By KENDRA SITTON | Downtown & Uptown News
San Diego yoga instructor Amber Lynn Gilles recently made headlines for complaining that a local Starbucks barista told her to put on a mask. She threatened to call police the next time she came to the coffee shop.
The incident is part of a wider discussion in the yoga community about the direction of a practice with roots in Indian philosophy and spirituality that in the U.S. has turned into a $17 billion industry.
San Diego yoga professionals said schisms in the community over recent national events are the result of years of simmering divisions over the anti-vaccine movement, cultural appropriation in a majority-white industry and workplace exploitation.
“We’re in this really strange time of COVID and Black Lives Matter uprising. Things are really coming to light that have been boiling under the surface in the yoga community for a long time just because of the situation in which we find ourselves,” yoga teacher Karen O’Lone said.
Two local studios that publicly supported the Black Lives Matter, Riffs Yoga Studios and Pilgrimage of the Heart, came under fire from teachers and students about how they have privately handled these issues.
The owner of Riffs Yoga Studios, Steve Hart, sent an email to staff June 4 about how he had been listening to people of color while trying to formulate how he could best respond to recent Black Lives Matter as a white male. The following day, Riffs Studios sent an email to members stating a commitment to anti-racism with several goals including creating a safer space for BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color), maintaining a zero-tolerance policy for racism, staff trainings and dissecting their role as yoga professionals in a largely-white industry.
Still, some viewed this as waiting until the Black Lives Matter movement became widely popular rather than making a stand proactively. The conflict worsened two days later when a Zoom call that was mis-marketed as a space for Black grief ended up featuring a white woman speaker leading a meditation on white privilege and how to confront it.
Two longtime teachers quit the day after the Sunday Zoom call, stating Hart’s silence, and the silence of many local yoga studios, had been noticed.
“Inclusion is a concept that we fully embrace, and we remain steadfast in promoting this value among the yoga community. As we re-open our studios, subject to applicable COVID-19 restrictions, we welcome any feedback as to how we can best serve our community’s needs,” Hart said in a statement to SD News.
One of the teachers who quit was one of the few people of color employed at the studio, which has locations in La Jolla, Bird Rock and Ocean Beach. He was not included on the limited class schedule as the studio gradually reopened. However, he found out a newer substitute teacher was offered two classes.
When he raised several issues in a company-wide email, Hart addressed the issues in a reply sent to every staff member but him, which the teacher described as effectively muting his voice. Hart told the staff the man had not helped during the quarantine, something the teacher disputes. He said he offered to introduce Hart to the CEO of Yoga International, a large yoga streaming site. In addition, he offered to help Hart develop an online platform to help stay in business.
When the teacher shared his story of being lied about with friends in the yoga community, two others came forward with stories of workplace abuse at Riffs. They have chosen to remain anonymous but shared their experiences with mismanagement at the popular studio.
In a statement, Hart said, “We remain dedicated to providing our staff and students with an environment that is free of harassment and discrimination. We take every claim of unequal treatment seriously and always investigate all such claims immediately and thoroughly. We work to maintain a safe and respectful environment for all and feel it is improper to comment on any employment situation publicly.”
One former employee said she went back to work the day after breaking bones because a substitute was not found for her. She said later lost her job when she could not attend unpaid classes led by other teachers that were still part of her job requirements.
Another faced repeated harassment from a student who gave her gifts, came early and stayed late at her classes, did not let her talk to people other than him, and told her she was the only person he was living for. When she went to Hart about the issue, she remembers him telling her to take care of the issue herself and that it was a burden to him. The student was not banned until he began sending emails to Hart.
She had a much better experience addressing harassment from students at Pilgrimage of the Heart, a North Park- and Normal Heights-based studio with a zero-tolerance policy. Still, Pilgrimage had its own share of conflict since the quarantine began over Western medicine and now racism.
When the studio closed, one of the longest-serving teachers at Pilgrimage who lead the Yoga Teacher Training for years, Nikole Fortier, shared social media posts with conspiracy theories about coronavirus, vaccines and masks.
