Holly Faurot tells more about her experience at Jivamukti; Sharon Gannon and David Life publicly respond to allegations of sexual assault and battery against senior Jivamukti teacher “Lady” Ruth Lauer-Manenti.

By Matthew Remski

4/24/16

On April 5th, Slate.com reported on the allegations of sexual assault and battery against yoga teacher “Lady” Ruth Lauer-Manenti, brought by Holly Faurot, her student at Jivamukti Yoga School in New York City.(1) The suit names Jivamukti founders Sharon Gannon and David Life, as well as studio director Carlos Menjivar, as co-defendants for covering up and condoning Lauer-Manenti’s alleged actions.(2)

Lauer-Manenti admitted to the relationship in a conversation secretly recorded by Faurot in 2014.(3) New York State has a one-party consent law, which means that Faurot was not legally obliged to tell Lauer-Manenti she was recording.(4)

In a step up from the earlier tabloid treatment of the story,(5) Slate columnist Michelle Goldberg interviewed Faurot and several off-record Jivamukti sources. But she framed the story through the views of renowned New York based yoga educator Leslie Kaminoff, who worked at Jivamukti in the 1990s. Kaminoff told Goldberg that Faurot’s story sounded like that of a jilted lover, and that she should now chant the mantra, “What the fuck was I thinking?

holly faurot jivamukti yoga
Holly Faurot / Image via NY Daily News

On April 8th, I interviewed Faurot by phone. I started by asking her what she thought of Kaminoff’s assessment of her suit.

“I found his comments ill-informed and unfortunate,” Faurot said. “He’s someone who’s been in the New York yoga community for a long time, and he instantly contributed to victim-blaming culture, which enables abuse, and silences those who would speak up.”

Thomas Shanahan, Faurot’s lawyer, was also on the call.

“From a legal perspective,” Shanahan said, “what’s stunning about Kaminoff’s comments is that with all of his years of experience in the yoga world, it’s clear he has absolutely no idea that under New York state law, Holly could never have consented to a sexual relationship with someone who controlled her employment.

“It’s shocking to me,” Shanahan said. “Maybe he figures that Eastern philosophy trumps Western law.”

“This is why this stuff happens over and over again,” said Faurot. “Victims speak out, and then people like him, who could be offering some guidance, make comments that are just wrong.

“Kaminoff doesn’t know me as a person. I’ve never met him.”

Nor have the thousands of social media commenters who seized on Kaminoff’s mic-drop moment to chuckle and cluck and share it around – faithful to a modern yoga tradition of minimizing and whitewashing patterns of abuse in teacher-student relations.

“People keep saying, ‘Don’t give your power away.’” Faurot says.

“But I didn’t know I had any power when I came to Jivamukti. My self-esteem was that unhealthy. I can see it now because I’ve done a lot of therapy.”

Only paragraphs after reporting that Faurot had entered Jivamukti from a history of child abuse and disordered eating, Goldberg quoted Kaminoff as saying “We’re not talking about people with diminished capacities”, and suggesting that it was Faurot’s fault for giving her power to Lauer-Manenti.

So I asked Faurot to paint a fuller picture of what she thinks made her vulnerable to Lauer-Manenti and the whole Jivamukti scene.

Senior Jivamukti teacher Ruth Lauer Manenti
Senior Jivamukti teacher Ruth Lauer-Manenti

“I was in a freeze pattern”

“My apprenticeship with Ruth started out as highly formal, and I loved it,” said Faurot.

“The rule was that I couldn’t study with her until I could read and write in Sanskrit. She had high standards and expectations. In the beginning she showed herself to be a very firm, professional teacher who knew a lot and had a lot of experience. Once that trust was built, then the lines started getting crossed.

“Ruth would call me the daughter she never had,” said Faurot. “I was at her house for holidays. I visited her mother’s house. I was really entwined with her family. She would sometimes sign letters to me: ‘With a mother’s love’.

