Breath to Speak
Update April 2021: From a Broken Web
To see a certain predatory yoga patriarch thrive on denouncing that of which he is guilty troubles me. Until recently, I felt my experience of him qualified as less than perfect in terms of #MeToo, yet the more I dare to speak, the more I realize that feeling stemmed from the sheer perfection of his abuse, full of the typical power imbalances, posturing and grooming, harassment and deception, open secrets and trauma bonding, exploitation and hush money, emotional and sexual coercion, gaslighting, isolation, shame, and silence.
Anyone can get drawn into that treacherous yet often subtle landscape of sanctimony, delusion, and denial, where prejudice, abuse, and hypocrisy hide in plain sight. In hope that the collective breath of nonviolent resistance might hold false allies and their enablers accountable, I offer the following observations and feelings recorded over the years of sexual abuse by my former yoga teacher, Mark Whitwell.
August, 2011. I grew up practicing yoga in LA, where he’s a living legend — or so I recall when I recognize his name in a retreat catalogue found in the Brooklyn hostel I manage for the summer prior to my last semester as an undergrad.
I go meet Mark for the first time in upstate New York. He has beautiful things to say about yoga; things I’ve always felt but rarely heard anyone else say with such certitude; about “strength receiving,” or action supporting receptivity, and equanimity, or “friendship,” between teacher and student.
Even though I notice him chanting the same adoring lines to most of his female students, I become quietly infatuated when he leans his head on mine and whispers in my ear: “You’re so dear to me, so precious, so lovely. Thank you for coming into my life.”
December, 2012. He comes through Brooklyn to teach for two nights at a neighborhood yoga center run by a close student of him, J. Brown. I live nearby, and now teach a few classes in the off hours, thanks to Mark’s recommendation.
Mark doesn’t remember my name, but after his workshop invites me to lunch the next day, where he calls me a “master yogini,” and tells me that he plans to self-publish his next book, God and Sex, Now You Get Both. I laugh, and offer to help. At 40 years my senior, he seems like he needs my perspective, and I could learn a lot from him.
We gossip about the yoga scene, and a local male yoga teacher infamous for bedding his female students. After emphatically condemning that kind of behavior, Mark says, “When women hear about a guy like that — a guy who fucks — they want to be involved.”
“Maybe they just want to see what all the fuss is about,” I offer, too awe-struck to refute him.
That night, he and I attend a dinner hosted by the “guy who fucks,” and a small group of women. Twice, when no one’s around, Mark pulls me into an embrace and buries his face in my neck as if to kiss me. I’m shocked.
Later, I walk home alone in tears, feeling the heretofore inconsequential crisis between falling for him and knowing better reach an ominous new level.
He departs for New Zealand, his homeland, and supplies a very rough draft of God and Sex. It seems to be about his usual topics, made extra corny and sanctimonious. Eventually, I email him a cleaned up copy with a few ideas.
Next month, when he’s back in California, his requests for editing and design work on the book start rolling in, one after the next, draped in spiritually-charged declarations of “gratitude” and “love,” along with the promise that he’ll give me “a lot of money when this gets published.”
I share this apparent new gig with J. Brown, who tells me he’s always wanted to write for Mark. “Proceed with caution,” he says. “We know Mark likes helping young girls.”
Increasingly pleased with the work I give him, Mark calls me his “muse,” or his “goddess,” and tells me I give him “power” and “energy,” among other canned phrases from his rhetoric on spirituality and sex. He pressures me into ghost-writing for him outside of the book, including a blog post knocking hook-up culture.
The next time J. Brown asks me for an update, he says, mid-laughter, “Sounds like Mark’s preying on you a little bit … he’s lucky you’re so cool about it … try to put his teaching back to him.”
Fed up with working for nothing but Mark’s brand of flattery, I find myself mirroring much of his love-laced vocabulary, in part to put his “teaching” back to him, and in part because he begs me not to forget about him, even though I couldn’t forget him if I wanted to — I dream of him almost every night.
