I Thought It Was the Perfect Yoga Studio. Until It Wasn’t
What does it mean when the place you turned to for solace also inflicted harm? Sarah Herrington explores the demise of Yoga to the People and its repercussions.
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Waiting in line at Yoga to the People, I shifted my weight, pain surging through my lower back where I’d herniated a disc. The line began to move but, afraid of reinjury, I chickened out and turned to go home.
“Come give it a try,” said Gregory Gumucio, the owner. I explained the situation with my injury. “This is one of the most healing things you can do,” he said reassuringly. I walked up the rest of the wooden stairs, put some cash in a tissue box as everyone else had, and set my mat down in the back row of a room with exposed brick walls and maybe forty other students crammed mat-to-mat.
I did my best to move through the postures, taking breaks when needed, which is something the teacher mentioned on occasion. By the time I found myself in Savasana, the lights were low and the candles were lit, illuminating the wood floors with a quiet glow. I closed my eyes, feeling calmer. He was right. The class helped.
Yoga to the People
It was 2008 and Yoga to the People (YTTP) was new to New York City’s East Village. The studio was housed in a historic five-story building on St. Marks Place, a downtown street with a punk-rock past.
Though I’d practiced yoga and meditation for years, it was YTTP’s donation-based model that allowed me to establish a regular yoga practice. I found contentment and solace in my practice. I managed to avoid back surgery, took YTTP’s teacher training, began a new career as a yoga teacher in elementary schools, and practiced at the studio almost daily for a decade. Back then, when people asked me for a studio recommendation, I told them YTTP saved my life.
I now know that while I was healing, there was a tremendous amount of harm taking place.
In late August of this year, the FBI arrested Gumucio along with Michael Anderson and Haven Soliman, fellow founders and leaders of the now-defunct yoga studio, under charges of tax evasion on more than $20 million of unreported income.
In the years prior to that, there had been allegations of sexual misconduct, racial discrimination, manipulation by management, even rape that were reported in New York Magazine’s The Cut, VICE, and elsewhere. Nothing was done. In 2020, someone created a @yttpshadowwork account on Instagram to chronicle first-person narratives of abuse anonymously shared by dozens of former YTTP teachers.
Finding a refuge in community
Like many of the studio’s clientele, I entered Yoga to the People as a hopeful 20-something. The studio was often filled with NYU students and young professionals who came to class vulnerable, seeking physical or emotional healing, a spiritual practice, or simply a place in a large city where they could slow down enough in a large city to notice their feelings. I was no exception.
I was nursing not only my back pain, but heartache and confusion after getting involved with a meditation teacher who, I later discovered, had serially dated students. I’d lost one spiritual community and was looking for another. Yoga to the People became my safe space. My refuge.
The practice rooms were sometimes filled with upwards of sixty bodies moving and breathing in unison through the studio’s signature power vinyasa flow of Sun Salutations and standing postures with a focus on stability, strength, and breath. We were reminded to listen to ourselves and honor our bodies by taking breaks when needed.
Here, “power” meant “empowerment.” The language most teachers used—the same verbiage encouraged in the YTTP teacher training—centered around emotional and physical safety. We were taught to claim personal agency through practice, to honor intuition through movement, and to release emotions through audible breath.
Walking along the hallway while class was happening, you could hear teachers lead a “H-A-haaaa” and students let out sound as they exhaled. In a crowded city like New York—where to survive is to get small, move fast, and not yell out in crowded rooms—there is freedom in any form of conscious movement that allows you to seemingly grow large as you express yourself. A cue I often heard for Warrior 2 was, “Allow yourself to take up all the space you couldn’t on the subway.”
This access to yoga allowed many of us to develop a relationship with yoga and understand how it worked on our bodies, minds, and spirits with regular practice. It felt healing to be in a space that prioritized self-expression and empowerment. Coming through those doors and walking up the stairs after a stressful day of teaching yoga in public schools, I felt my shoulders fall away from my ears and the metaphorical mask I wore all day fall away. I watched several people who practiced in those rooms, myself included, change the way we showed up to the city and to life. I would enter feeling heavy or scattered and leave feeling calm, centered, and full of an elusive state of happiness.
I passed through my 20s and early 30s with yoga clothes perpetually tucked at the bottom of my bag in case I wanted—or needed—to make it to YTTP. I even memorized the schedule.
YTTP was the only studio I knew that stayed open in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. Although the lights had been knocked out, teachers lit candles and people showed up to practice. I once left a New Year’s Eve party, to the protests of my Champagne-pouring hosts, to make an 11:30 pm class because I wanted to be in that space, on my mat, practicing yoga when the calendar turned.
