Thursday, June 6, 2019

Interview with Matthew Remski about "Practice And All Is Coming"

by Donna Noble

Donna: Congratulations, Matthew, on the release of your new book Practice And All Is Coming. Can you briefly tell us what this book is about and why you decided to write it? 


MatthewThe book covers the serial and predatorial abuse of Ashtanga founder Pattabhi Jois, and how it was enabled, rationalized, and even spiritualized by his senior students and community. It uses tools from cult analysis discourse to explore how it wasn’t simply a matter of a single perpetrator committing crimes against individuals, but rather it was enmeshed within and perpetuated by a social dynamic. The conclusion of the book offers self-inquiry tools for examining signs of toxic social dynamics that foster or cover over abuse. These tools for critical thinking and community health are designed for students, teachers, trainers, and service providers in modern yoga and global Buddhism, but I hope they have broader applications as well, up to and including how we organize community in the shadow of climate crisis.

Donna: What can readers expect from the book? 

Matthew: A victim/survivor centered approach. Solid reporting, fact-checked. Riveting stories. Triggering stories. Good historical research, backed by top yoga scholars. Analysis of the tragedy using the tools of cult analysis. A normalization of those tools, so that they don’t feel so shameful and alienating. 

I’m especially proud to have been able to platform the work of Alexandra Stein in the fourth part of the book. She shows that attachment patterns are at the heart of the cult experience—that however you formed relationships from childhood is scrambled by a high-demand group into the pattern known as “disorganized,” a highly-aroused state in which love and fear are completely conflated. Being recruited into a high-demand group is nothing to be ashamed of. It’s rather a sophisticated hijacking of the way in which all human beings form bonds. 

It’s not an easy read. A lot of readers are saying that it sheds new light on their own yoga or Buddhism groups. This can be both startling and liberating. Hopefully readers stick around to read the upward arc of the workbook.

Donna: What has been the biggest takeaway for you whilst researching and writing the book?

Matthew: Two things. First, as Theo Wildcroft puts it, the abuse survivors of any culture are the canaries in the coal mine of the world. They have the most lucid view on how we actually treat each other as a species and what the stakes are when we pretend otherwise. While polite society carries on as if everything is fine, it hides the fact that it’s actually running on the silence of survivors. If the women who Pattabhi Jois assaulted over 30 years had been listened to and believed and advocated for, there would be no Ashtanga Yoga today. 

What does that mean? It means that if you look around, every institution you see—especially if it promotes and advocates for a better world, a more spiritual self—has to have its aspirations compared to its reality. It bears repeating: If Jois had been arrested in the U.S. in 1987, when it was clear to the majority of his senior American students that he was committing crimes, Ashtanga Yoga might have died then and there. We have to let that sink in. Not listening to survivors is at the root of social deception, and it perpetuates itself, becoming intergenerational. In the case of Ashtanga Yoga, that deception built an empire, and a pile of cash.

Perhaps it’s a poignant example of karma. That we go on with our lives as normal, but with an unacknowledged wound at the very centre of things that we must continue to cover over—with the next sequence, the next training, the next “deepening” of our practice.

Second, never underestimate the resilience of abuse survivors. They’re actually remaking the global yoga movement as we speak.

Donna: Why did you not speak out earlier about what you personally witnessed? 

Matthew: To be clear: I never personally witnessed sexual abuse in a yoga class. I was physically assaulted by a teacher “adjusting” me, and I came to understand that over time as related to my broader experience of male violence and corporal punishment. But that took a long time. I just didn’t want to view that incident through that framework. So in that sense I have just a bit of the experience of not feeling able to speak out.

Where I did fall down was in not supporting my friend Diane Bruni when she disclosed her knowledge of Jois’s assaults at a public event in Toronto in 2015. As I’ve told the story in the book—I just didn’t want to go there. If Jois was a serial abuser, as the then-quiet stories seemed to suggest, what did that mean about his legacy and influence upon the entire yoga world? What exactly had we all been ignoring or overlooking or rationalizing or spiritualizing? For a whole year, it was too much for me to bear, until I realized that Diane was bearing a whole lot more than my disenchantment.

Donna: Is there any difference or similarities between the #metoo and #yogatoo scandals. 

