That Time Manouso Manos Started a Yoga Class with a Verbal Attack And Showed How Trauma Bonding Works
Special thanks to Cassie Jackson, who was there that day and helped confirm many details. Her testimony of Manos assaulting her is included in the IYNAUS investigative report on pages 15-17.
In January of 2017 I emailed Manouso Manos to request an interview. At that time, my research for the book that eventually focused on Jois and Ashtanga Yoga was casting a wider net. The working title back then was Shadow Pose: Trauma and Healing in the Cult of Modern Yoga.
I was upfront and honest about the project. I told him I was investigating intergenerational trauma in the yoga world, and would be citing the 1991 report on allegations of sexual assault against him. I wrote that I wanted to ask him if or how he had changed over the years, and how he understood his teaching within the legacy of BKS Iyengar.
This was about ten months before I heard about the sexual assault claim Ann Tapsell West was preparing to file against Manos, which was first dismissed by the IYNAUS Ethics Committee, and then substantiated by an independent investigator.
When I wrote to Manos I did not know that there were or would be contemporary allegations against him. I also didn’t consider or research sexual offender recidivism. In this light, my initial query was naive.
Manos’s curt responses included a threat to take me to court for writing about him from the public record. Then, paradoxically, he invited me me to come to one of his classes for free.
So I made plan to go. I didn’t expect a warm welcome. But I didn’t expect to be ambushed.
I drove up to San Francisco from the Valley on February 9th, 2017. I arrived early, parked, and grabbed a coffee a few doors down from the Abode of Iyengar Yoga on Monterey Blvd.
As I walked to the studio, I could see Manos coming the other way. I recognized him, and I think he recognized me. I was about to say hello, but he broke eye contact and jammed his hands deeper into his overcoat pockets. He scowled, sped up, and stormed past.
When I gave my name at the front desk, the woman checking people in rolled her eyes at me and said “Oh, it’s YOU.” She pointed me towards the change room and told me that recording devices weren’t allowed.
By this point I was feeling both weird and vigilant. I was a little nervous stripping down to yoga clothes. But I changed and took up a spot towards the back of the quickly-filling room, and grabbed the dozen-odd props that everyone else seemed to have.
Manos strode in and sat down at the front, and conferred with some older students. Beside him was a recording device.
At precisely 9:30, Manos turned on the recorder and started by pointing me out and naming me. About fifty people turned around to stare. I grit my teeth and smiled defensively. There were a few stiff smiles, a few suspicious looks, but mainly I remember the uneasy bearing of people waiting to be told how to feel about me.
Manos’s voice was loud and imperious and rose to a yell over the course of his five-minute outburst. I can’t quote him verbatim, but I remember most of it clearly.
In a broad sneering tone he identified me as a “writer”. (I think he used air quotes. He might have said “He thinks of himself as a writer.”) He described how I’d approached him for an interview about his teaching, and the legacy of his guru. He described how he’d initially declined, but then decided to “play nice” and invite me to the class.
However, after inviting me, he yell-explained, he did some RE-search. (He rolled his eyes. The class tittered nervously.) He found out that I had been in two cults and assessed that I was on a mission to tear down gurus. He suggested I was a hack who wrote about subjects I didn’t understand. He claimed I published a hatchet job on Iyengar right after his death. (Hardly.) He suggested that now I was coming after him. He predicted that I would call him a bully, and that he would call me a bully, and so be it.
“Go ahead and hit out at me,” I recall him finishing, jabbing his finger at me in the air and full-on yelling. “But remember, that without Mr. Iyengar, neither you nor I would be here today.”
“Well at least that much is true – “ I started to say, with my voice a little locked up. But Manos cut me off.
What happened in the next moment is, I believe, crucial to understanding a key aspect of power in Iyengar Yoga:
Manos flipped — instantly — from verbal abuse to spiritual command.
“Fold your hands together at your heart!” Manos barked. Those who were staring at me snapped back around to face him and sit at attention.
“OM!” he shouted, and everyone joined in, as if the ancient sound could wash his rage away.
I believe that the merging of abuse and spirituality is a secret hook. It plays right into what Alexandra Stein describes as the disorganized attachment patterning that is the glue of high-demand groups. When the two expressions are coordinated just right, and then repeated, they can form and strengthen trauma bonds.
