The Yoga of Conscious Activism

There is a truth we know from our history: Charismatic leaders promising to deliver simple solutions to complex problems have too often delivered, instead, a recipe for disaster. We have seen this in the microcosm that is yoga in America — the dynamic of tyrants in the guise of “gurus,” manipulating the vulnerable. Politically, we see pivotal epochs in which simple answers — “Make America Great Again” — are successfully deployed to either garner support from the disenfranchised or to silence voices of dissent. We saw this most particularly in Germany in the 1930s, when Hitler appeased and emboldened the struggling working class with a fear-based vision of extreme nationalism, and those targeted were comforted with conciliatory attempts at normalcy.

This is critical territory for conscious leaders and thinkers today in the face of a dark and distressing set of historical parallels. What is our role at this moment? What guidance might yoga offer? Reflecting on yoga’s own history with tyrants gives us some insight — not only into tyranny, but also into the complicit behaviors that almost always enable it.

Those of us who are leaders in yoga in America have watched reports of documented abuse of women by so many of the men who dominated Western yoga during the latter half of the 20th century — and even today; as recently as last month, allegations against Bikram Choudhury were in the news. We struggle to account for their predatory behavior. But we don’t struggle nearly enough with the fact that they have been protected by the very industry that should have been protecting their victims.

At Kripalu, we know something about this. Amrit Desai was the guru in residence at the long-defunct Kripalu ashram. Like so many American ashram experiments of the 1960s and ’70s, the Kripalu ashram ended in ruin. Desai fled campus in the middle of the night, disgraced by countless allegations of sexual and financial abuse, and the community members were left to figure things out for themselves. Some stayed, found healing in the practice of yoga itself, and helped shape Kripalu’s evolution. Many could not separate the man from what he taught.

The published history makes it clear that the Kripalu ashram was not a safe place for women — but Desai was only part of the problem. The community of followers who made up his inner circle created an environment in which the victims were punished. Those who came forward to accuse Desai of impropriety were not only disbelieved, they were publicly shamed and humiliated. This happened here, only 30 years ago.

The sway of a charismatic, power-hungry leader is undeniable, and we have seen through history the perils of such men (for they are typically men). I look back on this period in Kripalu’s history, and reassure myself that today such victim shaming would be unthinkable in these halls. What is equally evident, though, is a pernicious reality: While one person may commit terrible acts of treachery and abuse, the greater harm is almost always done by the community that stands by silently, complicit with the behavior, allowing it to happen. It is often in these communities that the behavior takes root underground long after the direct abuser is found out and faces the consequences.

In the yoga industry, the face of this complicit silence is often framed as “compassion.” While the abuser may be evicted, the behaviors and attitudes that allowed the abuse to occur and protected the abuser can continue, quietly unspoken, for decades. How might history have been different for the Kripalu ashram had those who came to practice a spiritual lifestyle categorically rejected their “Gurudev” as soon as the allegations came to light? What if they had believed those who came forward? And how might Kripalu be different today had the community that facilitated Desai’s abuse been likewise held to account for their active and passive behaviors? The work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa in 1994 is a powerful example of the necessity of public acknowledgment and penance. Unless everyone’s stories are told and heard, a narrative lingers unhealed in the shadows, and can come to light at subsequent periods of change or vulnerability. The challenge for conscious leadership is to do the hard work of truth and reconciliation while also moving an organization — or a nation — forward on the path of right action.

When I joined Kripalu as its CEO earlier this year, I entered into a high-performing nonprofit doing incredible social impact work, both on campus and in the world. There was, to be sure, a certain radioactivity around the “Desai era” that weighed on the Executive Team and the Board. But what was evident was a sharp and intentional focus on best practices to safeguard the organization and its guests. This expressed itself in our HR, Legal, Guest Services, and Programming departments; in clarity of rules governing staff and faculty scope of practice; and in transparency about our history, including acknowledgement on our website of Desai’s role and behaviors. Out of the ashes of its past, Kripalu has emerged as a field leader in yoga-based social impact and a steward of yoga in America — in large part because of its willingness to face and come to terms with its past. That past has given us a difficult expertise — the very one that prompts me to speak here and now.

In this election year, the abuse of privilege and power by men was in the news every single day — in our ears and our heads, droning toward a sickening normalcy. The institutions that form the foundation of our democracy were — are — overtly threatened. A firestorm of fear and hatred has been stoked against minorities, the LGBTQ community, and immigrants. We’ve grown accustomed to women claiming sexual abuse and then facing ridicule, shame, and threats of legal action. Did we reject this narrative and its chief purveyor? We did not.

In the world of yoga, a year scarcely goes by that doesn’t include a story of yet another teacher who abused his female students. Do we reject these offenders and protect their victims? Too often, we do not.

Social media is rife with yoga-inspired nature photos, accompanied by quotes that counsel “compassion” and “non-attachment” in times of great stress and strain. To be sure, these practices are important as they are central to the philosophy of yoga. They are also incomplete for those of us living in the realities of today’s news.

While the Eastern traditions of yoga bring to us a focus on retreat and reflection, the West affirms the need to be and act in the world. Together, the two traditions support a humanity-inspired yoga: a yoga of conscious activism. This yoga requires our greatest commitment to standing in complexity — standing in the unresolved and the ambiguous — and being guided in our words and actions by the voice of truth from within. Complacency is not the work of yoga.

As conscious leaders today, we have an obligation to champion the independent thinkers and dissident voices that advance us forward toward a higher truth. The yoga of activism requires our participation in the creation of — and the protection of — a more awakened, compassionate, and connected world. It requires that we tend to this precious earth and to every soul upon it. It calls on us to reject despots and abusers, however they show up, whatever the pressure to quiet our voices and strain toward conciliation. Tyrants are not our teachers, and they are not our leaders.

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