The need for others is hardwired into humans, and in a large city where you often didn’t know your neighbors, it was especially powerful to gain kula, or community. I often saw the same people in the studio. It was, in a way, like coming home to family.
We paid for classes by stuffing cash in that tissue box and were told our contributions kept the studio running. This access to yoga allowed many of us to develop a relationship with yoga and understand how it worked on our bodies, minds, and spirits with regular practice.
Teachers’ names were not featured on the schedule, something that I at first found odd. We were told this allowed students to attend for their own practice and not for a particular teacher. As someone looking to avoid guru abuse, I found this to add an extra layer of safety. It was a utopian ideal—a way to make yoga accessible for all.
It was yoga to the people. Or so we thought.
When the path of healing hurts you
It wasn’t until I moved to Los Angeles to work for another yoga program while freelance writing that I began to hear different narratives. I was researching the intersection of the #MeToo movement and the yoga and meditation world. In the midst of interviews, several women shared their stories of being harmed at Yoga to the People via sexual misconduct, gaslighting, and manipulation. Some of those women were people I had practiced with regularly at the studio. I considered them friends.
The place that had been such a refuge for me wasn’t safe for everyone. And it never had been. While I and others were reveling in yoga classes, an alternate reality was taking place. One woman whose story was shared on @yttpshadowwork recalled entering YTTP “fresh out of college and a breakup and excited for this life-changing practice.” All this changed after the owner asked her to babysit. He arrived home, offered her wine, and, coerced her into having sex, she alleged. She was 22.
“At the time I didn’t have words like “gaslighting” and “grooming in my vocabulary…The feeling of belonging and safety disappeared shortly after my sexual encounter- and was replaced with fear and shame…I was only scheduled (to teach) a few more times after that,” explained the teacher, whose name was not revealed on the Instagram post.
Her story mirrors the experiences of others shared on the @yttpshadowwork page as well as what I heard in conversations with former YTTP yoga teachers years ago and again while researching this article. They spoke to me off-the-record, afraid of the ramifications of being named. The narratives reveal what appears to be a pattern of abuse.
Stories of abuse in yoga and contemplative communities are legion. HBO’s award-winning documentary Wild, Wild Country famously profiled the rise, abuse, and fall of Osho, a spiritual teacher who shared his own form of yoga with his followers. (I’d been introduced to Osho’s meditation techniques and practices in YTTP’s teacher training.)
Similarly, friends who were committed to Kundalini yoga reeled at the revelations of abuse against its founder, Yogi Bhajan. In 1994, Massachusetts-based retreat yoga retreat center Kripalu fractured when founder Amrit Desai was accused of sexual misconduct. He confessed and paid a $2.5 million settlement. In 2017, record producer-turned-meditation devotee Russell Simmons closed his Hollywood yoga studio after stories of sexual harassment surfaced.
These narratives, sadly, continue.
One need not be the person who experienced abuse to be affected by these communities falling.
Many of us, yoga practitioners or not, have had to reckon with the question: Can we separate the art from the artist? Can we still watch The Cosby Show after learning of Cosby’s violence? Can we continue to see the humor in Woody Allen films? Can we bring ourselves to practice Bikram yoga?
When I heard of the arrest this August, I was struck with anger and grief. What the FBI discovered were individuals who “went to great lengths to conceal their income,” with no tax reporting from 2013 to 2020, according to The New York Times. “At least two of the defendants even submitted fabricated tax returns to third parties when seeking a loan or an apartment, despite not filing any tax returns with the I.R.S.,” said Damian Williams, the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, in a statement to The New York Times.
I was livid that vulnerable seekers, those looking to do well by themselves and in the world, could be so exploited. At the same time, I grieved the loss of a space that had once felt so safe.
But as I read and reread the details, I was also nagged by questions. Namely, when would justice be served for the personal misconduct claims leveled against the studio owners? I sensed an echo from 2017, when hot yoga magnate—and mentor to Gumucio—Bikram Choudrey was served an arrest warrant for failing to pay $7 million in legal fees after his sexual harassment lawsuit. The arrest was not for the harassment itself.
Financial justice is a start. But what about the personal harm that continues to be inflicted in a community promoting spiritual fulfillment and healing? When will the stories of bodies—predominantly women’s bodies—being harmed be enough to elicit legal protection and not just temporary outrage? How do we heal from this appalling abuse of trust?
