Introduction: Abuse in Yoga and Beyond: Cultural Logics and Pathways for the Future

Christopher Miller

In recent years, abuse scandals have shaken the yoga world once again, overturning
previously held conceptions of yoga gurus, their teachings, and the individuals and organizations
that have enabled their abuse. Most importantly, these abuse scenarios – whether they have
involved sexual assault, cruelty, financial exploitation, etc. – have left individuals and
communities disoriented, deeply traumatized, and desperately searching for answers. As Sacred
Matters editor Gary Laderman writes, “the sacred is not always what it seems, can be associated
with just about anything, and remains pervasive and pertinent in everyday, ordinary life and
unusual, extraordinary experiences.” Unfortunately, at times those who claim to wield this
“Sacred” in some way, shape, or form, abuse their power and abuse others who have put trust in
that power.

More broadly conceived, “abuse” extends beyond individual yoga communities and is
often performed through unacknowledged race, gender, class, and species privilege.
Unbeknownst to those who produce it, neoliberal yoga discourse reinforces these and other
forms of privilege (e.g. ableism) and in doing so inhibits the much-needed structural change that
might make the world a more equitable place for women, minorities, and those at the margins of
middle- and upper-class society. Finally, beyond the human world, countless yoga practitioners –
whether they are traveling to a yoga retreat in a far off land or simply eating a meal – participate
in oft-overlooked patterns of consumption that involve inconceivable abuse of both animals and
the environment.

In light of these issues and other recent events, on June 13, 2020, I hosted an online
conference titled “Abuse in Yoga and Beyond: Cultural Logics and Pathways for the Future” on
behalf of the Graduate Yoga Studies Program at Loyola Marymount University. We brought
together leading scholars whose work directly addresses the histories and logics of these forms of abuse in both contemporary yoga as well as other religious, spiritual, and even athletic
communities. We included voices from other traditions that have and continue to struggle with
their own abuse crises according to their own internal cultural logics in order to help the public
understand the intricacies and distinctions of particular abuse dynamics and how they might also
overlap with yoga abuse dynamics. The full recording of the conference is available for public
viewing here.

Ultimately, this conference was held in the spirit of helping the public understand how
abuse has occurred within particular traditions as well as in contemporary yoga more broadly. In
doing so, it aspired to empower individuals to identify perpetrator tactics and common abuse
rhetoric, as well as to expand their definition of abuse to include how we may ourselves be
unwittingly implicated in or perhaps even enabling various systems of abuse in both human and
non-human worlds. For example, in the immediate wake of the murder of George Floyd, we
grieved America’s deeply entrenched racism and white supremacy, forms of abuse that largely
go unacknowledged (and are often denied) to the detriment of BIPOC populations around the
country both within and outside the fold of modern yoga culture. We asked our audience
members – and ask you the reader here – to consider making a donation to Black Lives Matter to
support the ongoing struggle to bring justice for those Black citizens who have been abused,
unacknowledged, and marginalized for far too long throughout American history.
As we proceed, I should make one thing very clear: the series of articles that follow and
the conference out of which this series emerged are not intended to serve as a guru- or religious
leadership bashing forum. In fact, quite the contrary. Though abusers and their enablers within
religious and spiritual organizations must be held accountable for their actions, our keynote
speaker Dr. Andrea Jain (Indiana University) made clear that guru abuse is a symptom of much larger structural issues that allow people in power (and more often than not men in power) to
abuse their victims in a variety of organizations and social settings. The #MeToo movement, for
example, shows us just how deeply entrenched these structural issues are throughout global
society. Following Dr. Jain’s important insight (which you can also find in her new book Peace,
Love Yoga), I would like us to understand that these larger structural issues are what enable the
abuse that then manifests in very peculiar ways within spiritual and religious communities.
Thus as the articles that follow show, to bring abuse within spiritual and religious
communities to an end we must understand both the particular cultural logics through which it
manifests and the larger structural issues that continue to enable abuse in national and global
societies. In this regard, another important point to keep in mind is that we did not only
scrutinize South Asian religious traditions and leadership during the conference. As the
conference schedule and articles that follow in this series will show, abuse runs through a variety
of religious traditions and their related institutions. Looking particularly at abuse in yoga
communities, we also consider abuse in Catholicism, the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ
of Latter Day Saints, Western forms of Buddhism, and even in an athletic program at a Catholic
institution. In doing so, we have only revealed the tip of the iceberg. Nevertheless, I hope that the Sacred Matters readership, whether they belong to the unaffiliated “individuals who prefer not to claim a specific, singular religious identity” or to a group of “true believers,” will find something in this series that speaks to their own questions and struggles around the topic of abuse in religious and spiritual organizations. What follows here is a brief summary of the individual articles in this series.

