Surviving Abuse and Staying Grounded with Mantra, Movement, and Meditation January 12, 2019 10:15

2018 was a year of reflection for me. 2019 will be about speaking up, reclaiming my own power, and healing.  I taught yoga at a local studio in Greenwood for a few years. I came to the studio while I was taking a sabbatical from a high school teaching career. I enjoyed yoga and figured this would be a great time to take a 200-hour YTT training. It’s hard to spot toxicity and deception when you’re practicing something that’s supposed to be good for you and that makes you feel good. However, there were definitely some red flags at this studio.  It took me a while to see them, and even longer to act on them, but having a solid network of support and a grounded personal practice that included mantra, movement, and meditation was crucial for me to heal and move forward.

Things started out normal enough. I had taken a variety of classes and enjoyed them before eventually paying $3K for the YTT program. As the trainings and classes progressed, though, I started to notice some disturbing patterns.  Sometimes, and for no discernible reason, there would be a heavy, thick tension in the studio space. The studio owner would be aloof and moody on occasion, and then more frequently, and for longer stretches of time. She angered easily, she was easily triggered, and she often threw her then business partner under the bus at the slightest sign of drama or conflict. I assumed these were flukes—simply occasional private issues on the business end that were leaking into the public studio space. No worries, right???

However, as time passed, secrets, half-truths, miscommunications, and, at times, a total lack of communication became more prevalent and pervasive. I was slated to complete my training in early fall 2013, but the business owner ran off to Vegas for several weeks. All modules and YTT trainings ceased, and her business partner was left to run the studio alone. Students and clients had lots of questions, and understandably so—they wanted to know where she went—and when she was to return—and why she left so suddenly. These were all reasonable concerns (I was concerned she was gambling away our YTT cash!). Her business partner's response? She went to Vegas to have dental work done—and he wasn’t sure when she was coming back.  Uh-oh—serious doubts were beginning to germinate!

The good news is, I did eventually graduate from their YTT program, albeit several months after when I had anticipated. Apparently, Vegas has very meticulous dentists! She and her partner are very knowledgeable about yoga; that's what made their program so appealing--but knowledge alone doesn't make an effective teacher. Ethics matters--how you treat people matters.

I was asked to teach a Yin class at the studio later that spring. I enjoyed practicing Yin, and I had also taken additional training with Bernie Clark in Vancouver, which I enjoyed immensely. I enjoyed teaching Yin as well. I loved working with my students. I enjoyed creating sequences and providing modifications or alternative poses for them to explore in order to discover what was right for their own bodies. I also went to Kripalu for specialized training in Prenatal Yoga, and I taught a prenatal class at the studio as well. I also picked up an all-levels class during the day. I spent a lot of time at the studio—either taking or teaching classes. 

While I focused my attention on my students and on improving my own practice, the red flags were still present, and they were multiplying. 

Now that I was on the studio’s payroll, I felt like I was walking on egg shells. I never knew what mood the business owner would be in, and I never knew what would set her off. She could be very domineering and manipulative in and outside of her classes. She would befriend a select few of her students—she'd laugh, talk, and even socialize outside of class with these favorites. She'd compliment them, brag about them in class, let them in on secret jokes,  but then she’d ignore others, and she would be quite cruel and emotionally abusive to those she deemed weak or fragile. She could be unnecessarily harsh at times, a cruel and manipulative bully. I was never one of her favorites, but she didn't unload her wrath on me, either. She was occasionally snappy,rude, and judgmental with me--I was just a collateral nuisance.

In September of 2016, I stopped attending her classes. I reached the point where I couldn’t listen to her voice without feeling angry. It was disrupting my own practice. I continued to teach at the studio, however. I had hoped that avoiding her classes would create enough of a distance. I would focus on my own students and my own practice. This worked for a while…sort of.

She was never a transparent communicator to begin with—very mysterious and  aloof. Because I didn’t see her in the studio as regularly, the communications I did receive were either urgent, demanding emails (about things that weren't urgent at all) or passive-aggressive Post-it notes left on the desk, stereo, thermostat, or bathroom door. Her lack of professionalism was staggering.

