Satyananda yoga: Burn the house down

So here we are, solstice whispering at the door: “rest, sleep, digest”. And I wanted this week to write about that cosy stillness; about the frugal hedonism of holding to loved ones and dear friends and sharing a little abundance in the longest of nights and the waning, ebbing of the year.

I guess in a way I still am.

But the world catches up with us, and the work never truly ends. Relentlessly, another bell tolls this week for yoga as-it-has-been-taught-in-the-world.

Hold tight and hold on. Get a cup of something warm and settle in. This is going to take time and courage to read.

There has been, in the last few years, so many scandals, so many stories of abuse in ashrams and guru lineages and large, open, modern yoga institutions alike. With each one, if you are not in the school affected, yogis and yoginis, teachers and students have said: this is not my fight, not my fire. My guru, my school, my faith, my adherence to Patanjali, to bio-mechanics, to science, to love – these things make what I hold to my heart to be the true yoga, the pure yoga. Your yoga was always corrupt, and we, over here, those untouched by the fire, we always knew that. Meanwhile, those caught in the fire burn no less for your dismissal of that which they held to be true and pure in a complex, challenging, even corrupt world.

I think I’m going to start to refer to specific yoga practices as ‘rescued from’ a lineage, rather than ‘inspired by’.

I have been scorched myself – caught by the idea that if the single teacher of universal truths at the head of a system bringing wellbeing to hundreds of thousands does not call himself a guru, and if there are no ashrams and no head shaving and no giving over of personal belongings, then we could not have a guru scandal. How hard we fell . Again, and again, and again, and even today I still have to read John Friend’s reduction of our betrayal to sexual improprieties between consenting adults. As if we Anusaris were Victorian schoolteachers to be so easily shocked by a little Wiccan sex magic. No.

A cult is something that develops around practitioners as much as around the guru. You can just, if you’re lucky, hear a discordant note in the music; but the happy song of the kula gets louder, and louder, and louder to drown it out. The financial misdealings, the favouritism for sexual partners, the selling out to corporate interests, the increasing cost of trainings and control over how we taught, the workshops for hundreds in glamourous foreign locations where his adjustments became akin to faith healings. The bullying behind the scenes of certified teachers. The revelations of senior teachers excommunicated here and there, with no explanation. The co-creators of the teachings whom you had never heard of and who were never credited. The way those who dared to challenge, to ask for inquiry rather than instant forgiveness, to share our stories – the way we were dismissed as ‘Women’s Studies graduates’ and a vicious, vocal minority. The way, two years on, the stories of those affected have slipped away, but online magazines are helping this man rebrand himself with a new system of ‘universal’ principles. And the gods know – it still burns.

In a teacher training of nearly two hundred people I watched John turn to a young, brave, vulnerable, strong female survivor of sexual abuse and say in passing ‘It’s okay, we’re going to fix you’, and may the gods forgive me for saying nothing at the time. In a weekend workshop that left myself and my companions so spacey and ungrounded that we missed our flight home, I asked for a little help with a pose I had been struggling with. In response I was held and pulled and adjusted into a pose, all the time saying ‘I can’t’; all the time being told ‘Go deeper’, until I did, indeed, find myself in hanumanasana with no idea of how I got there or how to return to it, as the crowd applauded.

Once upon a time this ‘master teacher’ was humble in his skills. He looked you in your eyes and saw you before he asked if he could help you to go deeper. That man was gone, and with him crumbled my faith in the system, the community, the vision of a world where we could make a difference and make a little to support ourselves. Above all, we lost the dream that we could know union, taste samadhi, hold and be held by a benevolent universe just for a moment, now and again, and it would all turn out okay. When the scandal broke, like a wave, it left me gasping and grieving.