“She gave me so much attention. I really felt like I had a mother for the first time in my life.

“I know many people have suffered abuse in childhood, so I almost feel ridiculous saying it out loud. I had been alienated from my own family, and I was a very lonely person. I had a good job and close friends, but I had never experienced a sense of home.

“Getting things as an adult that I’d never received as a child was very powerful. I felt safe with Ruth. She made me feel very loved. I gained older sisters, who were her prior apprentices. I became part of this small privileged family within the larger context of the Jivamukti community.

“Acceptance into this family required unquestionable devotion to Ruth, and in return she agreed to be our teacher, our guru. It was assumed that all of us would work together to serve and take care of her.

“I learned quickly that to question her, to disagree, to see other points of view, or to even subtly to shift the focus away from her, was to bring on disapproval and the risk of rejection or being shunned.”

Because of her eating disorder, Faurot entered the Jivamukti community underweight, which amplified the power imbalance.

“It’s easy to project ‘little girl’ onto that body type,” Faurot said.

“That was the context of our relationship when Ruth asked to come over to my house. Why wouldn’t I invite my mom to my house? What’s wrong with my mother sleeping next to me in my bed?

“Then it’s really confusing when that ‘mother’ pulls you in to sexually spoon you.”

In the suit, Faurot alleges that after establishing both emotional trust and beginning to control her professional relationship to Jivamukti as a new teacher, Lauer-Manenti’s nonconsensual sexual advances escalated from spooning to groping to asking Faurot to pose for sexually charged photos.

Faurot alleges that when she attempted to confront Lauer-Manenti about their relationship in 2013, the senior teacher humiliated her by saying that she could see Faurot’s “little crotch” in her pants.(6)

“I was questioning her for the first time about her behavior,” Faurot explained. “Ruth dismissed all of my feelings, emotions and questions as ‘ridiculous.’ She instructed me to ‘focus on the love we have between us.’

“I felt she was saying, ‘All I can see of you, Holly, is your little crotch in your pants.’”

In our interview, Faurot suggested that Lauer-Manenti’s sexual assaults echoed throughout their public relationship, blended seamlessly into the studio’s culture of guru devotion, mimicked behaviours, and intimate physical adjustments.(7)

“Ruth would often look me up and down when I was in mountain pose,” Faurot said, describing their classroom dynamic.

“She’d gaze at me head to toe, in a way that if a man were doing it to a woman, it would be obviously wrong. I think that people get confused when it’s a woman doing it to a woman.

“When she helped me do dropbacks – backbends – she’d thrust her thigh into my crotch. She’d drop me back and then pull me back up on her thigh. Things were way more intimate then they would be with a stranger.”

Over time, Faurot’s practice and sense of her body underwent a disempowering shift.

“Ruth would spend the night with me on Sundays and I would always take her class Monday morning. Those classes were always very difficult. My body would feel off, heavy– like a wet noodle that could be bent into any shape. Looking back this was clearly my body’s response to the violations taking place.

“I was in a freeze pattern. I had a deeply ingrained habit of dissociation due to both my childhood and the eating disorder I developed as a young adult. Because of that, it was perhaps easier for Ruth, my ‘guru’ – the person I was taught to trust more than my own instincts – to gain control and possession over my person.”

Several Jivamukti teachers who asked to remain off-record said that the school’s teaching policies made adjustments a virtually mandatory part of their teaching responsibilities.

“The general message is that every student in the room should be touched,” one teacher told me. “They feel that no one should come and not be adjusted.

“But in any classroom, there are going to be people who have experienced emotional, physical or sexual trauma,” they said. “Some people love the intensity of the adjustments. For others, it’s triggering, and they don’t come back.

