Yoga People and Conspiracy Discourse | Preliminary Notes
(adapted from Facebook entries that reflect on the intersection between yoga/spiritualism/wellness crowds and COVID-19 conspiracy discourse)
Yoga Culture Can Train Us to See Conspiracy
The intersection between yoga/spiritualism/wellness interests and conspiracy discourse makes sense.
The history of yoga/spiritualism/wellness is a history of understanding the conventional as illusory, or bankrupt. Society itself is typically seen as a conspiracy against the inner self.
More recently, the yoga/spiritualism/wellness world exists in part as a response to scientific materialism, and a rejection of biomedical objectification.
It gives a lot of people a renewed sense of agency in relation to their bodies and ways in which meaning is made.
Yoga/spiritualism/wellness also rebels against the caste structures of bureaucracy and professionalism.
It rebels against the gatekeeping that invalidates intuition and minimizes body memory.
Through meditating on principles like karma, yoga people can rightly claim foreknowledge in current fields of study, like trauma.
Through meditating on principles like renunciation, yoga people can also develop a keen sense of where social conditioning is inauthentic, limiting, or exploitative.
When yoga/spiritualism/wellness isn’t conveyed by cults, it really can push back against authoritarianism. Where it does not victimize, it really can nurture survivors.
But COVID-19 doesn’t care about any of these things.
It’s not going to work to displace a generalized spiritual feeling of distrusting convention and rationalism onto this crisis.
And public health people care that yoga/spiritualist/wellness people don’t die, or endanger others. Like everyone, they might not have all the answers, but they’re practicing too, in ways that we may write epics or sutras about one day.
If Conspiracy Discourse Intersects with Cultic Behaviour, How Do You Help?
There are a number of ways in which those who have been recruited into social media conspiracy discourse behave like high-demand group (i.e. cult) members.
Two caveats, however:
- Conspiracy discourse rarely has visible leadership, whereas most cults do.
- Conspiracy discourse that spreads online is unlikely to enforce a key aspect of cultic control — behavioural control — except in the broadest sense of “You must be online most of the time.” Other than this high demand, it’s implausible that an online group could control food, dress, sexual activity, sleeping hours, etc.
Questions of leadership and online vs. IRL aside: if conspiracy discourse maps onto parts of the cultic template, it might mean there are ways of helping recruits you know and care for, or at least showing them that consensus reality is not as threatening as they feel, or have been told to feel.
I see four qualities in social media conspiracy discourse that approach or the standard of thought or information control (cf. Hassan), by which a group cannot admit outside data or sources of authority that would disturb the ideology:
- Black and white, all-good/all-bad thinking;
- Unshakeable belief in a grand civilization narrative;
- Inability to distinguish charisma from evidence;
- The willingness to absolutely isolate oneself from consensus reality.
I see three qualities that meet the standard of emotional control (again Hassan), by which a group enhances bonds and compliance:
- Extreme hypervigilance. The group takes great pride in being constantly and uniquely awake to the highest truth of things.
- Frenzied defensive certainty expressed through endless comments, tagging, link-dumping.
- Affect of pious devotion that must remain impervious to evidence.
Cult analysts mostly agree that the person who has been recruited is extremely difficult to communicate with. Their new value system obstructs all former closeness, understanding, and generosity. But Hassan and Alexandra Stein and others suggest that if you knew the person outside of their cult behaviour, you can actually play a role in helping them remember that part of themselves.
In other words: if you had a relationship with the person pre-cult, you are keeping their pre-cult self accessible, perhaps even alive. This means that nurturing the relationship, despite how despicable their views are, can be important — and that you’re in the position to do it. Stein says that the cult member is in a disorganized attachment relationship to the group, which has offered a “false safe haven”. The antidote is the real safe haven of the secure attachment.
But simply considering this might be impossible if they are spreading falsehoods about COVID-19 and 5G, and you’re immunosuppressed, and/or you just can’t even. Their behaviour is directly and palpably endangering you, and maybe the best thing is to block them.
But if you value the relationship —again, not saying you should — and Stein is right that the person presenting cultic behaviour is acting through an attachment wound and/or trauma bond, it literally cannot be repaired through dismissing, abandoning, patronizing, or humiliating them.
Maybe “Oh wow, I hear that you’re scared, and I am too” can go a long way.
Ignoring Direct Testimony is a Form of Silencing
Generosity dictates seeing the person engaging conspiracy discourse, or the subtler versions (“I’m just asking questions no one is allowed to ask”) as earnestly trying to be helpful, defend the vulnerable, nurture intuition and personal agency, and see through the illusion of an abusive civilization.
But there’s a moment when that earnestness turns a corner and is revealed as either a deception, or as immature, or as self-centred. I’m seeing this a lot.
