Matthew Remski has highlighted how dominant and abusive ways of teaching yoga can be somatised by students, in a spectrum from the subtle to the brazenly abusive, which can then be perpetuated if these students are also yoga teachers. Matthew Remski has coined the term ‘Somatic Dominance’ to describe this phenomenon.
BKS Iyengar is now recognised by many for being violent and aggressive towards his students (as is evidenced in many photographs, videos and personal accounts), and this could explain why, whilst there are many sensitive Iyengar yoga teachers with unbounding integrity, Iyengar Yoga teachers often hold reputations for being strict, hierarchical and imposing.
Equally, many of us are becoming more and more aware of instances of ‘spiritual bypass’, where expressing sentiments of ‘love and light’ are used as a smokescreen behind which to hide unresolved issues. This is, in other words, 'dissociation' and I have been noticing it more and more in yoga teachers and students who train in lineages which have senior teachers or gurus who use or used their ‘spirituality’ behind which to hide sexually abusive behaviour.
Yesterday a white male yoga teacher who is devoted to a guru who is a known sexual predator (which the white male yoga teacher does not believe to be true) asked me how I was. I answered that I was feeling a bit upset about the election results, and he responded that I should not let it worry me. I felt his dismissal of my feelings as something much more than what it appeared. There was an implication that I should be 'yogic' and 'rise above it'. And slowly I realised that I could indeed ‘not let it worry me’. I am a white middle class woman, living in a lovely house in a prime, labour voting, middle class area of York. I send my son to a wonderful Steiner school and I am able to get by with the few yoga classes I teach and spend most of my time and energy on taking care of my son. So yes, I could very easily just not vote, not partake in the 'shit show' and ‘not worry’ about the fact that a racist, sexist, abusive elitist millionaire will be leading our country for the next few years. Because even though I am a single mother who has had life saving brain surgery on the NHS after a brain haemorrhage and I may have several black and ethnic minority people in my close circle of friends and family (including my own son), I have enough privilege behind me to mean that, for instance, my mortgage gets covered by my father when I have a brain haemorrhage. My son is light skinned enough for him to not be attacked in the street. I have a small enough mortgage to get by financially and not rely on food banks. Sometimes I even shop at Waitrose.
I could equally sell my house and move to Scotland, or Portugal and tell Jack that I’m alright. But I will not.
What enables me or anyone else to ‘not worry’ about the political situation with Boris/Trump is my privilege and safety. But this self entitled privilege is born from colonialism and shows a selfish disregard for those who are not safe or privileged.
And the dissociative verbal diarrhoea coming from our dissociated yoga gurus buries our pre-existing unresolved dissociated issues even more deeply within us, making us feel safer in our avoidance of what lives within us. And this apparent yogic, spiritual transcendence - to be able to ‘not worry’ about the election - is actually a self entitled, white privileged, somatically dissociated disconnection. Which is the opposite of yoga. And shows an utter lack of connection, camaraderie and compassion towards our fellow brothers and sisters, whose safety is at risk. We might think we are being activists by providing food for food banks, going out and planting trees or raising money for charity. And we are. But if we exercise our self entitled privilege by not voting, thereby helping to allow a racist millionaire to become our prime minister, we are also standing with the oppressor. Despite our best activist efforts.
As I become more aware of my own white middle class privilege, I am realising how this has made me ignorant and disconnected to vulnerable people who do not have the privilege I was born into.
I have a lot to learn. And a lot to do. It is my responsibility as a human being. I need to use my privilege.
So please, if you ask me how I am, and I say I’m upset about the election, please don’t tell me not to worry.
What is the good of yoga or any spiritual path if it does not support healthy connection to ourselves, our relationships or the welfare of society and the planet? What is the good of being able to meditate or pray or practice yoga or mantra when we can’t even connect to another human being when they tell us of their pain and suffering? What is the point of any of these practices or beliefs if they do not include emotional integrity?
Emotional integrity is the capacity we have to be self aware, to be able to connect with our true feelings and understand why we feel the way we do. It requires us to be completely honest about our feelings, listen to them and have the the maturity to understand the messages they are telling us about what we need. It is beginning to be more widely understood that anger is an emotion that combats threat; that it is there to protect us from injustice. Sadness is there because something or someone is lost; in other words it helps us to let go. Guilt serves us by helping us to see our own responsibilities. Worry tells us to plan in advance. Shame helps us to adapt our behaviour so that we can belong.
