postures on Instagram.
You can’t be trauma aware and believe that wellness is somehow an individual responsibility.
You can’t be trauma-aware and keep pushing the same body beautiful ideals that contribute to dysmorphia and disordered eating.
You can’t be trauma-aware and not question your ableism.
You can’t be trauma-aware and traipse off to a Caribbean Island that is sinking into the sea for your yoga holiday where you’ll be waited on by people who can’t afford to go to a yoga class.
What has been the biggest takeaway for you whilst researching and writing the book?
First, as Theo Wildcroft puts it: the abuse survivors of any culture are the canaries in the coal mine of the world. They have the most lucid view on how we actually treat each other as a species and what the stakes are when we pretend otherwise. While polite society carries on as if everything is fine, it hides the fact that it’s actually running on the silence of survivors. If the women who Pattabhi Jois assaulted over 30 years had been listened to and believed and advocated for, there would be no Ashtanga Yoga today.
What does that mean? It means that if you look around, every institution you see — especially if it promotes and advocates for a better world, a more spiritual self — has to have its aspirations compared to its reality. It bears repeating: if Jois had been arrested in the U.S. in 1987, when it was clear to the majority of his senior American students that he was committing crimes, Ashtanga Yoga might have died then and there. We have to let that sink in. Not listening to survivors is at the root of social deception, and it perpetuates itself, becoming intergenerational. In the case of Ashtanga Yoga, that deception built an empire, and a pile of cash.
Perhaps it’s a poignant example of karma. That we go on with our lives as normal, but with an unacknowledged wound at the very centre of things that we must continue to cover over — with the next sequence, the next training, the next “deepening” of our practice.
Second: never underestimate the resilience of abuse survivors. They’re actually remaking the global yoga movement as we speak.
Why did you not speak out earlier about what you personally witnessed?
To be clear: I never personally witnessed sexual abuse in a yoga class. I was physically assaulted by a teacher “adjusting” me, and I came to understand that over time as related to my broader experience of male violence and corporal punishment. But that took a long time. I just didn’t want to view that incident through that framework. So in that sense I have just a bit of the experience of not feeling able to speak out.
Where I did fall down was in not supporting my friend Diane Bruni when she disclosed her knowledge of Jois’s assaults at a public event in Toronto in 2015. As I’ve told the story in the book — I just didn’t want to go there. If Jois was a serial abuser, as the then-quiet stories seemed to suggest, what did that mean about his legacy and influence upon the entire yoga world? What exactly had we all been ignoring or overlooking or rationalizing or spiritualizing? For a whole year, it was too much for me to bear, until I realized that Diane was bearing a whole lot more than my disenchantment.
What do you think about informed consent?
It would be a great idea for the yoga world! But we don’t have it. Teachers don’t even have a defined scope of practice, so by definition they can’t offer informed consent. Nor can they offer it in an unregulated industry that has no accountability structures.
It’s a huge challenge, because the profile of the modern yoga master — we can take BKS Iyengar as an example — is literally built on the absence of informed consent, and the absence of scope of practice. The premise of being his student is that he knows everything about yoga and everything about you — so much so that you cannot understand what he understands. So you literally cannot be informed. It’s a surrender-to-total-knowledge paradigm, whereas implied consent demands that the practitioner surrenders knowledge and transparency to the client or student as a prerequisite to the contract. Iyengar didn’t become who he was by submitting to peer review or being held accountable by a college of his peers. He became Iyengar by doing the opposite. His students could neither be fully informed as to the nature of his genius, nor, given the power dynamics involved, could they consent to his interventions.
How do you think you are viewed in the yoga world?
Such a great question. It’s all over the map.
I’m part of a strong and resilient cadre of colleagues that I share a lot of this work with, and who give me great and often tough feedback, but are also supportive and generous. Most know me in person, which is a strong barometer of connection for me in a world fragmented by distance and social media. They know something about my everyday life and family and challenges, but they also know and engage the actual work that I do. They know that I’m an independent researcher and writer, that I don’t have leadership aspirations but rather am obsessed with content production. They know what the finances of doing this kind of work is like, because many are scholars, none of them with stable jobs. Others are dropouts like me, cobbling work together from our life experience. We’re tightly knit, but altogether quite a small minority in the “yoga world”, and we’re mostly just keeping our heads above water.