Her business partner had departed by this point, and she continued to host YTT immersions on her own. I was fortunate to have been in a training that spanned up to two years to complete. At this point, however, she was hosting more frequent intensives that ran only three-months long, which is not nearly enough time to integrate the material necessary to be an effective yoga teacher. I wasn’t on the receiving end of the emotional abuse and unnecessary dramas that she was inflicting on these YTT students, but many of them were, and they were coming to me to vent and share their concerns.

At this time, I was taking a meditation teacher training program at another yoga studio in the area. I was thoroughly enjoying the daily meditation practices. When I took occasional trainings and workshops at other studios, the studio owners and students were so genuine, warm, caring, and professional. The contrast was alarming when I compared it to where I was teaching. At this time, I had also discovered Reggie Ray’s The Awakening Body and was practicing somatic meditations daily as well. This, along with my japa practice and home yoga practice were keeping me rooted, grounded, and sane.

I stayed at this studio because I enjoyed the practice.

I stayed at this studio because I enjoyed teaching yoga.

I stayed at this studio because I enjoyed working with my students.

I stayed too long…

Even though I had stopped taking her classes, I did not feel right about teaching in such a toxic studio environment, and I didn’t feel right working for someone who I did not respect. I continued to hear from her students about her outbursts of rudeness and cruelty, and I didn't know what to do about it. I don't think others did, either--they just left and didn't return--and a lot of people left. She blamed it on "the space." Said it determined who stayed and who didn't. Looking back, that's just nuts!

Hindsight can be quite painful, and in hindsight, I knew that by continuing to teach in her studio, I was guilty, too, guilty of willful blindness and complicity to this abuse, even though I was an occasional victim myself.  Even though I didn’t participate in the abuse itself, I was a bystander, and I didn't speak up, and that was not acceptable.

Ironically, though, I don't think a lot of the students who took weekly classes there were even aware that this was going on. It was so subtle--or behind the scenes. Maybe they caught a glimpse--a snatch of her moodiness--a sliver of tension. It wasn't blatant enough or direct enough to catch their collective attention, however. If it did, they ignored it, too.

Late in the fall of 2017, when I found out about a somatic meditation retreat program in Crestone, CO, I decided to leave the yoga studio.

I had been mired in and teaching in a dark, toxic environment, and I had found something nourishing and positive to lead me away. But, I didn’t leave without help. I found Diane Bruni’s Facebook group to be extremely helpful. It was here that I was introduced to alternative movement modalities to supplement the gaps that yoga doesn’t fill for me. I also discovered Matthew Remski’s research and writings about cult dynamics. His research proved  to be a life raft for me. He has a book coming out in March of this year that I can’t wait to read (Practice and All Is Coming: Abuse, Cult Dynamics, and Healing in Yoga and Beyond). I also found Rachel Bernstein’s work to be extremely helpful as well. She’s a licensed therapist who has twenty years of experience working with cult survivors. Her podcast, IndoctriNation, is an excellent resource. I’ve recently started to work with a holistic chiropractor in Franklin. Dr. Amanda Meyers is excellent, and she is helping me to address and heal the physical symptoms that have manifested in my own body as a result of this traumatic experience.

Since leaving the studio, I no longer teach yoga publicly. Instead, I have spent the year focusing on my business and my own mantra, movement, and meditation practices at home. These practices have been healing for me, and they have restored my own sense of integrity and authenticity.  I’ve also found a source of comfort and support at TMBCC, a Buddhist center in Bloomington, and I continue to surround myself with kind-hearted, positive, genuine people.

 What have I learned from all of this?

  • Be very, very careful about choosing a teacher (yoga, meditation, dharma, etc.). While it’s important that he/she is knowledgeable, knowledge alone is not enough—being professional, having integrity, compassion, empathy, and ethics are essential, too.
  • Listen to your intuition and your body (if I had listened to the soft whispers of intuitive wisdom and the nagging aches and pains sooner, I would have moved on sooner, or responded differently!)
  • Cultivate and maintain a personal practice that suits you in order to nourish yourself. I hope that while I was teaching at this studio, I was able to make a positive impact on the students I served. They mattered to me, and I stayed as long as I did because of them.
  • Speak up! Bullies, narcissists, and leaders of high need groups require passive bystanders in order to get away with spewing their hateful cruelty and crazy talk. I wish I'd had the courage to speak up in the studio--to look her right in the eye and say, "Enough! That's inappropriate! Stop it!"

I'm speaking up now--better late than never.