by Matthew Remski
July 2nd, 2016
[Editors note: This is a followup to Matthew Remski’s previous articles: Jivamukti, Dark and Light: Holly Faurot, Sharon Gannon, and David Life Speak Out, Silence and Silencing at Jivamukti Yoga and Beyond, and Jivamukti Fallout: A Trauma-Sensitive Tipping Point in Modern Yoga?, which explore in depth the recent sexual harassment lawsuit against the Jivamukti Yoga School.]
“And so the process
Of making your perfect Teacher
Makes you perfect.”
– Michael Roach, The Magic of Empty Teachers
“The Jivanmukta no longer regards the world as real.”
— verse from the Jivanmuktiviveka, epigram for the JYS Teacher Training Manual
Holly Faurot’s now-settled lawsuit against the Jivamukti Yoga School accused her former mentor, Ruth Lauer-Manenti, of sexual harassment. It also alleged that Jivamukti founders Sharon Gannon and David Life, along with their long-time studio manager Carlos Menjivar, failed to address Faurot’s complaint as per the standards of New York State and Federal labour laws.(1)
The initial reporting on the case, however, left an enigmatic thread dangling. Pulling on it unravels some of the Jivamukti mystique, leads back to one of the school’s core influences, and sheds light on patterns of lovebombing, plagiarism, and ghosting shared by many cultic movements.
In Slate.com, Michelle Goldberg quoted Faurot as recalling that Lauer-Manenti had dubbed her as “Holy Holly”. The moniker “was like a benediction”, Goldberg wrote.(2)
That detail, however, was foreshadowed with a darker one that hinted at the origins of spiritual nicknaming at the school. Earlier in the piece, Goldberg had reported that Lauer-Manenti was widely known within Jivamukti as “‘Lady Ruth’, an honorific bestowed on her by Geshe Michael Roach, a tantric Buddhist most well-known for leading a three-year silent retreat in the Arizona desert at which one of his followers died.”(3)
Lauer-Manenti declined to comment for this article, so I’m not clear on when she became a devotee of Roach. Off-record sources tell me that her connection began before 2000, the same year I broke my own devotional relationship with Roach, which started in 1996. So it’s likely that I crossed paths with her at one or many of the hundreds of events I attended. Perhaps we met at one of Roach’s intensive meditation retreats in rural Connecticut, where we were told not to make eye contact with anyone but the guru.
“It’s about your own purification.”
On the scale of highly vulnerable to relatively grounded devotees, I fell somewhere in the middle: intact enough to keep my given name and eventually leave in a spasm of revolt, but needy enough to accept a role in Roach’s fantasy world.
A year after I joined, he appointed me as a “staff writer” for his publishing efforts. For a commission, I was to ghostwrite books from his transcribed teachings. I worked for months on end. When I presented the first manuscripts, Roach dismissed them.
“It’s not about the books,” a fellow devotee told me. He was a veteran of several make-work projects that funnelled students’ time and creativity into a devotion meant to be its own reward. “It’s about your own purification.”
In 2000, Roach gave me the role of his younger self in a theatrical production of his dharma-memoir, The Garden, in which his favourite ancient Buddhist teachers appear as avatars of his high school girlfriend. We put the play on at the old Puck building in lower Manhattan. After the curtain he hugged me like a prodigal son.(4)
Just as aspiring posture-yogis can confuse a teacher’s physical prowess for emotional intelligence, I mistook Roach’s performance of scholarship and passion for integrity. He dazzled us with – so far as we knew – flawless translations of arcane Tibetan Buddhist principles while citing Neil Young and Jesus, and weeping like a mystic. He was a fountain of philanthropy – or so he said – endlessly fundraising for Tibetan refugee relief and the preservation of texts threatened by Chinese occupation.(5)
He was also a tornado of charismatic suggestion. No one could verify the biography he kept padding, and none of us were qualified to assess whether his take on Tibetan Buddhism remotely resembled that of his hero, the Dalai Lama. But many of us affected a physical buzz in his presence. Some of us even jitterbugged with either real or imagined kundalini shivers when he spoke. Lady Ruth herself described Roach as a “magician.” Ian Thorson, who more than a decade later died of exposure after Roach and his advisors evicted him from retreat, shivered in a near-constant state of kundalini (or pseudo-kundalini) spasm when I knew him. It periodically kept him awake for nights on end and destroyed his appetite, even as he became perilously thin.(6)(7)
Whether it was spiritual transmission, group hysteria, or the hallucinatory blend of gruelling meditation practices, shortened sleep, the stress of family estrangement and the protein deficiency of retreat food – something uncanny seemed to be happening. It felt like Roach was presenting a path towards awakening that was authentic, accessible and esoteric.