I have about 10K “followers” between my personal and professional pages on Facebook. Some number that’s smaller than that is my core readership. Most of the feedback I get from my work on that platform is appreciative. But I also shelter myself — not from negative feedback, but trolling and harassment. My rule is that if you distort my work or defame me, or you do that to my colleagues, you don’t get to be on my page, or benefit from any of my labour. And I certainly don’t have to see your profile pic.
I’m mainly talking about a small group of people who have never met me in person and seem to have all kinds of weird ideas about what I write — they never quote me directly — about how much money I make, what my intentions are, and why I’m motivated to do what I do. They tend to give me an awful lot of power, and attribute all kinds of scurrilous agendas to me: that I’m trying to destroy yoga traditions, that I’m Hinduphobic, that I’m exploiting stories of pain and suffering for my own benefit, that my criticism focuses on Indian teachers primarily and therefore it’s racist. Nobody ever substantiates these claims. Facts aren’t the point with this crowd. It’s more about competing for ideological and commercial space.
The irony is that there’s a degree of plausibility in many of the critiques levelled at me, but because the people making them are not interested in substantiation in the first place, it doesn’t matter what I’ve done to clarify my position on “tradition” (that it exists, should be nurtured, but also must be protected against those who would manipulate it) or Hinduphobia (I honour that yoga practices are integral to Hindu spiritualities), potential exploitation (all my interview subjects are given multiple gateways for consent before their data is published), or racism (I spend just as much time researching the abuses of non-Indian teachers as Indian ones).
There’s a rumour that I’m getting rich from writing. Anyone who thinks that is must be high. I’d really like to see someone get rich as a whistleblower who picks away at the foundational claims of a culture. That would be a first. Here’s what I do: I try to work in the very industry that I’m critiquing. Just how many people are willing to hire me to sit in their studios and analyse the shadows of their culture?
Anyone who knows anything about writing would know that the money thing is absurd, but I think yoga people are so entrained to think of prominent figures in a certain way that they don’t recognize the difference between a writer with a readership, and a teacher that people bow down before and throw money at. Two different things entirely. People will literally say I’m a cult leader, as a cult researcher and analyst. That’s hilarious too. Where’s the money? Where’s the free labour? Where’s my crib in Costa Rica?
Some of the trolling and harassment gets downright disgusting. Some people use my disclosure of being a cult survivor against me. They actually mock me for it. Or they’ll mock the fact that I never had a wholesome relationship with a teacher — perhaps because I spent six years in cults and after that, seeking out teacherly authority just wasn’t my thing. One prominent Ashtanga blogger (who hasn’t yet made any substantial statement about Jois’s abuse) actually came right out and suggested that I research and write about abuse in the yoga world because it sexually gratifies me. Forget about how that defames me, or ignores the fact that engaging in cult research is actually disastrous for my own nervous system: consider what it says about the fact that I interviewed Karen Rain over two years to be able to hear and understand her story well enough to write about it. The blogger is saying that her entire process of disclosing the story in common cause with 16 other survivors amounts to being exploited. Not only does this infantilize her choice to talk with me — it also conveniently changes the target: I’m now the predator, instead of Jois.
I hate all of this stuff, and it really injures my body and mind and family, but it’s all quite understandable and predictable. Perhaps forgivable, some day. The person who comes along and points out complicity or enablement or sunken costs is an easy target for shame and rage. If you spent forty years bowing down before so-and-so and somebody asks a really powerful “Was that a good idea?” — you may find yourself hating that person with a passion. It might feel as though they’ve attacked the very essence of who you are, and there may some truth to that, although it isn’t personal. And if you’ve been immersed in that cultic milieu in which the leader must be framed as all-good, the person who shows incontrovertibly that that is not true must be all-bad. The dynamic actually hasn’t changed, because the cult itself is defined as much by what it must dehumanize as what it must idealize.
