Apr 5, 2016

A Workplace, an Ashram, or a Cult? Inside the sexual harassment lawsuit against Jivamukti Yoga

Michelle Goldberg
April 5, 2016

The Jivamukti doctrine, according to one former teacher, “involves surrender to the people that are in charge.”

Aspiring teachers at Jivamukti, the downtown Manhattan yoga studio famous for its sweaty, ecstatic classes and celebrity clientele, quickly get used to kissing the feet of founders David Life and Sharon Gannon. “They walk in the room and you learn to get on your hands and knees,” one former Jivamukti teacher tells me. “Everyone’s doing it, a hundred people around you, from the very first day of teacher training,” guru devotion is woven into the studio’s culture. Its teacher training manual lists ways to “keep a teacher precious in your life.” Among them: “Become an extension of your teachers—teach what they teach,” and “Do what they say.”

Holly Faurot was eager to be told what to do when she started studying at Jivamukti in 2007, when she was 27. She’d had an abusive childhood, she says, and was recovering from an eating disorder. At Jivamukti, she glimpsed salvation. “Jivamukti gives you this antidote,” Faurot says. “You have something now. You’ve been in therapy, you’ve done all these things, but you’re still not healed. You feel like you want a way to move forward with your life and transform, and they give you something. They give you something you can dedicate your whole life to.”

Faurot paid about $10,000 to attend Jivamukti teacher training in 2009. Then she paid another $3,000 to become an apprentice to a senior Jivamukti yoga teacher, Ruth Lauer-Manenti. At Jivamukti, Lauer-Manenti was known as Lady Ruth, an honorific bestowed on her by Geshe Michael Roach, a tantric Buddhist most well-known for leading a three-year silent retreat in the Arizona desert at which one of his followers died. Lady Ruth was quirky and ethereal, heedless of pedestrian personal boundaries; former teachers I spoke with describe her probing for details of their romantic relationships and casually stripping in the studio offices to change clothes for class. Besides being an eminent yoga instructor, she’s an artist with an MFA from Yale. Faurot saw her as “spiritually advanced.”

Jivamukti apprenticeships last between a few months and a year, and apprentices are expected to serve their mentors faithfully while engaging in their own intense study of yoga postures and philosophy. “She had this circle of close, all-female students who had been her apprentices,” Faurot says of Lauer-Manenti. “It was almost like a sorority. It felt like I was entering a family, which was a strong appeal for me.” Faurot’s yogic sisters taught her how Lauer-Manenti liked her tea and how she preferred the blankets at the studio to be folded. “All of us worked together to please Ruth,” Faurot says.

And Faurot, by her own account, was desperate to please. One time she forgot to set out water for Lauer-Manenti before her class began. “I can’t really describe how devastated I felt that I forgot her water. And she was angry,” says Faurot. Most of the time, though, Faurot won her mentor’s favor; occasionally Lauer-Manenti even called her “Holy Holly.” Her approval was like a benediction. “You kind of felt like if you became her closer student, you would be further along the spiritual path,” says Faurot. “The fact that she liked me so much, and I was her favorite, somehow I felt so special. I really had never felt that way in my entire life, to feel that kind of love from an authority figure.”

The question of what sort of authority Lauer-Manenti had over Faurot is at the center of a $1.6 million sexual harassment lawsuit that Faurot filed against Jivamukti in February. Faurot now believes that Lauer-Manenti took advantage of her devotion in order to sexually abuse her. Her lawsuit claims that Jivamukti’s teachings about the student-guru relationship are “more akin to a cult” than a yoga school and that its leadership exploits “Eastern philosophy and beliefs, as superseding western sexual harassment and anti-discrimination laws.”

Lauer-Manenti, whose attorney did not respond to requests for comment, has contended that Faurot misinterpreted her innocent displays of affection. Some close to Jivamukti see Faurot as a jealous woman lashing out in anger while others view her as a victim of spiritual abuse. The case hinges not just on what Lauer-Manenti did but on what sort of place Jivamukti is. Is it a business, an ashram, a cult, or some hybrid of the three? Could Faurot have said no to her precious teacher? And what did she think she was saying yes to?