Fortier was out of town and did not respond to a request for comment on this story.
Fortier is not the only yoga teacher who is a part of the anti-vaxxer movement.
“We’re starting to divide ourselves — the people who are more research based and have knowledge versus these people who think, ‘Put a crystal on your heart, it’ll be OKy,’” said Sydney Cohen, an instructor at Pilgrimage. “In our community, a lot of us have gotten together and talked about how dangerous [that is], and we don’t want people to think that this light within you can conquer a virus.”
Despite these conversations, Cohen said many do not know what to do in response.
Around the same time Pilgrimage released a statement in support of Black Lives Matter, Fortier’s posts became more extreme with alleged Holocaust denialism and racism from her private Instagram and Facebook accounts. She posted about George Soros, Adolf Hitler and Aunt Jemima.
Fortier was not included in the reduced class schedule and is no longer listed as an instructor on the Pilgrimage website. People who contacted management of the studio about Fortier’s behavior were ignored. They wondered if she had been quietly let go and felt the studio should more publicly disavow her beliefs.
Without a public statement, a former student of Fortier’s, Joanie Baumgardner, individually contacted people she previously recommended join Fortier’s classes to avoid the teacher because her “true colors” were coming out.
“If I have to do that work, I think Pilgrimage should have to do that work too,” Baumgardner said.
Sujantra McKeever, who owns the studio, explained that Fortier is currently not employed with Pilgrimage because her expertise is in a specialized form of yoga not included in their smaller class schedule.
He said he contacted a lawyer and an HR professional, who confirmed he cannot fire someone for protected free speech outside of work; he can only have a code of conduct barring prejudice and harassment inside the workplace. He said he chose to not address the posts when contacted or on social media because it would lead to a paper trail potentially opening him up for a lawsuit.
“I can’t fire someone for what they say outside of work. I would not do that because I legally can’t,” McEever said. “In terms of public statement, I don’t want to get into a war of words with people. We’ve made our statement about Black Lives Matter. We’ve had a business here for 12 years. I think things speak for themselves.”
Fortier deftly weaves in yoga concepts of non-attachment and uses her authority as a guru to convince others of the veracity of her sources.
“On my path to ‘awakening’, whenever I was confronted with information that sat opposite to what I’d previously believed to hold true, I would do my own research. I would set my bias aside and look deeply across multiple sources to understand what the opposite opinion is,” Fortier said in a post about the etymology of Black Lives Matter.
Former who students and current colleagues reached out to her to ask for sources and were given YouTube videos tied to QAnon.
People who argued with her or said they were hurt by the anti-Semitism and racism in her posts were told they did not have an open mind and Fortier had no bad intentions.
“People look up to her as a spiritual leader and then she just fails to take any responsibility,” former Pilgrimage student Jill Bean said.
Bean is one of the people who has spent time gathering sources and speaking to Fortier directly about how harmful her rhetoric is to no avail. In the post about Aunt Jemima, a Black yogi said that her viewpoint was hurtful and harmful. In response, Fortier said her intentions are pure.
“Yoga, especially in the West and especially in San Diego is very, very whitewashed. So to have a white yoga teacher spreading stuff like this around is even more harmful than the average racist person because people have a tendency to put their yoga teachers up on pedestals,” Cohen said.
While the backlash has landed on Fortier, one of her coworkers said the issue is bigger than just one person.
“To honor the roots of yoga without appropriating, I think, is a really important conversation,” Karen O’Lone said. “I also just don’t feel like I should steal from other cultures and then use whatever I have stolen to tell other people exactly how to think or exactly how to feel or exactly what will cure them.”
When someone holds personal beliefs that they cannot express while working at a yoga studio, she said they cannot be open even as they ask students to be authentic, creating an imbalance. O’Lone also worries that forgetting the social justice roots of yoga can put people in community together who oppose each other in order to maintain studio’s profits.
“I don’t want to walk into a classroom and know that I’m teaching people who I’m in community with here but the moment we stepped out of the yoga studio would have no problem voting against my rights,” O’Lone said.
— Kendra Sitton can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.