by Matthew Remski
[Editors note: This is a followup to Matthew Remski’s previous articles: Jivamukti, Dark and Light: Holly Faurot, Sharon Gannon, and David Life Speak Out, and Silence and Silencing at Jivamukti Yoga and Beyond, which explore in depth the recent sexual harassment lawsuit against the Jivamukti Yoga School.]
The sexual harassment case against the Jivamukti Yoga School has been settled and sealed. Ruth Lauer-Manenti has exited stage right for teaching gigs in Berlin and Switzerland. Sharon Gannon and David Life have exited stage left for retreats in Costa Rica, upstate New York, and then Moscow in the fall. Holly Faurot has left the show altogether to practice, heal and get on with her life by teaching yoga to at-risk youth in Brooklyn.(1)(2)
The local effects of the case continue to quietly ripple. Several off-record insiders told me that Jivamukti teacher training numbers are drastically down from previous years. One current teacher told me that they’re patching together an exit plan, disgusted with bosses they accuse of fouling the brand they spent tens of thousands of dollars and hours helping to build. Some former teachers are now wondering how to reference Jivamukti in their educational history.
Confidentiality deals, rebranding, and the unconscious of the deep web will eventually swallow these stories. But the larger effects of the case – hammered out in the discourse surrounding it – form the latest crest on a wave of challenges confronting the global culture of yoga teaching, business ethics, and even philosophy.
The lawsuit has provoked the formation of an activist group, the staging of one of several planned public panels on abuse in the yoga world, and a petition to the Yoga Alliance to add trauma-sensitive training to the 200-hour curriculum. It has led to a broken teaching contract in at least one studio. It has exposed the rationalizations by which guru culture becomes indistinguishable from rape culture. It has spotlighted fundamental questions about the scope of practice for yoga teachers, and what kinds of spaces studio owners are obliged to foster. These tangles lead to even deeper questions about the nature of the human beings the yoga industry presumes to serve.(3)(4)(5)
The most dramatic themes have emerged in pitched online battles. On one side are Jivamukti teachers, students, and affiliate studio owners who reject accusations that they are cultists and avow the effectiveness of their method and the bonds of their community. On the other are former students and teachers who point to the school as an example of everything that’s wrong with modern yoga: a quintessentially American pyramid scheme, topped by charismatic pretenders.
But beneath the storm, subtler disputes are unfolding, perhaps most clearly seen in the point-counterpoint between yoga veterans like Leslie Kaminoff and a new generation of educators about how to move forward in the shadow of perennial scandal.
Kaminoff is one a handful of prominent students of the lauded yoga therapy pioneer T.K.V. Desikachar. He’s an anatomy instructor and yoga historian, and he provided a central voice for Michelle Goldberg’s report on the Jivamukti scandal in Slate.com. Goldberg consulted him as a former Jivamukti teacher, and as a veteran of the Manhattan yoga scene.(6)
“He gave voice to what I suspected a lot of readers were thinking,” Goldberg wrote via email.
In the article and a follow-up video, Kaminoff described growing wary of the Jivamukti scene in the early 1990s, as Gannon and Life became increasingly clear about their intentions to “remystify” yoga. He described how they built their faculty and business through a culture of emotional surrender and free labour, noting that leaders in cult-like environments become incapable or unwilling to distinguish disagreement from disloyalty. He criticized their militant veganism, their penchant for showing animal slaughterhouse films during yoga classes, and their negative attitudes towards their students having children.
But Kaminoff parts ways with other critics of Jivamukti by saying that participation in the school requires multiple choices that ensure its students are clearly consenting to everything that happens to them.
“Given how much buy-in there has to be in order to become a special person within an atmosphere like that,” he explained in the video, referring to Faurot, “it’s not a powerful way to go through life, identifying as a victim, when there are so many choices along the way.”(7)
Faurot accused Lauer-Manenti of abusing her status as mentor and supervisor to sexually grope her over the course of a year and a half.
“Holly’s situation is the result of choices she made and continues to make,” wrote Kaminoff in an email interview for my first article in this series. “To assert otherwise is to strip her of any meaningful agency in the matter.”
In a portion of our interview I didn’t publish, he offered a further assessment of the dynamics at play.
“Whatever power Ruth seems to have as a guru is that which has been given to her by students who choose to suspend their critical thinking in order to gain acceptance, love, better class times, whatever. Ultimately, the students have the power to eventually wake up, heal, and move on.”
In a subsequent interview, Kaminoff clarified, “It goes without saying that teachers should not harass or abuse their students. But because students cannot control their teachers, or know with 100% certainty that every teacher will act with integrity, students need to watch out for themselves and make decisions in their own best interests.”