All that said: it’s a sign of my own negativity bias that I’ve spent 5 paragraphs on harassers and 2 on supporters. The latter group is larger by far. But in comparison to the broader yoga world, both groups are witheringly small. They consist of a tiny fraction of the broader discourse, which is really concentrated on how to continue manifesting abundance as climate collapse hurtles towards us. We all have to disrupt that.
Is there any difference or similarities between the #metoo and #yogatoo scandals?
The only difference might be in that #yogatoo adds in the dynamic of spiritual abuse, which is its own category. No one looked to Harvey Weinstein for spiritual teaching. So the betrayals involved with his crimes are not worse, but different. With Jois, the spiritual abuse comes with having manipulated people’s desires for communion or oneness.
How can we avoid this happening again?
In the 6th part of my book, I lay out a workbook for helping students, teachers, and trainers foster critical thinking and community health. It’s not going to solve abuse in the yoga world, but I do believe it will help educate the professional class in the detection of cultic dynamics, and raise the bar for demanding accountability from leaders.
The section contains a number of thought exercises based on the analysis of the Jois event, and also defines a scope of practice for “yoga humanities” (as opposed to “health sciences”), because now it’s more on the level of history, culture, philosophy, textual study, and psychology that new students can be deeply manipulated. The functional movement crowd has pretty much degraded the notion that the Iyengar or Jois methods are biomechanically sound or useful. And they’ve done it with evidence. That’s not where naïve students will continue to be deceived, however. They’ll be deceived by being told that Iyengar and Jois were great philosophers or spiritual teachers. A scope of practice for yoga humanities will help students assess whether or not those marketing claims are true, because they serve as propaganda for the rest of the method.
What has the reaction been to the book?
Almost entirely positive. Some YTT directors are putting it on their curriculum reading lists. I’m particularly moved by the emails I receive from practitioners in Iyengar, Bikram, Satyananda methods, saying that it has helped them explore dysfunction and abuse in their own communities. I’m hoping that it holds meaning and relevance for people in global Buddhist communities as well, because those are unravelling at a harrowing rate. I’m gratified that some of my heroes in cult studies have been supportive as well.
Predictably, the book is not popular amongst most Authorized or Certified Ashtanga teachers. I’m told there’s a private Facebook group where I am routinely slandered by people who admit to not reading the book. That’s a big clue right there: the conversation isn’t about data or the analysis, now freely available, but about me — someone they’ve never met. Two main things a high-demand group does is to 1) control information and 2) discredit critics.
What are they objecting to? I’ve listed some of the common complaints above, but that jumble is expanded by people who say that I was too aggressive as a journalist, that I shouldn’t have quoted people’s public record statements, that my motivations are all wrong, that I plagiarized the work of others. I’ve been presented with no evidence to back up any of these complaints. If I ever see any, I will happily engage it.
I think at the heart of it we have some members of a high-demand group who are really threatened by the exposure of details that show parts of it to be a high-demand group. So when they say I’m aggressive, they’re in part talking about the process of having to investigate their experience and values, but not on their own time. It’s because someone is knocking on the door.
But did I knock, or pound? There is some truth in my having been very direct in the interview requests I sent to the Ashtanga leadership, especially in latter part of the process. I was always upfront about what I was asking and why. To me, that was the most ethical thing to do. I didn’t want to gotcha anyone. So from the outset, my questions were hard. “What did you know and when?”
If you knew that Jois was assaulting women in 1987 and you never spoke publicly about it, you’re going to feel threatened when someone asks you about it, and asks you what you did about it. If you haven’t resolved that shame and confusion in yourself, you might very well go on the attack.
I do have to admit that the more I got stonewalled, especially by senior Ashtanga teachers, the more direct and probably abrasive I got. Because at a certain point I knew how much evidence I had — it was overwhelming — and it was hard to stomach getting these deflective and dismissive responses from people who in some ways built very profitable careers on hiding something. I had Jubilee Cooke laying out her complete Mysore experience in one ear, and in the other I was listening to rape culture excuses. It was enraging. My editor helped cool me down thankfully.