It happens when someone posts a conspiracy theory doubting the existence, power, or origin of the virus, citing an indirect source. Then a friend, obviously triggered, posts a comment like:
“Please stop posting misinformation. My (partner, sibling, child) is a front-line health worker and this information endangers them.”
“Please stop posting misinformation. My (partner, sibling, child) is terribly sick (or has died) from this disease, and your post will endanger others.”
“Please stop posting misinformation. I’m recovering from this disease and I don’t want anyone else to get it, because it’s the worst thing I’ve ever been through.”
The key moment is when the OP doesn’t respond to that comment. What that shows is either that they value their idea over the direct testimony of the commenter, or that they believe the commenter is lying.
Valuing an ideology over testimony is at the root of systemic abuse.
We might consider the non-response to be a form of survivor silencing.
Conspiracy Discourse is Not Pessimistic Enough
The paranoia conceals an unreasonable hope.
The iconography of warfare and cast of evil and angelic characters presents a morality play in which, if Bill Gates (or whoever) is outed and defeated the truth will be known and the world (righteousness/purity etc) will be restored.
In this light, the pandemic is a chapter in a necessarily heroic narrative that places the underdog truth-tellers – the brave few who get it – at the centre of a transcendent revolution.
This is not pessimistic enough, in my view, because there really are no grand heroic narratives in the age of climate collapse.
To my eye, what’s happening now is basically what we have going forward, unevenly distributed: one unsolvable crisis after another rolling around the globe and intersecting, with little to rely on but the ability to discern solid sources of information, the capacity to strengthen secure attachments, and willingness to listen to the indigenous, who have been here before.
A non-grandiose framework is not depressive. Within it, there are innumerable loving, nameless actions, compromised by blindspots and anxieties, but also enriched by good instincts and earned resilience.
Global Buddhism and Yoga Prepared Some of Us for Climate Collapsology as a Spiritual Path
I know there are lots of people out there who, like me, never really bought into Buddhism and yoga as wellness products. Though locked into consumerism, we wanted out of buying and selling. We could tell the difference between commodity and nourishment. For whatever reason, from whatever background, we came to this space for transformation, salvation, or whatever peak outcome we could articulate. For us it was never just about self-regulation, or self-care. Whether our jam was immanence or transcendence, we wanted something totalizing, for ourselves and for others and we dove in head-first.
I suspect that we, the head-first divers, are over-represented in the demographic of those who went on to professionalize in these industries. We invested everything, or at least a lot, because we believed the stakes were high. In my case, I couldn’t think of more meaningful work, and I had the privilege to pursue it. Obsessed with meaning, I and many others then became super-invested in anxious questions over the authenticity of practice, the nature of spiritual authority, the scourge of spiritual abuse, the problem of the body in self-perception, and cultural appropriation.
It’s a great tragedy that people who fall into competing camps on these issues often fail to recognize what they share: a steadfast faith that yoga and Buddhism are not merely wellness products, but pathways that (should) matter in ways that address ultimate human concerns. We don’t seem to understand that conflict in these worlds is actually a sign of a shared faith that might be too intimate to disclose: we want reality, we want truth, we want to heal trauma, we want to integrate or purify or even erase the venal parts of ourselves. We see an opportunity in these wisdom traditions to step off the wheel of empty promises and into a fuller expression of being alive. We argue with each other like Talmudic scholars — minus the courtesy — about our future selves.
What of the stakes? I get the feeling that many of us believe that if we don’t work this hard, if we stay asleep, then we miss our lives. We’ll turn over and over in unconscious loops of consumption and dissatisfaction, eating to get hungry again and loving to be lonely again. When the old books describe samsara, it resonates with the drone of consumer capitalism, ever in our ears, and the loathsome veneer of optimism that occludes the heart, the Stepford wife who sticks a dummy in your mouth and tells you everything is fine. No wonder we’re most outraged when we see yoga and Buddhism themselves appropriated by global capitalism, aka the Big Dream, that erases all urgency except for the need to create sleepier and sleepier drugs, because all drugs wear off.
Here’s the thing.
If you’re paying attention to the climate data — the fact that Arctic sea ice is barely forming this year, that correcting a geomapping error now shows Mumbai completely underwater by 2050 (and we know it’ll be sooner), that crops have largely failed across the Midwest, that Australia is roasting, that millions are on the brink of starvation in Africa, and civil unrest is erupted around the globe as fast as brushfires spread in California — samsara is no longer theoretical, psychological, or even descriptive of a pattern.
The suffering of the world is no longer just a turning wheel. It is a turning wheel rolling towards a cliff of annihilation and oblivion. And it’s not about individuals. My first Buddhist teacher’s existential challenge to me — “You’re dying, what are you going to do about it?” — carried a necessary urgency, but is now obsolete. “We’re all dying,” is the appropriate frame now: “What are we going to do about it?”
