The ‘Cultish’ Call of Yoga Studios

Yahoo News, Canada/April 5, 2016

By Beth Greenfield

In what’s shaping up to the be latest in a long line of alleged yoga-guru scandals, a woman has targeted popular New York City yoga studio Jivamukti with a $1.6 million sexual harassment lawsuit, saying it was “more akin to a cult.” Slate dove into those claims on Tuesday, finding an environment “where the lines between workplace and ashram were blurred and where supervisors doubled as gurus,” according to current and former teachers there.

“Now that I’m out of it, I’m like, yep, that’s a cult,” a teacher who left Jivamukti last year told Slate. She’s now digging herself out of the debt she amassed by following the tribe to yoga gatherings. “Everybody follows it so blindly,” she said.

The case, filed in February, hinges on the claims of Holly Faurot, who started a teacher-training program at Jivamukti in 2007. She was 27 at the time, recovering from an eating disorder and an abusive childhood, and felt that the yoga program would save her. “Jivamukti gives you this antidote. You have something now. You’ve been in therapy, you’ve done all these things, but you’re still not healed,” she said. “You feel like you want a way to move forward with your life and transform, and they give you something. They give you something you can dedicate your whole life to.”

Faurot wound up studying under Ruth Lauer-Manenti, aka Lady Ruth, and, soon thereafter, worshiping her, along with a tight circle of women who had been her apprentices. “You kind of felt like if you became her closer student, you would be further along the spiritual path,” she said. “The fact that she liked me so much, and I was her favorite, — somehow I felt so special. I really had never felt that way in my entire life, to feel that kind of love from an authority figure.”

But Faurot now believes that Lauer-Manenti took advantage of her devotion to sexually abuse her — sleeping in her bed, spooning and caressing her, and allegedly manipulating her into posing for nude photos that made her uncomfortable.

A statement on Jivamukti’s website disputes her claims: “We adamantly reject the very serious accusations against Ruth Lauer-Manenti and the New York City Jivamukti Yoga School that have recently appeared in the press. This negative campaign is being waged against our satsang, our principals and competency. These allegations are wrong and misguided, moving outside the realm of critical dialogue. There has been no proof to substantiate any of the allegations.”

Whether her assertions are ultimately substantiated or not, Faurot was certainly not the first person to at first feel swept up in the hope of yoga, its deepest tenets, and one charismatic leader — and then later believe she had been manipulated and abused.

Parallel situations over the past decades are striking in number. They include: the 2013 sexual harassment, assault, and rape charges against Bikram yoga founder and guru Bikram Choudhury by six former students; the resignation of yogi Amrit Desai, Kripalu Yoga Center founder and celibacy advocate, after news broke in the 1990s that he’d had affairs with several students; accusations of sexual abuse by students against yoga superstar Swami Satchidananda (who famously gave the invocation at Woodstock), Swami Muktananda (another preacher of celibacy), and Swami Rama, who was sued by a devotee for allegedly abusing her when she was 19 — a charge that persuaded a jury to award her nearly $2 million in damages just after Rama’s death. Then there was Yogi Bhajan, known for introducing Kundalini yoga to the U.S. but eventually being sued for sexual abuse, and Anusara yoga founder John Friend, whose massive empire was rocked by his admittance of many inappropriate sexual relationships with students. Oh, and Jivamukti was under fire in 2014, when instructor Dechen Thurman (bro of Uma) was alleged to have had affairs with students.

This checkered past has given rise to the California Yoga Teachers Association Ethics Code, which dictates, in part: “While acknowledging the complexity of some yoga relationships, we avoid exploiting the trust and dependency of students. … We do not engage in harassment, abusive words or actions, or exploitative coercion of students or former students …” and, “All forms of sexual behavior or harassment with students are unethical, even when a student invites or consents to such behavior involvement.”

So what went wrong, if anything, at Jivamukti — one of the world’s most famous yoga studios, put on the map in the 1990s by the likes of Madonna and Christy Turlington? Leslie Kaminoff, a widely renowned yoga instructor who taught at Jivamukti in the 1990s, told Slate he had an idea. “As spiritually advanced as people like to believe [founders David Life and Sharon Gannon] are, there’s some very fundamental psychological dynamics going on that are completely opaque to the people involved,” he said. “There’s not a single spiritual organization I know of that has escaped [leaders being worshiped], if they had a charismatic leader sitting at the top of it. And Jivamukti has two charismatic leaders, and other teachers have become charismatic leaders in their wake.”

Whether or not Jivamukti is an actual cult is still an open question. Rick Ross, founder of the Cult Education Institute and author of Cults Inside Out, tells Yahoo Beauty that while “the overwhelming majority of yoga studios are benign and do no harm and arguably are beneficial to people’s health and well-being,” there are exceptions that can exhibit cultish features — which is not all that surprising, considering the roots of yoga. “It goes back to the ‘guru-swami syndrome’ — ‘I am sitting at the feet of my swami, my guru, my yogi,’” he says.

Ross explains that to qualify as a “destructive cult” — as opposed to a “benign cult,” which has a charismatic leader (such as Steve Jobs) and adherence to a non-harmful ideology — an organization must exhibit three core characteristics. They are, as originally noted by the writer Robert J. Lifton in 1981: an absolute, authoritative leader who becomes the object of worship; evidence of thought reform or coercive persuasion to manipulate members, and  lastly, exploitation — financial, emotional, or otherwise.

“At problematic yoga studios,” says Ross (who has no direct knowledge of the inner workings at Jivamukti), “people say their yoga ‘is the only yoga,’ and that ‘there is no other yoga.’” Other warning signs will have “everyone rhapsodizing about the leader, fawning over the leader,” he says. “So you realize [the yoga] is personality-driven and not just about exercise and getting healthy. Also, a photo of the leader on the wall is a red flag, along with no one questioning the leader. The leader must always be right. Ask: Can the leader ever be wrong? Is there transparency?” Other cultish qualities: not being encouraged to think independently, and, upon leaving the organization, finding that you’re shunned by those still involved.

“All groups are not equally as destructive or have a compound — which uses isolation for environmental control,” Ross says. “But even without it, day-to-day life may still be dominated or manipulated to the point where people fall into a sort of subculture lifestyle.”

Ross, who says he’s done 500 interventions over the years to help get folks out of cults, stresses that no individual is immune to being swayed. “I’ve worked with people regardless of education, social background, and family dynamics,” he says. “We are all susceptible to persuasion and influence techniques. If we weren’t, there would be no political ads or advertisements at all.” That said, there are certain types of baggage that could make people, like Faurot, prime targets. 

“If an individual is wounded and has cracks in their life, those wounds offer entry points, and they are more easily exposed, exploited, and susceptible than someone else,” he says. “So if someone is lonely, depressed, and frustrated, they’re more open to someone saying, ‘I have an answer.’” But none of that should be used to blame a victim, he stresses, adding, “Teachers, psychologists, and yoga instructors have a responsibility to not abuse their position.”

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