“There’s no trauma-sensitive training provided.”(8)

Faurot alleges that her relationship with Lauer-Manenti was also influenced by the dictates of the Jivamukti Teacher Apprenticeship Program, which encourages the pious service and emulation of mentors.(9)

When Ruth taught, I was literally always within arm’s reach, ready to serve her and take care of any needs she had. My submission to Ruth was at the heart of my public life within the Jivamukti community.”

Lauer-Manenti was explicit about emulation as a spiritual necessity in a blog post from 2008.

“In olden times, and up to the present, when yogis wanted to reach enlightenment, they copied their teacher,” Lauer-Manenti writes.

“They emulated what the teacher ate, how much they slept, when they meditated, what the nature of their thoughts were, how they showed kindness toward others, what holy books they read, what holy songs they sung, how equanimous they were in the midst of ups and downs, how saddened they were by the suffering of others, and how happy they were in the presence of the Lord… Gradually the yogi and the great teacher would become one.”(10)

Overall, Faurot alleges, the encouragement to merge overwhelmed her sense of self.

“‘Holly’ was pushed further and further into the background,” she said, “and my identity in the community as ‘Lady Ruth’s devotee’ took over.

“It was a silent contract. I got to be close to Ruth if I never questioned her, if I did whatever she said, if I let her do whatever she wanted to do with me.

“I was an eager student, wanting to go on a spiritual journey, wanting to get rid of all the pain I’d been through in my life. This was a way for me to actually go there and achieve peace with myself, to feel self-confidence again. Slowly things changed. I became her object in her art projects, in her classroom, and also when she asked to sleep in my bed.

“It’s very disturbing to realize and digest what actually happened. The layers of manipulation are hard for me to parse or even to believe, now that I have gained distance from the relationship.”

Lauer-Manenti declined to comment for this article.

 

“Asserting victimhood”

I sent Kaminoff an early draft of this article to see whether reading Faurot’s account might prompt him to retract any of his comments, or to add nuance. His answer via email was mixed.

He first explained that his hour-long conversation with Goldberg had been reduced to a handful of controversial quotes.

“Our interview,” he wrote, “was about the cult-like atmosphere at Jivamukti –about which I had a lot to say that didn’t make it into the Slate article.”

Kaminoff then clarified his scope of practice. “I am not a legal expert so I was not speaking from a legal, employment-law perspective,” he wrote.

“In addition, I am not a psychologist or trauma specialist so I am not evaluating anyone’s psychology. I am a yoga educator with decades of experience seeing students and teachers alike use yoga to reinforce their preexisting psychic tendencies.”

But on the issues of power and consent, Kaminoff stayed his course.

“I’m the one standing up for the fact that Holly’s situation is the result of choices she made and continues to make.

“To assert otherwise is to strip her of any meaningful agency in the matter. Asserting victimhood may be the way to win an employment case in court, but it’s not a powerful way to go through life.”

 

Jivamukti’s Sharon Gannon and David Life: “A person sees what they want to see”

Sharon-Gannon-David-Life
Jivamukti founders Sharon Gannon and David Life

 

Up until this article, Sharon Gannon and David Life have made no public response to the allegations, beyond issuing a blanket denial of Faurot’s account on behalf of themselves, Lauer-Manenti, Menjivar, and the entire Jivamukti global community.(11)

When they agreed to my request for an interview, I sent them fifteen questions regarding Jivamukti business practices and beliefs pertinent to the suit. In their written answers, they ignored my mention of Lauer-Manenti’s admission to the relationship with Faurot, and repeated their collective denial of wrongdoing— “adamantly”. They evaded a question about whether their denial would contribute to the the well-known suppression of sexual abuse claims. They wrote that Faurot’s complaint was the first ever filed against them.

Gannon and Life also minimized the far-reaching effects of the Jivamukti apprenticeship system by denying that Lauer-Manenti was Faurot’s superior during the period of their relationship.

“During the time frame alleged,” they wrote, “Ruth was not Holly’s supervisor. She and Holly were both yoga teachers at the school.”