Part of me is angry and embarrassed at having spent more than two decades engaged in global Buddhism and yoga while so many people, most with way less privilege, have been on the front lines of ecological activism. I remember the moment I literally chose to meditate instead of join a resistance cell, and that moment feels like a stain I cannot clean.
But part of me forgives myself: at least I didn’t go into the oil business, or social media development, or hedge funds, or selling weight loss products or porn. I could have done a lot more damage to the world in those gigs. Most of us could have done way worse.
Yet another part of me realizes that Global Buddhism and yoga were passively used by capitalism to lull huge numbers of us into hyperindividualistic concern and contemplation, and that’s so gross.
But a fourth part of me knows that so many of us carried trauma that self-care seemed to antidote, and that makes sense.
And a fifth part knows that the promises make to the aspirational self are inextricable from the promises made to the neoliberal citizen: that everything can always grow and improve, regardless of structural oppression, that our hope for increased goodness should be audacious or grandiose instead of lateral and humble, that Global Buddhism and yoga became the spirituality of neoliberalism without us knowing it.
There are so many parts speaking! A last one for now says that:
None of it matters, because we had reproduced and baked ourselves into catastrophic climate change decades before Iyengar published Light on Yoga in 1966. So in many ways, we’ve always been practicing in a kind of civilizational afterlife. Yes, it sucks that Boomers just carried on with their business and now rub their savings and equity in our faces, but did they know any better?
We studied and practiced Ayurveda as though there still was a stable and resilient world. We saluted the sun as though we weren’t simultaneously turning it into a dehydrating lamp. Maybe this was a good way to spend what would have otherwise been a hopeless time?
So here’s my thought.
What if Global Buddhism and yoga gave us a model for waking up that we can now apply not to the suffering modern narcissistic self, but to empirical reality?
What if it really did effectively educate us about sleeping and dreaming, illusion and interdependence, but most of all, the urgent need to do something?
What if these pathways really were practice for what has now arrived?
What if they really were boats that brought us into presence, and that we should now step out onto the shore?
These days I find myself saying:
“Thank you Patanjali, not because you were right about the nature of consciousness. You’re just as confused as everyone else. But you took the problem of existence seriously and urgently, and maybe you also saw the ticking time bomb of human reproduction combined with human avarice and wanted to warn us all. I don’t buy into your answer of shrivelling up and disappearing into meditation, but we all have our ways of dealing, and yours is as good as any.”
“Thank you, Gita-writers, not for providing spiritual justifications for war, nor for hazing the hero with divine terror, but for your examination of the need to act in uncertainty at what feels like the end of time.”
“Thank you, Siddhartha, not because the churches inspired by your teaching were any better than the Christian ones in terms of ethics and political grift, but because you modeled a radical rejection of consensus values, and you pursued your goal until there was nothing left to pursue.”
Clearly, the ancients intuited the crisis of life at its root.
But globalization domesticated and commodified their ideas, repurposing them for the glory of the aspirational self.
It did so while riding an enormous burning wave of oil that is now consuming the very ground that Siddhartha touched, saying, “As earth is my witness.”
Globalization brought the world Buddhism, yoga, and the destruction of the living world itself. It’s the paradox that keeps on giving.
At worst, our practices have kept us asleep to the animals and other people, thinking that inner peace was the most worthy goal.
At best, they have sensitized us to what is now scientifically absolute: that there is nothing to depend on but each other, and love.
It Might Be Useful for the Privileged to Tune into Shame and Disgust For a Moment
So on FB I endorsed the fantastic new podcast Yoga is Dead: Continue reading “It Might Be Useful for the Privileged to Tune into Shame and Disgust For a Moment”
Cyndi Lee Interviews Matthew Remski about Working Through the Abuse Crisis in Modern Yoga and Buddhism (+ transcript)
Notice: This interview is part of the Yoga of Healing and Awakening Summit, a free online event featuring essential depth teachings and daily practices for your body, mind and soul. This recording is a copyright of The Shift Network. All rights reserved.
Welcome to the yoga of healing and awakening summit, a free online event where you’ll discover essential depth teachings and daily practices for your mind, body, and soul. Share these visionary masters and esteemed practitioners with your friends and family and join us on Facebook at The Shift Network. And now your host, Cyndi Lee.
Cyndi Lee: 00:24
Welcome everyone. We’re so glad that you’re joining us and today I’m really pleased to introduce my special guest and friend, Matthew Remski. Matthew Remski is a yoga teacher, industry consultant and author of nine previous books including Threads of Yoga, a remix of patanjali’s yoga sutras with commentary and reverie, and the 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. Matthew, thanks so much for being with us today. Welcome.
