52: Cult Dynamics, Abuse + Healing in Yoga with Matthew Remski

Matthew Remski is a yoga teacher and author.  As the survivor of two cults, his work has been pivotal in illuminating the shadows of globalized yoga and Buddhism. His writing shows that disillusionment and critical inquiry can be gateways to mature spirituality. Matthew has written a new and very important book called Practice And All Is Coming: Abuse, Cult Dynamics, And Healing In Yoga And Beyond and it should be required reading for all yoga teachers. The book explores abuse that took place in Mysore (as well as around the wider yoga world)  AND offers us a path forward through the healing that happens in community.

In this episode you’ll hear:

  • the important difference between intention and impact in the world of oppression and healing
  • the importance of listening to and uplifting survivors stories
  • complex ideas about cult dynamics explained in an easy to understand way and how this conversation might impact all of our teaching
  • why seeing physical opening as a sign of spiritual advancement is a dangerous idea and what yoga teachers can do to dismantle that way of thinking in their own practice and teaching

Learn More From Matthew:

Subscribe to the Mentor Sessions Podcast

7 Responses to “52: Cult Dynamics, Abuse + Healing in Yoga with Matthew Remski”

  1. Julie Sill

    Riveting interview. I’ve been followed Matthew’s FB account. I am fascinated and devastated at the same time. Questioning and doubting my own experiences, trainings, how to listen more deeply to what’s truly been happening and what needs to happen to continue to practice and teach responsibly. Very impactful. I have begun in recent years to hone my language towards myself and my students. Thank you so very much for this podcast and sharing of wisdom. In gratitude.

    • Francesca Cervero

      You are so very welcome Julie. I’m honored to be on this path with you. <3

  2. Melissa Feldman

    Thank you, Francesca! And thank you, Matthew!

    I know there are many ways by which people enter these cultures, and degrees to which they are involved, but I continue to feel so sad for those who are engaged in the toxic cultures, not to (frankly) mention my anger at the existence of the evil and the cultures themselves, and of course the abusers and perpetrators of them.

    I love the breadth of what you discuss in this interview and I resonate with so much of it.

    Like you, Francesca, my yoga learning/training was, thankfully, outside of the cultures of abuse, and I am deeply disturbed by the apparent proliferation of them. And like you, I have been teaching mostly private yoga (and plenty of groups as well) for the last 20+ years – and we seem to teach very similarly – so I resonate with most everything you share about your teaching techniques. In particular, your mention asking clients about their experiences (at the level they can explore themselves and respond), and the red, green, or yellow light message they can perceive if open to it. That is so important in our work via yoga (and other related modalities) as our work literally is a self-discovery and self-cultivating tool.

    I am grateful that I have always been open to those messages within myself along my yoga journey. Due to the weakness of the original yoga teacher training I attended over 20 years ago (as well as my first exposure to yoga just prior), most of my yoga learning and training has been a self-guided journey. I knew intuitively that the teachings I was originally exposed to were not quite right, that the teachers AND the content didn’t sit right with me. I knew there was a more authentic, fluid, natural, and powerful way to access this amazing healing art. So I went looking for it. Thankfully and happily I found it. : ) Along the way, of course, I have had countless opportunities and invitations to immerse myself in various cultures, communities, teachings, etc…and each time I feel for the red, yellow, or green light message from within. And while many people around me dove into those for which I got a red or yellow light message, I chose and still choose today to only continue forward along the path of those that are a green light for me, regardless of who may be choosing differently. And of course this applies to my asana practice and experiences as well…and my professional relationships…and my personal relationships. Our inner knowing is a wonderful guide, and it is one that must be explored, cultivated, and experienced in order to be ultimately trusted.

    Thank you for your work, Matthew and Francesca!


    • Francesca Cervero

      Hi Melissa!Thank you so much for reaching out and introducing yourself! I love meeting fellow sisters on this path, and considering how similar our paths have been I can’t believe we haven’t already met! Your students are very lucky to have such a thoughtful and engaged teacher. The yoga world reflects the rest of our culture, so it is full of problems, but it is also full of beautiful people who care deeply and want to work to make things better. It’s an honor to be a voice for these conversations. <3


  3. Ganga

    Thanks Francesca for making space for some of the more challenging topics in yoga. I appreciated getting some highlights of Matthew’s book, because it’s unlikely I would have connected with it otherwise.

    Like other commenters here, I was surprised to hear Matthew’s viewpoint that cult dynamics, predation, and violence are the “norm” in the Yoga world. Like you, I had a sense that the kind of Yoga I learned — which specifically encourages students to respect & listen to their bodies & their inward experience — was the norm. I always tell my students that Ahimsa is the first rule of yoga, including gentleness with themselves. I hadn’t considered that this viewpoint was an “outlier” in the Yoga world — and if this is true, I’m still contemplating what that means for how I talk about what I practice and teach.

    I began practicing Amrit Yoga (the continuation of Kripalu Yoga) in 2002. Physical adjustments of any kind are rare, and are more likely to be gentle energetic promptings than physical manipulations when they do happen. Inward experience is the most important — connecting to sensation in the body (prana). The Higher Self is within. The external guru is a reflection of your internal openness, and he bows to his guru, and his guru’s guru, and talks about his own ongoing learning. I was taught early on to not be attached to a specific instructor — that the practice was always a way to observe my own body, mind, and spirit.

    So, when I occasionally attended classes in the other traditions — Bikram, Iyengar, Kundalini, Ashtanga, “power,” — they all felt really pushy to me and in my view, missing out on the meditative aspect of Yoga. At an Ashtanga class in London, the instructor adjusted me in a twist and then I gave him evil eye so he wouldn’t come near me for the whole rest of the class. My feeling at the time was: “That’s not yoga!”

    I’ve always ascribed these styles of “athletic” or at least more Physical Yoga to the overall Western obsession with achievement and the way that Yoga was often taught within a workout culture — or at least marketed that way to get students in the door. It’s an interesting question to ask if the Yoga techniques coming out of lineages with a history of violence/abuse from lead teachers / gurus are (consciously or unconsciously) reinforcing a culture of violence — even with things like competing (even with yourself), aiming for physical ideals, pushing through limits, etc.? I wonder if this will shift as a cultural fascination with Meditation, Mindfulness, and Yin has begun?

    Still — I have a feeling in my bones that the teachINGS are not always limited by the human behavior of the teachER. The Scriptures are of course written in another language, in other times, related to another culture, etc. — and therefore can be greatly impacted by interpretation — just like many other spiritual traditions. The more-modern *techniques* are reflective of what worked for human teachers. (Amma gives hugs & teaches selfless service because compassion is her practice, Amrit teaches meditation in motion because that’s what transformed him, etc.)

    Still, it seems to me that no matter which teacher — the techniques that have benefited other humans may have benefits for us or our students. Francesca — I think of your question quite often: “What is the intended benefit of this pose?” And by extension, what is the intended benefit of this pranayama, of this adjustment, of this teaching, of this service, of Yoga overall?

    Thanks again Francesca for holding space for a broad and ever-curious approach — your own, and through your work — for us all as fellow Sisters & Brothers on the path!
    — Ganga


Leave a Reply

  • (will not be published)