In Answer to Recent Events

What follows is thorough version of my story in answer to recent blog and social media posts that contain blatant falsehoods and inaccuracies. These posts have impugned my integrity; and I have remained mostly silent for many months now. Tracy and I decided to republish this letter for two main reasons

(1) The mounting volume of misinformation on the Internet has injured and continues to injure my relationships with colleagues, business partners and students; and

(2) In August of 2017, the alleged victim in this situation, whom I call Sharon below, appeared at our home uninvited and unannounced, whereupon she assaulted Tracy, who was home alone. Although I had previously agreed not to speak on this matter and to un-publish my letter below, it is my belief that Sharon’s assault on my wife, coupled with the innumerable breaches of that agreement by Sharon’s partner, Sri Louise, voided our agreement. I thus republish my answer for those who have asked me to explain myself and my past actions (3+ years back), and those looking to understand what has transpired in this case.

I will attempt to share with honesty, respect, self-reflection, accountability and compassion. I am certain this won’t answer every question, nor will it satisfactorily explain my every action or intention. This is a complex story with many sides. My narrative is only mine, so add it to the mix. If you are indeed interested; breathe slowly, this is not brief. And the only way I’ve been able to figure out how to tell this story is to actually tell it. Undoubtedly it will serve to answer many questions for some, while leaving others feeling even more outraged.

July 2015: At the time I sent an email (parts of which have been widely circulated on the Internet), Sharon (name changed here) was employed by Yogamazé and was co-leading a month long 200 hour yoga teacher training intensive in Bali. We had employed her in this capacity to lead several teacher trainings already. Over the course of this training I came to learn of significant breaches of our agreement with Sharon. She resigned the day before the completion of the training; shortly after I asked her to correct these breaches.

A bit of background: I had known and worked with Sharon for many years at this point. She was, at that time, one of our school’s most experienced teacher trainers. I had worked with her closely on teaching pedagogy, and in great detail on our 200-hour training curriculum. She had my full confidence in delivering trainings that met and exceeded my high standards and the standards of the Yogamazé School. She was dexterous in adapting and evolving the curriculum to each training group and format. She pioneered our emissary trainings, which had both a structured curriculum with clear benchmarks, and room for artistic license and the invitation to bring her unique voice and graceful authenticity to each program. I enjoyed working with Sharon and admired her commitment to her own education, her increasing courage and confidence, commitment to the craft of teaching, and the sincere creativity of her yogic practices and breadth of knowledge. We worked together in this capacity for years before it all fell apart and I cared deeply—more than I can express—about Sharon.

My understanding was that Sharon was the sole income earner in her family and worked incredibly hard to make ends meet. Tracy and I went as far as we could, within our own boundaries, to create opportunities within our organization to help Sharon advance her teaching career and increase her income. In addition to teacher training programs for Yogamazé, both in her local community and abroad, Sharon was spearheading the development of an aerial yoga curriculum for classes and teacher trainings for our school. We invested in and equipped our LA studio for aerial yoga and flew Sharon in from Riyadh at least twice to offer workshops, classes and to begin training teachers in LA.

Further background: Previous to this July 2015 training in Bali, around Christmas/New Years 2014-15, Sharon was a participant on a retreat/pilgrimage with Douglas Brooks and Rajanaka India in South India. I had been on this trip two years prior and had wholeheartedly recommended it to her, particularly knowing her interests in the ritual traditions and practices of mantra, mudra and devata. I first went to India when I was 14 years old, and to yoga ashrams in the US since I was born. When I first went to Cidambaram in 2012-13 with Douglas, the temple felt like home; like I could almost access the memories of having lived there before. That trip was the trip of a lifetime for me and I would go every year if I could.

On Sharon’s trip with Douglas/Rajanaka India she made many contacts and friendships that she later used to begin her own India retreat business. These contacts included the family of Dikshitar priests who had long been in the role of patron/priest relationship for Douglas’s twice-annual retreats.

Bali, July 2015: It came to my attention that Sharon had invited two young Dikshitar priests to come to Bali during this Yogamazé YTT200 to perform traditional ritual, both for our teacher trainees and also at other locations in the Ubud area. I do not recall Sharon ever talking to me about this. She never asked me if this was okay in the curriculum of our training. Nor did we engage in any discussion as to whether it might be culturally and/or ethically appropriate for her to enter into this role, and business endeavor, of sponsoring these assiduously orthodox priests to come into a modern postural yoga environment. In my mind, there were obvious concerns and considerations that should have been discussed.

In addition to starting her own business of leading retreats/trips to India, Sharon was actively soliciting opportunities to host these priests from yoga studios and contacts that she had mostly made as a teacher within our organization. I don’t know how I might have felt about this if we had engaged in any dialogue about Sharon’s intentions and plans; however there was no dialogue. I never hesitated to support Sharon, so I’m of the mind I might have been open to helping her. I just don’t know. However, despite contrary facts in the blog that was recently published, with the exception of our teacher training in Bali, on no occasion did I impede, obfuscate or interfere with Sharon’s attempts to secure venues and outlets for her yoga workshops or programming.