Matthew Remski: 01:08
Thank you so much, Cindy. Thanks for the welcome. Thanks for inviting me to do this. It’s a pleasure to meet you finally. Continue reading “Cyndi Lee Interviews Matthew Remski about Working Through the Abuse Crisis in Modern Yoga and Buddhism (+ transcript)”
Yogaland is Anxious Because It Is An Industry With A Product That May Not Exist
THERE IS NEVER ANYTHING TO PRODUCE. In spite of all its materialist efforts, production remains a utopia. We can wear ourselves out in materializing things, in rendering them visible, but we will never cancel the secret.
— Baudrillard, The Ecstasy of Communication (1987)
Note: This bit of exploratory theory is inspired by the modern globalized yoga industry, as described in sources like Andrea Jain’s Selling Yoga: From Counterculture to Pop Culture. If you’re a yoga teacher or student who identifies as existing outside of that industry, or feel you belong to a community that plays no part in it, this post may not concern you.
Actually, the 80 billion USD per year global yoga industry does have a product.
But it’s not a thing.
It’s not a car, or a book, or an app, or a head of romaine lettuce.
It’s not therapy or medical service.
You have to pay for it, while suspecting you’ll ever possess it.
The product is a wish, projection, or longing.
You must embody it for it to be real. The effort involved in this can be endless.
Continue reading “Yogaland is Anxious Because It Is An Industry With A Product That May Not Exist”
Intention vs. Impact, Trickle-down Violence, and Doing the Systemic Work: Francesca Cervero and Matthew Remski Discuss Practice and All is Coming
It was a real pleasure to discuss the book with DC-area yoga teacher and trainer Francesca Cervero for her podcast, the Mentor Sessions. Such great questions. Transcript is below.
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. Continue reading “Intention vs. Impact, Trickle-down Violence, and Doing the Systemic Work: Francesca Cervero and Matthew Remski Discuss Practice and All is Coming”
How Do You Know If You’re Spiritually Bypassing?
Here’s an interview originally published on the Yoga Outreach blog. I’ll be presenting and panelling at their upcoming conference in Vancouver, on May 25.
YO: The term Spiritual Bypassing (SB) is becoming more common – what does it mean?
MR: I want to say up front that I’m not that fond of how the term is used. Typically it reinforces an individualistic diagnosis of what’s really social problem. I’m a cult survivor and that’s my research area, and so my approach is to look at SB not as something individuals do because they’re psychologically lazy, but as something they are taught to do by spirituality organizations that benefit from indoctrinating them into the idea that their product will answer all questions.
That said; SB is when a spiritual ideology, jargon, or community leader encourages a person to believe that all problems are solved or solvable. But what’s really happening is that the person is avoiding or defending against more obvious and entrenched psychological or physical wounds. Continue reading “How Do You Know If You’re Spiritually Bypassing?”
Listening to Survivors is a Survival Test (Or: Neoliberalism and Yoga Rise and Implode Together)
It was Brian Culkin who first got me thinking in socio-economic terms about modern yoga. He talks about yoga as the de facto religion of neoliberalism: preaching individualistic empowerment through flexibility, adaptability, leaning-in to challenges, self-reliance, lowering expectations for structural support and change, and creating facsimiles of community where real communities used to be. Later, my thinking was bumped along by an amazing essay by Lavrence and Lozanski on how Lululemon, especially in earlier days, wove these themes into its athleisure fabrics and stitched it all up with random orientalist clichés.
Along this trajectory it became clear that yoga infrastructure was inseparable from urban gentrification. I remember Diane Bruni telling me how much rent Downward Dog had to pay for its two-studio space in Toronto’s Parkdale in the mid 2000s. It was something like 10K/mo. She said that making that rent in the summers was touch-and-go. I was shocked: this was Toronto’s most popular/lucrative yoga space, and they were just hanging on? Moreover: this was their second home.
They had moved west and down-rent along Queen St. from their first space on Spadina, which was in a building that used to house garment factories. So the studio itself owed its birth to the shuttering of manufacturing in Toronto’s downtown core. They practiced in the rooms that used to make the clothes that they practiced in. Downward Dog was actually featured by Naomi Klein in the first pages of No Logo, who gives it as an example of who and what moves into a North American urban space when jobs get shipped to the lowest-paying labour market. Continue reading “Listening to Survivors is a Survival Test (Or: Neoliberalism and Yoga Rise and Implode Together)”
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
- Protecting proprietary/precious information to…
- 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:
- They have a strong relationship to a socially viable brand (i.e., they are “traditional”), but
- 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?”
Yoga Trolling and Yoga Cults: A Connection
There are several friends and colleagues I’d like to thank for helping me crack this part of the code. Ironically, naming them here would make them targets of further harassment. They know who they are.