Their richest responses added metaphysical dimensions to the claim that Faurot was “asserting victimhood”.

“A person sees what they want to see,” Gannon and Life wrote — in response to a question about how their school educates students and teachers about power imbalances and psychological projections.

“What is inside one’s own mind will be mirrored in the world around them,” they wrote. “If a person is focused on money every thing they encounter is conditioned by that thought. If a person is thinking of sex they will see others around them in that light. If a person sees themselves as a victim they will see others around them as either victims or perpetrators.”

This thinly-veiled speculation on Faurot’s motivations is consistent with Jivamukti teachings that attribute a student’s negative experiences to their own actions and thoughts. In a dharma talk from New Year’s Eve, 2015, for instance, Gannon claims that critical speech causes the self-perception of victimhood.

“It’s all a state of mind, isn’t it?” Gannon asks the crowd of revelers through a puckish smile.

“Isn’t it? Is it?”

The room goes silent.

“There is a very popular trend,” she continues soberly, “to complain and find fault with other people, with the government, with your parents, boyfriend-girlfriend-husband-wife-children, the school system, the medical system. Complaining and blaming.”

“Please remember, every time we do that, we do something to ourselves. What we do is we paint ourselves as a victim. And that’s very toxic. It’s like poison….

“The power of your words come from your thoughts, and your thoughts are the most powerful, holy substance that exists. Your thoughts make your reality. Collectively, our thoughts make our collective reality.”(12)

According to Gannon and Life, the desired collective reality of Jivamukti precludes the possibility that Lauer-Manenti and Faurot were engaged in an injurious power dynamic.

“The teachings say that our souls are eternal and blissful,” they wrote, “and in truth no one is greater than anyone else—we are all one.

“If Ruth was teaching that gradually the yogi and the great teacher would become one, then she was teaching in accordance with an ancient respected tradition spanning thousands of years.”

I had asked how their school fostered independent critical thinking in conjunction with their emphasis on emulating mentors and guru devotion.

“The practices of yoga are intended to encourage critical thinking, to help one to let go of negative thoughts that isolate and encourage divisiveness and hostility.

“Yoga practice helps one to focus on cultivating redeeming virtues such as patience, compassion, kindness, and forgiveness, all of which promote clarity of mind.”

On the legal front, Gannon and Life’s clarity is being represented by their attorney, Siobhan Healy, who on March 11th moved to have Faurot’s case dismissed on a series of legal technicalities.(13) Healy did not respond to several email and phone requests for comment.

Healy’s motion states that Faurot’s complaint to Jivamukti was made more than a year after Faurot ceased being an employee of the company, and is therefore uncovered by New York State or City Human Rights Laws. Likewise, Faurot’s “causes of action for assault and battery are barred” by a one-year statute of limitations.

The last technicality regards the interpretation of the relevance of Jivamukti’s Ethical Guidelines, which forbid sexual relationships between teachers and students. In her motion, Healy argues that the guidelines “did not create a binding agreement between Plaintiff and the Jivamukti Yoga Center.”

In effect, Healy’s argument verifies Faurot’s account of how the Jivamukti school trivializes its own guidelines. Faurot’s suit alleges that Jivamukti co-founder David Life joked about power and consent issues in training sessions. The suit says that Life “made light of the Jivamukti sexual harassment policy, telling teachers that although the unlawful behaviour was prohibited, [the policy] was not in practice otherwise.” Life allegedly quipped that if this guideline were followed, Jivamukti classes would be empty.(14)

I asked Gannon and Life if that account was accurate.

“The quote you refer to,” they wrote, “was obviously taken out of context to sensationalize what would otherwise be a non-story.”

Gannon and Life concluded the interview on a prophetic note.

“These are indeed dark days,” they wrote, “where material greed, profit and victimization are more appealing than Yoga—enlightenment, self-realization, kindness and eternal joy.