All of our emotions are there to serve us; to guide us towards wholeness and wellness within ourselves and in relationship to others. They give us feedback about what we need to feel safe, happy, connected and to belong. When we have emotional integrity, we have the maturity to be honest about our feelings, acknowledge them, listen to them, validate them and respond appropriately to them. We are able to listen to others’ feelings, and acknowledge, validate and respond appropriately to them also. We can self regulate better and we have better social skills.
Emotional integrity might come in the form of letting intolerably painful feelings of grief flow. It might come in the form of being honest about your personal needs and asserting boundaries. It might come in the form of insight that brings compassion, empathy, kindness or patience. Or it might come in the form of cultivating a ‘witnessing’ awareness so that we can take some distance and observe emotions in order to cope better. It might also require, in the case of trauma, shutting down and numbing emotional pain. But when that shutting down of our emotions begins to harm yourself or another deeply, then the integrity is lost.
Being able to hold space around our feelings, even when it is painfully intolerable, helps to lead us towards wholeness. Because when we give space to our feelings, we are listening to the needs that our feelings are pointing towards. Holding space stops us from being divided, fragmented, incoherent, incongruent and unintegrated. If we don’t listen to or respond with integrity to what has hurt us then our wounded inner warriors can continue to fight to protect us in fits of anger, passive aggression, bad behaviour, dis-regulated emotions and even nightmares.
Yet yoga and the spiritual, religious and political worlds - which we would expect to be governed by emotional integrity - are conversely wracked with dissociation, avoidance, violence, abuse and injustice. Which makes me ask, what is the point of yoga and spirituality if it compounds a lack of connection to ourselves and others?
Many of us are becoming familiar with pseudo spiritual beliefs that are far from intelligent and if anything, support the glossing over and smoke screening of what’s actually going on inside of us. Some of them sound so intelligent that it could be easy to just accept them. Such as forgiveness (of someone who has harmed you) being necessary in order to process, integrate and heal from trauma. Or another example that continues to be widely accepted is that the ego is bad. As I understand it, good clinical psychologists check that an individual’s ego is strong enough before beginning in depth trauma therapy. Good, strong, healthy egos are needed for us to be good, strong, healthy people. Somewhere along the line it seems that eastern philosophy has been misinterpreted by western minds. In order to live well in this world, we need to stop outcasting parts of ourselves because they feel bad, or because we believe them to be bad, or worse still: because a yoga or meditation teacher tells us they are bad.
The lack of emotional integrity in the yoga and spiritual world has drawn me towards trying to better understand the science behind connection and I have found some answers in psychology, neuroscience, polyvagal theory and attachment theory. Whilst Patanjali’s yoga sutras guide us towards wholeness, modern science backs it up.
Teaching yoga well is my form of activism against the spiritualisation of dissociation. Teaching yoga well is how I pray for the planet. And whilst cultivating a ‘witnessing awareness’ can be invaluable at times, I also believe that emotions are our superpower.
As Jeff Brown says, “If anything reflects your stage of development spiritually, it’s your behaviour. You can’t call yourself enlightened if you’re a self serving ass” (of which there are many in the yoga world).
I believe that whilst robots begin to take over our workplace, whilst the political world is taken over by selfish power crazy capitalists, whilst our yoga classes are run by teachers who spiritualise dissociation …. emotional integrity, which actually does the work of repair by moving us away from fragmentation towards integration, will become more valuable than ever.
I have absolutely no interest in enlightenment, gurus, yoga, spirituality or shaktipat if it does not include emotional integrity. The wellness of our society, our planet, politics, women, black and minority people - depend on the emotional integrity of us all.
Lately, the yoga world has been such a colossal disappointment to me that I have seriously considered stopping teaching and practicing altogether. Over the last year or two I have immersed myself into the worlds of psychology and capoeira, where I have found the professionalism, integrity and connection I expect. Teaching yoga is all I have done (in terms of work) for 20 years, and so to stop now would have epic ramifications in every way. Yet I know many people including teachers who have stopped practicing entirely; throwing away their mats and taking up gardening instead. And I’m talking about dedicated, passionate, long term practitioners.