Another female teacher at the studio insists that Mark has no right to be acting this way. “You’re young, allowed to flirt all you want,” she claims. “It’s his job to draw the boundary … he’s our teacher, not your friend … he doesn’t love you.”
The next time Mark asks me if I love him, and since when, I tell him that he’s always been love material. He soon escalates his love to “in love,” and starts to call and text almost daily. He asks if I’m seeing anyone, and says he’s “looking for mutuality” when I ask him the same.
Concerned that he’s taking advantage, my friends observe that Mark’s behavior qualifies as predatory despite him being well over twice my age. If I’m aware that he’s manipulating me, they ask, why am I going along with it?
Then one night, Mark video calls to take off his shirt, call me a “wench,” and tell me I “could seduce anyone.” He admits the book is an “excuse,” and invites me to LA, “for a night,” so we can “acknowledge what’s going on between us.”
“That isn’t funny,” I warn him. “Don’t invite me anywhere for a night.”
Fully irked, I decide to drop him and his fake job opportunity, until the next time he calls and asks, in his sweetest voice, “Who have you become since we last spoke?”
I tell him I can no longer write for him and receive nothing in return. Instead of offering to pay me, he invites me to accompany him to his ashram in Fiji.
July, 2013. I fly to Los Angeles and spend a few days with family prior to meeting Mark back at LAX for our flight to Fiji, as per his instructions. I’m in line alone at the gate when he calls to inform me he missed the flight.
Overcome with dread, I board the plane, lock myself in the bathroom, and cry until take off. He gave me no direction to his ashram, other than the name of the island, and no chance to clarify the expectations before everyone else arrives for his two-week training.
Weeks ago, he told me I’ll guide some yoga practice and “write my ass off.” Then, a few nights back, he added that he wants, “whole body on whole body healing,” whatever that means.
Nine hours later, I barely catch another nausea-inducing flight from the main island to Taveuni, where a local cab driver offers to drive me down the one bumpy dirt road. Eventually, I spot the sign: HEART OF YOGA ASHRAM.
Mark told me to tell my parents this vacation house on a shady hillside is an “institution.” Now his manager shows me the back house, or “women’s dorm,” where she expects me to sleep on a mattress in the corner on the floor, and to cook and do chores for him.
He arrives the next morning with a bad cough, and asks me to pound on his back, as if to break up whatever is lingering in his lungs. As I oblige, he apologizes for not being able to have “normal human interactions.”
“I want this to be easy for you,” he says. “Do you feel loved?”
I feel the exact opposite, but can’t quite explain why, so don’t say anything.
Later, he introduces me to the group as his “slave.” No one laughs. I try to brush it off as my own misstep, like agreeing to come here … then again, agreeing to anything when it comes to him has long felt severely compromised.
Rather than sink into devastation, I go float in the ocean, and end up bursting into laughter.
A few nights later, Mark gathers everyone in the wet grass by the side of his house to gaze at the full moon. I stare at the moonbeam pouring through his long silvery hair as he towers in front of me, in perfect proportion to whatever lured me here, so I feel. He turns and asks me to visit him later.
In the corner of the one-room house serving as the yoga studio, I find him in bed on his back, motionless, candles burning, t-shirt pulled over his head to reveal his sun-stained chest. I hesitate before I lay myself down beside him.
“Love is powerful, huh?” he remarks a moment later, then asks me why I want to be with an old man. “You’re just a kid,” he goes on. “We should be finding you someone to marry and have babies with … I don’t want you getting attached to me … I can’t do this … do you love me?”
“If that’s how you see me,” I ask, “why am I here in your bed? The damage has been done … I didn’t sign on to be your slave.”
“I’m only saying most of this to hear your response,” he pivots again. “No one should be anyone’s slave.”
After another pause, wherein I contemplate my exit strategy, he exclaims, “You do love me!”
I turn to kiss him once behind the ear, on the neck, one more time on the chest, where I rest my head and we breathe in unison for a moment. Then he sticks his nipple in my face and I give it a reluctant suck. He doesn’t move.
I back off, embarrassed, and tell him I don’t know what to do with him.