And our Anusara story is trivial. Trivial compared to what has happened elsewhere. Evidence mounts. Even as the last of the ‘great gurus’ of modern yoga passes, and we mourn their passing, knowing we will never see their like again. Even as many scholars of yoga claim that the way forward is the way back – that with a stronger, less compromised humility to guru and ashram, we can resist the commercialisation, the wholesale reduction of inner to outer beauty, and the disgusting abuse of images of pretty, skinny white women sitting beatifically in lotus to sell everything from yoghurts to real estate. They say we can, with the help of these strong men, these clear seekers and finders of Truth, find our way back home.

And all this time, other writers, scholars, practitioners and journalists have been digging at the troublesome truths in our holy institutions – and we have ignored them. Not my fight. Not my fire. Again, and again, and again, we find histories of violence, abuse, manipulation – of lives devastated and communities broken and bleeding. Article by article and investigation by investigation, the corners we thought were safe turn out as murky as the rest. But not this. Not this. This week I found myself praying, pleading: please, just leave us this.

That there was something dark and rotten in Satyandanda Australia is not news. What is; what breaks this week and so many hearts with it is the involvement of Satyananda himself. Say it loud and clear: the school of Satyananda is corrupt to the core. And in the silence and grief that follows comes Matthew Remski’s uncompromising questioning of Satyananda’s techniques in the context of the swami’s development of them:

“These techniques are aimed at deep psycho-spiritual targets. Being confident that they are not the fabrications of rapists and their enablers would be a good thing.”

Yoga nidra heals and helps. I believe that – I see that. I have no idea where to begin in the task of reconciling these stories with my ongoing work. But I must. I cannot turn away from this and pretend it isn’t my fire or my fight just because I never took the trainings that would give me the official label of Satyananda yogini. Uma and Nirlipta at the Yoga Nidra Network have quietly been disentangling the autocratic and the manipulative from that which helps and heals for years. Now, they are getting ready to speak up. About Uma having been excommunicated from the Satyananda organisation for ‘acts of defiance’. About being ‘banned’ from teaching yoga nidra. I have never been prouder of them than today.

To disentangle yoga nidra from its central foundations is to learn how to disentangle yoga from the most heinous of its roots. To continue to pretend that everything non-life-affirming about yoga is an accidental accretion from the corrupt wider world is, by now, untenable. From its complex relationship with purity and pollution; to its links to political power and the mythology of nationalism; to fractured ethical engagements with the caste system; to the half-truths and showmanship of its creation and dissemination; to intra- and inter- personal violence – all these things are in the heart and centre of what has been handed down to us.

If you think repackaging yoga for the masses began when yoga was taught in gyms, you’re being disingenuous about Sivananda offering initiations by postal order. If you think body image issues in yoga began on the glossy front covers of Yoga Journal, you haven’t seen the oiled up, naked yogis in 1930s Indian bodybuilding magazines. If you were outraged when Bikram Choudry trademarked ‘ancient’ and entirely Indian yoga postures, you need to sit down, right now, and read ‘Yoga Body’ . If you think there is an indigenous, authentic, ancient tradition of yoga untouched by sex or money or power, you haven’t been paying critical attention on your temple tours. And if you think the accounts of emotional, sexual, financial and physical abuse by gurus is rare, or – gods forgive you – malicious and scandalous gossip, then you are running out of places to hide from the real world.

I am immensely humbled by the gift of yoga cooked up from a witches’ brew of multi-national ingredients in the ashrams and palaces of India and given to the world. But I know that from Thoreau to Eliade to Indra Devi to Douglas Brooks and Richard Miller and Angela Farmer and Dianne Bondy and Seane Corn and Matthew Remski, people took that gift – and they ran with it. It doesn’t belong to the swamis and the ashrams and the gurus. It. Is. Ours. I will not be humbled and browbeaten and silenced into pretending that any man who pretends to brahmacharya and ahimsa with an eye for pretty, vulnerable young women and a habit of hitting disciples with a stick is any sort of enlightened being.

I will not keep my silence and I will hide from this no longer. How about you?

