“A yoga studio can be this weird place where you do something together but remain alone, boundaried by a strip of rubber, a Mona-Lisa smile, and a fixed gaze. The premise is that “going inside” is all that’s needed for your life — and all life — to improve. That can be framed in the jargons of self-improvement or spirituality, equally. “
— Matthew Remski, author
Yoga Outreach had the opportunity to interview Matthew Remski, author, yoga-culture critic, and keynote speaker at Exploring Boundaries, Building Bridges: Connecting Yoga, community, and self
YO: The term Spiritual Bypassing (SB) is becoming more common – what does it mean?
MR: I want to say up front that I’m not that fond of how the term is used. Typically it reinforces an individualistic diagnosis of what’s really social problem. I’m a cult survivor and that’s my research area, and so my approach is to look at SB not as something individuals do because they’re psychologically lazy, but as something they are taught to do by spirituality organizations that benefit from indoctrinating them into the idea that their product will answer all questions.
That said; SB is when a spiritual ideology, jargon, or community leader encourages a person to believe that all problems are solved or solvable. But what’s really happening is that the person is avoiding or defending against more obvious and entrenched psychological or physical wounds.
In the worst cases, bypassing techniques assert that everything – including illness, violence, and sexual abuse – is divine or a manifestation of Oneness. There’s no need to confront abuse or seek medical help because these so-called problems are just part of the greater illusion of life.
Bypassing can be private: “My clinical depression is an issue between me and God/spirit/karma,” or interpersonal: “If only I worked on my relationship with God/spirit/karma my experience of racism or domestic violence would be purified.” It encourages surrender over resistance and boundary-setting. It denigrates critical thinking as defensive against the “Truth”, before which one should simply bow in ecstasy.
Above all, SB doesn’t serve the person: it serves the ideology and the group that promotes it. If members of a yoga group with cultic dynamics believe that its teachings about the divine answer all questions, the group authority is strengthened. With critiques and questions discouraged, individual agency is weakened.
YO: How would I know if I’m Spiritually Bypassing?
By definition, bypassing is unconscious, so it’s hard, if not impossible, to know when you’re doing it. All the more so if you’ve been manipulated to do it, which is what happens in high-demand groups.
That said, there are red flags:
- If you feel “engulfed” by a method or community, such that it becomes your main and constant reference point for reality, it doesn’t matter what you’re actually being taught. What matters is the closing-off of other perspectives.
- If the above happens really fast
- If the group demands that you radically change your behaviour or daily schedule
- If you’re encouraged toward a monochromatic feeling-state, i.e. always neutral or content
- If a group places exhausting demands on your time, money, or emotional labour.
Ultimately, the defenses against SB are the same as defenses against groups with cultic dynamics. Very hard to deploy in the moment, but easier to practice for with basic education.
YO: Are there certain types of people that are more at risk? Certain activities?
MR: Bypassing isn’t a character flaw or cognitive error. Nobody would choose to bypass if they could see it clearly, and they don’t see it clearly because they’ve usually been unduly influenced.
That teaching might come really early. In my case, the Baltimore Catechism informed my Catholic childhood, so the idea of following instructions from a religious leader seemed normal. In adulthood, high-demand groups were able to manipulate my tendency to trust. But the teaching lands in different ways; plenty of my schoolmates didn’t wind up in cults.
Bypassing, or recruitment to a cult, can happen to anyone because everyone is vulnerable to manipulation. The one thing cult literature does say is that some situations can increase your vulnerability. For example, the stress of a family death, divorce, or lost job might make you more susceptible to someone peddling a totalizing solution.
YO: In the West, Yoga often emphasizes self-improvement over spirituality. Does that mean we’re not at risk of spiritually bypassing?
MR:The content isn’t as important as the function, in my opinion. With cults, you might be employing group devotion to avoid individual problems. At yoga class, you might be using individual practises to avoid group or societal problems.
A yoga studio can be this weird place where you do something together but remain alone, boundaried by a strip of rubber, a Mona-Lisa smile, and a fixed gaze. The premise is that “going inside” is all that’s needed for your life — and all life — to improve. That can be framed in the jargons of self-improvement or spirituality, equally.
YO: What if you’re coming to yoga for therapeutic reasons rather than transcendent – is there anything wrong with that?
MR: Not really. However, people who are super-interested in history and cultural appropriation might start looking carefully at how therapeutic ideals can begin to occlude older values of practice that carry indigenous understandings. Indian practitioners prior to the 20th century were not particularly interested in wellness or self-care or functional movement: all of which are easily co-opted into the productivity addictions of neoliberalism. I think we all want to be careful that our self-care isn’t about making us more adaptable to the stress of late capitalism and the precariat.
YO: In other writings, you mention that yoga offers individualistic practices when what people need are relational practices. But isn’t going to a yoga class, or staying in an ashram, a communal experience? What is missing?
MR: Yoga and meditation in group classes is a 20th century phenomenon. Prior to this, practitioners would have shared experiences in ashram settings, and this might have been really nurturing — I don’t know.
But for the most part modern yoga and global Buddhism do a lot of religious work for neoliberalism: practices are for the individual, and must be carried out by the individual in order to be successful. When Pattabhi Jois says: “Just do your practice, and all is coming,” he’s not just exercising limited English to suppress critical thinking, he’s also laying the groundwork for yoga people to believe that what you do on your mat is the primary shaper of your reality.
When this is exported to and then proliferates through the US scene, for example, it becomes particularly worrisome, because many people are using yoga etc. as primary care in the absence of adequate health insurance.
YO: How does this relate to spiritual bypassing?
MR: It’s the idea that internal focus is the primary pathway to healing or justice. You can really get lost in that and avoid looking at all kinds of ways in which you’re being oppressed or traumatized by concrete and material relationships.
YO: In your book about Pattabhi Jois’s Ashtanga community – Practice and All is Coming – you talk to victims of sexual abuse, and also community members in denial of the abuse. Which of these groups is engaging in spiritual bypassing?
MR: Denial and bypassing might be synonymous. Members who rush to defend a leader who is obviously causing harm could be a serious example of spiritual bypassing. However, they could also be motivated by other reasons: safeguarding their positions within the community, defending against cognitive dissonance, or protecting sunken costs.
As for the victims of abuse, spiritual bypassing may be what initially motivated them to stay in an abusive relationship with their teacher. But survivors who find the support to be able to speak out are doing the opposite of bypassing. They’re forcing a confrontation with a material history and reality. They are providing reality-checking. In that sense, they are the spiritual teachers of our age, calling both individuals and organizations into transparency.
What would spirituality mean, if not transparency?
Got more questions?
Ask away. Yoga Outreach is hosting a panel discussion with Matthew Remski and Liana Yip, Leslie Wilkins and Danielle Braun-Kauffman at a conference in Vancouver May 25: Exploring Boundaries, Building Bridges: Connecting Yoga, community, and self.
You might also like our other interviews in this series:
Do Grouchy, Judgemental Smokers Belong at Yoga? with Julie Peters
How to Set Boundaries that Better Serve Yourself AND Others with Farah Nazarali
Matthew Remski is a yoga teacher, industry consultant, and author of nine previous books, including Threads of Yoga: A Remix of Patanjali’s Sutras, with commentary and reverie. As the survivor of two cults, his work has been pivotal in illuminating the shadows of globalized yoga and Buddhism, and showing that disillusionment and critical inquiry can be gateways to mature spirituality. He facilitates modules in philosophy, history, culture and community health in yoga teacher training programmes internationally. He lives in Toronto with his partner and their two children. www.matthewremski.com