High in the Canadian Rockies at an artist residency, I was experiencing an ill-timed crisis of faith. The season had crystallized from autumn to winter, the gently falling, yellow larch leaves replaced by a sharp palette of grayscale. The mountains took on the appearance of an expressionist woodcut. Peaks and valleys swirled in and out of view as storm systems raged at the upper altitudes. The elk that had roamed throughout campus the week before, looking for mates, had migrated for the winter.
Wrapped up in a number of freelance deadlines and a sickening sense of time passing me by, I struggled to find my footing in a project about culture through the lens of #MeToo. I am an art critic, but at the residency I intended to work toward a book that would reach further and deeper than the purview of typical exhibition reviews and artist features. I began to feel uneasy discussing my research with fellow residents—accounts of violence committed by Harvey Weinstein, by teachers, by trusted men, by law enforcement officers. What’s more, I started to question my own credibility. I’d never had a job threatened by sexual harassment; I wasn’t a legal reporter, or a professional trained to advocate for survivors of sexual violence. I intended to probe the survivor narrative that centered white femininity to the exclusion of other perspectives (the #MeToo hashtag itself was appropriated from Tarana Burke, a Black activist who coined it in 2006). In order to do so, I had to confront my own experiences and blind spots as a white, cis woman.
I found myself in a state of whiplash between acknowledging my privilege, on the one hand, and my precarity, on the other. The residency marked a year since I was awarded an unrestricted grant for art critics—one of the only such prizes in my field. For the first time as a freelancer (maybe the only time, I thought) my annual income rose above the poverty line. A few friends gently suggested I slow down, set long-range goals. Instead I barreled ahead and gave myself the residency to self-actualize: three months, I reasoned, to leverage my time towards a project that would make a cultural statement. Under the pressure, the exhilarating sense of freedom turned to bewilderment.
I booked an appointment with the residency’s on-site therapist, a kind woman with a furrowed brow who frequently interjected during our sessions. “I think you’re going through an early mid-life crisis,” she told me. She insisted I needed authentic connection, perhaps a new community beyond those of artists. She said I’d dumped my life into my work and there was something of a personal vacuum—maybe even a spiritual vacuum—left in its wake. I did not expect her advice to find meaning outside of my work, to seek something more than an impact on the art world.
I never considered myself a seeker, much less a spiritual one. Growing up, I had a very loose relationship to the Catholic faith in which my parents were raised. By the time I was a teenager, third-wave feminism was the closest thing I had to a creed. Later I found a home for those politics in the world of contemporary art, with its own arcana and temple-like spaces. The expensive degrees I accumulated gave me access to prestigious institutions at the center of the art world: successful galleries, the best-funded museums. But the vaunted art institutions of the U.S. proved less a community than capitalists jockeying for position, dressed in radical values while vying for funding from the same 1% that arranged credit default swaps and toxic trades in the 2008 financial crisis.
But the vaunted art institutions of the U.S. proved less a community than capitalists jockeying for position, dressed in radical values while vying for funding from the same 1% that arranged credit default swaps and toxic trades in the 2008 financial crisis.
I still believed in the transformational experience of art, and the importance of advocating for artists who critiqued its formalist, patriarchal paradigm. Yet I began to doubt the way I was living in the art world—a strange, monkish existence cobbled together from a few adjunct classes, the occasional curatorial project, and assignments that rarely paid more than a few hundred dollars apiece. I juggled an accelerated consumption of international exhibitions while attempting to maintain a kind of ideological purity as a freelancer. But I could not subsist on the cheap wine served at openings and the rarefied air of the white cube alone. Much less could I wholeheartedly endorse the institutions that were resistant to changing their values, despite high-minded messages of diversity, equity, and inclusion.
Each day I’d wake up counting: the amount of days left at the residency, the amount of grant money left in my bank account, the unread emails, the hurdles before I could pursue the fantasy of an uncompromised artistic project. I’d arrive home a few weeks before the dawning of 2020, determined to shift my outlook, to find some lightness.
