The Lauded, Exploitive Fitness Guru's Endless Reign

Illustration for article titled The Lauded, Exploitive Fitness Gurus Endless Reign
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Yoga to the People, a minimalist, bicoastal yoga studio, was founded around the cutting-edge idea that yoga should be affordable and accessible to all people. Greg Gumucio, the company’s founder, held its donation-based classes in airy lofts, branding himself as an evangelist of accessible, affordable fitness. The idea that yoga should be affordable stems back to the practice’s roots in Northern India beginning around 500 BCE, when yoga was free for all and students voluntarily cared for yoga teachers, who were largely hermits and traveled around sharing their knowledge.

But in a city like New York, where YTTP started, everything comes at a premium, and Gumicio’s platform of affordability made his organization—and his teaching—instantly popular. But in early July of this year, an Instagram account called YttP Shadow Work began posting stories of accusations against Gumicio and the culture at Yoga to the People. By the second week in July, Yoga to the People’s website disappeared and was replaced with a brief message saying the studios would be permanently closed. By the end of July, accusations against Gumicio had been compiled in a Vice investigation that revealed years of harassment. Gumicio has been accused of sexual misconduct and creating a toxic work environment at YTTP much like the man Gumicio claimed was his mentor, Bikram Choudhry.

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While Gumicio did not “invent” a style of yoga to claim ownership,
he capitalized on affordability and turning yoga accessibility into an ethical sales pitch. By doing so, he was able to cultivate a sense of loyalty—positioning himself as a beneficent person wanting to spread his knowledge of the miracle of yoga to those who had previously been unable to experience it. He, like other allegedly predatory yoga teachers, posed as a giver and students were quickly willing to give him outsize power over their lives. Students say that Gumicio’s encompassing role in the company, as a founder-come-spiritual advisor, is part of what allowed him to have such powerful sway over students. Jill Bayne, who spoke to Vice, also referred to Gumicio as having a “very charismatic, mysterious, enigmatic, elusive aura around him, and he purposefully does that, as any cult leader does.”

He isn’t alone in the yoga world. Gumicio was a disciple of Bikram Choudhry, founder of wildly popular (and lucrative) Bikram Yoga (often referred to as hot yoga), who was accused of rape and sexual assault by several former students, who described him a Netflix documentary as a cult leader. The yoga community in the United States is crawling with so-called gurus who are revered until they are eventually accused of sexually or physically abusing their students for years, including Pattabhi Jois, B. K. S. Iyengar, and Yogi Bhajan. In 2019, Jezebel released a documentary about Swami Vivekananda Saraswati, who ran a retreat in Thailand called Agama and was accused of sexual assault.

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Despite yoga and spirituality permeating so much of the mainstream in the US, yoga is still stereotyped as a mysterious treasure from the East, one that can be whored out to fitness enthusiasts and vulnerable people looking for a different way to heal. (This concept was examined and spoofed in the 2012 documentary Kumaré, in which director Vikram Gandhi posed as an absurd guru to unsuspecting white people who hung on his every word.) As the Vice investigation pointed out, many women who found themselves at YTTP sought out the practice because they were in vulnerable positions, leaving them in prime condition to be taken advantage of. That mixture of an assailable audience with a lack of knowledge around yoga sets the stage for predators like Choudhry, Jois, Iyengar, and eventually Gumicio, who can portray themselves as the holders of secret knowledge.

The irony is that this goes against the history of yoga. One of the earliest tenets of yoga was that knowledge should be free to those who wanted to learn. According to yogic history cataloged by the Indian Ministry of External Affairs, Shiva was the first guru who granted knowledge of yoga to seven sages who, in turn, began to pass on information to seekers. People “paid” for yoga by giving food or shelter to yoga teachers in exchange for their yogic knowledge, a body of work that predates modern religion. The commodification of yogic knowledge occurred sometime around 1890 when Swami Vivekananda first introduced the practice to the west at Chicago World Fair.

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Since then it has morphed into the more physically-focused, commercially-viable practice Westerners are familiar with today. Most Western practitioners are only familiar with two of yoga’s eight limbs: asana, which is the physical yoga postures (think down dog, child’s pose, etc.) and pranayama, which is breathwork. Information about the remaining limbs is available to anyone who has the means and time to purchase books on the topic. But the commercialized version of yoga is limited to the two limbs that don’t actively work against capitalist ideology. For example, one limb, “yamas,” teaches the value of moderation in all things, an idea that is not conducive to yoga companies trying to sell as much merchandise as possible.