We have to grow up. I so wanted, and so want still, for there to be simple answers to health and spiritual wellbeing. I wanted there to be obvious bogeymen – from the pharmaceutical industry, to Bikram, right the way down to OmYoga magazine. (I still haven’t found anything positive to say about OmYoga.) I wanted there to be people who had walked the path before me, and could hold my hand and lead me on and tell me it was all going to be okay. But your guru, your founder, your teacher cannot do that; no more than my parents could. And they definitely weren’t going to gift you with shaktipat enlightenment by eroding your agency, your right to decide, and to know what is best for your own self. We have to grow up sometime. We have to grow up now. The world is waiting right outside your window, and it needs you to be strong, to be fierce, to be the very heart of compassion. Speak up. Speak out. Hold the survivors of this, and all guru scandals in your heart with open eyes. From this day forth give no more money to anyone who continues to trade on the Satyananda name: not one ashram, not one retreat, not one workshop, not a single local yoga class.

The good news is we are stronger, fiercer, and more compassionate than we ever knew. If it turns out that there are no enlightened gurus, then it means screwed up, confused, even crazy and violent people could do what they do; discover what they discovered. And that means we can too.

The dream yoga holds out to us is real, but it is fragile. It lives subject to the hearts, hands and actions of every practitioner. When we come together in teaching, we can recognise that teaching is just a role – just a seat we take to help each other. When we consider our practice, we can hold ourselves to the standard we held others to. Is your practice enabling you to make the best difference in the world that you can make? Is it nurturing and supporting you and reminding you every day that you are strong, you are loved and able to love and above all, that you are sufficient unto the day you choose to live – each and every day? As a result of this, do you hold and help and challenge authority when needed, and seek justice wherever you can? Because we have the right and sacred responsibility to hold our teachers to account, and stand by those hurt, and resolve to walk away from any system – any teacher – who does not hold to the highest of ethical standards. We can resolve to do this regardless of what it may cost us – in support, in security, and in friendship.

In this chilly, newly adult world, we find we are still supported. Life still breathes in and out. Miracles still happen upon the earth. Leaves fall, and the wild geese call, and frost paints the world in refracted sunlight. In this new world, we can choose to reach out, hold hands and stand with each other. We can make each circle of human and other-than-human relationships the centre of our faith. We can make the living world our temple – from forest to city centre. Yet if our lineages become circles; become networks, then we all hold responsibility for the links that we create. As the gurus fall, we are the ones left standing, and other people will judge our practice by our actions, and our responses to this crisis.

In one online Satyananda support group this week, contributors were asked not to discuss and dissect the detail of what can be saved from the practices we are left with. This week I learnt that the practices that save my sanity and safety, could need trigger warnings.

So let the house of yoga burn today. Let all the lies and the half-truths and the things we say to each other just to get us through this workshop or that class or this training burn away. Let the flames of our tapasya climb into the darkness to temper and make us as strong in ethics as we are in our practice. Let there be no more gurus, no more messiahs – no more kings or omnipotent deities either. Let there just be us, holding each other up, holding each other to account. The words of my friend Kathleen Jenks have never rung truer than today:

“What if there had been no special baby born in a cave under the stars? What if all we had had to celebrate the past few thousand years were millions and millions of babies born under the stars — small humans, growing into wise humans, with no special being to mediate between us and the heavens, no special being given the task of uniquely loving, laughing, bleeding, dying, rising? What if there were just us, the lovely earth, the watching stars? What if…….? What if all the love and tenderness for earth and each other had to come from us alone, witnessed only by the stars? What if the gods themselves have decreed that we alone hold responsibility for the wonder and fragile beauty of this planet? Could we not then do a better job of all this? — with no one to fall back upon but ourselves? I’m not suggesting that there are no deities or Watchers out there, only that perhaps we have too long depended upon rescue from “out there” instead of focusing upon the innate wisdom and compassion long ago seeded within us.”

The guru is dead. Long live yoga.

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