The emphasis on student empowerment is the lynchpin of a broader argument Kaminoff has made for more than a decade as the unofficial spokesman of an anti-regulatory movement in American yoga. Schools can be incompetent and gurus can be abusive, he concedes. But campaigning to control their curricula or policing their actions is both presumptuous and threatening to the relational structure he posits as the heart of yoga pedagogy. He argues that making behavioural ideals into rules not only needlessly provokes temptation, but obstructs the directness, immediacy, and power of the student-teacher relationship.
“I avoid engaging in any action that will lead to third-party interference in the student-teacher relationship,” he declared in a 2008 manifesto against both regulatory bodies and the desire of some yoga therapists to legitimize the profession to health insurance providers.(8)
A Trauma-Sensitive Paradigm Emerges
Those who disagree with Kaminoff’s approach suggest that appeals to personal agency in student-teacher relationships are both insensitive and insufficient when a person’s power of choice is compromised.
Jess Glenny, a British yoga teacher and yoga therapist specializing in working with people who have experienced sexual, emotional and physical trauma, was one of many who begged to differ with Kaminoff’s statements on the Jivamukti case.
“This woman is an abuse survivor in process of recovery,” Glenny wrote in an online comment, referring to Faurot.
“This isn’t about her choices. It’s about the way her neurology has responded to abuse. It’s biologically determined by her experiences. If someone has lost a leg, we don’t chastise them for not being able to run when someone tries to mug them.”
“Some of my clients are very, very vulnerable to this kind of behaviour,” Glenny said, referring to Lauer-Manenti’s harassment of Faurot.
“They often don’t have an understanding of appropriate boundaries. They can be triggered into a reflexive passivity and a need to placate in order to survive when someone makes a sexual advance on them. People with these issues are in our yoga classes, and we all need to be aware of this.”
Kaminoff released his follow-up video on May 15th, in part to respond to comments like Glenny’s, as well as numerous commenters who accused him of victim-blaming. He referred to a question I asked him in our first interview: If he’d known about Faurot’s history of abuse, would that have changed his comments about her personal responsibility?
“I thought long and hard,” he said. “My first reaction was ‘Well, that really sucks, that someone with that history got involved in that situation.’
“But so many people have that history. So many people react so differently to that history.”
He went on to detail the age-old categories of things we do not choose: nature, and nurture. “There’s nature, or your genetic inheritance,” Kaminoff asserted, “and there’s nurture — or the environment you grew up in, and how people treated you.”
He raised the example of people with albinism — a genetic or “natural” condition they obviously didn’t choose. He wondered aloud whether they might “be the least likely to develop skin cancer, because they’ll be the ones who are most protecting themselves against UV radiation. They’re not going to walk into a tanning parlour.”
In the same way, he suggested, sexual abuse survivors, who have been subjected to conditions of nurture they didn’t choose, should take actions to keep themselves out of “situations where their vulnerabilities will be exploited.
“How you respond to being a victim of something determines the outcome,” he said.
“So would I have said things differently,” he asked, “had I known this teacher had this history? I would say no.
“Because choices were made, knowing what the history is, and potential vulnerabilities…. This is how lessons get learned.”
Yoga Practice, Scope of Practice
Through the lens of Feminism 101, Glenny and those who echoed her are protesting a basic misunderstanding of consent flowing from the Jivamukti faithful in dozens of comment threads:
The accuser chose her circumstances. She only complained when she wasn’t getting the attention she wanted. To imply that she was victimized is to demean and infantilize her. She has free will and she should have exercised it to her advantage.
But applied to yoga culture generally, their pushback raises the question of who, if anyone, is qualified to make assumptions about the inner capacities of students, along with what kinds of training might be required to serve a growing cultural awareness of the impacts of power, abuse and trauma upon a student’s ability to develop and thrive.
Recently, many yoga educators have been inspired by the interdisciplinary work of Trauma Sensitive Yoga innovators like David Emerson. Yoga teacher and somatic psychologist Hala Khouri has been featured by Yoga Alliance in an interview on the trauma-informed yoga, and has recently released a trauma-sensitive yoga programme through Off the Mat, into the World. Trauma sensitivity, social services, and social justice also intersected at the annual meeting of the Yoga Service Council which opened with an exploration of “trauma-informed yoga and mindfulness methodologies.”(9)(10)(11)(12)
These trainings introduce teachers to the incidence rate of trauma in the general population, how trauma impacts physiological and psychological responses, or a student’s capacity to say no to physical adjustments or emotional suggestions, how instructional language can offer options instead of ideals, and how not to further marginalize people who may be carrying shameful burdens.