Matthew: The only difference might be in that #yogatoo adds in the dynamic of spiritual abuse, which is its own category. No one looked to Harvey Weinstein for spiritual teaching. So the betrayals involved with his crimes are not worse, but different. With Jois, the spiritual abuse comes with having manipulated people’s desires for communion or oneness.

Donna: What do you think about informed consent? 

Matthew: It would be a great idea for the yoga world! But we don’t have it. Teachers don’t even have a defined scope of practice, so by definition they can’t offer informed consent. Nor can they offer it in an unregulated industry that has no accountability structures. 

It’s a huge challenge, because the profile of the modern yoga master—we can take BKS Iyengar as an example—is literally built on the absence of informed consent, and the absence of scope of practice. The premise of being his student is that he knows everything about yoga and everything about you—so much so that you cannot understand what he understands. So you literally cannot be informed. It’s a surrender-to-total-knowledge paradigm, whereas implied consent demands that the practitioner surrenders knowledge and transparency to the client or student as a prerequisite to the contract. Iyengar didn’t become who he was by submitting to peer review or being held accountable by a college of his peers. He became Iyengar by doing the opposite. His students could neither be fully informed as to the nature of his genius, nor, given the power dynamics involved, could they consent to his interventions. 

Donna: How can we avoid this happening again? 

Matthew: In the 6th part of my book, I lay out a workbook for helping students, teachers, and trainers foster critical thinking and community health. It’s not going to solve abuse in the yoga world, but I do believe it will help educate the professional class in the detection of cultic dynamics, and raise the bar for demanding accountability from leaders. 

The section contains a number of thought exercises based on the analysis of the Jois event, and also defines a scope of practice for “yoga humanities” (as opposed to “health sciences”), because now it’s more on the level of history, culture, philosophy, textual study, and psychology that new students can be deeply manipulated. The functional movement crowd has pretty much degraded the notion that the Iyengar or Jois methods are biomechanically sound or useful. And they’ve done it with evidence. That’s not where naïve students will continue to be deceived, however. They’ll be deceived by being told that Iyengar and Jois were great philosophers or spiritual teachers. A scope of practice for yoga humanities will help students assess whether or not those marketing claims are true, because they serve as propaganda for the rest of the method.

Donna: What does the essence of yoga mean to you and has it changed since writing the book? 

Matthew: The book has only deepened my sense of what’s truly important to me in practice. My current understanding of moksha revolves around the possibility of seeing oneself, one’s relationships, and the world as clearly as possible. This means understanding projection, transference, idealization. It means seeing through the anxiety by which we organize our power structures. It means trying to understand interdependence and everything that invisibly makes up your world and your position in it. It means seeking out a pause when possible and feeling all of the threads of connection hum and vibrate. 

Working on a book about abuse and healing in the yoga world amplified all of these things. It broke through my desire to idealize the yoga world—a habit that was wrapped up in spiritual bypassing. It forced me to listen carefully to the experiences of people who carry traumas I have never known. That exposure has opened me up to a vision of how necessary empathy is, and how supportive we can be when we feel it, if we’re also open to feedback.

As my interview database for the project expanded, the network between people’s experiences became more visible. Eventually it revealed an entirely alternative yoga world, which didn’t look anything like the marketing at all. It looked like the rest of the world, only painted over in gold and distraction and wishes for a perfect life. And isn’t that what coming to reality feels like? An evaporation of infatuation? Seeing things as they really are, and learning how to love again from ground zero? 

Donna: What is your hope for the future of yoga?

Matthew: That it helps us form stronger and more resilient connections with each other so that when things really fall apart, we’ll tear each other to pieces a little less quickly. 

To order Practice And All Is Coming, go to embodiedwisdom.pub (which also offers wholesale pricing at embodiedwisdom.pub/wholesale) or your favorite online retailer, such as Amazon


Donna Noble is the Founder of CurveSomeYoga, which is about helping to make yoga more inclusive and accessible. Her passion is sharing the transformational benefits of yoga and showing that everyBODY is a yoga body. She is a Body Image Ambassador and is about all things body positive. You can find out more about Donna at www.thenobleartofyoga.co.uk.


This post was edited by Nina Zolotow, co-editor of the Accessible Yoga blog and Editor in Chief of Yoga for Healthy Aging.

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