A few weeks into the new decade I lay on my mat after hot yoga class in savasana, my typical internal monologue quiet. “If this yoga lights you up, come see me at the desk about teacher training,” a young instructor said. It wasn’t the first time I’d heard the pitch—the studio ran several training sessions each year, each enrolling a few dozen aspiring instructors. The front desk staff regularly turned over with trainees and freshly minted teachers, outnumbering those more seasoned. This time, however, I pictured a life of intention and integration, where yoga could supplement my underpaid freelance work. I did a rough calculation: two classes would probably pay as much as writing a single review; the tuition would pay for itself in free classes. I’d be in great shape, I’d find some kind of peace—maybe even a new community.
The studio where I practiced, Yoga to the People (YttP), was a popular chain with branches in New York and on the West Coast. “Let it light you up” was its common refrain about breath, more a visual metaphor of enlightenment than a cue to build heat in the body. The studio was founded in 2006 by Greg Gumucio, a former student and employee of yoga guru Bikram Choudhury. Originally the studio concept offered open-level vinyasa classes, paid strictly by donation. “No glorified teachers, no ego no script no pedestals,” the studio mantra said. YttP did not publish a schedule of instructors; Gumucio claimed that he wanted to emphasize the student experience over a cultish devotion to individual teachers.1 The donation-based model drew in struggling artists, broke students, and tourists alike, who placed their mats in tight rows during crowded sessions. In accordance with the inclusive ideology, the yoga pedagogy avoided pose demonstration in favor of clear, direct communication about postures, delivered by instructors who often paced at the back of the room. YttP added a variation of heated yoga, based on Bikram’s famous sequence, at a set price several years later. Its philosophy, however, seemed like a purification of Bikram’s principles—a Brooklynification that subverted Choudhury’s openly capitalist motives, disturbing history of sexual coercion, body shaming, and demands of unwavering loyalty.
At times hot yoga had become something of a crutch as well as a pleasure. I began taking classes in 2012 at a funky-smelling Bikram-certified studio, with a gift card a friend won at a raffle and swore she’d never use. After a month I switched to YttP—a cheaper alternative where I already practiced vinyasa by donation. As the years went by, its hot yoga rate crept steadily upward, justified as a way of continuing to maintain the studios and offset potential losses of the concurrent pay-by-donation courses.
The hot practice imposes discipline as much as any sense of liberation: classes are lengthy and strenuous (at approximately 105 degrees Fahrenheit), incorporating the same set of 26 poses and two breathing exercises. Per the directives, I’d face myself day after day in the studio mirror under bright lights, using my own eyes as a focal point. By far this self-confrontation proved my biggest challenge. Some days I saw my figure distorted, unsure if it was the studio’s warped mirror or a projection of what I saw as my faults. But the benefits I’d reap from class were an ecstatic release—I would lay on the floor feeling wrung out, purified body and soul.
Despite being marketed as a beginner course, the practice did not come easy. The heat and the crush of bodies could be claustrophobic, even punishing. My childhood training in dance proved useful, though it also revealed the limits of my abilities. But in that ritualistic space I observed how daily choices could affect my strength and self-perception. Everything that comes up mentally must be managed against the exertion of heat and the postures: a type of forced meditation that often caused the puzzle pieces swirling around in my head to click together. In a life where I bounced, as a critic, between desire for acknowledgment and using my words to amplify the work of others, this physical work spoke to me.
With only a small twinge of self-consciousness, I signed up for teacher training.
The teacher training program took place over seven weekends, coinciding with the rising panic as COVID-19 spread across the world. As the weeks ticked by, the illness spread—China, Italy, France turning red on maps tracking the virus. Near midnight one Friday night, the trainees received an email that the studio’s founder would be teaching our mandatory Saturday morning 10am hot class. The next day a palpable sense of anxiety flooded the room, thinly veiled by plastered smiles and chirpy uptalk. Teachers arranged mats for the class, curating the lithe senior instructors—nearly all white, gorgeous twentysomething women—into the front row. When our mysterious studio owner swept in to teach class, I bit my tongue: this guy with a slicked-back ponytail and a little potbelly was our much-lauded guru? The class was challenging, but it seemed more like a photo op. The owner took pictures throughout class, sometimes crouching beneath the front-row yogis for better angles, chiding them to hold the poses for grueling lengths. Afterward students swanned out on mats, some genuinely overheated, some in thrall to the experience of being so close to the master.
