Earlier this month, Matthew Remski interviewed me for his podcast “Conspirituality” (my interview starts at the 37-minute mark) where we talk about my newest book, The Cult of Trump, and explore the overlaps between the cults of personality that destroy political, wellness, and spiritual cultures. We discuss changes in cultic technique in the age of lockdown, and how best to maintain contact with a person transformed by manipulation.
It was such a good conversation, I wanted to continue the discussion for my YouTube channel and blog. Matthew is a former member who now helps people to understand destructive yoga cults. He has helped to expose the dangers centered around globalized yoga and Buddhism. In our discussion, he shares about his transition from being an insider to becoming an outsider and how critical inquiry played a big role.
Matthew’s latest book, Practice And All Is Coming: Abuse, Cult Dynamics, And Healing In Yoga And Beyond shares tips on how to co-create safer yoga and spiritual communities. Through dogged investigative work, careful listening to survivor stories of assault and abuse, and close analysis of the cultic mechanisms at play in the sphere of Pattabhi Jois’s Ashtanga community, he offers a sober view into collective and intergenerational trauma. The book also offers a clear pathway forward to critical thinking, student empowerment, self-and-other care, as well as community resilience. His book concludes with practical tools for a world rocked by abuse revelations. It opens a window on the possibility of healing—and even re-enchantment.
The book serves as a good case study of the ways in which cultic manipulation unfolds in very pernicious ways in a mainstream yoga organization. Ashtanga Yoga has hundreds of satellite meeting spaces all over the world in multiple different languages. The book centers on 16 women who give testimony about the leader sexually and physically assaulting them over a period of 30 years under the guise of physical adjustments during yoga classes.
Abuse such as this does not happen in a vacuum. There is one sociopathic leader at the center of things and an entire network of complicity around him, who enable and benefit from the abuse that is covered up. I highly recommend this book to anyone currently involved with or thinking about joining a yoga group. Matthew’s expertise and knowledge help to educate and protect people from this type of cult abuse.
Their stories are similar in nature to that of Rachael Denhollander, American lawyer and former gymnast, who was abused by Dr. Larry Nassar. He abused hundreds of young girls and women, often with the parents in the room. Pattabhi Jois, the founder of Ashtanga yoga (born in 1918) was widely regarded as not only a spiritual leader but also a grandfatherly and fatherly type who only had the best intentions and motivations in dealing with his students. Like Nassar, he was doing something that was supposed to be positive and beneficial, in broad daylight. Both were viewed as credible authority figures who were “above suspicion” of being a predator. But they did great harm and were allowed to continue harming for many years because of enablers and intentional coverups.
Matthew and I discuss how dangerous any group is when people are asked to trust blindly and surrender their critical faculties, as well as their conscience. The practice of doing difficult postures or asanas in yoga or sitting for ten hours in meditation can set a person up for abuse. Veneration to a “master” creates an environment for destructive mind control indoctrination. Naturally, much of this influence not only comes from the top teacher but from other lieutenants and members. When under the influence of charisma, spiritual extremism, and authoritarian control, the person can surrender themselves in the quest to evolve spiritually. Reality gets redefined and you learn to become an obedient follower.
These groups prey on natural feelings people have to be a part of something bigger than themselves. To belong. They find it much easier to recruit people who are experiencing a loss of meaning: a divorce, death of a loved one, a major move to a new city, state, or country. They are taught to believe they will be transformed into a higher state of being or that they will be the best version of themselves, gaining confidence and fulfillment. And all of this happens during the initial honeymoon phase. Then the incremental indoctrination begins to get more and more demanding.
While yoga and meditation can be healthy and beneficial, one needs to be a wise consumer. Disclosure: I have been doing yoga with a variety of teachers for health reasons for many, many years, and not for spiritual enlightenment. I started doing yoga after my treatment for cancer. I found some great teachers at my local Jewish Community Center. I find it a very healthy way to put aside the stresses of my work life. I breathe and am present in my body. I modify instructions so I do not injure myself. I benefit from doing movements that help increase my flexibility and strength and balance.
That said, Remski says that in the vast majority of modern yoga communities, there is strong evidence of institutional abuse. The way those on the fringe look at and experience the group is very different than those in the center of the pyramid. Are you able to question the leader, the teaching, or the policies without fear or pressure? If you decide to take a break or even leave, do you experience pressure to stay? threats? Phobias that bad things will happen to you if you wish to leave? The Influence Continuum and BITE Model are helpful tools in evaluating the group.
Matthew and I discuss details of how these high-demand yoga and meditation groups manipulate and control. Unfortunately, most people have no idea that taking a yoga class could begin a very unhealthy journey into a destructive cult. Remski is dedicated to raising awareness because yoga groups continue to grow exponentially. This is because members are often recruited to become teachers and spend large amounts of money getting certified by their teacher to be allowed to teach that method. These certifications are often without value outside the cult. Especially if the top leader is exposed as a sexual predator, or financially abusive. We discuss how can we help our friends and family members that are trapped in these groups?
Matthew Remski shares his personal journey of being involved with and leaving several yoga cults and how he came to recognize the cultic manipulation and coercive influence. It is important to recognize the tools used by cult leaders to indoctrinate and control. This includes the use of meditation, incantation, and transference.
Finally, we talk about how QAnon and right-wing persons are infiltrating yoga communities. Topics such as the Illuminati and New-Age beliefs are compelling to a number of people in yoga and Buddhism communities. I wrote a previous blog about the 3HO cult of Yogi Bhajan, kundalini yoga. I interviewed former top official Pamela Dyson about her memoir. The recommended article for further details is by Julian Walker, entitled, “The Red Pill Overlap–Why New Age Yogis Have Swallowed QAnon Conspiracies“.
About Matthew Remski
(taken from https://matthewremski.com/wordpress/about/)
I have been practicing meditation and yoga since 1996, learning from teachers from the Tibetan Buddhist, Kripalu, Ashtanga, and Iyengar streams. Along the way I’ve trained as a yoga therapist and an Ayurvedic consultant, and maintained a private practice in Toronto from 2007 to 2015. From 2008 through 2012 I co-directed Yoga Festival Toronto and Yoga Community Toronto, non-profit activist organizations dedicated to promoting open dialogue and accessibility. During that same period I studied jyotiśhāstra in a small oral-culture setting at the Vidya Institute in Toronto. I currently facilitate programming for yoga trainings internationally, focusing on yoga philosophy, culture, and the social psychology of healthy communities. In all subject areas, I encourage students to explore how yoga practice can resist the psychic and material dominance of neoliberalism, and the quickening pace of environmental destruction.
I’m the author of eight books of poetry, fiction, and non-fiction. Of Threads of Yoga: a remix of Patanjali’s Sutras with commentary and reverie, scholar Mark Singleton writes: “I don’t know of any reading of the yoga sutras as wildly creative, as impassioned and as earnest as this. It engages Patanjali and the reader in an urgent, electrified conversation that weaves philosophy, symbolist poetry, psychoanalysis and cultural history. There’s a kind of delight and freshness in this book that is very rare in writing on yoga, and especially rare in writing on the yoga sutras. This is a Patanjali for postmoderns, less a translation than a startlingly relevant report on our current condition, through the prism of this ancient text.”
My most recent book, Practice and All is Coming: Abuse, Cult Dynamics, and Healing in Yoga and Beyond is earning praise internationally as a groundbreaking resource for critical thinking and community health.
I live in Toronto with my partner and our two sons.