* * *

According to Yoga Journal, American students spend $2.5 billion a year on yoga instruction. Jivamukti, founded in 1984, played an enormous role in the creation of this industry. At a time when yoga in the U.S. was viewed as a tame, musty hippie relic, Jivamukti was fast and sweaty, charged with downtown glamour. By the late 1990s, its SoHo studio was one of the chicest places in Manhattan. “If yoga has the attention of the popular culture right now (and it most certainly does), then Jivamukti is the white-hot center of that focus in New York,” said a glowing 1998 Timespiece.

Back then, the likes of Madonna, Sting, and Christy Turlington practiced at Jivamukti; the Times quoted a writer who referred to it as “that pink yuppie pleasure palace.” Founders Life and Gannon always intended it to be more than that. “They explicitly said that their mission was to remystify yoga,” says Leslie Kaminoff, a widely renowned yoga instructor who taught at Jivamukti in the 1990s. “Even back in the early ’90s, they saw yoga drifting away from what they considered to be its mystical roots.”

For the casual student, it’s easy to overlook the spiritual trappings—the chanting and philosophical instruction—that accompany Jivamukti classes. But for dedicated practitioners, the quest for transcendence is taken very seriously, requiring intense devotion. Teachers and apprentices say their constant presence is expected at the studio and at expensive retreats, immersions, andTribe Gatherings—essentially yoga festivals—all over the world.

David Life and Sharon Gannon.

Loveobx23/Wikimedia CC

In reporting this piece, I spoke to a half-dozen current and former Jivamukti teachers in addition to Faurot and Kaminoff. All asked to remain anonymous, and all described an intense, all-consuming environment, where the lines between workplace and ashram were blurred and where supervisors doubled as gurus. “Now that I’m out of it, I’m like, yep, that’s a cult,” says a teacher who left Jivamukti last year and is digging herself out of the debt she amassed following Life and Gannon to various yoga gatherings. “Everybody follows it so blindly.”

When I called Jivamukti to ask for comment, the person who answered the phone said “No comment” and hung up. The studio has, however, issued a publicstatement denying Faurot’s charges. “We adamantly reject the very serious accusations against Ruth Lauer-Manenti and the New York City Jivamukti Yoga School that have recently appeared in the press,” it says. “This negative campaign is being waged against our satsang, our principals and competency. These allegations are wrong and misguided, moving outside the realm of critical dialogue. There has been no proof to substantiate any of the allegations.”

If Jivamukti is a cult, it’s hard to elaborate its dogma. Certainly, it’s known for its commitment to animal rights and strict veganism; one former teacher tells me that the vegan militancy she developed at Jivamukti contributed to the dissolution of her marriage. Several teachers say that Life and Gannon frown on childbearing, both because of humans’ environmental impact and because children distract from spiritual practice. Mostly, however, the doctrine is about devotion itself.

“There are certainly people who go there just to get a workout, but the people who stay and do the teacher trainings are ones who really resonate with their message philosophically,” says Kaminoff, who now runs the Breathing Project, a nonprofit continuing education program for yoga teachers. “They’ve never been shy about what their message is and what their philosophy is, and it involves surrender to the people that are in charge.” In a video of a talk she gave on New Year’s Eve 2014, Gannon, robed in white and wearing a playful gold party hat, describes complaining—about anything—as “more poisonous than ingesting a poisonous substance.”

* * *

Faurot says she was thrilled and honored when, in the fall of 2011, Lauer-Manenti asked to spend the night at her apartment in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn. By then, Faurot had finished her apprenticeship and had become a Jivamukti teacher, ultimately answerable, she says, to Lauer-Manenti. Lauer-Manenti and her husband had moved upstate, and she sometimes spent the night with students in the city to shorten her commute to class. “I thought, Great, I can be of service to my teacher,” says Faurot.

She wanted to give her guru the bed and sleep on the floor, but Lauer-Manenti insisted they sleep in the bed together. She did this with other female students as well. One of her former apprentices tells me, “It wasn’t thrilling to me. I don’t really like sleeping in my bed with another person unless it’s my boyfriend. But when your teacher’s patting the bed and saying, ‘Come, come,’ what do you say? ‘You’re being weird’?” (The apprentice emphasizes that nothing untoward happened.)

Like the other apprentice, Faurot felt a little uncomfortable climbing into bed with Lauer-Manenti, but she had more faith in her teacher than in her own instincts. “The trust was so intense,” she says. “I would never question her—why would Lady Ruth want to hurt me?”