“You’re intelligent!” he replies, and suddenly dry humps me, fast.
Repulsed, I struggle to believe that this is the same old man who not so long ago was declaring love to me like I’d never imagined. And now this?
He starts to outline his terms. First, if we are to become lovers, I must keep it a “secret.” Then, I’m allowed to “pounce” on him whenever I want. Finally, he wants “lifelong friendship” when it’s over.
“I don’t do that,” I declare, and roll out of bed.
He grumbles something about his impending demise as I bid him goodnight.
I swallow my dismay and head to the neighboring swimming dock, where a few of his other students have been waiting for me to join them.
One wide-eyed woman asks me, “Are you taking care of Mark?”
“Not that way,” I assure her.
“I’m glad he’s receiving loving touch,” she smiles.
I laugh, and wish I could afford the next flight home.
The next morning, his unmade bed lurks in the corner as everyone sits, waiting. He shows up late, places a freshly-picked flower at the top of my mat, and guides practice. To close, we chant shanti shanti shanti, or “the peace beyond understanding.”
He offers his translation of choice: “not provoked, not provoked, definitely not provoked.”
Mosquitoes feast on my flesh as I resolve to not let any of this provoke me, slightly preoccupied with thoughts of old Brando in Tahiti and Persephone in the underworld.
Amid his usual lectures about “breath, body, and relationship,” Mark digresses into a diatribe wherein he claims, “men have always used their power to explore with young women.”
From where I sit, exploit feels more accurate.
Unable to tell if he is trying to justify my presence, his past, or both, I start to feel like a looming stain on his artificial divinity, but only a few of the others seem suspicious as to why he has me around. More seem to consider me lucky to be in such a position.
I escape to the ocean, and soon enough I see him tramping down the steep, green hillside to the rocky beach below. The next time I look to shore, he’s naked.
“In nature, as nature,” he later calls it.
Face to the clouds, I stay in the water and breathe until he wades out to me. I stand and give him a slightly amused glare, thinking I could have him arrested for this back home in the city.
“You’re quite lovely,” he smiles. “Has that registered yet?”
He wraps his arm around me, presses himself into my side, and looks down my swimsuit. I try not to react, and trace my fingertips over the surface of the water, eyes averted.
“Are you in the natural state?” he asks. “Are you not in conflict with anything?”
I shrug, and caution him that one of his other students has come down to the beach and seen us. Mark doesn’t seem to care. Apparently his rules about “discretion” from last night only applied to me.
Deeply annoyed, I head back to the house, anxious to demonstrate that I did in fact come here for reasons that had nothing to do with being his lovely, unconflicted sex slave.
Days later, after I ask him several times, he allows me to guide practice. The group seems to take to it, and Mark starts to covet me as his “goddess,” “blooming.” I cringe, and pass it off as humility.
Counting the days to departure, I avoid him as much as possible, teach every day, and get to know the others. I confide in select few as to how I ended up here. They admit it’s “messed up,” but tell me I’m “fine,” and Mark is “not well,” otherwise I’d see how “head over heels” he is for me … why don’t I “separate the teaching from the teacher?”
As I continue to drift from everyone else’s reality, where he embodies sacred genius, I feel forced to cling to his profane idiocy like a flotation device so absurdly unspeakable, no one hears me when I try to speak. I’d rather sink into oblivion with the rest of them, and deal with the truth I can hardly grasp myself later.
When Mark catches me alone, he asks where I’ve been, and tells me I’m “too sexy” — he’s “trying to behave” himself.
I look at him blankly and say nothing.
At the end of the course, one of the others happens to mention Mark’s girlfriend, also his student who worked on projects for him, and less than half his age. The revelation explains so much of his scheme, I feel relief more than anything else.
When I tell Mark I didn’t know about his girlfriend, he says, “I knew it would come up eventually … we are in transition. I want you to be a haven for me.”
I sigh, and remind myself that I’m not alone, not sleeping with him, and only a part of his captive audience for a few more days.