Summary: Several prominent and combative figures on yoga social media are or have been embedded within yoga cults. This post speculates that by not disclosing these connections, and by blending or obscuring their religious agendas with anti-racist and social justice oriented concerns, these figures free themselves to harass or troll targets with impunity, in ways that preserve familiar cultic behaviours, while avoiding responsibility for their complicity in abusive organizations. Their attacks consistently express paranoia regarding the traditionality of yoga practice, in which authenticity is measured by all-or-nothing, black-and-white litmus tests for religious and ethnic purity. This paranoia combines the absolutisms of religious purity and performative wokeness, but conceals the absolutism of cultic control. It helps explain why these figures rarely if ever criticize the rising tide of Hindu nationalism and its implications for global yoga culture, and why they consistently fail to criticize malignant power structures in yoga groups. Their attacks on the “inauthenticity” of others may also be a way in which they project and act out a displaced shame over the abuses and charlatanry of their own communities, none of which are “traditional” in this globalized era.
Who Are All These Nasty Yoga People?
For about the last five years, the questions have been gnawing.
Who are all these nasty yoga people? What motivates them to harass others online?
In some ways they present diverse and even competing interests. But their basic behaviour and go-to themes glue them together. So does, I believe, a shared demographic trait: many are current or former yoga cult people, continuing their culty behaviours under the cover of spiritual integrity, and, more recently, social justice.
On the face of it, these are folks who claim special authority over the history and spirituality of Yoga (note the capital Y) which they define in terms that are equal parts simplistic, mystifying, and exclusionary. Their voices gather in comment threads, often calling each other in with long strings of tags. They gang-roll through Facebook groups, mocking and abusing seemingly anybody for a range of sins against Yoga: insufficient piety, a fixation on the body or the material world, blind participation in commodification, being too American, too millennial, too “postmodern”, failing to recognize a particular philosophical position as forever correct, or harbouring an egotistical refusal to surrender to a “qualified” teacher or some vaguely-described Absolute Truth.
They would predictably challenge their targets on their training, always implying it is inadequate. They’re really, really fixated on this point: “Who’s your teacher? Who’s your teacher?”
When this was thrown at me — “Look, look! He doesn’t have a teacher!” — it put me back on my heels. The truth was that my core experiences with teachers had been distorted by cult dynamics. I had both learned in and been abused by cultic organizations. I was ashamed of that tangled history, and I didn’t know how to talk about it. Until I came out as a cult survivor, and fully reflected that in my full bio, I didn’t know how to respond to an accusation that was accurate in one sense, but victim-blaming in another.
Being on the defensive distracted me from something crucial. While harassing me for my lack of education, the troll would usually speak as though they were a Faithful Student of Somebody. But they would never name that Somebody. This was a red flag, and I missed it.
As time wore on and I started to numb out to the personal sting of these exchanges, it became apparent that this wasn’t just random nastiness. I could begin to predict who would be ganged up on. Favourite targets included yoga scholars studying the innovations and globalization of “Modern Postural Yoga”, non-Indian professional Sanskritists who do not translate yoga texts as an act of religious devotion but as a service to history, women asana teachers who became critical of the anatomical naïveté of early 20th century asana teachers and developed smarter ways of moving — and goals for movement, like functionality and strength. If those women also criticized the abusive pedagogy of some of those early Indian teachers, they were doubly hounded.
What all targets share in common is not their beliefs, content, or commitments, but their methods and sources of validation, which are networked, peer-reviewed, and interdisciplinary. Of course, if you happened to be the scholar who stood back and collated immense amounts of data in order to describe this mode of horizontalized authority as “Post-Lineage”, well, you were also in big trouble. Because you would be rightly seen as legitimizing all this creativity and free-thinking as a real social phenomenon worthy of study.
Finally, extra vitriol was spewed all over those who worked for, appreciated, or were merely ambivalent towards Yoga Alliance. This went way beyond all of the reasonable criticisms — that the organization has been ineffective, sloppy, marred by mediocre leadership, etc. The trolls turned the Yoga Alliance employee or sympathizer into Public Yoga Enemy #1. I now suspect that this too was about vertical vs. horizontal authority. Here was non-profit actually taking steps to crowd-source ways of making yoga safer and yoga schools more accountable. Yoga Alliance is attempting to democratize an industry so far built upon charismatic pyramid schemes. It’s calling for greater oversight and higher educational standards. What kind of a person, belonging to what kind of group, doesn’t want that?
Trolling from the Left
If you have experience with spotting religious fundamentalism, such attacks might be easy to counter with something direct, like: “Wow, it looks like you brought your hereditary authoritarianism to the mat with you. Didn’t we all come here to get away from that stuff?” For yoga people committed to liberal democracy and education, it’s easy to brush off evangelical trolling.
But what happens when the trolling comes from the left, and weaponizes the language of wokeness?