Soon, however, inconsistencies, outright lies, and crushing boredom made it impossible for many of us to believe in anything but his pathos, and left us wondering what those spinal tingles were all about.(8)
From “Lady” and “holy being” to “Holy Holly”
I quit the group long before I realized that his most entrapped devotees were the women he simultaneously exalted and disempowered with the name “Lady”.
Roach gave the moniker to women he wanted to depict as sexual consorts, real or imagined, in his Tantric universe. There have been a dozen or more Ladies through the years, including four with whom he was rumoured to be having quite worldly sex during his three-year retreat in Arizona, from 2000 to 2003.(9)
He encouraged all of us to use “Lady” when referring to the women. It proved a complex device, privileging a few while spawning jealousy amongst the majority. It simultaneously orientalized, romanticized, sexualized and spiritualized the women. It marked them as community idols, but also as Roach’s possessions.
With neo-Victorian preciousness, “Lady” seemed to lock its subjects into frozen, sanctified versions of themselves. The Ladies were to be constantly smiling, impeccably dressed and bejewelled, deferent to Roach and everyone else. They performed secretarial, domestic, and constant emotional labour. They sat perfectly erect in meditation and chanting. They were dainty with their food when they weren’t fasting. Their general radiance was interpreted as a state of high spiritual attainment.
First among Roach’s Ladies was his now-former student and wife, Christy McNally. Twenty-one years her senior, Roach claimed that McNally was a living incarnation of the Tantric deity Vajrayogini, depicted in Tibetan ritual art as late-pubescent, naked, and sexually aroused. Despite convincing their followers they were celibate, Roach and McNally secretly married in 1998, and spent the next two years telling their fundraisers that their three-year retreat would be spent in monastic isolation, while spending part of the raised money building a well-appointed conjugal yurt.(10)(11)(12)
I haven’t been able to interview any of the Ladies on record on how they felt about the nicknaming mechanism, but I think Faurot’s description of its implications, one generation removed, sums it up. It comes from my own interview with Faurot, six weeks before the case was settled.
“If I had stayed,” Faurot told me by phone on April 8th. “‘Holy Holly’ could have driven me to a very unhealthy level of manipulation and brainwashing.
“Ruth was doing to me what people had done to her: making me highly special and unique in a way that wasn’t grounded in reality.
“‘Holy Holly’ was vulnerable and submissive and she surrendered, and she did not question Ruth. That’s who Holy Holly was.
“Ruth used it publicly: ‘Holy Holly’, this and that –” Faurot mimicked a cloying tone.
“It was a way of making me the centre of attention in the community. It was a way of emphasizing the power dynamics.
“I belonged to her and was playing a key role in her public image as a teacher.”
I emailed Faurot and her lawyer for follow-up. As per the confidentiality terms of the May 19th settlement, they did not respond.
“They saw that people were captivated by Michael Roach’s scene.”
In a last stand against gentrification, the vestiges of 1970s workshop and self-improvement infrastructure in Manhattan’s East Village welcomed a new wave of wanderers in the early 1990s. Half-hippie, half-hipster seekers fermented vegan idealism with the trappings of Indo-Tibetan spirituality, opening cafes and shabby-chic yoga studios, pasting their pre-internet flyers on telephone poles and utility boxes. Current and prospective followers of Roach, Gannon, and Life would have intermingled at juice bars and PWYC kirtan gigs, and brushed shoulders while browsing books, chanting, and meditating at places like the Three Jewels Bookstore on East 5th.