On the last night, he has the place, and me, to himself. We stargaze down on the dock, where he rubs my feet, feeds me compliments, and asks if I could “be with” him.
I remind him, “I don’t do things that need to be kept secret.”
He agrees that he doesn’t want to be with me if it has to be a secret, and later whisks me into his bed, where I roll away and fall asleep with my back to him, finally under a mosquito net.
The next day, while he and I wait in the airport, he complains about not being ready to leave, and calls me a “lady” — I can only guess because I never “pounced” on him.
“You seem remarkably easy-going,” he continues as we board the plane. “Most people when you get to know them are irritable and fucked up.”
“Like you?” I smile.
In between the legs of our trip back to LA, I notice him send both his girlfriend and the woman who told me about her the same text: “You are Everything.”
The pretense for this exhausting ordeal waits, almost forgotten, until our plane lands in LA and Mark asks if I can write God and Sex.
Dazed, I wonder why it should come as a surprise that he would neglect to inform me the book he somehow had me working on hasn’t been written.
My mother picks me up outside on the curb, where he gives her a hug, and comments that it’s just like hugging me.
Back in Brooklyn a few days later, I’m about to sleep in my own bed when Mark video calls to inform me that his girlfriend has agreed to “conditions” he apparently set for her prior to Fiji.
“Do what you want,” I tell him. “I don’t want to know. I need to sleep.”
“Don’t feel jilted,” he commands. “Don’t do the cool thing and run off.”
I’m speechless, mystified, yet again.
“Good thing we didn’t have sex, huh?” he continues. “I told you, I can’t be with a 23-year-old … I can’t have everyone thinking I’m a dirty old man … I should be with someone like your mother.”
“You are a dirty old man,” I snap. “You wish we’d had sex, and you’re not going to tell your poor girlfriend about any of it. And, by the way, my mother is completely not interested.”
He looks down and shakes his head. “Can’t you just be grateful that I flew you to Fiji?”
“You got a bargain,” I insist. “I was so sweet to you.”
He calls me a “seductress,” and orders me not to hang up until we are “at peace — back to normal. Friends, with love … we make a good team … I need you to write this book.”
“There’s nothing empty on the other side of anything I’ve ever said or done with you, unlike your constant bullshit,” I argue. “For months, you scam me into working for free on a book that doesn’t exist, claim to be in love with me, and lie about your girlfriend. Now you have the audacity to suggest that I seduced you, and you’re rejecting me, but I should ghost-write this book that frames you as some kind of spiritual intimacy expert? There’s no way.”
He starts to cry and offers to pay me — for my “work, so far.”
I refuse, holding back my own tears, until he lowers his voice to tell me, “You look ravishing … I’ll be coming back to you for bodily loving.”
“Fuck you,” I finally breathe. “You don’t get to say that kind of shit to me.”
I hang up and cry all night.
As I get back to my own life, J. Brown is nervous to hear about my time at the master’s ashram. I report that I couldn’t wait to leave, and found Mark’s behavior unethical, but omit particularly humiliating details like the night of the full moon and the confrontation that ended with him offering me money.
“I wish I didn’t know about this,” J. tells me, after he determines that Mark “did the right thing,” other than leading me on, “a little bit.” After all, I “had a thing” for him.
Only my friends get the whole story, and persuade me to let Mark pay me. Being away, not working for weeks has me broke.
He texts me: “ I wish I could give you $50000 not $500.”
Worried that he might be gone, but not done, I spend his money quickly and send him a how-dare-you-sir farewell email.
Come winter, Mark breaks a long silence to let me know that he can’t believe he didn’t “fuck” me in Fiji.
“I don’t know how to make you feel better about that,” I tell him. “Please leave me be.”
He backs off for months, often close to a year, only to resurface as if no time has gone by, and call me his “dear friend,” his “greatest fear realized,” or his “salvation.” He asks how old I am now, invites me to Maui, Ojai, Crete, Bali, wherever he might be, “for a night or two,” and claims that “our intimacy” is in need of “consummation,” or “love for love’s sake.” Finally, he demands that I “take care” of him by keeping it all “private.”