As community spread of the coronavirus hit New York, I went to the yoga studio nearly every day, between mandatory classes and weekend teacher training sessions. I arrived at the studio early to help with required, regular maintenance, misting yoga mats lightly with a tea tree solution and hauling fresh towels, in my bare feet. I spoke in a low voice at the reception desk about the spread of the pandemic. Each time I was told to face my fears and practice non-attachment.
A few nights before a special training session known only as The Weekend, I took a hot class led by a teacher whom I trusted. The room filled with students, the heat cranked and unrelenting. A half dozen people slumped against the back wall, gasping for breath. At the end of the hour, the instructor hovered near the door. I reached the threshold and broke down—emotion overtaking me like it never had before. She took me into a back stairwell as I crouched on the ground, shaky and covered in sweat. Afterward, I stayed behind the desk, volunteering my labor at check-in before a cold walk home in the dark.
As businesses across New York City shuttered, The Weekend was canceled. Instead, our teacher training group convened one afternoon in Midtown. One of our lead trainers, high up in the studio’s administrative hierarchy, read a statement written by Gumucio, the studio owner, and asked if we had any questions. The key points I registered were about choice and positivity. I raised my hand and began rambling. I expressed frustration, fear, and love for the community. I asked how holding this class could possibly be responsible when we know that people in the city were falling ill and that COVID-19 was spreading through the air. Our instructor acknowledged my bravery. My fellow trainees nodded in support. Then we rose to our feet for class, gathered into rows close to the front mirrors.
Almost at the end of our training course, we knew the sequence and pacing like the sound of our own hearts. The instructor taught without saying a word, only cuing the changes between poses. For 60 minutes we moved in unison. I told her afterward that I didn’t know how long it took me to realize she wasn’t speaking. A smile spread across her beatific face. “That’s because you heard your own voice.”
The next day the studios closed due to COVID-19. That class would be the last time I set foot in Yoga to the People’s branches.
At the start of the pandemic, with a sudden surfeit of time to devote to the culture of wellness, I watched Todd Haynes’s 1995 film Safe and the newly debuted The Goop Lab series on Netflix. Safe follows the life of Carol White, a housewife living in mid-1980s Southern California who develops a serious environmental illness. Played by Julianne Moore, Carol stands in as a metaphor for blankness—white obliviousness—in gesture and tone. Aside from her red hair, she seems to fade into the background of her suburban surroundings, with her pale skin, pastel clothes, and high, whispery voice. Meanwhile, the menace of her illness advances from the background to the very subject of the film, much like the villain in a horror film.
The Goop Lab, however, presents an image of health and self-assuredness at odds with Carol White’s image in Safe. The TV show documents the staff of Gwyneth Paltrow’s high-priced lifestyle brand Goop, established in 2008—the website that brought vaginal steaming into popular consciousness—as they try alternative healing techniques. Over six episodes, the Goop staff try out various wellness methodologies, from tripping on psychedelics to Betty Dodson’s feminist self-pleasure workshops. Rather than selling particular products, The Goop Lab ultimately packages the company itself through its telegenic employees: stylish, successful professionals who represent some degree of diversity (although the show is primarily narrated by two white women: Paltrow and her chief content officer Elise Loehnen).
Three decades separate the California of Safe and The Goop Lab, but the protagonists are aligned in their search for cures to what ails them—sometimes medical, sometimes spiritual in nature. Carol develops increasingly violent allergic reactions in relation to everyday chemicals, from automobile fumes to dry cleaning to a salon perm. Conventional doctors cannot puzzle out her illness; the societally-approved cures of aerobic exercise and near-starvation diets do not do the trick. Eventually she lands in the hospital, where she connects the dots between her symptoms and a syndrome called multiple chemical sensitivity (MCS)—an illness, like many autoimmune conditions, that remains under-researched, unrecognized by the World Health Organization and the American Medical Association, and that primarily affects women. She leaves her San Fernando Valley life behind to enroll in the Wrenwood Clinic in the New Mexico desert. Wrenwood exchanges the pharmaceutically-inclined dictates of Western medicine for allegedly pure conditions free of chemical toxins, vague self-help rhetoric, and an ascetic set of rules: silent meals, a modest dress code, no sex. The movie ends with Carol’s move to an insulated white bubble on Wrenwood’s campus, haltingly trying to tell her reflection, “I love you.”
