Investigation of Famed S.F. Yoga Teacher Carries On, Despite Resignation Amid Sexual Misconduct Allegations

Manouso Manos speaks with KQED reporter Miranda Leitsinger after exiting a workshop he taught at The Abode of Iyengar Yoga in San Francisco on March 7, 2019. (Adam Grossberg/KQED)

UPDATED March 20, 4 p.m.: This story has been updated from the original on March 11 with comment from the Iyengar Yoga National Association of the U.S.

A prominent international yoga teacher based in San Francisco resigned on March 8 from the national body overseeing the Iyengar tradition in the United States, insisting that an independent investigation that the group launched — after KQED reported on sexual misconduct accusations against him — was unfair and unwarranted. However, that organization is now strongly defending its ongoing probe.

In a KQED investigation published in September 2018, three women accused Manouso Manos, a yoga teacher for decades in the Iyengar tradition founded by B.K.S. Iyengar, of sexual misconduct in class. Manos was accused of groping the women's breasts while they were in yoga poses — allegedly in 1986, 1988 and 2013. He was also the subject of a 1991 expose in West, a now-defunct magazine then published by the San Jose Mercury News, over alleged sexual misconduct.

Manos, through a spokesman, told KQED last fall that he denied all allegations — past and present.

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Last September, the ethics committee of the Iyengar Yoga National Association of the U.S. (IYNAUS) said in its review of the 2013 allegation by San Diego teacher Ann West (who accused Manos of caressing her breasts during an advanced backbend pose at a San Diego workshop) that it "did not find sufficient information to determine that a violation took place."

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However, in October, the IYNAUS board of directors announced an independent investigation into West's accusations against Manos, saying because of his "seniority and influence” in their community, "we are persuaded that there is an appearance that the members of this committee are biased in Mr. Manos’s favor and cannot decide complaints against him impartially."

"We have concluded that IYNAUS cannot afford not to incur the costs of an independent investigation. It is the only way to assure public confidence in Iyengar Yoga in the U.S., and without public confidence, nothing else matters," the board of directors said in a 10-page letter to IYNAUS members.

IYNAUS opened the investigation to other allegations against Manos, covering the time period from Jan. 1, 1992, to the present. It said that, after the KQED article was published, "many individuals submitted emails to us supporting Mr. Manos and others submitted emails making allegations against him."

On March 7, outside The Abode of Iyengar Studio in San Francisco's Glen Park neighborhood, Manos, 67, briefly spoke with KQED. When asked if he had confidence in the independent inquiry led by a Washington, D.C., lawyer, Bernadette Sargeant, he mouthed the word: "No." Then he added, "I was cleared by a unanimous committee of females and I don't know what anybody else wants," in a reference to the initial ethics committee investigation.

As KQED began to ask Manos about new allegations of sexual misconduct that it had received, he got into his gray Tesla and closed the door.

The Abode of Iyengar Yoga studio in San Francisco's Glen Park neighborhood on Thursday, March 7, 2019. (Adam Grossberg/KQED)

Manos resigned from IYNAUS the next day, Friday, March 8. His resignation was posted to The Abode of Iyengar website, saying he was quitting IYNAUS, where he had been a member of its senior advisory council until it was abolished in October 2018.

"It is with a heavy heart that I am submitting my resignation from IYNAUS. I am leaving though I am innocent. I am leaving though I only adjust students who give their consent. I am leaving though I do not touch inappropriately. I am leaving because I cannot prove my innocence," said Manos, who began his studies with B.K.S. Iyengar in 1976 and holds one of two advanced senior certificates granted worldwide by the founder, who died in 2014.

Manos said he has taught thousands of teachers over the years, and holds workshops across the globe. He is seen as the top Iyengar teacher in the U.S., and the founder has acknowledged him as one of his “elder students” who helped to make “ ‘yoga’ become a household subject in all of America,” B.K.S. Iyengar said in a “birthday message” to Manos posted to The Abode of Iyengar website.

B.K.S. Iyengar, who is “universally acknowledged as the modern master of yoga,” according to IYNAUS, brought some of the most recognizable aspects of the practice — props such as mats and blocks, and the emphasis on pose alignment — to practitioners worldwide. Though few people might study to become an Iyengar teacher, his work has been “massively influential,” said Matthew Remski, a yoga teacher, trainer and culture critic who has written about sexual abuse in the community.