Amanda Lucia leads us off with an exploration of “the relations between Hindu gurus and
their disciples and the social and group dynamics that emerge from that central relationship.”
Using both historical and ethnographic evidence, Lucia unpacks how the particularities of guru-
disciple relationships – though not perfectly reproduced in contemporary yoga – do continue to
influence power relations applicable both within and outside of modern yoga culture. The exalted and unquestioned divine authority of the guru or the yoga teacher alike manufactures forms of consent that create potentially abusive social situations.

Interestingly, Michael Horan’s article, which focuses on the cultural logics that enable
abuse in the Catholic Church, pointed out a major issue concerning authority not unlike that
illustrated by Lucia. Horan uses the term “clericalism” to capture the extraordinary divine
privilege of the male Catholic priest within the Church that arises on account of the fact that he
holds the power to perform the sacraments and to thereby act as the sole conduit between the
believer and God. As Horan points out, an increasingly limited supply of willing and capable
males priests augments the power of clericalism. He writes, “Catholicism has accommodated to
the scarcity in numbers of priests while insisting that the sacraments are essential. The theology
of the priesthood and the very sacraments of the church set up clericalism.” Like Lucia’s insights
regarding the divine power of the guru, Horan acknowledges, “… the clergy are essential to
accessing the Holy, indeed they are regarded as the conduit, if not the functional equivalent, of
God.”

From another similar perspective, Warren Jeff of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus
Christ of Latter Day Saints had a similar form of privilege to Horan’s “clericalism.” As Cristina
Rosetti shows in the next article, Jeff’s “One Man rule” shows that when power is consolidated
around one man rather than many people, a social setting ripe for abuse is created where women
are unduly affected. Rosetti writes, “The power of God present among the people became a
person who weaponized isolation and the power of God to ensure silence.” Like Lucia and Horan, Rosetti shows how centralizing divine authority in one male figure creates a form of
privilege that almost inevitably leads to abuse.

As we already mentioned, abuse is not just a religious issue but a structural one as well.
In Chuck Rosenthal’s article, which is an excerpt from the epilogue of his memoir Never Let Me
Go, we hear of Rosenthal’s own heart-wrenching story of abuse in college athletics. Similar to
Jain’s insights mentioned above, Rosenthal writes: “Though religious contexts have long been
shields for sexual deprivation, many of our corporate and institutional hierarchies do the same, as the ‘Me too’ movement has made very clear. But the sexual molestation of children, particularly of boys by men, is a silenced plague in our culture because men can’t be victims; they can’t admit it has happened to them and we can’t admit that it has.” Rosenthal’s honest account thus also illustrates the oft-silenced and unacknowledged forms of abuse that young boys endure and are afraid to confront in today’s world.

Having shown how abuse manifests in different contexts, the remainder of our article series returns to the topic of abuse in yoga more specifically. First, Philip Deslippe’s piece discusses how a number of allegations have been brought to public light by former students of yoga guru
Yogi Bhajan (d. 2004), who came to the West in 1968 to establish 3HO, or the “Healthy, Happy,
Holy Organization.” Deslippe’s piece covers the aftermath of last year’s (2020) large-scale
revelations of abuse and misconduct by Yogi Bhajan, which were coming to light at the time that
we held the conference. He explores how many current and former members have been
reappraising Bhajan, his teachings, and the group in light of the scandals and suggests that one
helpful comparative model for understanding abuse within 3HO is through money laundering
and front businesses.