Meanwhile in yoga land, teachers are brazenly abusing their students and have been for years. And now that a tiny handful of people are finally speaking out, other students are doggedly protecting their beloved, wise, abusive teachers. Which makes me wonder, does yoga actually work?
Just a few days ago I was accused of gossiping and spreading rumours when I raised the issue of a teacher who has notoriously crossed professional and ethical boundaries by having sex with countless of his students half his age. The response I received felt like an attempt to shame me into silence (naming a known fact in order to bring about justice is not gossiping or spreading rumours, and to suggest that, I believe, is gaslighting). I understood the response I received to be more of a desperate attempt to sweep something uncomfortable under the carpet because it got in the way of ‘love and light’. My silencer was a yoga teacher, which is beginning to not surprise me any more.
These days yoga, which is often translated as meaning ‘to unite’ or ‘connect’, is anything but connection. I see more avoidance, dissociation, smoke screening and pseudo spiritual clap trap than I do actual connection. Whilst abusers use yoga as the perfect smokescreen behind which to hide their unresolved dark shadows and shit behaviour, yoga, mindfulness and meditation are commonly used by many people as a way of spiritualising dissociation. What kind of Svadhyaya is that? As Ann Tapsell West once eloquently said, “You can stuff that yoga practice where the surya don’t shine”.
Don’t ever buy into the myth that yoga teachers (or any kind of spiritual, humanistic therapists) are wise, trauma free, together people who don’t have any shadows and never display behaviours resulting from their unresolved issues. Don’t ever think they they know more about you than you do. And if you’re a yoga teacher, never feed into this hype which does nothing but create hierarchy, division and disconnection. Be authentically imperfect. Admit you’ve not got your shit together. Admit who you are.
Wouldn’t it be amazing if talking about our shadows was respected and revered as being strong and courageous and admirable? Instead of being seen as shameful, weak and needing silencing or hiding behind charming behaviour, drowning it in perpetual ‘love and light’.
Blessed be the truth tellers, the trauma speakers, the whistle blowers, the people with their hearts on their sleeves, their feet in the mud and their heads screwed on. They are courageously bringing dark secrets into the light and carrying out the excruciatingly hard work of excavating, processing and integrating their feelings, behaviours and unresolved issues. If the word ‘guru’ is someone who dispels the darkness then surely the truth tellers and trauma speakers are the real gurus.
I would rather be in the presence of these light bringing warriors, than hiding in a fragmented guru’s presence and receiving shaktipat, any day of the week.
Talking to my 9 year old son about pornography has been one of the most wonderful and fulfilling parenting experiences I’ve had to date.
The conversations we’ve had have bonded us together deeply, generated a mutual respect and connected us both to our powerful inner voices that speak of justice. He has a lived experience of me talking about difficult things, being honest and brave, and that I am stepping up to my role as parent to keep him safe. I can see he feels proud of me. I feel proud of how I have protected him and his potential for happiness and healthy relationship.
The story behind all of this is a story of heartbreak and trauma.
When my son was a little baby, his father became violent towards me and we split up. After many years of single parenting, I met a wonderful man, fell in love, and in time he moved in and became my son’s much needed and adored step dad. They got on like a house on fire. We were all so happy. A year later I discovered he secretly used pornography. Arguments started, lies ensued, my heart slowly broke into pieces, his deep feelings of shame were activated and eventually it became apparent he was not prepared to address the issue and instead the problems in our relationship were blamed on me. It soon spiralled into a nightmare of gaslighting and verbal abuse as he tried to cover his tracks, minimise his problem and deflect responsibility. And meanwhile my little boy saw the father figure he adored slip away between his fingers. He walked out the day before my son’s 9th birthday, having been caught lying yet again about another mammoth porn session.
My little boy was devastated, confused and heartbroken. It was not long before he became angry with me, blaming me for the relationship breakdowns. He did not know about his father’s violence or his step father’s porn habit. All he could see was his mother emotionally smashed to pieces, with his fathers expertly feigning calm, kind gentlemanliness (something they had done their whole lives, creating a smokescreen for their abusive behaviours). The two fathers became friends, spending time together with my son, all three of them sharing in their experiences of me being an emotionally unstable woman (no doubt not discussing the porn or violence). I’m not quite sure how I survived the following months.