“Nobody would be walking into a yoga studio in North America if it weren't for Mr. Iyengar,” Remski said. “He's massively responsible for the globalization of modern yoga.”

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In a separate 21-page letter dated March 8, Manos' lawyers detailed two telephone calls with Sargeant, the lawyer leading the investigation. They said Manos had previously offered to resign on Nov. 7, 2018.

IYNAUS, the lawyers said, rejected Manos' resignation.

"All I asked is that they stop the investigation,” Manos wrote in a letter on Nov. 13, 2018, to Iyengar’s children, Geeta and Prashant Iyengar, about his offer to resign, according to correspondence shared by his lawyers. “They have refused my offer and did not tell me why they refused it. They have given me no indication of any further complaints anonymous or otherwise.”

Manos declined to be interviewed by Sargeant, and in the letter, his lawyers alleged that:

— Manos was denied due process in the investigation, saying he wouldn't be told the names of those accusers who had requested anonymity, that Sargeant would use anonymous and confidential complaints to make her findings and conclusions and that the standard of proof — persuaded by the evidence and not beyond a reasonable doubt — was "the lowest standard of proof."

— Sargeant had "already made up her mind and her impressions and decisions are adverse to Manos."

— The Iyengar family was not informed or consulted by IYNAUS of the changes and actions announced to its members on Oct. 10, 2018.

— Sargeant "does not understand the practice of Iyengar yoga, including the poses and intrinsic value of touch and adjustments to enable her to properly consider and evaluate the information and make any findings and conclusions."

IYNAUS President David Carpenter did not initially respond to a phone call and two emails by KQED seeking comment about Manos’ resignation and how it would impact the investigation, or the allegations made by his lawyers.

But on Friday, March 15, the IYNAUS board of directors sent an email to the membership and posted a longer statement on its website aimed at rebutting many of Manos’ claims and providing more details about the investigation, saying it “has been nearly complete for some time.” Sargeant had interviewed 38 people so far, the board said, and had been trying to schedule time with Manos since Dec. 11.

The IYNAUS board also said Sargeant, while not a Iyengar yoga practitioner, had interviewed or been provided the views of many expert witnesses in the community, had conducted dozens of sex abuse investigations, and had worked to ensure Manos was treated fairly in the process — including allowing him to take breaks and consult with his lawyers before responding to any question.

The board also said it had gotten more than 150 reports from the Iyengar community between Sept. 12 and Oct. 30: many were supportive of Manos while “many others made credible allegations that he has abused his position by making sexually inappropriate adjustments,” it said in a Nov. 27, 2018, letter to the Iyengar family.

“Based on these and other reports, we believed that there were many other individuals who would come forward if given an opportunity to do so safely and that some would allow their identities to be revealed. Finally, we also learned that rumors of such sexual misconduct by Manouso have been circulating in our community for many years,” the board wrote in the letter.

Manos denies any misconduct, his spokesman said, adding that the statements by IYNAUS indicate they have predetermined the credibility and merits of any allegations. He also said the only complaint Manos is aware of is the one by Ann West, and he has never been provided the 150 reports or any information concerning any other alleged complaints.

The initial investigation into West’s allegations, by the IYNAUS ethics committee, also “had serious deficiencies,” the IYNAUS board said in its online posting. The committee didn’t interview either West or Manos — contrary to its prior practices in other complaints — and didn’t contact eyewitnesses who identified themselves. (The committee gave no special consideration to Manos because of his status and allowed both parties an opportunity to be heard, his spokesman said).

The IYNAUS board of directors also said Manos’ lawyers sent each member a letter, reserving the right to bring litigation against IYNAUS and individual board members if any part of Sargeant’s report or the underlying information was either sent to the Iyengars or made public.

The lawyers did not respond to a KQED phone call and emails seeking comment about the letter. A spokesman for Manos confirmed they sent the letter to each IYNAUS board member.

“Any such releases or communications would be done by IYNAUS only to retaliate against Manos and intentionally cause him further harm,” the lawyers wrote.

The yoga industry has experienced dramatic growth in the U.S.: Over 36 million people practiced nationwide in 2016, skyrocketing from 16.5 million in 2004, according to a Yoga in America Study. Yoga was a $16 billion industry in 2016, shooting up from $10 billion in 2012.

The KQED investigation found that the yoga community was struggling to rein in sexual misconduct and abuse in its ranks. Some experts believe the lack of oversight of teachers and schools — yoga instructors aren’t licensed in the U.S.; no state agency, such as a medical board, oversees, disciplines or investigates them — is adding to the problems of an industry experiencing explosive growth, where touch and trust are a fundamental part of the practice.