“Even so, we firmly believe that goodness will prevail, maybe not in the immediate future, but definitely when all is said and done.”

On April 12th, however, Healy withdrew her Motion to dismiss.(15)

“Spiritual rhetoric aside,” said Faurot’s lawyer Thomas Shanahan, “all they needed to do was enforce the school’s anti-discrimination and sexual harassment policy, and this case would never have been filed.

“A jury will decide if they are as spiritually sophisticated as they profess, or in denial.”

 

Leaving Jivamukti: Holly Faurot Moves On

Faurot is not asserting victimhood as an ongoing identity. She remains a plaintiff in a lawsuit she’s committed to seeing through, but she has also moved on. She now works for the Sonima Foundation, teaching yoga classes to students in the New York City public school system.(16) She’s also pursuing a Master’s Degree in Special Education at Hunter College.

“My new job has definitely been a part of my healing process,” she said. “It’s been very inspiring to introduce and instruct yoga and mindfulness practices to adolescents.

“If I had learned yoga at their age, perhaps it would have given me the tools to manage the anxiety I had and to build a healthy relationship with myself and my body. It’s hard to say for sure.”

Faurot was hired by Sonima director Eddie Stern, the former director of Ashtanga Yoga New York, which is now the Brooklyn Yoga Club, where Faurot now practices. Her connection with Stern dates back to the days in which she would “escape” Lauer-Manenti and Jivamukti on Tuesday mornings to practice in what she felt was a safe space.

“I remember saying to myself many times ‘I’m fixed’ or ‘I’m back’ after practicing at Eddie’s on Tuesdays. In essence, practicing there gave me my body back after Ruth had taken possession of it.

“Looking back on it now, I think an unconscious part of me was responding positively to an environment in which I was truly respected.”

[Follow up article by Matthew Remski: Silence and Silencing at Jivamukti Yoga and Beyond]

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Matthew Remski is a yoga teacher and author living in Toronto. He’s currently writing a book on the shadows of modern yoga culture. You can follow him on Facebook, and his site is here.

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References:

(1) “A Workplace, an Ashram, or a Cult?” Accessed 4.19.2016.

(2) “Holly Faurot – v. – Jivamukti Yoga Center, Inc. et al”, accessed 4.14.2016.

(3) “Exhibit A – Report of Sexual Harassment by Plaintiff”, accessed 4.14.2016.

(4) “New York Recording Law”, accessed 4.14.2016.

(5) “Manhattan yoga guru accused of sexually harassing apprentice teacher in $1M lawsuit”, accessed 4.14.2016.

(6)  “Exhibit A – Report of Sexual Harassment by Plaintiff”, accessed 4.14.2016.

(7) For examples, see this video of a class given by Sharon Gannon in 2014: “Jivamukti Master Class w Sharon Gannon (2014-10-Oct) (SRYBC)”, accessed 4.14.2016.

(8) For information on Trauma Sensitive Yoga, the work of David Emerson and co. is good place to start.

(9) Jivamukti Teacher Apprenticeship Program Manual, 2013, p.8.

(10) “Focus of the Month for JULY, 2008: How to become a Master”, accessed 4/14/2016. In a followup article, I’ll be showing how Lauer-Manenti’s ideology of guru devotion is psychosocially consistent with her lineage connection to the neo-Buddhist teacher Michael Roach, and somatically consistent with her account of studying with Pattabhi Jois.

(11) “To the Jivamukti Yoga Community”, accessed, 4.14.2016.

(12) “2015 New Years Reflections at Jivamukti Yoga NYC”, accessed 4.22.2016.

(13) “Affirmation in Support of Motion to Dismiss”, accessed 4/22/2016.

(14) “Verified Complaint”, p. 4, accessed 4.15.2016.

(15) “Stipulation”, accessed 4.23.2016.

(16) http://www.sonimafoundation.org/?s=Holly+Faurot, accessed 4.15.2016.

 

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