Discovering my ex partner’s porn habit catapulted me into a world that I knew nothing about. I began to educate myself on the effects porn has on users, partners, performers, families and society. I learned about the industry and how it is run. I learned about the brain and addiction. And I learned that a child is first exposed to pornography around the age of 10. In other words, it is not a matter of ‘if’ my son would be exposed to pornography, but ‘when’. And having witnessed the deeply destructive effects that porn has on users’ mental health and potential for healthy relationship, I felt a strong urge to protect him from the negative effects of his inevitable first exposure. The more I researched it, the more I realised I needed to have this conversation with him.
Somehow it doesn’t seem right to talk with such a young child about pornography. I wanted his first knowledge of sexual intimacy to not be pornography! But sadly, if we don’t have these conversations with children, we run a high chance of them being exposed without any tools to handle it. And the effects of that are nothing less than traumatising.
That first conversation, in the end, turned out to be surprisingly easy. I used a book called Good Pictures Bad Pictures which has been written especially for parents to read aloud to their children. I changed a few words as I went along, but the book basically did all the work for me. And it turns out that a child centred approach to discussing pornography involves informative and educative learning about the brain and how to protect it as it is growing and maturing. I realise now that it was good my son was so young, because he still wanted to ask me questions, have a conversation and engage on the subject. He was not too embarrassed.
Since then he notices images of women and girls being sexually objectified (they are everywhere) and he asks me if it is pornography. I have been able to explain that it isn’t, but that these women and girls are being turned into objects in the same way that it happens in porn. Now, when we see images of women and girls being objectified, we notice how it is impossible to know anything about who they are and we try to wonder about what hobbies she might have or what her favourite film might be. He commented once that it was like the images turn the woman/girl into a toy - whom you can discard easily.
My ex partner’s porn addiction has undone the desensitisation of sexual objectification I embodied from being bombarded with it everywhere in society. And my son now has also been protected from this desensitisation. He now, aged 10, calls out the objectification of women and girls whenever he sees or hears it. And sadly he hears it amongst his peers at school already. We know that those are the children who have not had the conversation and have not been protected.
I have heard it said many times that we need to teach our sons to respect women. But from my perspective my son doesn’t need these kind of lessons. He was born good and moral and with a strong sense of humanity and fairness and justice. The issue is not to teach him these things, but more to protect him from the people and parts of our society that lead him astray from this.
Discussing pornography with our children protects their inherent nature to be good. It is the job of parents and all grown ups to protect children. Pornography bonds a user to an image on a screen, connecting their brain and physiology to an object. It can bring about a loss of connection to our own natural libido, threatening our potential for connection, bonding and belonging with another human. All the evidence shows that using pornography causes fragmentation within individuals and damages bonding in relationship. So it is ironic that talking with my little boy about pornography has had the opposite effect. It has bonded my son and I together, giving us each a sense of belonging both internally and together. From terrible trauma has grown a sense of belonging.
For more support and information on how to address the issue of pornography with your child, tween or teen, please have a look at the Parents Program which is a free online course offered by Culture Reframed, or look up the book Good Pictures, Bad Pictures.
(And if you wonder why I have put this blog on my yoga website …. Yoga is to ‘yoke’, to connect. So talking with your child to protect them from pornography, to me, is yoga in action. And porn is the opposite of yoga.)
A deep yoga practice, in this current social and political climate, requires activism.
Almost every yoga lineage now has a senior teacher at its helm who has perpetrated abuse; mostly sexual violence, but also physical violence (see Matthew Remski’s list at the end of my Justice Manifesto for details). Many popular spiritual gurus and Buddhist organisations are also now being found to be rife with abuse.
I realise that most of us would rather get our mats out, close the doors and retreat into our practice. And there is so much value in that. But right now, this is not enough. Staying silent is not an option. Like the mother who turns a blind eye when the father abuses her child, she is then complicit in the abuse. She may not have physically committed the act, but she has enabled it. And to not stand up and speak out at this time is inadequate and negligent and goes against the underlying principle of yoga to do no harm (ahimsa).