Unable to ignore him, I actively resist, promise him our sex would be ordinary, and tell him to go find it somewhere more convenient and less problematic. He cries, calls me “the coolest person” he knows, and insists there is no problem, and no one else. Eventually, he makes it a matter of life and death, telling me if he “dies before we have sex,” that’ll be tragic, or that he’s “still alive” because I’m his “lover.”
Again and again, I spiral back into crisis, wherein my abilities to trust and respect myself become eclipsed by his chaos and desire. As he persuades me that his “tantric loving” would be “liberating” and “healing,” I feel trapped and sick — like no matter how lucid I may be, I have no choice but to yield to whatever might come of my stupefying compassion for him. “Love” comes to feel like nothing but a pretty word for oppression.
April, 2015. If only to remind myself why I’d vowed to stay away, I agree to meet him one Spring when I visit home in Los Angeles. Maybe it’s an attempt to make his behavior feel less predatory and more personal — or it’s Stockholm syndrome left over from Fiji.
He comes to pick me up for lunch at my mother’s house. I meet him outside, where he proceeds to the house, expecting me to be alone. I inform him that my mother is home before she comes out and says hello.
“How is your daughter doing?” he asks her, as if I’m not standing right there.
“She would be great, if it weren’t for you,” she replies. “You have nothing to offer her.”
He stares at her, insists that he and I have a “deep emotional connection,” and then adds, “I haven’t had sex with your daughter.”
“I know that,” she scoffs at him. “It’s probably because you couldn’t.”
I shake off my paralysis enough to usher him outside to his car.
“She freaked me out,” he says. “She’s kind of sexy.”
“I’m mortified,” I tell him. “You can run for the hills.”
August, 2016. For another year, I feel profoundly relieved to be out of his rotation, until he slowly, then suddenly crawls out of the woodwork, eventually bombarding me with calls and texts as he’s about to get on a plane to New York.
In shock, I debate replying while he spells my name wrong, begs for my address, and insists he’ll get a hotel.
“Things are different now,” he claims. “Let me come play the sitar for you.”
As my heart pounds in the pit of my stomach, I feel like I must have amnesia to wonder if he could somehow align himself with whatever I once found so heartfelt about him. Another confrontation could at least kill that fantasy, again, so I text him my address. It’s my choice, I try to tell myself. It’s my confusion, my curiosity.
That night, tired of waiting, I leave a key outside, knowing he has no where else to go. He shows up after midnight and climbs uninvited into my bed, where I’m half asleep in the hazy summer heat.
“That was four years overdue,” he grumbles after letting me drift off before he forced himself on me. He goes to sleep in the bed I set up for him in the next room.
In the morning, I ask him to leave.
“Love brings up everything that is unlove,” he declares, then lowers his voice to add that, “last night felt like a transmission from Krishnamacharya,” the so-called father of modern yoga.
Too stressed to respond, I somehow feel guilty, on top of all the confusion. Then he tells me I have a “calming effect” on him.
My friends offer to come over and help kick him out, but I let him linger for what turns into three nights. He camps out on the floor, naked or nearly, practices his sitar, and posts about yoga and “New Feminism” on Instagram.
As I come and go, he greets me with, “darling,” “sweetheart,” and “beloved,” but otherwise keeps to his 67-year-old self, except to force himself on me again, which magnifies every affliction I’ve ever been afraid to see about him.
In Fijian full moon deja vu, I imagine I could somehow make it better, channel my anger, and even reclaim some of my power — I have none left to lose, or so I think. Then the next morning I wake up to him on top of and inside me, having crept into my bed while I was fast asleep.
“Fuck, you’re lovely,” he whispers. “I fucking need this. Fuck, I need this. You’re fucking lovely. You’re a lovely fuck.”
When I’m awake, he continues to dominate, make demands, call me a “good girl,” or a “wicked woman,” and takes offense when I bounce my fists off his chest and tell him to shut the fuck up.