We need to be careful not to become complacent about the good work done toward supporting women’s narratives and speaking truth to power in recent years. Much of this abuse has been gendered—a male leader teaching, female students searching.
I’m ashamed to say that even after hearing the stories from other students, I practiced at YTTP when I returned to New York. I couldn’t stand the idea of losing another community and wanted to see if I could somehow compartmentalize the pain from the practice. I couldn’t. Walking through those doors after hearing of the misconduct, I felt shame. And what I’d heard continued to rattle around my heart as I moved through the various postures. I eventually stopped going. It was a small death.
After experiencing and witnessing power abuse in a meditation community years earlier, one of the hardest things to confront was that I’d usually sit in meditation to sort through my mind and my heart. I no longer did that when my refuge was tied up in hurt. Perhaps this is what many who used to practice at YTTP have been feeling.
When YTTP closed in 2020, it announced it was due to a COVID-based business loss, with no mention of the allegations reported in both traditional and social media. There was no closure for the many who found in the space a second home.
I know several dedicated yoga students who have had their foundations cracked by disillusionment after learning of the allegations of abuse. They eventually left the paths they once organized their lives around. One need not be the person who experienced abuse to be affected by these communities falling. Witnessing is also deeply upsetting, unmooring.
When a refuge is rocked, it’s a form of trauma. It’s a hard ask to hold the fact that many students were helped in these rooms even as harm was inflicted on others. If healing occurs on the cellular level, doesn’t trauma also? If you were one of the thousands of people who practiced yoga and found relief at Yoga to the People, you’re probably in pain. Your hurt deserves to be acknowledged.
For me, it’s not enough to simply say, “Separate the teacher from the teachings.” That action—separation—feels too passive. What I’m looking for is a verb as active as the love we all have for yoga. A raging, protective kind of love. A rising No.
Though a scroll on Instagram might suggest that yoga is solely a physical practice, it is a spiritual path, built on a foundation of ethics, with a physical component. In the Yoga Sutras, Patanjali laid out the “eight limbs” of yoga, the first two being the yamas and niyamas, or ethical tenets for working with our outer and inner worlds, respectively. If we take each limb in the order they appear in the Sutras, the ethical practices come before the more physical practices of asana or breathwork or meditation.
What about aparigraha, the Sanskrit word meaning “non-hoarding?” It stands in stark contrast to YTTP’s leaders reportedly holding “stacking parties” with donations from those tissue boxes at Gumucio’s apartment across the street from the studio, sometimes dumping the cash in an empty guitar case.
And what about ahimsa, or non-harming? The interpersonal abuse claims reported by Vice include the owner taking teachers to a bar—named Lure—and encouraging them to teach drunk and manipulating them into having sex.
“The fish rots from the head,” one former YTTP teacher explained to me after considering the layers of misconduct that had been hidden. There was good in those rooms—powerful practice sessions and kind-hearted teachers—but it’s hard to reconcile that with the corrupt leadership and insidious toxic culture that made it fall.
If we are practicing any element of yoga in spaces where there are violations of ethics, are these yoga rooms at all?
Where do we go from here?
The financial charges against YTTP are a start, but only that. We must continue to push toward systemic change. Students, by definition, are vulnerable. They are seeking and needing a safe space. And they are deserving of it.
In 2020, the world’s largest yoga registry, Yoga Alliance, revealed new industry standards and a protocol for reporting abuse. That’s a great step—and we need more. There needs to be a sustained effort toward making contemplative communities safe, alongside an acknowledgement of the grief, hurt, and confusion left in the wake of abuse, whether experienced or witnessed.
Like any spiritual journey, the way forward varies with the individual. My meditation practice has shifted to be more private and personal than community-based. The smell of certain incense still rattles my nerves. I’ve gained more nuanced discernment toward power.
I still practice yoga. I lead a kids yoga teacher training. I allow yoga philosophy to shape my worldview. There’s so much on the yoga path I love.
But the irony hasn’t escaped me that I stepped into these spaces seeking community and some of my strongest bonds ended up being forged with others who left those very spaces as we shared our confusing stories with each other.
When I used to walk the wooden steps to YTTP’s East Village hub, I was greeted by a black and white poster with a mantra: All Bodies Rise. Under it was a mission statement, profiling how all bodies were safe and welcome in the studio.
Let’s take this language back. Let’s hear each others’ stories. And let’s make sure everyone is protected by continuing to push for all of yoga to be practiced in these spaces.
About our contributor
Sarah Herrington is a writer, poet, and teacher. She is the founder of OM Schooled kids yoga teacher trainings and Mindful Writing Workshops.