by Matthew Remski
[Editors note: This is a followup to Matthew Remski’s previous article Jivamukti, Dark and Light: Holly Faurot, Sharon Gannon, and David Life Speak Out, which explores in depth the recent sexual assault allegations against senior Jivamukti teacher Ruth Lauer-Manenti.]
On a podcast released May 4th, yoga teacher Matthew Lombardo echoed the sentiments of many of his co-workers at the Jivamukti Yoga School, arguing that the reporting on the recent sexual harassment lawsuit against his employer was “spurious, until it’s proven otherwise — legally.”
“I’m not saying we shouldn’t have robust conversations, and even passionate ones,” said Lombardo, who started teaching at the school in 2005.
“But let’s talk about this after there’s a ruling. Let’s wait until there’s a judge that says ‘This person is wrong, this person is right.’ Then we’re like: ‘the law held up.’”
Lombardo suggested that until then, reporters “keep [their] critical thinking hat on,” and “stay out of other people’s business.”(1)
But on May 19th, prospects for legal clarity were snuffed by the announcement of an out-of-court settlement, bound by a confidentiality agreement. Former plaintiff Holly Faurot is now committed to silence concerning her experience at the school. Former defendants Ruth Lauer-Manenti, Jivamukti founders Sharon Gannon and David Life, and studio manager Carlos Menjivar are likewise forbidden from answering questions about Faurot’s allegations and how they were handled.(2)
In the secretly recorded conversation that formed part of the suit, Lauer-Manenti didn’t deny sexually touching her supervisee. The mentor’s actions were a breach of both New York State sexual harassment law and Jivamukti’s Code of Ethics. The confidential settlement means that prospective Jivamukti students who ask why Lauer-Manenti is still working at the school and whether or not she has been disciplined in relation to the allegations will be met with “No comment.”(3)
Lauer-Manenti was allowed to continue facilitating a teacher training program in India after the lawsuit was filed. She recently led a Jivamukti retreat in upstate New York, and is about to embark on a European teaching tour.(4)(5)
On the day the settlement was filed, Jivamukti deleted the public denial of wrongdoing it had addressed to its community. The same statement vanished from its Facebook timeline, along with its contentious comment thread, where critics and devotees had battled for weeks over whether the company was covering up abuse.(6)(7)
Non-Disclosure Agreements and Self-Censoring
There can be many legitimate reasons for settling out of court. And for all anyone knows, the confidentiality terms might have demanded that Jivamukti remove their website denial. The deal might have awarded money to the plaintiff commensurate with her $1.6M claim.
Speculation aside, the confidentiality aspect of the settlement — forged to avoid court testimony and mute public comment — is consistent with a yoga studio culture in which teachers and practitioners feel afraid to speak truth to power. In her article for Slate.com, Michelle Goldberg notes that all six current and former Jivamukti teachers she interviewed requested anonymity. They “described an intense, all-consuming environment,” she wrote, “where the lines between workplace and ashram were blurred and where supervisors doubled as gurus.”(8)
I’ve interviewed seventeen Jivamukti teachers and employees (ex and current) about the Faurot allegations, as well as similar complaints. Like Goldberg’s sources, every one has declined to go on record. They’re concerned about professional vulnerability, losing friendships or status within the company, the danger of being ostracized, or the possibility of being discredited in the same way Faurot was by Gannon and Life’s public statements.
“I have to consider my own health right now,” one former Jivamukti employee wrote via email. “If I’m going to put myself back on this toxic radar it would really need to be worth it.”
A culture of silence also informs Jivamukti’s customer relations.
On April 26th, an applicant to the June Jivamukti Teacher Training in Costa Rica posted my April 24th article on the Faurot case to a private Facebook group created for the event. The producer and program director of international Jivamukti trainings quickly deleted the post and unilaterally issued a tuition refund, cancelling the applicant’s spot in the training.(9)
In a subsequent email thread, the producer chalked up the refund to a misunderstanding, and offered to reinstate the application. The applicant, who requested anonymity, was nonplussed.
“You cut me off from the other attendees,” she wrote, “and my ability to communicate about this issue. The attendees have a right to know about what’s happening. We have the right to discuss it. I never asked for a refund but in the end I’m glad my name won’t be associated with such absolute insanity any longer.”
The Jivamukti training producer did not respond to a request for comment.
Four former employees of Jivamukti who wished to remain anonymous said that other former employees and students have been prohibited from commenting on the school’s culture through non-disclosure agreements (NDAs) they have been invited to sign in exchange for cash payments or tuition refunds. These sources worked at the company between 2001 and 2016, which suggests that the agreements have been a common Jivamukti management practice. They said that NDAs are used to smooth over student grievances against teachers, or teacher’s grievances against management.
“It is very disappointing to realize that Jivamukti applies fear politics and silencing methods under the flag of spiritual anarchism, activism, and veganism,” one source wrote via email.