According to several insiders I spoke with, Christie McNally had studied yoga with Lauer-Manenti during these hothouse years, before “Lady” was a thing. Eventually, McNally brought Roach to her classes like an awkward sugar daddy, and later still, Lady Ruth made several trips to their Arizona retreat compound to lead them in private yoga sessions.
The Jivamukti/Roach connection formalized in 2003 through a yoga of business opportunity and political necessity. Jivamukti was expanding both operations and overhead, and Roach was quickly exhausting his welcome on the Tibetan Buddhist teaching circuit, after penning a controversial open letter to the Dalai Lama and other luminaries at the close of his Arizona retreat.
The letter’s centrepiece was a confessional poem, explaining that because he was almost enlightened he’d been justified in secretly undertaking his practices with “a Lady, who is an emanation / Of the Angel of Diamond, a Messenger”, and that “To help to trigger / The final transformation into / The Diamond Sow herself, / I wear my hair / As the Angel Herself does, / And her bracelet / And other accoutrement / Together with my robes.”(13)
The letter also asked the Tibetan hierarchy to endorse his new book, and to consider the evangelical opportunities offered by a burgeoning yoga boom.
Responses were mixed. Several teachers of Sera Me Monastery in Bylakuppe, Karnataka – to which various Roach enterprises had contributed financial support through the years – wrote flowery endorsements.
Lama Zopa Rinpoche, however, issued a critique as burlesque as it was medieval.
“One needs to do a special kind of miracle,” Zopa wrote, implying that Roach should prove his magical status.
“For example the 6th Dalai Lama pee-ed from the top of the Potala and just before the urine hit the ground he drew it back again inside his vajra. Also there is the story of the previous incarnation of Gonsar Rinpoche – he pulled in mud through his vajra.”
Zopa is the director of the Foundation for the Preservation of the Mahayana Tradition (FPMT), headquartered in Kopan, Nepal. After Zopa’s reply, Roach was no longer invited to teach at the 140 FPMT centres worldwide. There were rumours that he had been banned. By 2006, he had been publicly rebuked by the Office of the Dalai Lama, not only for heterodoxy, but for arranging to lead a workshop in Dharamsala during His Holiness’s annual teachings.(14)(15)
His Tibetan-diaspora support base evaporating, Roach trained his marketing sites fully onto the yoga world and began to promote his eccentric translations of yoga texts that had been given to him by Gannon and Life. His connections to Jivamukti quickly expanded. By 2009 there were or had been a half-dozen prominent Jivamukti teachers besides Lady Ruth who were also devotees of Michael Roach.
“I found GMR’S teachings intellectually and spiritually stimulating,” writes Matthew Lombardo via email. Lombardo is a New York-based Jivamukti teacher and continues to be a student of Roach and McNally.
“I found his explanation of the Yoga Sutras a powerful blend of academically sound research, relatable and stripped of any mystic mumbo jumbo. It connected in a way that your average yoga teacher or visiting swami had never done before.”
I also spoke to another former devotee of both organizations who declined to go on record.
“Sharon and David saw the power of Michael Roach,” they said. “They saw that people were captivated by his scene. By what he was teaching, by how he was teaching. By this weird Lady on the side. And all the bowing, and the handmaidens.”
“Sharon and David raised us to be very respectful of teachers,” said the source. “You don’t point your feet at your teachers. You don’t lie down or eat when your teacher is speaking. It was very formal. And I think that’s nice in a way. In the West, we’re not very humble or respectful of elders.
“What they did well was to raise a culture of students who were reverent. Is that a cult? I don’t think so. Is it traditional? Maybe. Is there a power imbalance? Yes.
“Geshe Michael came to these big groups and he saw the perfectly-behaved students of Jivamukti. And he was very impressed by that.”
From “Lady” and “holy being” to “Holy Holly”
While Gannon and Life offered Roach a new audience, both his manner and content seeped into Jivamukti pedagogy, injecting a blend of praise, piety and behavioural control under the cover of presumed scriptural legitimacy and the supposed blessings of the Tibetan elites. Jivamukti students, who for the most part had no idea Roach had been delegitimized as a monk and advised to give back his robes, began prostrating themselves in front of their teachers in the same way Roach’s students bowed before him and the Ladies.
They also, unwittingly, took up Roach’s language. And behind that, his metaphysics.