Jivamukti’s Gannon and Life say that issues of trauma-sensitivity are beyond their scope of practice. When I interviewed them for the first article in this series, I asked for a response to a quote from an ex-Jivamukti teacher who lamented that the school didn’t provide trauma-sensitivity training to its staffers, even as its method encourages constant hands-on adjustments.
“It is illegal for us, as yoga teachers, to diagnose or treat someone with a physical or emotional trauma,” they wrote, via email. “We are only allowed to teach yoga. When a teacher gives a student a hands-on assist it is to help the student do the asana correctly and safely. A student can injure themselves by practicing yoga with incorrect alignment.”
But off-record sources say that adjustments at the Jivamukti Yoga School also project power and foster intimacy between teachers and students. In one videoed class, Sharon Gannon delivers a sermon against finding fault in others while sitting on a student’s thighs. The student is immobilized in reclined hero pose.(13)
I asked Glenny via email what she felt about Jivamukti’s answer.
“Obviously, nobody’s asking yoga teachers to diagnose or treat anyone with or for anything,” she wrote. “Yoga teachers don’t get those tools from practice and general training.
“But we should respond appropriately to what our students bring into the room. If a student comes into a class with prolapsed discs or a repaired knee, it’s clear that we should have an awareness of this if we’re going to adjust them.
“Also, touching someone is never just about alignment and physical safety,” Glenny continued.
“Many subtle messages are conveyed through touch. If a person has experienced sexual trauma, especially as a child, what they receive from touch may not be the message intended.
“If the intention does cross boundaries, they will experience difficulty in decoding the inappropriateness and taking action to protect themselves.”
Impacts on the Workshop Circuit
Theodora Wildcroft is a trauma-sensitive yoga instructor who teaches asanas and breathwork to non-neurotypical youth. She’s also a PhD candidate in Religious Studies at The Open University, researching the intersection of British counter-culture and social activism with transnational yoga culture.
She argues that the kind of trauma-aware training that could help disarm the power imbalances at play in the Jivamukti case should become a minimum requirement for yoga schools.
“As a trauma survivor, I need to know what spaces are safe for me to enter as a student,” Wildcroft wrote in an online comment.
“The Jivamukti lawsuit said that the student was encouraged to consider the teacher a more enlightened being than they were. Then she was to share a bed with that teacher ‘platonically’. Then she wound up being sexually touched by that teacher.
“The management not only did nothing, they continued to support the teacher, while suggesting that their policies need no review. That is not a safe space for me, and not one I can encourage others to enter.”
As to Kaminoff’s emphasis on student responsibility, Wildcroft approved of his transparency on a Skype call from her home in Southern England.
“His statements do prospective students a service,” she said. “He understands what his views are regarding free will and the primacy of the individual, and he speaks them clearly and confidently.
“The real problem in yoga culture is with powerful teachers who either hide these views or don’t even know that they hold them – who don’t realize that they’re shaming vulnerable students for not possessing the qualities they actually came to yoga to develop.
“Then there are all the studios and schools and other institutions that fail to challenge this status quo within the culture.”
“So I’m grateful that he’s made it very clear that I can never attend his classes,” Wildcroft continued. “Not because I’m concerned he can’t teach anatomy or that he will injure me in some direct way, but because his comments make me unsure of his interest in what an abuse survivor has to say about how her past impacts her responses, or what she needs to feel safe and supported.”
An entire yoga community in Portland, Oregon, shares Wildcroft’s analysis. Todd Vogt and Annie Adamson, co-owners of Yoga Union, recently cancelled an upcoming weekend intensive with Kaminoff in which he was scheduled to teach on the anatomy of breathing in yoga postures. Their decision came in response to local, student and faculty concerns surrounding the Jivamukti conversation.
Their awkward process, played out publicly on social media, is a watershed moment in yoga business ethics, and a sign that trauma-awareness in yoga culture is going mainstream. It’s the first time I’m aware of that studio directors have allowed a programming and business decision that merges political and therapeutic concerns to be guided by community input an open forum.
(Full disclosure: I occasionally travel from my home in Toronto to present at Yoga Union, and have known Vogt, Adamson, and many faculty members for the past three years.)
The fracas began with Yoga Union sharing Kaminoff’s clarification video to its Facebook timeline. Yoga Union Teacher Ivy Katz commented, questioning whether Kaminoff’s attitudes to the victims of abuse indicate a flaw in his teaching approach.
“I’m disappointed that someone who is such an ‘expert’ on the anatomy of yoga seems to lack any understanding of neurobiology,” she wrote beneath the post.