Carol becomes absorbed into Wrenwood, whereas The Goop Lab crew hops from one cure to another. Paltrow’s team approaches each episode with an attitude of scientific objectivity, positioning themselves as experiential anthropologists. This surface-level skepticism neatly dodges the question of cultural appropriation when, for instance, they take psilocybin in Jamaica with white “psychedelic elders,” or undergo reiki sessions—a Japanese form of energy healing—with a white male chiropractor. Throughout the series, various experts equate alternative medicine with healing practices practiced by women and non-white cultures for centuries. The message of intersectional feminist empowerment, however, is mixed with old ideas about self-mastery. An episode about calorie-restrictive diets, for example, preys on the worst of gendered insecurities. Yet the Goopers also allow themselves pleasurable release, sometimes to the point of orgasmic display. An episode about the late, great radical sex educator Betty Dodson’s masturbation clinic includes uncensored footage of her group workshops, not limited to full-frontal vulva shots of participants.
This installment is undoubtedly the feminist high-water mark of the series, its realism clashing with the manicured, medicinal staging in which, several episodes later, chiropractor John Amaral performs energy healing on Paltrow’s colleagues and celebrity guest star Julianne Hough. On massage tables the patients convulse and scream, seemingly in a trance, similar to the hysterics in 19th-century photographs of Salpêtrières hospital in France. Goop’s content director Elise describes the experience as “an exorcism.” These two scenes recall the way that the search for female pleasure, or even bodily knowledge, cannot be dissociated from archetypes of feminine transgression.
In Safe, Carol also poses a challenge to white patriarchal norms. While her missed diagnosis of MCS flatly exemplifies the medical establishment’s dismissal of pain by BIPOC and women patients,2 Haynes positions her personal acceptance of her illness, her self-identification as a sick person, as a strained, unconscious resistance to gender roles;3 in the beginning of the film she submits, corpselike, to her husband Greg’s sexual advances. Later, following a flareup of her illness, she rejects him. While her doctor and psychiatrist in California interface directly with her husband, the Wrenwood staff report only to Carol herself. One of Carol’s most serious medical crises before moving to the Wrenwood clinic takes place at a baby shower—a charged ritual of feminine bonding. There are also limits to her willingness to assert control, however, particularly when it comes to calling out racism. Carol listens to her stepson Rory’s school paper about gangs in LA, riddled with stereotypes, as her Latinx maid Fulvia cleans the kitchen. She meekly protests the “gory” language yet is unable to formulate any real anger. This pointed scene illuminates the hypocrisy of political rhetoric in Reagan-era America, where racialized language became coded in the formulation of such policies as the Drug War.
Safe is not just a modern tale of hysteria, told from Haynes’s critical, heterophobic perspective.4 It is also a biting commentary of the US government’s non-response to the AIDS crisis and the individualized, neoliberal healthcare paradigm that persists to this day, in which conservatives scoff at both “socialist” single-payer healthcare and the excesses of wellness culture.
Safe is not just a modern tale of hysteria, told from Haynes’s critical, heterophobic perspective. It is also a biting commentary of the US government’s non-response to the AIDS crisis and the individualized, neoliberal healthcare paradigm that persists to this day, in which conservatives scoff at both “socialist” single-payer healthcare and the excesses of wellness culture.
As critic Dennis Lim writes, “Pointedly set in 1987, deep in the trough of the Reagan-Bush years, Safe exposes the logic of New Age doctrine—its cult of self, its notion of salvation as a commodity—and the conditions that foster it.” 1980s New Age culture reached the AIDS community through the misguided approach of Louise Hay, who authored The AIDS Book: Creating a Positive Approach (1988), insisting that the disease could be cured through self-love. Haynes references this unfortunate chapter in Safe through the character of Peter, Wrenwood clinic’s newspaper-avoidant, positivity-touting guru, who is battling AIDS. In an interview, Haynes questioned the circular, self-blaming logic of such an approach: “What is it that makes people with AIDS read a book that says, If you loved yourself more you wouldn’t have gotten sick, and now that you are sick if you learn how to love yourself you will be cured? This puts the subjects in an impossible situation where they will never overcome their illness because they’ll never love themselves enough.”