Aside from basic safety measures dictated by the Yoga Alliance, there is little to no regulation on who is allowed to do what in a yoga studio. Choudhry was able to capitalize on the perceived novelty of yoga, specifically his sequence of poses, and appoint himself as a guru without any proof that he was who he said he was. The model of “trust me, I know what I’m doing because I know a few words in Sanskrit” has been replicated often in the yoga space, despite the fact that the average yoga teacher has little more than certification from a 200-hour teaching course.

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Yoga’s roots in self-healing and unification of the mind and body also provide a grandiose role for a teacher—and easy allure for potential victims. In the Netflix documentary, Bikram: Yogi, Guru, Predator, people who have done Bikram yoga recount the ways in which the practice helped their physical body as well as their mental state claiming it cured their depression, anxiety, and even lifelong chronic pain. Gumicio, like many other studio owners, also ran a 200-hour certification from his studios. It’s during these sessions that the guru/student relationship starts to take shape, as trainers and trainees spend up to 12-hours together, six days per week. In the case of Choudhry and Gumicio, allegedly once they had identified the vulnerable members of the group they slowly fostered a relationship, making small asks of students already incentivized to trust/obey them. Choudhry would reportedly ask for a foot massage. Gumicio, Vice reported, would ask for extra unpaid help around the studio. As the asks get bigger and more deranged, the student isn’t always able to discern what’s happening because the guru has already put in the work of blurring and in some cases eviscerating personal boundaries, part of the work, theoretically of apprenticeship.

One common practice in slowly breaking down boundaries, which Choudhry and Pattabhi Jois both allegedly used, is hands-on adjustments. Hands-on adjustments are a polarizing issue in the yoga world, as more and more practitioners come to understand that adjustments have been used as a grooming technique. A hands-on adjustment can include turning a person’s foot out for them, or lifting their hand, but more intimate adjustments involve a teacher pressing the lower stomach of a student to help them activate their core. An adjustment I personally experienced was a teacher standing behind me in Warrior Two pose: close enough that my butt touched her stomach, and using her hands to adjust my sternum, shoulders, and thighs.

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The adjustment I just described might be considered an assault in the yoga community had I not known the teacher for some time and had she not
asked for my consent prior to making any adjustments. Choudhry can be seen in the Netflix documentary, giving adjustments to students that go as far as sitting or standing on their bodies, a practice that was mirrored to a lesser extent in studios that taught his style of yoga. Because Choudhry never asked to offer an adjustment, the people who taught replicated that practice. Once the barrier of physical touch is broken, anything more than that is a matter of patience.

The power a yoga instructor has over their students is almost inherent. For the length of the class, that teacher is the center of the studio’s universe guiding students in and out of poses and deeper into their own breath. It’s a power that most teachers respect and treat as a privilege. But for every good teacher, there is a Bikram or Gumicio or Pattabhi Jois. There is a person who is willing to wield their intimate knowledge of yoga practices like a weapon against vulnerable students already searching for help. It is the false sense of cosmic mystery and power surrounding the yoga space that’s turned it into a goldmine—and an enticing space for alleged sexual predators.

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DISCUSSION

araucaniad
araucaniad

He, like other allegedly predatory yoga teachers, posed as a giver and students were quickly willing to give him outsize power over their lives.

This right here is the heart of the problem. We are all too willing to give the leader extraordinary control over our lives and thinking. This is another aspect of the postmodern condition: life has no meaning, so rather than treat that as an invitation to give life whatever meaning we choose for ourselves, we look for teachers to whom we can outsource our search for meaning. In Spanish there’s a proverb: “Nadie es profeta en su tierra”: No one is a prophet in their own homeland (recalling that Jesus became famous not in Nazareth but in Jersualem). We are much more willing to give credence to grand teachings or sweeping shocking revelations if they come from an outsider, some exotic messenger, rather than someone who seems familiar to us, and I think this is part of what has helped yoga become so popular in the western world, and a thing that so many people are willing to radically reorganize their lives around.

Thanks for mentioning Kumaré. What an amazing documentary.