A mental health worker specializing in developmental trauma, Katz had first expressed her concerns to Vogt weeks earlier.
On May 21st, Yoga Union issued its first public comment on the brewing debate, attempting to both soothe concerns and preserve the business arrangement. They defaulted to a well-worn path in the history of yoga controversy – encouraging students to separate the teacher from the teachings.
“Hosting him doesn’t mean we endorse his views on psychology any more than they mean we endorse his political or religious views,” Vogt wrote.
“Hosting him means that we trust he is qualified to teach yoga and anatomy.”(14)
This careful answer fell flat. One Portlander decried it as “tone-deaf”, while another wrote: “As a yoga teacher of over 15 years, a former studio owner, and a PhD psychotherapist specializing in trauma I would say your convenient ‘compartmentalization’ of this situation is only further damaging to your studio’s reputation. Is this how you want your students and the public to see you, turning a blind eye?”
That evening, Yoga Union teacher Carly Budhram publicly distanced herself from the studio’s statement, writing: “As a woman, a yogi, and a yoga instructor at Yoga Union, I do not in any way endorse Yoga Union’s statements, or Leslie’s comments, or his presence at our studio.
“As much as Kaminoff’s understandings of the physical practice of yoga have greatly supported my own practice and teaching (among many, many others), I do not believe that can be separated from such an egregious perspective on personal agency and abuse – especially considering the field we’re in, and the deeply problematic lack of boundaries we are complicit in perpetuating when we do not speak up.”(15)
Vogt and Adamson took heed of Katz, Budhram, and many others, and the next day apologized to their faculty and student body. They noted the sensitive personal territory and confusing business situation they were in, and asked for continued feedback and guidance.(16)
On May 24th, they discussed the issue with the teacher training cohort that made up the majority of the event’s registered audience. The trainees told the studio owners and management that they’d prefer a different instructor.
On May 30th, Yoga Union announced their decision to cancel with Kaminoff “on the basis that insensitively and inaccurately speaking outside his scope of practice has compromised his voice and lost his audience at Yoga Union.”
The studio has since devoted that weekend to a “Trauma Informed Yoga Community Event”, to be facilitated by local trauma sensitivity professionals, and featuring open community discussion.
“Our community is our greatest teacher,” wrote Vogt on the Yoga Union timeline. “We are looking to them for guidance.”(17)
Beyond a broken collegiality, the decision has also led to a financial dispute, with Yoga Union forfeiting their deposit, and Kaminoff’s talent agent sending the studio into collections to recover non-refundable travel costs.
“Free will is a powerful story, but not everyone can tell it.”
On the surface, Kaminoff’s approach resonates in at least one way with the new paradigm of trauma sensitivity — through his long-standing belief that yoga should serve the unique needs of the person.
“The ultimate context of yoga is the person who is doing it,” he wrote via email.
“To me, the purpose of yoga is to bring an individual to more of a state of balance, whatever that means for that person. What’s balance for me can be very different than what’s balance for you.
“I think that yoga is about understanding our own individual nature. As my teacher, T.K.V. Desikachar says, ‘The yoga must be adapted to the individual.'”
Kaminoff’s acknowledgement of individual needs, however, blends with overtones of individualism that presumes an inviolate personal agency.
“There’s stuff that happens that we didn’t choose,” he emphasized in his video elaboration.
“But then there’s how we respond – how we chose to respond to the things we didn’t choose.
“There’s nature and nurture versus free will and the choices we make.”
It’s unclear whether this seemingly common-sense philosophy will survive feminist analysis and trauma-sensitive practice, neither of which separate things that happen to a person from how a person is able to act in the world. Whether studying the propaganda of rape culture or the effects of abuse on sympathetic nervous response, both disciplines — which are changing global yoga discourse from the inside out — argue that the very capacity for personal agency is heavily if not completely socially and experientially conditioned.
Nonetheless, Kaminoff’s statements are neither unique nor fringe in the yoga world. They resonate with a core tenet of yoga faith in the new age: a belief in the personal power by which anybody, regardless of their history, can re-make themselves. The belief is rooted in ancient and medieval practice manuals – or at least contemporary readings of them – that encourage yoga practitioners to transcend their socialization and re-identify themselves with internal or transcendent sources of joy and calm.
The modern era appropriates and fertilizes this metaphysics with the gospel of American independence and the spiritualitized capitalism that has allowed yoga to globalize. Whether yoga teachers channel bygone sources to tell students to “Practice, and all is coming,” or corporate mantras of “Just do it,” the power of modern yoga marketing turns on its invitation to the individual to step out of internalized abuse and oppression into the triumph of self-sufficiency.