And, in fact, nothing happened. But the next time they slept together, Faurot says, Lauer-Manenti spooned her, telling her how cute she was as she pulled her in close. Another time, Faurot says, her teacher rubbed her foot up and down her thigh. She would let her hand rest on Faurot’s breast or press her thigh between Faurot’s legs. Faurot says Lauer-Manenti constantly commented on her body, saying things like, “If I was your husband, Holly, I would love how little your feet are.”

Being close to Lauer-Manenti came with professional privileges, including prime teaching slots and private dinners with Gannon and Life. Occasionally, she’d give Faurot small cash gifts. (Faurot estimates they totaled less than $1,500 over the years.) Yet even as Lauer-Manenti emphasized that Faurot was her favorite, Faurot says she would subtly humiliate her. Once, for example, she told her protégé that she couldn’t remember if she had a tampon in and instructed Faurot to check. She complied.

According to Faurot, Lauer-Manenti started buying her clothes, including a tight skirt, telling her, “I’ve never seen you in something so provocative.” “She liked to dress me up, she liked to photograph me,” Faurot says. Eventually, Lauer-Manenti asked if she could take “risqué” pictures of her. “She said it at the back office of Jivamukti, almost like a joke,” Faurot says. “I was the only person who knew she wasn’t joking.”

In the spring of 2013, Faurot posed naked for Lauer-Manenti at her home upstate, ostensibly as part of an art project. “It is art, I’m not going to deny that fact, but she would say things like, ‘I’m going to keep these away from my husband,’ ” says Faurot. “So much innuendo.” In the pictures, Faurot faces the camera naked and unsmiling, a garland of flowers draped around her neck. That night, the two women slept in bed together while Lauer-Manenti’s husband slept downstairs.

Shortly afterward, Faurot went to India to spend two months studying at the ashram of the late K. Pattabhi Jois, the creator of Ashtanga yoga, a physically demanding, aerobic style that heavily influenced Jivamukti. When she returned, another protégée of Lauer-Manenti’s approached her, gushing about their teacher. “She was like, ‘Ruth is so sweet! At night, she asks me to cuddle with her in bed before she goes to sleep,’ ” Faurot recalls.

Hearing this, Faurot says she felt like the walls were caving in around her. Suddenly, she says, she realized that the way Lauer-Manenti treated her underlings was very wrong. “I was like, ‘Wow, I was gone, she needed her fix,’ ” says Faurot. “I had been used, and in my absence, she had to have someone else.”

When she tried to speak to Lauer-Manenti, her teacher told her she was being ridiculous. In one of their final conversations, Faurot says, Lauer-Manenti looked at her and said, “I can see your little crotch in your pants, Holly.”

After that, Faurot stopped going to Lauer-Manenti’s yoga class, but she kept working at Jivamukti. “Other people in her close circle started to distance themselves from me, because I was questioning things,” she says. Without Lauer-Manenti’s sponsorship, she stopped being assigned prime class times. Her stature at work plummeted.

Distraught, she went into therapy. Her therapist, she says, made her see that Lauer-Manenti had violated her boundaries, telling her, “This is not right.” But Faurot was still disoriented and not sure whom to trust. Was Lauer-Manenti her guru or her abuser? She didn’t want to believe that the guidance she’d once held so sacred had all been a sham. “I was raw, like I didn’t have skin,” she says. “The level of the manipulation, to realize that I didn’t know what was happening. It’s highly disturbing and it’s hard to digest.”

Faurot says she begged her former teacher, “repeatedly and desperately,” to talk things over with her, but Lauer-Manenti refused. A few months later, however, Lauer-Manenti asked to speak with her, and they met at a tea shop near the studio. Faurot covertly recorded their conversation. At the time, she says, she just wanted to play it for her therapist, but a transcript of their exchange is now part of her lawsuit.

According to the transcript, Lauer-Manenti was upset by the idea that her behavior—“telling you that you were beautiful, my spooning with you, my sleeping with you”—was inappropriate. She demanded that her former student apologize to her. “For misinterpreting me. For telling me I violated you. … I took care of you. I gave you money. I was concerned about if you had enough to eat. … I wanted to give you my classes. That that would be called a violation.”

That, said Faurot, wasn’t the violation.