Anybody who followed Roach from before 2000 and onward has burned into their brains his neo-Tantric vow that teachers and students should openly refer to each other as “holy beings”. The idea was as simple as it was psychologically suspect and philosophically circular. Idealizing each other through speech and service, he argued, would create the conditions by which our ideal selves would emerge. Failing to idealize each other was the logical outcome of having perceived and therefore indulged a non-ideal self.
“Holy beings” marks a translational shift from the common Tibetan liturgical epithet “mother beings”, derived from a tender logic: given infinite rebirths, every sentient being at one time or other has been your mother, and deserves sweet service and gratitude. “Holy being” was clearly less complicated for Roach’s childless and family-alienated followers, while lowering the bar of belief for devotees new to the idea of reincarnation.
Roach codified the notion in a pamphlet Roach published in 2001. “The Magic of Empty Teachers”, which later became an underground favourite of Jivamukti faculty, was a transcript of talks given by a blindfolded Roach during the Arizona retreat. The book opens with a litany of praise that elevates his students to divine status because they serve him. He lauds his financial patrons, volunteer carpenters and kitchen help as holy beings engaged in a beneficent conspiracy to offer him, a bumbling monk, a shot at salvation with McNally at his side.
The word “holy” occurs 103 times in 76 pages: a drone of idealization plucked out on the strings of anxiety.
“You people must be careful,” he said, addressing his audience of holy beings. “Even stupid people like us can figure it out if you do it too often.” The holy beings laugh. “Don’t expose your identities. Try to be more normal.”
For those not quite feeling the holy, Roach offered a deepity.
“If you see any negative quality in another person,” he explained, “it’s only because you have a seed to see that in your own mind, which was planted when you had that negative quality. And it’s never been any other way.”(16)
When Gannon and Life published their flagship manual – Jivamukti Yoga: Practices for Liberating Body and Soul – in 2002, they made no mention of their students or teachers as “holy beings”. The word “holy” appears a paltry three times in 300 pages.(17)
But only a few years later, name tags for Jivamukti Teacher Trainees at the Omega Institute featured the title “HOLY BEING:” above the name line. The training manual for that year quotes Roach devotee Winston McCullough on “10 Ways to Keep a Precious Teacher In Your Life”, with “Honorifics (thought and said)” occupying the top slot. The manual closes with a list of “Holy Beings and Saints to Remember”. Michael Roach makes the cut, alongside Kali, Hanuman, Tibetologist Robert Thurman, Gannon’s and Life’s kirtan jamming friends Jai Uttal and Krishna Das, and Bhagavan Das, who has created an entire spirituality out of womanizing. After all, as Das explains, his assumed name means “Lord of the Yoni”.(18)(19)
Sometime after 2007, one Jivamukti teacher started making vanity mirrors for faculty members with the words “holy being” scrawled across them in white cursive. By 2012, the “holy being” meme was so enshrined in Jivamukti language that Gannon led with it when asked why she teaches yoga:
“To teach provides me with an opportunity to purify my perception of others – ” she told the interviewer. “To practice seeing others as holy beings.”(20)
One current Jivamukti teacher noted the potential advantages to the language.
“When assisting students,” they wrote, “the holy being language provides trauma sensitivity. It suggests that a god or goddess in human or animal form is very delicate and doing their best just by being there. The teacher makes an assist by seeing the student — and consequently themselves — as a holy being.”
But a former Jivamukti teacher who also wished to remain anonymous had mixed feelings.
“I thought that the use of the nickname ‘holy being’ was a well-intentioned but slightly irritating habit,” they said.
“Looking back now, I see that using that name is an attempt to control behavior. ‘Holy beings’ don’t complain. They stay really busy trying to live up to the image of holiness and perfection, and repressing anything that doesn’t fit that image.”
From 2005 onwards, Roach and McNally taught guru-yoga, “Tibetan Yoga”, and Tantric-relationship workshops together at events throughout the world, many of which were hosted by Jivamukti franchises, where their portrait adorned the studio altars. Roach’s solo image had been a fixture of Jivamukti décor since 2003. Around 2006, that image was swapped out for one featuring him together with McNally, whose moniker had been upgraded from “Lady” to “Lama”.