“NDAs create an oppressive environment in which there is no space for open discussion or critical thinking.”
Another source wrote that “there is a subtle, but very strong atmosphere of internal silencing from the management at Jivamukti.”
“It encourages self-censoring amongst its employees. Even in teachers’ meetings — a supposedly open forum to discuss problems — we didn’t bring up our concerns about power abuses. Things were discussed in a roundabout way, wrapped in spiritual platitudes.”
Gannon and Life did not respond to a request for comment.
An Open Secret
If there is pressure at Jivamukti to keep mum, it wouldn’t be unique in the world of yoga communities that orbit around charismatic leadership. In fact, the tactics described by sources who used to work at Jivamukti echo a silence surrounding one of Gannon and Life’s lineage masters, the late Pattabhi Jois, innovator of the Ashtanga Yoga method. Jois was also one of Lauer-Manenti’s root teachers.(10)
There is clear video documentation that Jois’ often-brutal physical adjustments elided with sexual harassment of his female students. The video has been scrubbed from YouTube twice between 2013 and 2015, but remains on Vimeo, posted anonymously.(11)
To my knowledge, no prominent Jois devotee has publicly addressed this open secret.
In December of 2010, ex-Ashtanga student Anneke Lucas, now director of Liberation Prison Yoga, published her account of Jois grabbing her vagina while she was in plow pose during a public class in Manhattan in 2000. She shared the post on Facebook, but it attracted almost no attention from her roster of Ashtanga world friends.(12)(13)
Lucas recently published an updated version of the account. Again, no prominent Ashtanga practitioners or teachers responded to the post, even though this time it was shared widely.(14)
I asked Lucas why she thought her story had met with silence. Her insights are informed by being a survivor of childhood sexual abuse, along with decades of therapy and activism.
“Senior male Ashtanga teachers have told me that Jois was a father figure for them,” she said via Skype.
“In a dysfunctional family, if you’re not in, you’re out. In wealthy dysfunctional families, all the children are bought off. The silence is paid.
“I think it can be the same in the yoga world: there’s a legacy of power and that power governs people’s livelihoods.
“If the brother who sees the father inappropriately touching his daughter stands up to the father, he’s going to lose his inheritance.
“The guru is dead, but everyone is still silent. Nobody wants to taint the minds of the new people coming in.
“Whereas it’s really the opposite: everyone is tainted who is not informed.”
A Repeating Cycle
Ignoring or whitewashing abuse is a basic strategy of institutional defence. Some modern yoga schools, however, add in psychospiritual gaslighting, reframing a guru’s abuse as karmically appropriate for the victim, or signs of love from a misunderstood genius. This happened in Swami Muktananda’s Siddha Yoga, at Swami Satchidananda’s Yogaville, and at Swami Satyananda’s Bihar School of Yoga, among others. (15)(16)(17)
Many of these schools have fizzled in terms of global relevance. But the pattern is also prominent in mainstream schools that have built popularity in part by avoiding accountability at watershed moments.
In 1991, investigative journalist Bob Frost reported on years of sexual abuse allegations against Manouso Manos, a senior teacher at the Iyengar Institute of San Francisco. In a written statement to Frost, Manos didn’t deny the misconduct, consisting of in-class groping and therapy room sex acts. In 1989 he was suspended from the Institute.
However, B.K.S. Iyengar himself intervened to ask the board members to forgive Manos. Frost reports that Manos’ subsequent reinstatement in 1990 prompted five Institute teachers to quit, and the resignation of Judith Lasater from the Institute’s board.
When Frost phoned Iyengar in India to ask him if he believed the charges against Manos — which Manos had not denied — Iyengar replied, “No. That is an old, old story. I doubt its truth. I do not believe past things when they are kept quiet for so long.”
But the asana master changed tack when Frost asked whether he believed that the women had seduced Manos. “Yes, naturally,” Iyengar told Frost. “Unless a woman shows willingness, the man will not act.”(18)
Six months before Frost’s report, Yoga Journal had published Katherine Webster’s investigation into decades of sexual harassment committed by the late Swami Rama against his female Himalayan Institute students. Webster showed that Rama’s apprentice and spiritual heir, Pandit Rajmani Tigunait, staunchly defended his guru in part by ignoring and discrediting the accusers.(19)
“Before [these women] started saying these things,” Tigunait told Webster, “I also had a very good feeling that these people were wonderful people and they would never lie and they were trustworthy people.
“But after they started saying all these things, I never trusted them anymore.”
Years later, the story evolved to show that even a court decision rendering the type of clarity many were hoping for in the Jivamukti case can have little impact on a yoga school found to be negligent.
In 1994, Tigunait became a defendant in a $1.9M suit brought against Rama’s Himalayan Institute by Jasmine Patel, who charged that the Swami forced her to have sex with him thirty times when she was nineteen and he was in his late sixties. Swami Rama fled to India in 1995, and died there in 1996.
