Respectable Bystanders in Yoga and Beyond

It will soon be a matter of common knowledge that the integrity of globally successful yoga and Buddhism brands founded by charismatic evangelists have been grossly compromised by histories of abuse.

We don’t have to name names: they’ll just come to mind. Fill in the blank of “The ______ yoga community”, and you will likely have named an organization in which the leader and/or his/her key lieutenants have been abusers.

In some cases the relationship seems to express a morbid calculus: the more abusive the leadership, the more successful the organization.

The jury is out on whether abuse prevalence is higher in globalized-Indian-convert-spirituality groups than in other groups. But we can say that in a completely unregulated landscape confounded by idealization and orientalism in which charisma is the primary coin of the realm and consumers have little if any way of assessing the competency of producers — even in matters as tender as their own bodies, psyches, and inner selves — abuse is easy to pull off and devastating in effects.

Understanding how the abuse works systemically is impossible, IMO, without diving into cult studies, which provide a robust framework for how the behaviours, information, thoughts, and emotions of group members are controlled (cf Hassan) through the manipulating strategies and deceive and negate the self (cf. Mann).

When (not if) this analysis becomes normalized, the notion that these brands and their communities “protect” a particular kind of knowledge — a language that’s emboldened by references to “tradition” or “lineage” — will start to ring hollow. It will become clear that the shadow function of the organization has been at least dual. Aside from the good the organization has done, it has used the notion of

  1. Protecting proprietary/precious information to…
  2. Protect the image of the abusers said to hold it.

The vehemence of those who protect “purity” seems to rise in direct proportion to their shame.

The pressing question becomes “Who then was doing the protecting?” The answer is that it takes all types, from the goon-enforcer all the way up to the academic who gave the group uncritical validation by overlooking its cultic machine. But here I’d like to focus on the most respectable and popular types, who continued on in their careers after abuses became known, largely without changing tack. Let’s call them the Respectable Bystanders (RBs).

Think about the teacher who is well-respected for conflicting reasons:

  1. They have a strong relationship to a socially viable brand (i.e., they are “traditional”), but
  2. They have also tacitly distanced themselves from it (they are “independent”).

They often enjoy privileged status within the group, held up as paragons of virtue, as people who got the “true” message of the teachings, as luminaries who didn’t succumb to the foibles of the corrupt leadership. They were able to “separate the teacher from the teachings”. In public they’ll maintain enough of a relationship to the group to serve as an apparently safer or saner alternative to its darker regions. At the same time the RB will profess just enough ambivalence towards the group to not be dragged down by association.

The RB is not a safe person. They managed to capture the glow from the charismatic halo, bottle it up, and repackage it. They couldn’t have done that while also saying “My teacher was an abuser and together we have to heal his legacy.” And if they spent twenty years or more not speaking out against the abuse of the community in which they went on to attain mentor status, you can bet that they didn’t pay much attention to the power dynamics they themselves were creating.

More importantly, consider whether their mentor status now positions them to “save” the brand with their maturity and guidance. That’s not just cynical on their part. It’s dangerous. Because one thing that RBs generally share with the leaders they hold at arm’s length is a grandiosity that believes their internal goodness constitutes all the learning they need.

Theodora Wildcroft was just here in Toronto beginning her first post-doctoral foray into the mainstream yoga training sphere. Her research generated the concept of “Post-Lineage Yoga”, which does many things, including describing the way in which communities practice after their leadership is compromised by abuse revelations.

Because these revelations are now ubiquitous, and because sources of authority on movement and science and history are now horizontally networked instead bestowed from above, the truth is that we are all post-lineage practitioners now.

This goes for the bystanders and enablers as well, unless somehow they sealed themselves off from all other influences. In the case of the Respectable Bystanders, they didn’t. They diluted their socio-economic links to the abusive leader in part through being open to and sometimes taking on other influences.

Wildcroft is clear that post-lineage doesn’t mean anti-lineage, which is why the term also can describe the RB. What her scholarship has done, however, is to amplify some basic transparency questions that can only improve safety in the shadow of RBs and others:

“Do you know where you stand in relation to X group/method/tradition?” “Are you clear about the conflict between benefit and harm in your heritage?” “What are you doing to help those who were hurt by the system you benefited from?”


  • The “respectable bystander” concept is extremely helpful and I have already started using it in my conversations with people interested in the “Mindfulness” craze. Some people don’t realize that these mindfulness teachers are often direct spin-offs from an abusive organization like Shambhala (Susan Piver, Ethan Nichturn, Lodro Rinzler, Joseph Mauricio, Fleet Maull, Bill Karelis spring to mind) and while they themselves might be ethical, respectable teachers in their own right, they function to normalize the language and behavior of the parent organization and often provide a funnel for recruits.

    And then there are the scholars– Holly Gayley, Judith Simmer-Brown, Reggie Ray, Fabrice Midal– who write about the abusive culture of Tibetan Buddhism in a dry academic way, providing a smoke-screen of doubt for the casual observer. “Wait,” someone reading an academic paper about “crazy wisdom” or “feminine energy” might think, “if this teacher, who has been accused of horrible things, belongs to an ancient lineage that condones this behavior, it must have more to it than I’m seeing, right? Maybe it’s legitimate after all.”

    Regarding these players as Respectable Bystanders helps you see how they fit into the larger picture of cult dynamics. So, thanks for sparking this discussion, Matthew.

  • Once again I am not inclined to revel in your opinion, agree or disagree, but am called to question authority with all my capacity. Thanks for your ability to light up all the discriminating energies at my disposal. It’s a gift, that you don’t require me to worship you, in order to hear you.