“No, but that’s all part of our relationship. … The fact that I caressed you in bed. I mean, you have a problem because you really misinterpreted that,” Lauer-Manenti said. She told Faurot that she was being cruel. “Who would ever guess that dedicated Holly could be so cruel? And if you really were dedicated, Holly, what is all this?”

* * *

According to Jivamukti’s own professional guidelines, affairs between teachers and students are verboten. “All forms of sexual behavior or harassment with students are unethical, even when a student invites or consents to such behavior involvement [sic],” the guidelines say. They warn against “exploiting the trust and dependency of students.”

Last year, two Jivamukti teachers who’d heard rumors about Faurot’s relationship with Lauer-Manenti asked her to meet them for tea. By then, Faurot had left Jivamukti and was teaching yoga at a high school. Hearing about Faurot’s experience, the teacher urged her to make an internal complaint. She agreed, though she says she didn’t expect to be believed. In November 2015, Faurot heard from Susan Marcus, a lawyer representing Lauer-Manenti, who proposed a “restorative justice” process designed to find “holistic and healing resolutions for all parties involved.” Faurot decided she was unwilling to participate in a process guided by her alleged abuser’s lawyer. Instead, she found her own.

Her lawyer, Thomas Shanahan, says that because Faurot was a Jivamukti employee, Lauer-Manenti’s behavior and Jivamukti’s failure to perform an impartial investigation constitute a clear-cut violation of the sexual harassmentprovisions of both the New York City and state human rights laws. “I’ve never seen something this egregious,” he says. “I’ve never seen anything this bad in regards to the absolute disregard for her as the victim. I’ve never seen anything this bad in terms of the disregard of objective evidence that required an investigation. I’ve never seen, in all my years of doing this, handing the investigation to the perpetrator.”

Jivamukti Yoga Studio, New York City.

Lisa Larson-Walker/Slate

Still, it’s far from clear that Faurot will be able to prevail in court. According to Kathleen Peratis, head of the sexual harassment and sex discrimination practice group at the law firm Outten & Golden LLP, it’s very hard to win workplace harassment cases when the parties have formerly been involved in a consensual intimate relationship, especially if the previous relationship went on for a long time. If an employee complains of sexual harassment against a former lover, even if it’s her boss, “most courts will find an excuse not to get involved,” says Peratis. That might mean finding that the conduct was not “unwelcome,” she says, or that it was not objectively offensive.

To some observers, Faurot is simply a scorned woman lashing out. “This seems to me to be a very nasty way for a jilted lover to get back at somebody,” Kaminoff says of the lawsuit. “This woman was certainly OK with the relationship with Ruth until she found someone else.” Faurot, he argues, may have been under Lauer-Manenti’s spiritual sway, but she’s still a consenting adult. “We’re not talking about people with diminished capacity,” he says. “You can talk about power imbalance as much as you want, and that’s certainly part of the conversation, but that power that these teachers have was given to them by their students.”

Shanahan aims to show that Faurot’s ability to consent was impaired by Jivamukti’s cultish atmosphere. “We’re going to be looking to hire an expert on cults to talk about what’s happening at this school in the context of brainwashing, this kind of guru-worship,” he says. “If their business model is designed to isolate vulnerable people, bring them into what they call their yoga tribe, have them kiss their feet, and then the behavior changes, that’s relevant.”

Whether or not this argument convinces a jury, the case raises the question of whether something has gone seriously awry in the culture of one of the world’s most famous yoga studios. “As spiritually advanced as people like to believe these folks are, there’s some very fundamental psychological dynamics going on that are completely opaque to the people involved,” Kaminoff says. “I don’t necessarily think that Sharon and David started out thinking we’re in this business to become gurus and have people worship us. But the projections that happen in an intense situation like that are very, very strong. There’s not a single spiritual organization I know of that has escaped this, if they had a charismatic leader sitting at the top of it. And Jivamukti has two charismatic leaders, and other teachers have become charismatic leaders in their wake.”

Perhaps Faurot’s case will cut through some of the self-mythologizing grandiosity that has sprung up around a place that is, ultimately, just a yoga studio. That, says Kaminoff, would represent genuine spiritual development. “ ‘What the fuck was I thinking?’ is probably the mantra that some of these people need to be repeating to themselves,” he says.


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