That’s what started to happen a year or two into all of this. Suddenly, it seemed, the theological arguments about the One True Path You Are Obviously Not On So Too Bad Loser began to merge with the language of anti-racism, decolonization, and social justice. The posturing and aggression was eerily familiar, but the content had changed in such a way that seemed at first to be legitimate, and even irrefutable.
Who would argue, after all, that cultural appropriation was not a thing? That global yoga does not emerge from and carry with it the trauma and inequalities of post-colonial economies? That Indian culture has not been objectified and commodified for export to allow the Global North to feel spiritual about conspicuous consumption? That Desi folks in the global diaspora don’t often feel excluded from yoga spaces? That everyone who benefits from yoga, especially according to their privilege, is responsible for engaging these issues?
This shift in focus was complicated by its diversity of sources. There are many South Asian writers who present the necessity for decolonization in a compelling and solution-based manner. (I’ve linked them elsewhere but will not here, because they will be harassed if I do. Yes, that’s already starting.) Their arguments are tight and their activism empathetic. So when trolls started link-dumping these excellent think-pieces into harassment threads, they gained new social and intellectual power. In a sense, they appropriated the discourse of cultural appropriation to bolster an already-held posture of moral and spiritual superiority.
Bizarrely, this new tactic began to attract other followers, whose main commitments were in fact oriented towards social justice and anti-colonialism. This strange romance between theological purity and political progressivism led to some very strange bedfellows. Like self-identified feminist/woke yoga scholars aiding and abetting Hindu nationalists, for example.
For me, sorting out the real from the manipulative — and the manipulated — in the cultural appropriation debate has pivoted on a single puzzle: who are all these white people who have taken up the issue like a crusade? Given the often-apolitical zeitgeist of the modern yoga movement, could they truly be allies? Did they have sudden conversions to political wokeness, or are they just doing white guilt sun salutations? Why do so many have Sanskritized names? Where are they coming from? Why are they so rarely self-reflective in relation to their own privilege? Do they have any actual history and training in anti-oppression movements, or has their Yoga made them an expert in everything?
It’s going to take someone years of quiet, incognito fieldwork to answer these questions. The absence of hard data leaves a gut feeling that all is not as it seems.
It’s well-established that the oxygen of all cultic mechanisms is deception. An abuser, dominator, or high-demand group deceives the public and its members about its purpose and methods. The falsehood might look progressive, virtuous, on the right side of history, and spiritually liberating. Both leaders and members can truly believe it. The falsehood can appeal to their deepest values and motivate their unique passions and skills. That’s what the falsehood wants: to co-opt and redirect passion and skill.
Online Cultism vs. IRL Cults
Before I get too far down this road, I want to be clear: a group of online yoga trolls do not constitute a cult in any clinical sense.
As a group, they can indeed present many cultic behaviours: black-and-white thinking, circular logic, a fetish for jargon, leader/follower pathologies, and disorganized attachments that oscillate between attacking and fawning. They can definitely cause material harm to their targets. In my case, my heath was negatively impacted and I lost at least one YTT job because my employer was trolled for planning to host me. That’s nothing, of course. In more extreme online environments, like in the gaming world, women are doxxed and sent death threats for merely pointing out misogyny.
But the online yoga troll landscape has far less cohesion than the IRL yoga cult. Allegiances are fleeting and made fragile through competition, because the trolls are also using these spaces to advertise their brands. There’s huge and fast turnover of eyeballs, coming out of a seemingly limitless supply of social media users. Online trolling groups may control language, thought, and information, but crucially, there are no strong group behavioural controls, such as are deployable in ashrams. When push comes to shove, the bonds between online yoga trolls are easily frayed. Participants can disappear at any time, and no-one asks after them. With the exception of one malignant dyad, I’ve often wondered whether there are any IRL relationships between them that have become stable. Most of them haven’t met each other.
So we are talking about a herd phenomenon that wouldn’t happen outside of social media. But the herd is rag-tag, and the environment and technology are profoundly isolating. We know from the crash of Bentinho Massaro that web-based cults are fragile, whereas Narcis Tarcau can survive being outed as a rapist in the international media and be back at work in a few months, because he has IRL capital assets maintained by IRL people, sequestered in Thailand.
This brings me back to considering the individuals involved. Like the ones I referenced above who talk about having sacred teachers, but never name them. Who are they, as individuals? Where do they come from?
What I’ll propose here is speculative, because I don’t know any of these people personally. I’m offering a reflection on some prominent clues that are beginning to form a pattern. I’m writing here out of my experiential understanding of cult mechanisms. Some say that this is a narrow and obsessive lens for me. I own that, and want to be clear that what I’m proposing is by no means complete, and only one lens of many. I hope as well that by speaking from personal experience I can encourage empathy.
Here’s the thing: off the top of my head I can think of at least ten highly active yoga enforcers who are or have been connected with or committed to high-demand yoga groups.