And yet the responses we are witnessing from both the yoga/spiritual communities and the institutions employing the abusers are woefully inadequate, uninformed and deeply harmful. The responses from the yoga/spiritual community are suggestive of grooming; implying the abuse was in some way compassionate, or a way for the teacher to impart deep learning, or that the victim may be mistaken or lying, or by responding with “I was never abused and no one I know was abused”, or shifting the focus off the abuse and onto how wise the teacher is.
The responses from the institutions employing the abusers show that they have acted as nothing less than enablers; taking years for reports to be taken seriously meanwhile allowing the teacher to continue teaching and abusing, not acknowledging the abuse or validating the victim, shifting the focus away from the abuser once it does finally become public, not apologising, still employing them even after they have been found guilty or decertified. This makes a mockery of yoga.
From my personal experience of sexual violence (which was in a domestic setting), I know the response to abuse by the community can be more damaging than the actual abuse itself. And, in fact, what is happening in the yoga world is playing out exactly the same way as in a domestic abuse situation. The supporters of the abuser band together and speak badly of the whistleblowers. They shift the focus away from the violence perpetrated by the abuser and onto the victim's behaviour. They deny the abuse, propose alternative facts and distort the truth (gaslighting). They insist that there are two sides to every story as though the victim was in some way responsible, while complacently supporting the abuser.
A clear and insightful guide on how to respond competently, either as an individual, as part of a community or from within an organisation, has been written by Karen Rain and Jubilee Cooke in their article for Yoga International, How to Respond to Sexual Abuse within a Yoga or Spiritual Community. I think the ideas and suggestions in this article need to be better understood by individuals and society as a whole, not just the yoga/spiritual community.
The word yoga means to ‘yoke’. To tie together. To connect. Yet this connection is worthless when it happens in isolation. Sitting alone in a cave in the mountains achieving enlightenment is of no value to us if the village in the valley is being ripped apart by war. There is an African proverb that says, “If you want to go fast, go alone. But if you want to go far, go together”. The yoga and spiritual world is full of people who have countless hours of self practice connecting deeply with themselves, but who can’t connect with someone when they speak of their pain.
Neurobiology demonstrates to us that integration and connection is a way towards wellbeing. Science shows us that our nervous systems are designed to communicate. The science of the brain, interpersonal neurobiology, developmental science and psychology all show us that how we relate to each other is intimately linked to the health of our social, political and environmental surrounds and individual happiness. It is my view that we all have an ethical duty to make an active stand against division to create a more just, peaceful, and sustainable world. Climate change itself has been created by individuals’ desire for money, power and acquisition. Personal advancement, even of the spiritual kind, is worthless when it excludes other people.
There is a mantra in yoga which translates as, “I am that” (So 'ham) meaning 'I identify myself with the universe'. And there is an African philosophy called Ubuntu which grounds this reality into the phrase “I am because we are” meaning we are all connected through our common humanity and an individual’s wellbeing is tied up in the wellbeing of others. We are social beings with social brains. If one of us is abused, we are all abused. If one of us is silenced, we are all silenced. If one of us is betrayed, we are all betrayed. As Louis Cozolino, a psychologist whose more recent writings focus on how the human brain has evolved into a social organ, said, “We are not survival of the fittest. We are survival of the nurtured.”
If we can begin to truly take care of each other on a soulful level, we begin to protect the happiness and health of all of us, beyond human beings and including all life forms, including the planet itself. In this current climate this is desperately needed.
And if we are to truly practice yoga, then we must live by its foundational principles of truth and ‘do no harm’ (Satya and Ahimsa) and apply them to the sexual violence that has arisen in our yoga shalas, studios and communities in order to end the division, fragmentation and disconnection that has come from the abusers’ unresolved shadows. Whilst we associate ourselves, our work and our practice with ‘gurus’ or lineages that have abused or enabled abuse, we are giving out the message that we will turn a blind eye to abuse within our work. It is wrong to remain silent on the abuse that our teachers have carried out, and to continue to work within their framework, quoting them and supporting them. We need to move away from being peacekeepers and instead become truth tellers. Sometimes the truth is heinous, uncomfortable and shocking. But naming it, to me, is more spiritual than avoidance, smokescreens, stonewalling and distorted dissociation.
Deep yoga requires activism.
“The real power belongs to the people.” Greta Thurnberg