It’s a message that can make therapeutic sense. Practice often seems to begin where positive intuitions provoke decisive effort. Don’t we, after all, choose to practice, and by practicing, enrich our capacity for making new choices? Aren’t we choosing to undo the recurrent patterns of suffering targeted by the medicine of yoga? Isn’t there someone inside of us who remains fundamentally smart and sound, and who, despite everything, knows and wills the way?
As both scholar and survivor, Wildcroft doesn’t see the belief in American-style free will as an eternal tenet of yoga philosophy, nor that it refers to an essential attribute of the yoga student. For her, it’s more of a placebo – which means it’s also a resource, and perhaps the privilege of those who haven’t been affected by trauma.
“Free will is a powerful story, she said via Skype. I’d caught her after her evening classes. “It’s a story we may need. But not everyone can tell it.”
I asked her what she thought about Kaminoff’s statement that people fall prey to abusive persons or organizations because they “choose to suspend their critical thinking.”
“No-one chooses to suspend their critical thinking,” she said. “This is an idea borne from immense neurotypical privilege.
“Over time, I’ve realized that my free will is not as free as I thought it was. My ability to choose as an adult through most of my life has actually been quite crude.
“If I’m caught unprepared, I might hug someone who’s hurt me. I might smile. I’ll say whatever it takes to get them to leave me the fuck alone. So how free is that? These are both symptoms of my history, and tools I’ve developed to cope.
“If yoga culture can’t understand this mechanism, and how it complicates power and consent, it can’t allow me to develop my power of choice further.”
I wondered aloud how yoga has helped her, given that most of the culture isn’t dialed in.
“Yoga practice can radically change my ability to consent. But I have to be in one of those rare spaces where I can let go and be broken, and not be told what’s wrong with me by people who think they have the answers.
“Safe spaces are spaces in which survivors can learn to heal themselves.
“When Jivamukti pretends that trauma-sensitive training isn’t their concern, survivors are reminded that they’re only allowed to be in one of two states. Either you’re broken and you should get the fuck out of here and get fixed. Or you’re fixed – in which case you don’t have any problems, so sure – let’s do yoga together.”
“That Jivamukti response is saying: ‘Don’t come to us with your needs. They don’t fit our view of ourselves or the world. Go away and get them fixed.’”
“Trauma-sensitive yoga brings it back to the person,” she explained. “It puts them in charge. That’s what’s missing in yoga culture in general. We’re too invested in the idea that the teacher is the expert in the condition of the student. That hurts everyone on some level.”
Dusk gathered in Toronto; the night deepened in England. Wildcroft sat back in her chair. It was clear this would be an ongoing conversation.
“The trauma survivor is the canary in the yoga studio coal mine,” she said. “We’re going to react worse than anyone if you stigmatize us.”We’re asking for safer spaces, and honourable relationships, and the cultural and institutional support to help make that happen.
“We’re asking because what’s good for us will benefit everyone.”(18)
NOTES AND RESOURCES:
2. Gannon and Life’s 2016 tour schedule, accessed 6.15.2016.
3. From Darkness to Light website and studio pledge. Trauma-sensitivity also drives the work of FDTL co-founder Anneke Lucas, director of Liberation Prison Yoga. Accessed 6.15.2016.
4. Abuse of Power panel, sponsored by Yogacity NYC, 5/3/2016, accessed 6.15.2016.
6. “A Workplace, an Ashram, or a Cult?”, accessed 6.15.2016.
7. “Teachers and Students: Rule Making, Rule Breaking.” Accessed 6.15.2016.
8. “I’m Not a Yoga Therapist Anymore”, accessed 6.19.2016. See also Yoga Talks with Leslie Kaminoff on Regulation EXTENDED. Accessed 6.20. 2016.
9. Healing Trauma with Yoga with David Emerson. Accessed 6.20. 2016.
10. Talking Teacher Ethics with Hala Khouri. Accessed 6.20. 2016.
11. Off the Mat Into the World, Yoga for Self-Regulation and Trauma. Accessed 6.20. 2016.
12. Yoga Service Council 2016. Accessed 6.20. 2016.
13. Jivamukti Master Class w Sharon Gannon (2014-10-Oct). Time cue: 1:12:00. Accessed 6.15.2016.
14. “Dear Yoga Community…”. Accessed 6.15.2016.
15. “I’ve been sitting a lot with my thoughts…”. Accessed 6.15.2016.
16. “Our community is our greatest teacher…”. Accessed 6.15.2016.
17. “Trauma Informed Yoga Community Event.” Accessed 6.15.2016.
18. Wildcroft’s blog on Trauma Sensitive yoga practice provides a solid introduction to her work in the field.