But by 2009, McNally and Roach had separated. McNally soon repartnered with fellow student Ian Thorson, with whom she began to teach partner yoga around the world. This triggered a return of Roach’s solo portrait to Jivamukti altars.
McNally and Thorson’s relationship led them both into power – with Lama Christie being acclaimed as retreat master for a second three-year attempt in the Arizona badlands – and out of it, when Roach’s administration evicted them from the retreat in response to evidence that they were engaged in spiritualized domestic violence.
After Ian Thorson died of exposure in the desert cave to which he and McNally had fled, photographs of Roach were removed altogether from the Jivamukti altars.
Mirage of Holy Control
In preparing the first article in this series, I asked Gannon and Life via email about their relationship to Roach’s teaching. They made it sound as if Roach was their devotee, and that his ideas were really their own.
“Although we have great regard for Buddhist teachings and thought,” they wrote via email, “respect for others did not start with Geshe Michael Roach’s study of Jivamukti Yoga. We learned to respect teachers from our parents and grandparents when we were children.
“We still feel that respect for others is a good virtue to cultivate. As yoga teachers we teach that respect should be all around: students should respect teachers and also equally important, teachers should respect students. This mutual respect for others is an important teaching that we have always emphasized at the Jivamukti Yoga School.”
Their mutual respect, however, doesn’t seem to extend to rightful attribution. The 2007 training manual is typical of industry documents of the era, presenting material as if from a spontaneous flash of intuition and living tradition. It also hearkens back to Gannon’s experimental music career with the early 1980s Seattle band Audio Letter, which worked from found texts and scavenged sound loops. The manual goes a little farther than pastiche, however, plagiarizing the school’s Ethical Guidelines (which the recent lawsuit accused them of flaunting) from the California Yoga Teacher’s Association Code of Ethics, co-written by Donna Farhi and Judith Lasater, and published in 1995.(21)(22)(23)
Gannon, Life, and Lauer-Manenti did not respond to a request for further comment.
But Gannon and Life’s sampling and erasure of Roach’s influence is a real stand-out, culminating in the fog surrounding their 2014 book Yoga Assists: A Complete Visual and Inspirational Guide to Yoga Asana Assists. Originally conceived as a project co-authored with Roach and to be issued by a major press, the book features Roach and McNally themselves as yoga models surrendering to adjustments from Gannon and Life. The images were taken by high-fashion Manhattan photographers and long-term Jivamukti practitioners Constance and Russell Hansen (together known as “Guzman”) sometime before Roach and McNally separated in 2009.(24)
When the book was self-published in 2014, however, the tony images were either cropped to obscure the faces of Roach and McNally, or drawn-over by Life with what looks like crayon to show lines of energetic movement, while hiding the subjects and almost eliminating the instructional clarity.
The accompanying text gives a neo-Buddhist framework for the art of modern postural yoga assisting, claiming that it’s an ancient practice of empathy and receptivity that reveals “karmic correlations” between movement abilities and past actions. Beyond the bowing and the nicknames, this is perhaps Roach’s most trenchant somatic imprint upon the school, with ramifications echoing into the present day. His insistence that an individual’s karma drives the entirety of their experience bootstrapped Gannon and Life’s existing teachings on karma to a new level of embodied literalness. In the book, they explain that “forward bends move us into the past”, and that physical injuries sustained during asana practice are the ripening of one’s sins.(25)(26)
As someone who spent a year ghostwriting for him, it’s clear that the opening chapters of Yoga Assists, which struggle to juxtapose verses of Shantideva with postural alignment instructions, are vintage Roach. But he’s only credited for the translations in a single line of acknowledgement, buried in the back pages. The “karmic correlations” are passed off as wholly original.
Michael Roach, currently on a teaching tour to packed halls throughout Russia, Eastern Europe, and Mexico before heading back to Asia in August, may now be a liability to the Jivamukti brand. But the fraught mystique he generated seems too iconic for the school to completely erase. To this day, students enter the Jivamukti headquarters studio in Manhattan through a mirage of holy control that recalls their former alliance.(27)
Since 2007, the school has made its home in the old Roosevelt building at 841 Broadway. On the arched windows that preserve a hint of the former grand entry façade, a larger-than-life decal shows Gannon and Life assisting a student clad in white. The decal is made from an untouched version of the Guzman cover photo for Yoga Assists. Centred above it, a restored chimera glares and growls in terra cotta silence.