    • Thanks so much for writing. Yes, I hope this blog treads the line between responsibility and take-it-or-leave it, and that the distinction between research and opinion is clear. Anything less less would be creepy!

  • One of the phenomenons we have noted in our study of the Brahma Kumaris and Brahma Kumarism – who are marketing themselves as a “yoga” organisation and within the yoga market place, (although I would argue they are not, but involved in mediumistic and spiritualistic practises instead) – is an extension of this principle to the perversion of academia.

    This is being done in order to

    a) serve both the interests of the individuals (turning their essentially wasteful cultic adherence into a rewarding career or social advancement); and
    b) the interests of the cult (by producing what is essentially high quality PR material), without disclosing their conflict of interest or involvement.

    Part of the pay off for doing – and not betraying the cult by producing more complete and objective works – are rewards of privileges and allowances of indulges within the cult.

    In practise, what this has meant is individuals with long term commitments to the Brahma Kumari cult, not just perfectly aware of abuses but having both experienced them themselves (and “failing” by the cult’s own disciplines or terms), are turning to academia and producing PhD theses that whitewash and distract while ignoring controversies, and either mislead other academics or even reinforce the cult’s entirely fallacious hagiographies.

    This is not a phenomenon I have read of before and it must surely be considered a very serious issue for its betray of academic standards.

    These knowing artifices are then used and even marketed by the cult to promote and defend themselves in public.

    If explained, the extent of the degree of artifice is shocking.

    Within BKism, we had two adherents earn their doctorate by essentially doing PR for the cult using the form and language of academia, and often “collaborating” with uninformed third parties to give their papers more credence.

    BK Stephan Nagel, ‘Brahmas Geheime Schoepfung: Die Indische Reformbewegung Der -Brahma Kumaris’, and others
    BK Tamasin Ramsay, ‘Custodians of Purity: An Ethnography of the Brahma Kumaris’ and others

    Also worth mention is

    Professor Emeritus Frank Whaling, for ‘Understanding the Brahma Kumaris’.

    which would be better described as ‘Misunderstanding the Brahma Kumaris’

    Whaling being such a long term associate of the cult, and feted because of his status, that he was considered a member by them. In Whaling’s case, he repeated the cult’s positions verbatim while refusing to examine or discuss newly discovered primary sources that seriously contradicted it, and repeated the cult’s pronouncements on a breakaway group of abused members who formed their own sub-sect, without actually speaking to any parties within it to confirm.

    In BKism, they have various terms for such individuals, eg “Microphones” (or mics).

    “Microphone souls” are a special form of “Contact Souls” who while not being realised (aka indoctrinated) or surrendered adherents broadcast their message to large audiences. “Contact Souls” (IPs [important people] or VIPs) being their term what is referred to here as “Respectable Bystanders”. These are non-cult members, unaware of the real inner teachings or any abuses, often seduced by the special privileges and attentions given to them by the leadership, who are then used to front various events and operations. Often to the degree of allowing the Brahma Kumaris to hide behind them, or being separated in order to give an appearance (or legal status) of independence.

    The targetting, acquisition, nurturing and maintenance of them is done consciously, and with a high degree of investment of resources, which is what they call “service”. Not actually serving humanity, but chasing VIPs and serving themselves.

    As much as this attention and positions afforded to the IPs and VIPs must simply appeal to their Respectable Bystanders’ egos, they appear to remain deluded that the special privileges and indulgences they are receiving are the norm for all recruitees, let alone the lowest ranking ones such as the young virgin girls they marry off to their god spirit in their 100s and the elderly women in India, both of which provide the unpaid menial labour the cult depends on, without any rights at all.

    They think their privileges are the norm and broadcast that as their message.

    In the case of the Brahma Kumaris, these adherents have been able to exploit the lack of independent academia interest and colonise the academia territory relating to their cult first, in order to establish the ground.

    This may be a phenomenon that other such groups are developing. Certainly other open spaces, such as the Wikipedia, have become battlegrounds over topic pages for abusive cults, won by the willingness to invest obsessive persistence over their dominance.

    It is an aspect of this discussion complicated by the influence of cult apologetic academics.

  • This article is kind of confusing. I mean, basically, everyone who is teaching yoga nowadays is influenced or derives their teaching from some part of the major “lineages”, all of which have serious skeletons in the closet.

    In fact, you list that you studied in the Iyengar and Ashtanga traditions in your bio. Both have abusive leaders. Is it ok for you to list who you studied with but others cannot put a photo of KPJ in their studio?

    So, I’m not sure what you’re prescribing here. Is everyone supposed to undertake some kind of “pennance” because they teach something derived from a school that has abuse in its history? What is it you expect people to do? Are you expecting that yoga teachers, in their bios, to put some kind of asterisk next to the teacher’s name leading to a disclaimer like, “BKS was a a’hole btw” or “KPJ fondled his students”.

    Or, is it only yoga teachers who have reached some level of prominence that you reference as “respectable bystanders”. Apparently, once they become successful, yoga teachers are required to publicly self-flagellate as penance for the sins of the teacher at the head of the lineage. Otherwise, they are dangerous. What exactly are these RB’s supposed to do? How would you guide them? Would an email blast saying “so and so did this” suffice? Or must they contribute a percentage of their earnings to a reparations fund? Where does it end? You see, that is the problem.

    You say, “They were able to “separate the teacher from the teachings””. Uhm yeah… In fact, in many cases, that is correct. And that is a good thing. That is how civilization progresses.

    I’m really wondering whether this one isn’t a holdover from your Catholic background, you know where you are required to “publicly renounce Satan”.

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