Next, we hear from Nirinjan Kaur Khalsa-Baker who was born into the second generation
of 3HO Kundalini Yoga and Sikh Dharma practitioners. Her paper illustrates the complex
struggle of this community in crisis after cases of sexual abuse by Yogi Bhajan were brought to
light. Rather than creating a singular narrative of abuse, corruption, and victimization, her work
addresses the painful process of unraveling layers of abuse and hypocrisy within a spiritual
community now divided by their own experiences of the teacher and his teachings. To move
toward individual and communal healing, Dr. Khalsa-Baker highlights the importance of
transparency, listening, and grieving to acknowledge the harm caused rather than spiritually
bypassing negative emotions. She also highlights the importance of developing systems of
accountability to stop cycles of abuse and in order to reimagine a truly healthy, happy, holy
community. 

Up until this point, we have focused on human-to-human abuse in yoga and beyond, but
there are other less visible forms of abuse that have yet to be seriously considered in both
academic and practitioner circles. In this regard, the final two articles in this series problematize
the unacknowledged ways by which yoga practitioners routinely abuse non-human animals and
the environment.

First, Jonathan Dickstein is one of the only scholars I have met who seriously considers
and speaks publicly regarding yoga practitioners’ routine abuse of non-human animals. He has
written on this topic in both scholarly and popular online forums, and thus I invited Dickstein to
share with the global yoga community how, exactly, yoga practitioners continue to
unconsciously embody an anthropocentric worldview that prevents them from seeing the
saṃskāra (an unconscious impression on the mind and form of mental conditioning) of
speciesism that drives their abusive consumption behaviors. Regarding the general outlook of
yoga practitioners today, Dickstein writes, “In short, humans count because they’re humans and nonhumans don’t because they’re not. This exclusionary stance is precisely where the left has
gone perpetually wrong and with it the yogic left. Any commitment to the idea of equality
remains incomplete whenever it uncritically assumes an anthropocentric starting point.”
Finally, Patrick McCartney’s essay problematizes the manifold ways that the floating
signifier “yoga” is itself abused in contemporary Hindu nationalist and transnational discourse
along with the absurdities and fundamentalisms upheld within many global yoga cultures. Yoga,
it seems, can (and indeed has historically) mean almost anything. The often contradictory,
oversimplistic, and ideologically-laden uses of the word “yoga” paint a complex picture full of
internal contradictions, class/caste privilege, right-wing Hindu nationalism, consumerism,
and environmentally polluting spiritual consumption.

As this introduction comes to an end, I want to express that our heart goes out to those of
you who have suffered and continue to suffer on account of abuse within communities and under
leadership you once trusted and relied upon (and because some of our attendees were among
those who have suffered abuse within religious and spiritual communities, the Graduate Yoga
Studies Program also provided free on-site counseling with Isobel Marcus, LCSW, during the
event for anyone needing immediate support). If you think you are someone currently in an
abuse situation, reach outside your community for help, contact authorities, and seek immediate
professional assistance. There is help for you, and you deserve more than anything else to be
liberated from that which may be harming you. As our panelist Chuck Rosenthal – one among
the countless abused in the past – writes in his article in this series, “… if I were to offer any
advice at all it would be to find people to love, animals to love, things you love to do, help
others, live religiously. Face your past. Forgive yourself. Get counseling.”

And for those of us who are not in a situation of abuse – and I speak here particularly to
the yoga community but also beyond – I would ask that we look at our own daily interactions
with humans, non-humans, and the environment and determine if and how we might be in the
role of the abuser and how we might help those who are abused find some reprieve.


Christopher Miller completed his Ph.D. in the Study of Religion at the University of California,
Davis. He currently serves as the Bhagwan Mallinath Assistant Professor of Jain and Yoga
Studies at Loyola Marymount University. His current research focuses on the ways in which
yoga practices are translated into contemporary transnational yoga communities. He is the author of a number of articles and book chapters concerned with Jainism, the history and practice of modern yoga, yoga and politics, and yoga philosophy and is a co-editor of the volume Beacons of Dharma: Spiritual Exemplars for the Modern Age (2019). You can engage in critical yoga studies online with Dr. Miller at HotHaus Yoga Education.
Instagram: @theyogaprofessor
Online courses in Yoga Studies: hothauseducation.com 

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