Gannon and Life stand at either side of the student, their demeanour a blend of discipline and reverence. They pull her shoulders and thighs away from each other as her spine lengthens into an upward bow posture. Gannon’s leg obscures the student’s face.
The student is Christie McNally. There are rumours she’s teaching yoga again, somewhere in the city. This time, quietly.
An earlier version of this post stated that Roach had been explicitly banned from teaching at FPMT centres throughout the world. In light of the discussion in the comment thread below, that statement has been changed.
1. Holly Faurot – v. – Jivamukti Yoga Center, Inc. et al. Accessed 6.30.2016.
2. “A Workplace, an Ashram, or a Cult?”. Accessed 6.30.2016.
3. Michael Roach’s Wikipedia page. The “talk” section sheds light on the battleground of his public image. Accessed 6.30.2016.
4. The Garden, by Michael Roach. Accessed 6.30.2016.
5. Roach’s most extensive bio note is here: “Essay to Answer Questions from my Friends”. Accessed 6.30.2016.
6. “ruth lauer-manenti”. Accessed 6.30.2016.
7. “Death and Madness on Diamond Mountain” by Scott Carney. Accessed 6.30.2016.
9. “Geshe Michael Roach’s Sexual Conduct with Students”. Accessed 6.30. 2016.
10. Roach’s claim to enlightened status is detailed in this 2003 interview. Accessed 6.30. 2016.
11. Roach’s liturgy of Tantric practice is based upon this Vajrayogini text and commentary, taught to him by Khen Rinpoche Lobsang Tharchin, who died in 2004. Accessed 6.30. 2016.
12. “Geshe Michael Roach’s secret marriage to Christie McNally ended in divorce”. Accessed 6.30. 2016.
13. “Letter to Lamas”. Accessed 6.30. 2016.
14. “Lama’s Replies”. Accessed 6.30. 2016.
15. “Letters from the Office of His Holiness the Dalai Lama”. Accessed 6.30. 2016.
16. “The Magic of Empty Teachers”. Accessed 6.30. 2016.
17. Jivamukti Yoga: Practices for Liberating Body and Soul. Accessed 6.30. 2016.
18. Jivamukti Yoga Teacher Training Manual, 2007, p. 98, Appendix.
19. “Karmageddon: The Movie“, video cue 1:11:35. Accessed 6.30. 2016.
20. “Teaching Yoga”. Accessed 6.30. 2016.
21. “Jivamukti Yoga Teachers Code of Professional Standards”. Accessed 6.30. 2016.
22. California Yoga Teacher’s Association Code of Conduct.Accessed 6.30. 2016. By email, Judith Lasater writes “The CYTA Code is offered freely to anyone. All CYTA wants is that when used and/or published, that CYTA is credited.”
23. Audio Letter – For The Society (US 1980 Dark Experimental ) Accessed 6.30. 2016.
24. Website for Guzman. Accessed 6.30. 2016.
25. In an interation of ACI course #5, “How Karma Works” in Kathmandu in 1999, Roach handed out a translation of the medieval text “Wheel of Knives” by Yogi Dharmaraksita, the source for the “karmic correlations”. (It reads like some original “Victim-Blaming Sutra”.) I’ve lost those pages, but Roach acolyte Lama Marut republished a similar list here. Accessed 6.30. 2016.
26. Yoga Assists: A Complete Visual & Inspirational Guide To Yoga Asana Assists.”[F]orward bends move us into our past. When we practice backbends we move into our future. The ease with which we can do that is revealed by how willing we are to forgive others who have hurt us. The tightness, fear and pain we encounter in back bending comes from past karmas which involve these others—we are holding onto resentment, blame and anger, unwilling to let go. When a teacher facilitates a deeper opening in backbends through assists, it helps us resolves the causes of our fear of the future.” Loc. 1406.
27. “Geshe Michael Roach Event Schedule”. Accessed 6.30. 2016.