What can readers expect from the book?
A victim/survivor centred approach. Solid reporting, fact-checked. Riveting stories. Triggering stories. Good historical research, backed by top yoga scholars. Analysis of the tragedy using the tools of cult analysis. A normalization of those tools, so that they don’t feel so shameful and alienating.
I’m especially proud to have been able to platform the work of Alexandra Stein in the fourth part of the book. She shows that attachment patterns are at the heart of the cult experience — that however you formed relationships from childhood is scrambled by a high-demand group into the pattern known as “disorganized”, a highly-aroused state in which love and fear are completely conflated. Being recruited into a high-demand group is nothing to be ashamed of. It’s rather a sophisticated hijacking of the way in which all human beings form bonds.
It’s not an easy read. A lot of readers are saying that it sheds new light on their own yoga or Buddhism groups. This can be both startling and liberating. Hopefully readers stick around to read the upward arc of the workbook.
What are your thoughts on accessibility and diversity within yoga?
I think it would be great if we had it! There are good strides being made with the work of Yoga and Body Image Coalition, and Jivana Heyman’s work on Accessible Yoga is so good. He’s really showing that aspect of the modern yoga movement that’s nothing more than an ableist pyramid scheme. Susanna Barkataki just guest-edited an issue of Yoga Journal. A colleague of mine here in Toronto is leading a seminar on cultural competency in relation to transgender yoga practitioners.
These are all great signs, but I’d like to see some more attention paid to class as well. Diversity and accessibility will improve if the $20 drop-in class in a gentrifying neighbourhood becomes the rarer option. This will only happen if yoga in the public sectors of health and education really takes off, and starts to put the glut of teachers on the labour market to work on the public dollar. This is why I think the work of organizations like the Yoga Service Council is so important.
How do you take yoga into your everyday life?
I was a dedicated meditator for about ten years. I was a dedicated asana practitioner for ten more. I’ve been doing the kind of investigative inquiry that culminated in this book for another ten or so. The phases are not consecutive; there are overlaps. Now I have two young children and the world is burning. In some ways I feel like I’ve worked my whole life to become completely unprepared for what’s coming.
But I do feel that whenever I am utterly overwhelmed and in despair, which is quite often, I seem to have access to a regulatory reflex that perhaps all of that training instilled. I can take a deep breath, I can feel my inner body, my pulse.
I hesitate to say this, because I know for many trauma survivors this just isn’t true — and I don’t want to make it seem like I’m talking about a skill more than luck — but in these moments I feel as though this body is actually a friend to me, and part of a larger coherent and loving world. Occasionally this even gives me a glimpse of what they call non-dualism, in which the “me” is no longer distinguishable from the body or the world and there is just a sensation of friendship, coherence, love. But it’s not a sensation either: more like a state with no other alternative.
Inevitably, I’m startled out of it by some flashing memory of the latest climate data I heard, and I know that that peace I’m enjoying is not some connection to an eternal truth but rather the lucky convergence of homeostasis with relative safety. It forms a mirage out of another kind of privilege. I’m able to enjoy it because things just haven’t gotten bad enough yet.
What is your hope for the future of yoga?
That it helps us form stronger and more resilient connections with each other so that when things really fall apart, we’ll tear each other to pieces a little less quickly.
What are your plans for the future?
I recently submitted a draft of a feature article on intergenerational trauma in the Shambhala International Buddhist community. I’ve been working on it for a year, and I have enough material for the next book. But I really have to assess where the two years it will take to do it will leave me in terms of climate response. I’m 47 and I just don’t know what to do with the rest of my time.
I do know I’m gardening this spring with heightened concentration, and I’m telling our almost-three-year-old all about how seeds work. Our six-year-old is able to understand some of the implications of the fact that the Corn Belt is failing this year. We’re following what the farmers are reporting and we’re talking about how there’s likely to be a food shock in the fall, given all the things we use corn for. Next week I’ll teach him how to make red beans and rice.
You just keep going, I guess.
W.S. Merwin, who died last year, once wrote, “On the last day of the world, I would want to plant a tree.”