So, to recap, none of these new developments did I learn from Sharon, nor do I remember how it first came to my attention. I do remember how upset Douglas Brooks was to learn about Sharon’s plans. I’ve known Douglas for 25 years. We have been through the joys and heartbreaks of multiple imploding yoga communities. In all this time, and through all we had been through together, I had never before seen Douglas as upset as he was by Sharon’s actions. I do not speak (and have at no point in any of this spoken ) for Douglas, but rather, I represent only my objections to Sharon’s actions: (1) Sharon used Douglas’ retreat/trip to make her own contacts and put together her own trips without communicating same (2) Sharon broke legal and ethical rules (as they exist in the US) related to the treatment and appropriation of confidential consumer information in order to further her professional and personal ambitions (3) Sharon transgressed cultural and ethical boundaries by entering into close relationship and sponsorship with a 19 year old man and his younger brother and seeking to appropriate and commodify their culture and practices.

Since I originally published this explanation I have been accused of shaming Sharon about her relationship with this young man. Along these lines, I have been accused of misogyny because I mentioned their connection. I do not know the nature of Sharon’s relationship with this young man and I never sought to know it. I have not accused Sharon of an affair, nor shamed her in connection with any activity, choice or behavior other than (1) the inappropriate and unprofessional misuse and misappropriation of information which Sharon did not own or have the right to access or use; (2) seeking to appropriate and commodify the culture and practices that Sharon was introduced to in a private setting with the understanding that she would not engage in such behavior; and (3) attempting to bring these 2 young men into teaching positions in a teacher training run by our company and giving them access to the students in that training, without my prior permission.

On the subject of “cultural appropriation,” although everyone in this story has and maintains free will, the unspoken understanding was that Sharon was a guest in a cultural community whose practices and rituals were not to be appropriated or commodified by an outsider. I never attempted to appropriate any culture or practice. And to my knowledge, neither did Douglas.

As I understand it, while a source community may choose to commodify its culture for its own means and purposes, and while the a source community may be unable to prevent nonconforming use or outsider appropriation, no character in this story other than Sharon sought to so commodify.

On this subject, it is my strong desire that any “appropriation” or “colonization” be entirely independent of me or my students. Interference of such a nature is in my esteem unacceptable. As relates to this trip, we were guests in a private community, and much like the leave no trace ethics of wilderness travel, you don’t alter the terrain that you travel through. You collect your trash and leave as if you had never visited. These are the guidelines of minimum impact. Leave only footprints. Take only memories.

Douglas’ emotionality comes across in the emails he wrote and I personally cringe when I read them. Taken out of context, they may well be deserving of the critique they have received. Still, while I may not always agree with Douglas’s perspective or his methods, I can count on one hand the number of people who have displayed the depth of character, strength, integrity and friendship as Douglas has over these 25 years. I would trust him with the lives of my children on any day without hesitation.

At the time of my alleged “mistreatment” of Sarah, news of her decisions (to bring these young priests to Bali to commodify their culture) was spreading very quickly among my peers and students. I felt extremely protective of Sharon. She was the subject of intense discussion via social media and seemed to be quickly facing a lot of heat. I wanted to do whatever I could to intervene and facilitate a deeper understanding among the parties involved. I went to bat for Sharon. I believed that she was well intentioned and defended her.

I believed that it was possible for Sharon to achieve many of her interests and goals if she went about this in a skillful way. This way included honesty, communication and respectful deference of those, like Douglas, who had spent their entire adult life, academic career and spiritual path living and learning in the culture in question. I believed Douglas was in the best position to help translate across such differing cultural worlds. I understand there are plenty of folks who will disagree with that notion. Still, it was and is how I felt.

I did not know what, if any, communications were taking place between Douglas and Sharon. In thinking back, I should have assumed Douglas was freely writing and sharing his perspective; however I did not make this assumption. I was largely ignorant of their communication and I didn’t speak to Douglas directly as this was unfolding. I certainly didn’t read any of Douglas’ letters before sending my email to Sharon.

On a professional level, I was only beginning to appreciate the ethical lines Sharon had crossed with the course of her actions. I was concerned, not only with Sharon’s reputation, but also with my own and that of our organization.

 

It was clear to me that Sharon had breached my trust and violated the terms our agreements. There’s a little more here I won’t go into because I don’t think it serves the story or anyone involved. Sufficed to say that I was of the mind that someone I was paying to train a group of students was potentially compromising those students and our product.

