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 the police the next time she came to the coffee shop.
When the quarantine began, one of the longest-serving teachers at Pilgrimage of the Heart studio who lead the Yoga Teacher Training for years, Nikole Fortier, shared social media posts with conspiracy theories about coronavirus, vaccines, and masks.
The incidents are part of a wider discussion in the yoga community about the direction of a practice that has roots in social justice, but in the U.S. has turned into a $17 billion industry.
San Diego yoga professionals say 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 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,” said yoga teacher Karen O’Lone.
At Pilgrimage of the Heart, a North Park and Normal Heights-based studio with a zero-tolerance policy, former students of Fortier and current colleagues reached out to her to ask for sources for her controversial theories and were given YouTube videos tied to QAnon. People who argued with her were told they did not have an open mind.
Fortier 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 okay,’” 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,” Cohen said.
Despite these conversations, Cohen said that 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 denials and racism from her private Instagram and Facebook accounts. She posted about George Soros, the truth about Hitler, ‘mental slavery,’ and Aunt Jemimah.
Fortier was not included in the reduced class schedule and is no longer listed as an instructor on the Pilgrimage website. People who contacted the management of the studio about Fortier’s behavior were ignored. They wondered if she had been quietly let go and felt that 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 them 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 about Fortier’s posts 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,” McKeever 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.”
One of the only ways to fire someone for social media posts under California law is if someone says they are speaking on behalf of their employer. Fortier uses her authority as a guru to try and turn others to her beliefs but has not claimed to speak as a representative of Pilgrimage in posts shared with San Diego Community Newspaper Group.
“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. When pressed, Fortier says her intentions are pure and she does not mean to hurt anyone.
“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 tend 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,” 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 the community together who oppose each other to maintain the 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.
RACE AND WORKPLACE EXPLOITATION
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 the issues of race and workplace exploitation. For this report, San Diego Community Newspaper Group viewed internal emails, social media posts, and conducted several phone interviews.
The owner of Riffs Yoga Studios, Steve Hart, sent an email to staff on June 4 about how he had been listening to people of color while trying to formulate how as a white man he could best respond. The following day, an email was sent to members of the studio stating a commitment to anti-racism with several goals including creating a safer space for BIPOC, maintaining a zero-tolerance policy for racism, staff training, 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 mismarketed 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 San Diego Community Newspaper Group.
One of those teachers who quit was one of the few people of color employed at the studio that has locations in La Jolla, Bird Rock, and Ocean Beach. He was not included on the limited class schedule as the studio gradually reopened but found out a teacher who had been with the studio for a shorter period than him, and had only been a substitute before the coronavirus, 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 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 woman described receiving low pay as a yoga director and not being allowed to clock in for attending classes led by other teachers each week that were a job requirement. Her hours were capped at 25 hours per week, which meant she did not receive health insurance. She also did not get paid for any shifts missed.
Then, she was hit by a car while bicycling from Riffs after teaching a class on her way to another job. She broke her clavicle in the collision but went back to teaching classes the very next day because management did not find a substitute for her or grant basic requests like changing locations to a studio closer to her home. After a weekend of working in pain without medication because she was afraid of the side effects interfering with her job, a manager finally let her go home after she begged to be released.
Since she could no longer attend the unpaid classes, the woman was informed she would be losing her job. While Riffs searched for a replacement, she worked for two more weeks after the injury.
Later, when she was reaching a settlement with the driver, Hart ignored her and her lawyer’s requests for him to fill out a loss of wages form, claiming her job loss was not tied to her injury.
Another former teacher shared that she was repeatedly harassed by 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 with the issue, she remembers him telling her to take care of the issue of herself and that it was a burden to him. The student was not banned until he began sending emails to Hart.
Also, when going through a mental health crisis, management repeatedly made her feel like she was letting them down because she could not pull herself together.
Kendra Sitton can be reached at [email protected].