The fear of illness has only grown in the decades since Safe’s release, as well as the reasoning that blames individuals for their own faults. This attitude dodges the problems of late-stage capitalism—environmental degradation, racism, misogyny, homophobia—while laying the groundwork to capitalize on the wellness industry. In the weeks following the coronavirus lockdown, a flurry of articles revisited Safe as a parable for the uncertainty of a dawning plague that ushered individuals into their own bubbles of containment. David Roth wrote in the New Yorker, drawing comparisons between Safe and the dangers of the 21st century, “The dread at the heart of [Safe]—that something invisible and relentless is loose and at prey, and that anyone could become susceptible to it, at which point they would be very much on their own—has never really dispersed.”
As the pandemic rates peaked in New York, I left the city to stay in what would become another virus hotspot: Miami. In the months that followed, my hot yoga teacher training group and the studio’s pay-by-donation Zoom vinyasa classes punctuated long days in front of my computer, imbuing my time with a sense of normalcy. Before the lockdown, I hesitated to tell art world acquaintances about my yoga teacher training. Would my credibility fall away? And if so, why—because I was a crystal-waving, white feminist practicing an appropriated tradition, or because I had fewer hours a week for gallery visits? Suddenly a global pandemic affirmed the physical and mental importance of practices like yoga, which could be safely performed indoors. With studios closed, however, teaching a practice designed for a 100-degree room seemed impractical at best.
In late spring, the studio offered a social-media challenge to win a full-tuition scholarship to an online vinyasa yoga teacher training. For two weeks, I answered the studio’s daily prompts on Instagram about my practice. The questions ranged from the broadly philosophical—“how would you describe yoga to someone who had never done it before?”—to probing about our future goals, the most important relationships in our life, our accomplishments. I scrolled through posts by the other aspiring teachers, feeling old and making un-yogic comparisons between myself and the entrants in thong bikinis. My attempts to show a little of my own personality—toppling out of toe stand, casual references to the art world—fell flat. Ultimately the studio awarded fellowships to three other people. As much as I had wanted the scholarship, I was also relieved to stop the exercise of exposure. The gap between myself and the aspirational image I hoped to project yawned wide.
An anonymous email reached my inbox from an address called “YttP Shadow Work.” The message, addressed to the studio’s instructors and teacher training alumni, asked us to send stories of aggressions small and large suffered at the studio. The group set up social media accounts, posting over 100 testimonies within the first week. The abuses ranged from the studio founder’s sexual abuse of students, to exploitative work conditions, to racial discrimination and tokenization. Their hashtag—#AllSurvivorsRise—crafted the studio’s populist, spiritually laced motto All Bodies Rise into a slogan of emancipation that went viral.
Most of the stories, unedited except for the redaction of names, centered on interactions that the ordinary student would never see. As a teacher trainee, however, I had to face my own complicity. The realization was staggering. A degree of labor exploitation remained something of an open secret: all trainees were required to undergo an apprenticeship period, teaching unpaid classes, sometimes for months, until successful promotion to paid gig workers. Unbeknownst to me, however, was the lack of transparency—a myth of meritocracy and radical acceptance that shielded corrupt business dealings and interpersonal trauma. The studios operated almost entirely in cash, with few employees on the books. Classes were scheduled in a confusing manner intended to keep the teaching staff in a state of heightened insecurity over their day-to-day routine, not to mention their long-term financial stability. The studio managers worked up to seven days a week, for salaries that would make even art administrators cringe. Teachers were surveilled by the studio owner, who encouraged them to embrace his techniques of gaslighting as a managerial style. In one early post on @YttPShadowWork, a former teacher recalls advice from a manager: if the studio owner calls, “it doesn’t matter if your boyfriend is inside you, you answer his calls!” The same writer alleged that the owner once rang them at 3am, just to see if they would pick up the phone.5
Many of the testimonies centered on the owner and his pursuit of young women for coerced relationships. I racked my brain to see if any of my experiences matched with theirs, but I had only met the studio owner once during my teacher training. I remembered how he wielded a camera during the class that he taught, crouching on the floor for the best angles, now with disgust. My mat had been placed in the back row, out of his view. I remembered how the owner boasted, when an instructor rushed in just before class started, that they had made it despite just returning from a trip. Now I pondered if they had hurried to the studio that morning out of fear.