I had imagined asking Manos why he loved his master. I felt this might tell me something about why so many people love him in turn. I imagined asking whether his love drove him to mimic Iyengar’s presentation, from the barking and strutting down to the gritty anxiety over getting the poses absolutely right. I wanted to understand what these men shared, whether their childhood stories were similar, and why Iyengar seemed to recognize Manos as his own, from across entire oceans, cultures, and eras. And why Manos thought Iyengar was compelled to protect Manos like a son, even though he was clearly a liability to the growing empire.
If I could understand this, I thought, I could start to unravel the knot of love and rage I’d felt in my Iyengar studies. I would understand how people who had never heard of Iyengar or Manos or Jois might feel that knot and its jagged radiance as they practiced all over the world, mirroring the teachers who had studied with these leaders.
I would understand that part of the shadow pose thrown by a yoga that claims to be about relaxing the bodily effects of social conditioning was at times indistinguishable from intimate abuse.
But I didn’t have to interview Manos in the end. He showed me exactly how it worked. His pedagogy in that moment was all about contrast.
He pivoted from verbally assaulting me to commanding the class to “go within and find your centre point of stillness.”
The room went from the dead silence of discomfort and fear to the dead silence of self-monitoring. I felt everyone stiffen into perfect meditation posture. It was picture-worthy. It could have become the Abode’s Facebook cover photo.
I could feel the palpable relief that the attack was over and that it hadn’t fallen on anyone but me personally. This seemed to create a strangely serene and floating sensation.
Manos then guided the class through a remarkably detailed, intimate, and subtle internal meditation, while we were lying in savasana.
This deserves emphasis: after verbally attacking an invited guest, Manos put the whole class into a vulnerable position, guiding them into a hypnagogic state with a voice that had just been yelling, but was now meant to be internalized as a source of guidance and care.
I found it impossible to pay attention or feel much because my heart was pounding and I was flooded with cortisol, and physically afraid. I’m willing to bet that most of the room was also defensively aroused by the attack.
But because they weren’t specifically targeted, perhaps some could use their own cortisol for heightened attention and awareness. I imagine that this felt slightly confusing, but also invigorating for many of them.
In general terms, the pivot from chaos to care is at the heart of intimate, sustained abuse. The caregiver terrifies you, and then seems to love you. And because you depend on him, you’ll go through a lot for those moments of love and support.
In this particular context, the hyper-detailed instructions of Iyengar Yoga are freighted with the task of restoring order: not just to the body or mind as-they-are-generally, but also to the person who has just been disrupted by the attack. The countless cues for how to orient the bone, muscle, skin and even hair are like step-by-step instructions for how to restore yourself to social safety within the classroom.
The feeling for some might be: if I follow these steps perfectly, I won’t have to be afraid.
In researching my book I discovered that it’s not only that certain powerful men in the yoga world have figured out how to spiritualize a psychological abuse dynamic of arbitrary fear and care, and that this may resonate with students familiar with that oscillation in their personal histories. It’s that bodily care after bodily stress can feel incredibly sweet and addictive, on a biochemical level.
Among those who practice bondage, discipline, sadism and masochism, I’ve learned that the most important part of any “scene” of consensual eroticized pain exchange, is the “aftercare”. A scene (the term evokes theatre: participants know their roles, and know it will end) may seem violent, but if it resolves with the dominant partner holding, cuddling, and soothing the submissive partner, the full impact of the encounter can be metabolized into care. It can even be felt as a healing reversal of past traumas. This is not only because it is consensual, but because the aftercare strengthens the trust of the relationship.
I now believe that part of what made the elite pedagogy of Iyengar and Jois so powerful and murky is that it is playing with intense mechanisms that BDSM culture make conscious: the oscillation between stress postures and care, played out in dominant-submissive dyads. This dynamic may also constitute a form of unrecognized post-traumatic play.
There’s no clarity, or dialogue, or notion of consent in these spaces of dominance. The activity is not understood as theatre, but as the vital transmission of the knowledge of salvation. The yoga itself – the breath, the relaxation poses, and the spiritual promises – stands in as a proxy for the conscious aftercare that BDSM practitioners recognize as the key to preventing re-traumatization.
As I packed up my things at the end of Manos’ class, some of the other students gave me apologetic looks. Others avoided eye contact. But several devotees approached me to say hello and wish me well, like unconscious recruiters. One woman cornered me to tell me about Manos’ miraculous healing powers. I was listened patiently, feeling rage smoulder way down deep.
After I edged away, another woman touched me on the shoulder from behind. I turned around to find her beaming at me.
“I hope you had a great class,” she said, effusive.
“Well, after a welcome like that…” I started.