In summarizing the jury’s 1997 verdict against the Institute, Chief Judge Vanaskie of the U.S. Middle District Court of Pennsylvania found that Patel “became a victim because of the Himalayan Institute’s repeated cover-ups of Swami Rama’s prior sexual transgressions.” Vanaskie noted that Tigunait had fielded complaints about Rama’s conduct since the early 1980s.(20)
Tigunait offered Webster a personal rationale for his silence.
“Because that’s my whole life…. My relationship with [Swami Rama] is purely divine and spiritual – there cannot be impurity in it, and there is no room for such thoughts.
Tigunait remains the spiritual director of the Himalayan Institute, and maintains an active teaching and touring schedule.
“I might doubt my own perception, I might doubt my own eyes, but I cannot doubt that strength which has given me everything.
“Believing such stories,” he told Webster, “means disbelieving in myself.”
Moving Forward: A Pledge
I sent Tigunait’s quarter-century-old quotes to Anneke Lucas and then asked her via Skype what she thought it would take for the veil of silence over yoga institutions – including Jivamukti – to lift.
“The first thing that anyone has to do is look at themselves — why we put people up or why we look down on them,” she said.
“We have to look at our own internal power structures.”
But Lucas is clear that transparency and safety can’t come from self-reflection alone. She’s become a driving force behind From Darkness to Light, an activist organization committed to educating the yoga community on abuse issues, formed in the wake of the Jivamukti scandal. Its committee has hosted an inaugural event in Manhattan, and released a pledge for yoga teachers and studios they hope will become a basic qualification for integrity.(21)
“The challenge is to create a more civilized society,” Lucas said. “To not fall back on ‘Oh well — you’re humiliated. Tough luck.’
“People who have been abused have had their soul crushed, and may not have access to their courage to stand up for themselves. Does that mean that they deserve to go and do yoga to heal themselves and have the same thing happen again?
“They deserve a society that is more civilized than the one they were exposed to, free from power addicts.”
Signatories to the pledge commit to the creation of and adherence to sexual harassment policies, and investigating all complaints of misconduct “as serious violations of trust, security, yoga tenets/ethics, and local laws.” The pledge advocates for an end to silencing through and education: “Sexual harassment training is critical and must be incorporated into yoga teacher training curricula.”
“I would like to see that pledge posted in the lobby of every yoga studio,” said Lucas. “In plain view, so that everyone who enters can see it.
“Because if you’re vulnerable with a power addict, they’re going to smack you down and make you feel like shit.
“But if you’re in an environment where you know that your fear and vulnerability is not only real, but okay, you might find courage, and begin to heal.”
1.“Matt Lombardo on Spiritual Bypassing, Cults, and Recent Scandals.”, accessed 5.30.2016.
2.“LETTER / CORRESPONDENCE TO JUDGE”, accessed 5.30.2016.
3.“EXHIBIT A”, accessed 5.30.2016.
4. “Jivamukti Teacher Training”, accessed 5.30.2016.
5. “2016 Jivamukti Yoga and Tai Chi Weekend Retreat”, accessed 5.30.2016.
6.“A Message to the Jivamukti Yoga Community” (Wayback Machine), accessed 5.30.2016.
7. “Message from Sharon Gannon and David Life April 29, 2016”, accessed 5.30.2016.
8.“A Workplace, an Ashram, or a Cult?”, accessed 5.30.2016.
9. “Jivamukti, Dark and Light: Holly Faurot, Sharon Gannon, and David Life Speak Out”, accessed 5.30.2016.
10. In the conversation recorded by Faurot, Lauer-Manenti justifies her intimate advances in part by saying that she used to cuddle with “Guruji”, and would sit on his lap and kiss him after every class she took with him. “I kissed him everyday that I had class,” Lauer-Manenti told Faurot.
11. “PATTABHI JOIS: Ashtanga Yoga Adjustments”, accessed 5.30.2016.
12. Wikipedia: Anneke Lucas, accessed 5.30.2016.
13. Anneke Lucas’ Facebook Timeline, 12/7/2010, accessed 5.30.2016.
14. “Why the Abused Don’t Speak Up”, accessed 5.30.2016.
15. “O GURU, GURU, GURU”, by Lis Harris, accessed 5.30.2016.
16. Stripping the Gurus, Chapter XII: “SEX, BLISS, AND ROCK ‘N’ ROLL”, accessed 5.30.2016.
17. “Boycott Satyananda’s Literature and Methods Until Reparations are Made for Sexual Abuse”, accessed 5.30.2016.
18. “Old Temptations in the New Age”, accessed 5.30.2016. I’m hosting this PDF on my site, as it is strangely unavailable anywhere else.
19. “The Case Against Swami Rama of the Himalayas”, accessed 5.30.2016..
20.“JASMINE PATEL V. HIMALAYAN INTERNATIONAL INSTITUTE OF YOGA SCIENCE AND PHILOSOPHY OF THE USA”, p. 33, 22. Accessed 5.30.2016.