Perhaps most disturbing in the tales of exploitation centered on The Weekend—the secret two-day teacher instruction module that was canceled during my training due to COVID-19. The series of strenuous bonding exercises, based on actual cult tactics, culminated in a locked-door secret-sharing circle.
Perhaps most disturbing in the tales of exploitation centered on The Weekend—the secret two-day teacher instruction module that was canceled during my training due to COVID-19. The series of strenuous bonding exercises, based on actual cult tactics, culminated in a locked-door secret-sharing circle.
Vulnerability was praised, particularly in confessions about sexual trauma or self-harm, but little was offered in the aftermath to help participants process the trauma of sharing highly personal information, which they had sometimes never divulged before. Allegedly, leaders of The Weekend secretly recorded the confessions in writing after the training.
Less than two weeks after the launch of @YttPShadowWork, Yoga to the People closed its branches permanently. Around the same time, my long-awaited hot yoga teaching certification arrived by email, signed by the studio owner and program director, backdated to April. The accompanying congratulatory message is curt: “We hope you continue to share this practice and the benefits you've gained from it.”
By the end of the summer, several in-depth articles traced the demise of Yoga to the People.6 In the fallout, teachers joined new studios, and even formed collectives to offer yoga by donation. I continue to practice daily, sometimes with my former instructors, and sometimes teaching with a small group of my fellow trainees online. Yet I keep replaying the events surrounding the yoga studio’s closure.
The algorithms of streaming services seem attuned to my newfound preoccupation. I watched the documentary Yogi, Guru, Predator (2019) about Bikram’s sexual abuse scandal, horrified by the parallels with the tactics deployed by his mentee Greg Gumucio, YttP’s founder—including sleep deprivation, bullying, and promises of career advancement as a foil to pressure sexual acts. Will Allen’s Holy Hell (2016) follows the Buddhafield cult from the perspective of an insider documentarian, once entranced with the ethereal leader Michel. Michel displayed the same binary, hypocritical thinking that characterizes most cult leaders, preaching abstinence to his followers while sexually abusing men in his cult. HBO’s The Vow (2020) sheds light on the NXIVM organization—the most Earth sign of all cults, masquerading as an executive training program/multi-level marketing scheme—and its underground sex slave cabal. Headed by Keith Raniere and based in Albany, New York, NXIVM grew its membership through alignment with wealthy and influential people, such as the Seagram beverage heiresses Sara and Clare Bronfman and actors like Smallville TV star Allison Mack. Rather than propagating the esoteric rhetoric of other belief systems, NXIVM used psychological therapies such as exploration of meaning (EM), which Raniere dubbed “the tech,” to manipulate susceptible searchers into recounting traumatic memories in front of crowds of onlookers. A women’s group within NXIVM, called DOS, masked an intense master/slave dynamic—including semi-consensual skin-branding ceremonies and extreme calorie restriction—under the guise of female empowerment. In late October, Raniere was sentenced to 120 years in prison for fraud, racketeering, and sex trafficking. Five of Raniere’s women associates, who had all pled guilty, were sentenced on the same day.
A New York Times article about Raniere’s sentencing concluded with the image of his women followers chasing a police car when he was arrested in Mexico, in 2018. Perhaps the reporters painted this visual for shock value—illuminating the unlikely circle of protectors hoping to shield their abuser from harm. But feminized perfection, often embodied by white-passing women, functioned as the façade for many organizations of this kind. This ideology has also infiltrated the wellness industry.
In a Times article published earlier this fall, writer Amanda Hess dissected Raniere’s paradoxical appeal, likening his image alternately to Internet memes and gurus like Charles Manson and Scientology’s L. Ron Hubbard. These leaders, though often characterized by their personal magnetism, possess something closer to a vulture-like ability to press upon hidden weaknesses. Hess describes the charisma of these cult leaders “as antisocial, narcissistic and sociopathic. Much of the work of the cult leader is to obscure himself from public view, outsourcing his charisma to his followers.” Yoga to the People’s founder adopted a similar strategy—alternately playing the “no ego” card for the average student while exerting tight control on an inner circle. The image the studio packaged and sold primarily rested on the shoulders of the managers—empowered, strong, often young women and, increasingly, BIPOC. People of color, though well-represented in photo shoots, in actuality comprised only a small percentage of senior staff.7 Even so, the image proved seductive for many of the students—myself included—who felt they found an outlet for their misplaced faith.