Before he departs to teach at some yoga festival in the Hamptons, he insists I keep his “visit” a secret. I assure him I don’t want anyone to find out — they’d all think I’m brainwashed. He cries, and leaves my kitchen sink full of coffee grounds and eggshells on his way out.
I shut the door behind him, turn around, lean back, exhale, and slide down into a squat. It strikes me that no matter what I do, every would-be exchange with him fails to become shared rather than something he takes from me.
December, 2017. Another summer, wherein I struggle to hold a boundary as he passes through New York, comes and goes. That winter, I find out several accounts of sexual harassment and assault posted by his former female students have been deleted from his Facebook group. As I witness the aftermath, their stories show up secondhand, and sound hauntingly familiar.
I see his devotees, mostly women, rush to his defense. They share irrelevant anecdotes about how much Mark has helped them, and minimize his transgressions with phrases like “made a pass.” One eventually writes an article that paints him as a feminist hero, pioneering and gender neutral, dismantling patriarchy with his yoga.
I never considered myself a victim, yet to see myself in these glimpses of the others he has patronized, manipulated, and abused brings outrage, clarity, and a hint of relief — in my compassion for them, I finally find some for myself.
As my stomach turns, I impulsively confront him with a text: “All of my worst suspicions about you have been confirmed.”
He calls me to plead innocent. “It’s fake news,” he maintains. “They’re out to get me … it’s a war … I need your help … I’m scared to come to America, of getting arrested for rape.”
“Who would accuse you of rape?” I ask calmly, and immediately remember my friends calling him a rapist two years ago — and a stalker. How strange to think, if this had happened to a friend, I would have said the same thing.
“All of my relationships have been consensual,” he asserts, calls me a “good mistress,” and grants me permission to “share our secret now — say we were lovers, and it was good.”
The futility of this conversation dawns on me as he continues, “I tried my best … your mother scared me … the intention was always there … I only ever considered us equals.”
“Stop making this about me,” I interject. “You need to take responsibility for yourself and the deleted posts. In the least, you owe everyone an apology, and to stop masquerading as an ally to women.”
“I thought you were my ally,” he complains, only to thank me, and insist that he “hears” me and “loves” me. “I can’t describe the pain of losing you,” he goes on, and claims he was “on his knees,” “looking for a wife,” last he saw me.
“Stop lying,” I demand. “This isn’t about me. This is about entitlement, control, and hypocrisy … male yoga teachers who seduce and silence their young female students don’t get to go around preaching about feminism and ‘right relationship.’ Everyone can smell your garbage.”
“You’re so fucking intelligent,” he finally snaps, and claims I’m being “unkind,” but eventually says, “I’ll do whatever you want for there to be peace between us … to help you live a simple life … free of social mind.”
I only recall once or twice in the early days when he expressed an interest in what I might want, and my response never factored in. Did I think he would listen to me now? That he could possibly understand how my life would be so much closer to simple and free if I didn’t have to reckon yet again with the indoctrination and inconvenience of what he dares to call his “help?”
After I block his numbers, I ricochet between craving his downfall and his redemption, aware that neither would help me come to terms with his insidious presence in my life, now that the internalized pressure to be devoted, forgiving, and “not provoked,” has begun to dissipate. I’m almost “not in conflict” with anything, including conflict itself.
I start to write again, combing through old journals in attempts to piece together my only real power: to remember, and call by name. Gradually, as I circle in on my trauma, I release the trance-like drama of becoming an object for him, learn to not blame my vulnerability for his violations, and accept him as the perpetrator whom I don’t know beyond the lens he afforded me. That lens may be only slightly less obscured than the one he and his enablers mythologize for his audience at large, but I’m not the first to see through it, and won’t be the last.
UPDATE: The above link has been deleted, see screenshot below. After helping to silence at least three other victims who came forward in the MW’s Facebook group, J. Brown invited Whitwell onto his podcast the next year. The gaslighting prompted me to come forward.
With gratitude to every last shred of support, process, and privilege that allows me to share these words without fear, on behalf of all those who for whatever reasons cannot do so, yet.