I did not want to terminate Sharon’s employment with us. But neither could I condone her behavior nor further imperil the credibility of the organization that Tracy and I had been working so hard to establish. I was between a rock and hard place. I believed that her best move was decisive action on a certain course. To this end, my email to her (with the language I have been accused of seeking to oppress Sharon with) was deliberately direct. My goal was to get right to the heart of the matter and catalyze the only viable solution I could see– to mitigate the harm to Sharon and to others. I felt such an urgency that there seemed to be no time to debrief the situation, to worry about hurt feelings. I did not want to run the risk of ambiguity clouding it over.

If I could replay that day and that week, I would communicate quite differently. I have reflected upon this quite a bit over these two years. The part of my email that is mostly widely criticized is the paragraph that reads, “If you want to maintain these friendships and valuable company you must write to Douglas and ask him exactly what he would like you to do right now and simply do exactly as he says.  You should also apologize and be as humble as possible (even if you don’t believe you have acted wrongfully—as I’m certainly sure you did not mean to).  I understand this may all feel very unfair.  There will be time to work through that later.  For now, I am asking that you do as I am asking.  We will process feelings later.”

The critique is justified. I have listened to all of it. Even the comments that felt full of vitriol and spite; many of you give Sisupala a run for his money. I entirely get that the optics here make me look patronizing, patriarchal, condescending, and controlling. I am arguably commanding the feminine to submit to a masculine authority.

As soon as I realized that my email had so profoundly negatively impacted Sharon, I did not hesitate in apologizing. I am not publishing those notes here, but I am happy to provide them to anyone who wishes to see them.

If I could speak to Sharon I would tell her:

“I am sorry about the way I wrote this email. I was freaking out. I was scared for you, for your reputation, for your livelihood. I felt deeply concerned about our trainees and desirous to hold space for you and the program to continue smoothly. My eyebrows felt singed with the ferocity of Douglas’s anger. I wanted to do the right thing for the Dikshitars and I felt ill equipped to know what that was. Information was flying at me from every direction, and I was processing all of this very quickly. I had suspended my own feelings and was not really even beginning to process the pain and looming sense of abandonment and betrayal and sadness that your actions were causing within me. I desperately wanted to believe that you had the best intentions and that you had made simple and rectifiable mistakes.

I can understand how you may have felt ganged up on and beaten down by these emails. That was not my intention even a little. I was defending you, going to bat for you and putting myself on the line for you. I had your back.

I did not say these things because I didn’t think this was the most immediate and relevant information to convey. I took it for granted that you knew this and that we would have time to process all of this at great length shortly. I wanted to do the right thing. I clearly didn’t know what that was.

In retrospect I was unskillful in my communication and I failed to live up to my own standards in those hours. I communicated with you in the way I would have wanted to receive if the roles were reversed, like Krishna’s strategy at the beginning of the Gita. I thought we could do the other 16.5 chapters later. Clearly that didn’t work so well for that guy either.

My sense of hurt and betrayal only continued by your subsequent refusal to communicate with me, the wording and manner of your resignation, and by your outright rejection and severing of all ties with me. As I have subsequently learned more about your actions, my pain has only increased.

Despite all of this, nothing completely overwrote the value I experienced in knowing and working with you. I never wanted to hurt you or your family. I still don’t. I was completely floored when you accused me of seeking to cause you harm, as you continue to do to this day.

I want what I have only ever wanted for you; for you to prosper and find happiness in your life. I have not obstructed your continued endeavors in any way. I have made every effort to be neutral and measured in communicating with others about the parting of our ways.

I do not understand why you and others have so recently blown life into these old embers of pain and created such a public conflagration. I feel very much like the target of a coordinated attack. This has crossed a line that I cannot and will not tolerate, as I have stated to you and others privately, which you chose to make public along with prior correspondence. I will not allow you, or others, to slander and defame me. I never wanted to tell this story to the court of public opinion on social media, but that is what your agents have asked for.” Svaha

A quick word to two other people who’s vigorous prosecution of me has whipped these smoldering embers into a blaze akin to Mahabharata’s Burning of the Khandava Forest: (1) Jacob: To borrow a phrase that in my mind sounds as if it’s from your friend Sri Louise, when will you get down off of your white male savior complex and stop it? I admire so many things about you, but why does it seem to me that you stir the pot just for the stirring? Pick your battles better please; I am really not your ideal target. (2) Sri Louise: Who are you? Why are you doing this to me? When are you going to stop picking fights and actually contribute some value? Tell people who seem to think you are underprivileged that you come from Midwest white wealthy suburbia. Stop hiding behind your masks and actually help make this better rather than just tear everyone down.

If you’ve made it this far, I thank you for listening. May it shed some light on any confusion or pain that you have experienced in how this has played out over these days, and perhaps shines some light into difficulties you have experienced. I look forward to hearing one of your stories.

Om Shanti

Noah

June 7, 2017