An outsider could say that I joined something resembling a cult and survived. I’m not a survivor, except in the sense that I came out unscathed (some unrecoverable money aside). If the scenario were a slasher film, I wouldn’t be the heroine who slayed the killer, but rather the supporting player cheering from the sidelines as someone else finished the job. I have asked myself: is this my story to tell?
My narrative is one laced not with triumph, but with shame. How could I, a feminist art worker, have overlooked the rottenness at the core of this yoga enterprise? It’s not a stretch to draw parallels between the studio’s capricious exclusion, the unscrupulous business practices, unpaid labor, demands of loyalty, and the social contracts to those of the art world. They also share histories of cultural appropriation and colonialist expansion. Conversation around these topics is only growing. Anonymous social media accounts like @_fortheculture, @changethemuseum and @cancelartgalleries have been working to expose the glaring abuses of racism, misogyny, homophobia, and transphobia inherent in the fine arts and museum field. I applaud these survivors for the work they have done to move the discussion of structural inequities from the abstract to the concrete. In the field of cultural production, we might finally be putting a name to the roots of structural oppression.
“Let it light you up,” one of YttP’s mantras, suggests both internal passion and external animation. It beckons for an outside force—a spirit, a faith, an institution—to act as a divine spark, transforming a person into a source of enlightenment. I imagine a glow rising beneath the skin, kindling a flame. The lit-up person may be a torch for others, but they can end up burned in the process, losing something of themselves along the way. It was a risk giving so much of myself to something that lit a spark within me, that offered a fantasy of wellness and wholeness. While I grieve the loss of something that once held so much promise, I stay with the work of tending to myself, hoping I’m brighter and clearer-eyed than before, better equipped to face the shadows than chasing another light.
1. Mary Billard, “A Yoga Manifesto,” New York Times, April 23, 2010: https://www.nytimes.com/2010/04/25/fashion/25yoga.html.
2. The phenomenon of racial bias in treating pain is well-documented. For a recent student, see Kelly M. Hoffman, Sophie Trawalter, Jordan R. Axt, and M. Norman Oliver, “Racial bias in pain assessment and treatment recommendations, and false beliefs about biological differences between blacks and whites,” PNAS, April 19, 2016, 113 (16) 4296-4301; first published April 4, 2016; https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1516047113.
3. As Taraneh Fazeli writes, “Sick time is non-compliant. It refuses a fantasy of normalcy measured by either-in-or-out thresholds, demands care that exceeds that which the nuclear family unit can provide, and hints at how we might begin to tell capitalism to back the fuck off and keep its hands to itself.” See Fazeli, “Notes for ‘Sick Time, Sleepy Time, Crip Time: Against Capitalism’s Temporal Bullying’ in conversation with the Canaries,” Temporary Art Review, May 26, 2016: http://temporaryartreview.com/notes-for-sick-time-sleepy-time-crip-time-against-capitalisms-temporal-bullying-in-conversation-with-the-canaries/.
4. “Diary of a Sad Housewife: Collier Schorr Talks with Todd Haynes,” Artforum 33 no. 10 (Summer 1995): 88.
5. @YttPShadowWork, July 6, 2020: https://www.instagram.com/p/CCTMI3InA6h/?igshid=1tcntkl7jws59 .
6. Laura Wagner, “He Knew Everything: Fear, Control and Manipulation at Yoga to the People,” Vice, July 24, 2020: https://www.vice.com/en/article/4ayqk3/he-knew-everything-fear-control-and-manipulation-at-yoga-to-the-people; Madeleine Aggeler, “Yoga to the People’s Dark Secrets,” The Cut, August 4, 2020: https://www.thecut.com/2020/08/yoga-to-the-people-scandal-what-went-wrong.html; and Shannon Wagner, “Workers Say They Were Manipulated into Free Labor for National Yoga Brand,” Vice, October 29, 2020: https://www.vice.com/en/article/y3gggg/yoga-to-the-people-workers-exploitation-free-labor.
7. @YttPShadowWork, July 4, 2020: https://www.instagram.com/p/CCO22HzHY-y/