Note: This article is an excerpt from Matthew Remski’s new book, Practice and All Is Coming: Abuse, Cult Dynamics, and Healing in Yoga and Beyond. Yoga International contributor Lara Moon has reviewed the book here.
The book investigates decades of sexual assaults committed by Ashtanga Yoga founder Pattabhi Jois against his female students under the guise of adjustments. It is centered around sixteen first-person testimonies. Remski also analyzes how the criminal behavior was enabled by Jois’s community by pre-empting complaints from victims, rationalizing the assaults as spiritually beneficial. Theories from the literature on cult dynamics are used to explore how this “network of complicity” emerged and was sustained. The work of Alexandra Stein is featured prominently; it shows that the “high demand group” rewires individual members with patterns of “disorganized attachment” by confusing care with abuse.
This excerpt comes from the introduction, which provides a map for the book's content, introduces the survivors who provided testimony, discusses the pros and cons of applying cult analysis language to a yoga group with an abuse history, and provides historical background into the problem of male violence in modern yoga history. The introduction also includes a list of perspectives to explore and self-care practices to undertake while reading through this difficult data.
This excerpt completes the introduction by bringing attention back to the wisdom of survivors, whose voices should be at the heart of any reform movement.
Minor edits and additions have been made to the text of the book for context and clarity.
I’ll be using the word “victim” in this book because of what I’ve learned from Karen Rain and other subjects. Their use of the word to describe the state of having been assaulted by Pattabhi Jois aligns with a feminist politics that seeks to reclaim it from a common misunderstanding. “Victim,” Rain argues, should be destigmatized, because it is first a legal term. A victim is someone against whom a crime has been committed.
“The culture wants to scare us into not using the word,” Rain says. “But if we use it in a legal sense, and we are heard, the culture will have to address the crime.”
The pop psychology of our day, strongly amplified by the self-help industry, tends to ignore this legal definition. It typically presents “victimhood” as a disempowering attitude that no one who really wants to heal should adopt. To say that a person has a “victim mentality” has become a pious insult, disguised as care. The insult suggests that the aftereffects of a crime are in the victim’s perceptions only, and therefore theirs alone to repair. This is unjust and untrue. Using the legal sense of the word can be empowering, because it properly assigns responsibility to the crime. It clearly shows that the difference between criminal and victim is a difference in power and actions, and not attitudes and perceptions.
If you listen closely, the physical and material weight carried by the word “victim” can also allude to how a crime can be hardwired into the nervous system of the person against whom it was committed. Crime is traumatizing, and trauma is not a “mentality.” It is a fact that calls out for collective repair, through listening, learning, nurturing, and structural change. Telling a victim that they have a “victim mentality” perpetuates the effects of the crime.
Speaking with Rain and others and listening to feminist activism shows that when we focus on and amplify the voices of victims, three things become possible:
1. As each individual story rings out, it carves space for the wound of collective silence to begin to be healed.
2. As previously silenced voices expand in that space, the voices that have insisted that everything is orderly, reasonable, and all right—voices that are often misogynistic, presumptuous, and victim-blaming—retreat, reluctantly, to the margins.
3. As victims’ voices combine into a chorus, they validate each other in harmony and survivorship. Entire structures of denial begin to vibrate and crumble.
These three levels of revelation illuminate and evolve a core teaching found in many South Asian wisdom traditions. Almost every form of yoga and Buddhism contains a core premise: that we cannot understand who we are nor begin to find peace until we listen to the voices of suffering in ourselves, in others, and in the world. Listening is not a posture of pity or charity. It doesn’t silence with premature solutions. It begins by offering presence and solidarity.
Entering any yogic path seems to demand that we acknowledge and own vulnerability and pain. With luck and the right tools, we can then examine the ways in which we defend against and repress it: through dissociation, reactivity, othering, and aggression. We can listen to the voice that is hurting, find out how and why it has been marginalized, and ask what it needs.
Maturity seems to be marked by a growing awareness that our experience and even identity is inseparable from our suffering and the suffering of others. We come to know that we are interdependent. We feel how we are bound by internal and external hierarchies of ignorance and injustice, which, seen more clearly, and worked with patiently over a long time, might transform into networks of knowledge and care.
Another yogic project that this book seeks to further is the examination and deconstruction of social conditioning. Practitioners of diverse eras have always sought to peer beneath what the power structures of the world have told them they are, to see if they can catch a glimpse of what they could be. The voices in this book are cradled within a larger story of modern yoga that follows this old tradition in a new way. It is being told by a practice population that is eighty percent female. This statistic alone turns the average yoga community into a site in which the meanings of gender and power are implicitly explored, and their limitations challenged. Today, the answer on the back of the T-shirt that asks the question “What Would Patanjali Do?” is “Study feminism.”
By centering the voices of victims and setting them against the wider backdrop of social change that has allowed them to be heard, this book will hopefully stand not only as a contribution to justice and safety in the yoga world, but also as a work of inquiry, hope, and healing that stretches beyond the yoga world.
Neither the aspiration nor the meaning of listening came naturally to me. I’m indebted to women like Anneke Lucas, who I began interviewing in 2016. At one point, I asked her why she thought that virtually no one had listened to her story about Jois at first. She talked about the shaming and silencing of rape culture, and the high stakes involved when a community realizes that its spiritual marketing might be disguising abuse. Then she took it to another level.
“We only really listen to trauma survivors,” she said, “to the extent we recognize that we ourselves have been traumatized.”
That sentence sank in deep. It wrapped itself around another idea I’d been trying to metabolize. bell hooks writes extensively about how people of all genders suffer under patriarchy. She shows how systems of dominance and control dehumanize victims, enablers, and aggressors alike in a feedback loop of vulnerable bodies and hardened hearts.(1)
I returned to this braid of wisdom almost daily over the following years, like a compass. It helped me see where social activism and self-inquiry meet, where the personal intersects with the structural, where psychology intersects with privilege. It helped me see that the unraveling of social mechanisms of abuse depends upon examining complicity and responsibility. For me, this began with owning the fact that for the whole year I resisted writing this book, I was complicit in silencing the women to whom it is dedicated.
The next section goes on to describe how Remski’s friend and colleague Diane Bruni had publicly discussed her knowledge of Jois’s crimes during an event on yoga injuries they co-produced in May, 2015. When they went to publish the video footage of the event, Remski convinced Bruni to edit that content out. He argued that her story wasn’t ready to publicize, because it wasn’t corroborated. The truth was, however, that her story and its implications were too awful for Remski to fully consider at first. But as the months passed, he realized with regret that he had silenced his friend, and resolved to follow her story and its leads back through the decades and all the way to Mysore. Almost exactly a year after the event with Bruni, Remski tracked down Karen Rain and interviewed her for the first time.
Practice and All is Coming is available here.
1. hooks, bell. The Will to Change: Men, Masculinity, and Love. Washington Square Press, 2005.