Though Manos will no longer be a member of IYNAUS, he can continue to teach yoga — no certification or license is required for instructors in the U.S. But only certified Iyengar yoga teachers in good standing are permitted to use "Iyengar Yoga" trademark and service marks, IYNAUS said.

The Ramamani Iyengar Memorial Yoga Institute (RIMYI) in Pune, India — the mother institute of Iyengar Yoga worldwide — issues teaching certificates, not IYNAUS. When teachers leave IYNAUS, RIMYI allows teachers to keep their certificates, and it isn’t a violation of the Iyengar Yoga trademark for them to say they previously were granted their certificates and studied at RIMYI or with certified Iyengar teachers, IYNAUS said in October.

Though Manos offered to resign, he did not say he would stop using the Iyengar name — unless the family told him to stop, the IYNAUS board said in its statement and a spokesman for Manos confirmed.

Remski, the yoga culture critic, said he was concerned that Manos’ resigning would render the IYNAUS investigation “moot” and wondered if the organization would make the results public (the IYNAUS board said Friday it will complete its investigation and would then decide what to do with the report and findings).

“I think the Manos story is a brilliant shining example of the utter failure of private yoga institutions to regulate themselves,” he said. Despite having the will, tools and money to conduct an investigation, “at the end of the day, the guy simply can resign and duck out and hang out a shingle somewhere else,” he added.

It's not clear what the consequences of the resignation will mean for Manos. His lawyers said IYNAUS' actions had "negatively and severely impacted Manos on both a professional and personal level," and the investigation "carries with it the potential of loss of students and employment prospects and emotional, reputational, family and psychological harm to Manos and potential exposure to civil and criminal actions."

Remski said that Manos, like other teachers who have faced sexual misconduct allegations in the U.S., might focus more on teaching abroad.

"It might mean that his sponsorship or his events that are hosted in the States, that they decline. But his traveling schedule shows that he is adept at finding hosts in countries that have no affiliation with IYNAUS whatsoever,” said Remski. “Often what happens with abuse scandals in the yoga world, especially with top-shelf teachers who traveled internationally, is their popularity or their social power remains strong — or it can even gain in strength in countries where the media penetration of this story has been low."

In the late 1980s, when sexual misconduct allegations first surfaced against Manos, the woman who accused him of groping her in 1986 wrote California Iyengar yoga leaders after she learned he would attend an upcoming 1990 convention in San Diego.

Bonnie Anthony, chair of the convention’s coordinating committee, replied in a May 7, 1990, letter, saying she was “willing to give him this one more chance.”

Anthony also noted that B.K.S. Iyengar wrote her in an April 14 letter that: "No doubt Manouso went wrong ... He promised me he would change and I have given him a chance. If he improves, he gains affection. If not, he looses (sic) the affection of his well-wishers as well as mine like dry leaf ... It is wrong to rake up and damage the one who wants to improve. If I hear again that he did not improve, he is closed for me forever.”

IYNAUS said in September no complaints of alleged improper touching of students by Manos (or allegations that he had sexual relations with students) had been filed against him from Jan. 1, 1992 through Jan. 1, 2018. (West filed her complaint against Manos in March 2018). The ethics committee separately said a complaint was filed against him in 2014 for "using inappropriate language with sexual connotations during a class," and B.K.S. Iyengar asked him to apologize for using "inappropriate and offensive language."

The accusations against Manos that B.K.S. Iyengar had received — about sexual misconduct that began in the 1980s — took two forms: sexual relationships with female students outside class, and inappropriate touching of students in class, according to IYNAUS president Carpenter, in a letter dated Sept. 12, 2018, to the membership.

These allegations were made before the formation of IYNAUS, Carpenter said, noting a committee was formed to investigate them: "Manos admitted to sexual relationships with his students, but denied the allegations of inappropriate and non-consensual touching in his classes and workshops."

In the wake of the KQED story last September, IYNAUS has also overhauled its policies and procedures regarding sexual misconduct and will now publicly say if a teacher has been suspended due to ethical violations, and will require all teachers and some others to take courses designed to prevent sexual misconduct.

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This story has been updated throughout to add comment from statements issued by the IYNAUS board of directors one week after the resignation of Manos from the organization, as well as new comment from Manos responding to the board.

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