I’m not going to name names, because my point isn’t to shame but to inform. By not naming names, however, I do risk the perception of a form of McCarthyism, creating the impression that cult people are all around us. To this I’d answer: Chill out, everyone. If you’re in the yoga world, cult people are all around you. It’s no great aberration, but rather the natural outcome of an industry that in the absence of regulation has built itself up through networks of charisma. There’s no shame in it: it’s just something we have to understand better.
Whoever you imagine is being profiled in the following list shares traits with many others. The particular details don’t matter. What matters is whether a person harasses or bullies you, whether they’re telling you the truth about their commitments and values, whether they are manipulating your sense of justice in order to exercise their control issues.
- A devotee of Amma, who, when privately asked about Amma’s politics and alleged abuses, tries to distance themselves from her. But in public, the devotee enforces a yoga purity narrative that they legitimize, in part, by their devotionalism.
- A person who spends a lot of time policing yoga authenticity and waxing poetic about the perfection of indigenous knowledge while rarely if ever discussing the fact that they followed and propped up the pseudo-Tantric cult leader named “Dharma Bodhi” (look up “Kol Martens”) for years. This sojourn isn’t listed in their bio.
- A devotee of Gurumayi Chidvalisananda (Malti Shetty) of SYDA, founded by the sexual predator Muktananda. When working as his translator, Shetty allegedly helped procure women for Muktananda to assault while he was alive, and has gilded the turd of his legacy after his death. This devotee really likes to police the traditional-ness of even their close peers. In their bio for their yoga business, they claim authority through a “spiritual teacher”, but they don’t name Gurumayi.
- A whole yoga festival was derailed by members of a yoga-and-MLM cult who deployed an anti-racism argument to amplify their outrage that their leader had her speech clumsily shortened and wasn’t sufficiently lauded as a mystic saint. They attacked the organizer without mercy for months.
- An activist who implies they were empowered by Swami Dayananda to express the one holy truth of everything, but if you ask them about their relationship to Swami, or his connections to Hindu nationalism, or how those connections are incoherent with their own social justice values, they go ballistic and turn it back on your own alleged lack of education.
- A bullying tag team who back up their “devotion” to protecting “tradition” in part through their allegiance to a student of a student of Pattabhi Jois.
- A gaggle of White Hindus who are clearly keyboard warrior-ing from the mess halls of American ashrams. They’ll never tell you where they’re from. They demand to see and judge everyone’s yoga credentials from the great beyond of jargon. Their brand of authenticity has nothing to do with personal disclosure and everything to do with litigating their faith and who can practice it.
This is not a cult. It’s a parade of people with cult issues who may be metabolizing the stress of their group experiences by finding each other, endorsing each other’s frustration, and rallying against a common enemy: anyone who’s moderately successful in the yoga world, and who shows they are free from authoritarian commitments.
Social Justice as Cover
Adopting the language of anti-colonialism and anti-racism might have earnest roots for some or all of these people. It might be baked into their lived experience as Desi women and men. And it might actually do real educational good in some cases. But I also believe it might be serving them personally within a broad range of unhealed cultic wounds:
- If they are current group members, it may serve them in the public sphere by creating an attractive and unimpeachable front for their real commitments. This involves hedging bets on whether the social capital of wokeness will surpass the social capital of being a spiritual devotee.
- If they are on the brink of leaving, it may serve them by allowing them to selectively promote the (apparently) more socially relevant content of their experience, while ignoring abuses or downplaying those parts with which they have become secretly disenchanted.
- Finally, it may serve the ex-cult member who hasn’t been to therapy or had the benefit of anti-cult resources by allowing them to release an exhilarating self-righteous revenge in all directions except that which points back to the leader or their enablers.
The language of wokeness can easily be used in the same all-or-nothing, proselytize-and-punish way that characterizes cult language. It can express absolute values that energetically dovetail with a pre-existing authoritarianism, which itself has often been bolstered by an absolutist ideology of Oneness.
The best analysis of the intersection between “Oneness” doctrines (of which yoga trolls are very fond) and authoritarianism is Alstad and Kramer’s classic book, The Guru Papers. But the very title of this now decades-old text throws gas on a particular fire where all of this complexity coalesces:
The trolls listed above consistently complain about the implicit racism of criticizing “gurus”. The guru-shishya paradigm is indigenous and traditional, they say, and essential to the preservation and transmission of yoga lineages. They are correct. But can contemporary international-celebrity charismatics be “gurus” in any traditional or premodern sense? Because I doubt this possibility, I’ve stopped using the word to describe figures like Jois, Gurumayi, Amma, Yogi Bhajan, Muktananda, etc. In terms of ethics and the outsize scale of their operations, they’re not worthy of the term.