My voice trailed off as her face darkened. I went from feeling snide to guilty to sad.
“It’s just that he is a hero to so many of us,” she said, choked up. “And we want you to love him as much as we do.”
Thank you so much for this. As someone who practised yoga for many years within an increasingly abusive group, and then much later came across consensual BDSM and dived deeply into it, I was immediately struck by the similarities. When I watched that video of Pattabhi Jois squashing and crushing people, my first thought was – this is just like BDSM – but without any safe-words, negotation, or consent. I’m so appreciating both your book, and all your regular blog posts…
Hi matthew, I’am a Yoga teacher from Chili, your analisis resonates inmensly in me, its hard to find people in the community that stands away from this accepted violence. I started my way in Iyengar, loved the method, but didn’t understand the aggresion. Sometimes subtle, sometimes blunt. Is it possible that you can translate this articule to Spanish? Maybe to share it with the latin community?
Thanks for your insight!
Hello Daniela — I would be happy to have this translated by anyone who is able to do so competently. Please feel free to send contact info to me via the contact page. Thank you!
Matthew, thanks so much for this post. It puts into words my past experience back in the late 1980’s-early 1990’s with a teacher in the Sivananda organization (SYVC, currently going through its own crisis/reckoning due to revelations of diseased founder Swami Vishnu’s abusive acts). I was SYVC staff full-time for 5+ yrs and my main teacher/supervisor/acharya for those years was a senior disciple of Swami Vishnu, a Swami who left the organization to marry his pregnant assistant shortly before I also left. This man was a brilliant and charismatic teacher, a great speaker, a creative and fun person to be around. I felt we had a lot in common in terms of our past/culture and personality, so he was really important to me as a role model. (He was also very naturally a father figure because my own dad was not really available to parent me in my childhood due to a mental health condition.) I know many of the staff working under his supervision/care (mostly young women, he didn’t seem to get on well with guys) felt this way —
they were attached to him, influenced by him and deeply valued his opinion/guidance. At the same time he was someone who flew off the handle at a drop of a hat, and when it happened, his anger was scary and explosive. You never knew when he would have one of these scary outbursts, so I was definitely on guard around him much of the time, as were the other staff. I remember us checking in with each other sometimes about what kind of mood Swami was in on a given day, to make sure we treaded carefully on “bad” days and stayed out of his way. I think for me it was particularly triggering/scary because my own dad had a mood disorder and was unpredictable, so I have old trauma around this kind of thing. One episode comes to mind very vividly that to me illustrates “The caregiver terrifies you, and then seems to love you” situation you outline in your post (though there were many of them of course). It was at a rural upstate NY ashram setting in the dead of winter. I don’t remember what I did to make him mad, but it was particularly awful and I went into a kind of hysteria, where I could not stop crying for hours. Another staff member tried to console me, and it helped somewhat. But then I ran out to the barn and stayed there for a long time, still scared and crying and trying to figure out what to do next. After a while, maybe 1/2 hr, the teacher came looking for me, wearing no winter clothes, shivering and looking very tender and worried. He expressed so much kindness and concern and was apologetic. I remember feeling so loved by him in that moment. It has been this moment that I have used over the years to try to experience forgiveness towards him, because it was such a palpable (I’d even say chemical) experience of his concern and care and love. Looking back after reading this post, it all falls into place so clearly….
I was in that class and your article is not accurate. He did not verbally abuse you. He shared who you were and what you wrote about, how he felt about your writing and asked the whole class to welcome you. He expressed that he disagreed with your writings, but still wanted you to be welcomed in the class. In that Pranayama teaching, I even remember him giving you a very kind verbal adjustment. I specifically came up to you after class to welcome you, share my experiences with you and you were very cold to me and my mother. My mother wanted to share with you how Manouso had helped me. I wanted to share with you about sequences that helped me with a broken tailbone. This article makes me so sad how you viewed that experience. It is not at all how I saw it. It is not how my mother saw it.
My account is absolutely accurate, substantiated by others, and I resent you contradicting it. I remember you approaching me to further the group story and attempt to frame my experience. There’s no welcome in that. Real welcome would have been: “Hey I’m really sorry he tried to humiliate you in front of his followers.” An even welcome would have been to interrupt the abuse. If I was cold it was because I had been verbally assaulted. Whatever instructions he gave me were toxic with condescension.
I suppose you’re entitled to your opinion, so here’s mine: your comments here exemplify the normalization of bullying, and help explain how this now-discredited and isolated teacher held so much power for so long.