What “guru” experience do these trolls actually have? If it’s with any of the leaders above, they are not defending “tradition” by arguing over the correct usage of the word. They are defending an authoritarian power structure they associate with safety. They are defending the way in which their leaders have propagandized themselves. They are defending their own postcolonial distortion. This is tragic, because they are likely victims of it too.
They also might be in mourning for an ideal: a protective, nurturing, intimate relationship with someone who could rightfully be called “guru”. Is such a thing possible? Anything’s possible. If it exists, it should be verifiable in some way other than in dubious claims about a students’ attainments. The least we should ask for is an absence of abuse allegations. As it turns out, this is a tall order in the yoga world, whether we’re talking about Rochester, Rome, or Rishikesh.
For cultists-cum-activists, running woke software through the old cult hardware might preserve those familiar warm feelings of self-certainty that cult participation promises, briefly delivers, and then withholds.
At the same time, it allows them to conceal the shameful source of that certainty. There’s a reason so few of these people are transparent about their teachers, even as they demand transparency from everyone else. If they are current devotees, they may feel that the abuse allegations against their leaders are a conspiracy against truth and love, but choose to maintain enough pragmatism to know that flaunting their membership carries social risk. If they are ex devotees, they might be ashamed of who they loved, and of how they harmed others with that love.
In the borderland between present doubt and past regret, generating a sense of certainty can be super-important for the cult-wounded. What else do they have, after all? Often, there are no relationships they can trust. Often they are alienated from family. If their primary commitments are religious instead of political, they might feel self-conscious and exposed in secular activist spaces.
They’ve bet everything on a leader or organization. What happens if the cracks begin to show? At least they have the “dharma”. And they have to make it work, until it can’t. And they might be enraged at anyone who doesn’t share their burden, their sacrifice for the Holy Truth.
Now: imagine that they’ve secretly gotten to the point of despair in relation to the organization or the leader. At the same time, they can’t imagine themselves leaving. Who then would be more loathsome to them than the yoga person who has no high-demand commitments, who seems to have taught themselves, who seems to be happy?
Might this be close to the root of the hatred slung at the white yoga women who they troll mercilessly? That they seem to be happy? That they’re oblivious to the pain of searching for, suffering for, and holding onto Eternal Truth? That in their sometimes goofy, consumerist, postmodern, eclectic way, they’re happy with those postures, that breathing, that mindfulness? That they are not compelled to love an abuser?
Yes, the stereotyped white yoga woman can embody privilege and all of the Stepford violence of white heteropatriarchy. But insofar as she has no authoritarian teacher nor belongs to any totalist group, she can also embody a type of secular freedom. In some ways, she’s figured it out on her own. And there’s nothing the cultist craves or fears or hates more than a person with agency.
In case it’s not clear: it totally sucks to be in a cult, or to carry unresolved cultic wounds. The harassment and manipulation presented by certain trolls comes, I’m convinced, from a combination of training and trauma. My advice is to be kind with these folks, but also boundaried.
And first: do a quick search to inform yourself. If someone you’ve never met, and who seems like a super-devout yoga person on their home page, starts attacking your integrity or education with language that’s full of jargon and blends theological demands with social justice platitudes — look them up. If they immediately launch into ad-hominem attacks, change subjects abruptly, or deflect every issue back onto you — look them up. If they seem to be energy vampires — look them up.
See what they say about themselves. If they’re showing an obsession with your background when you’re just trying to chat about something, look into their background. If they make mysterious reference to an unnamed Teacher, let your eyebrows rise. If you ask about who that teacher is and they give a weird or defensive answer, that’s a red flag.
If you find out that they’re a devotee of Amma, try to see if they’ve issued an accountability statement in response to Gail Tredwell’s book.
If you find out that they’re a devotee of Gurumayi, try to see if they’ve issued an accountability statement in relation to documented abuses and enabling at SYDA.
And so on. You get the picture.
After a few minutes of research, you might find yourself blurting out things like:
“Hey — are you really schooling me on authenticity when you’re devoted to an abusive cult leader who’s hiding out in upstate New York?”
“Are we really going to compete in the Wokeness Olympics when you’re prostrating yourself in front of rapist?”
Or maybe something a little more give-and-take, like:
“Sure, I’ll talk with you about my implicit biases and ignorance of social justice and decolonization issues. But first, can you explain to me what you’ve done to take action to repair the harm that the cult you’re in has caused?”
Saying such things out loud, however, might drive the person further into their rationalized self. It’s really hard to know what to do with these folks. In defence of my physical and mental health, my policy is to block.
However you do it, the outcome should be that you don’t feel the need to be schooled by people with grossly conflicted personal agendas. There are plenty of people who do justice work because that’s their real commitment and training. You can learn from them.
Bottom line: if a person’s activism is truly intersectional, they will have examined it and purged it of all cultic violence. If they haven’t, wish them well in your heart if you can, and avoid them.