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Diana Whitney makes a statement at the March 8 International Women’s Day rally in Brattleboro. Whitney is facing the threat of a lawsuit after speaking out about a local yoga practice while the #MeToo movement was unfolding last December.

Special Focus

#ThemToo

Last December, more than 50 women weighed in on a Facebook discussion, and many claimed injury and inappropriate conduct by a Brattleboro yoga instructor. When #MeToo hits a small town, nobody is left unscathed.

This Special Focus was reported and written over the last three months by MacLean Gander and Shanta Lee Gander, with additional reporting and editing by Jeff Potter.

BRATTLEBORO—For as long as a decade, women in town talked in whispers about a local yoga teacher whom women should avoid. The hidden conversation included unconfirmed — and often unconfirmable — stories of injury and sexual impropriety.

On Dec. 3, 2017, as the #MeToo movement erupted on the national scene, Diana Whitney, a local writer and teacher of yoga, posed a question on a Facebook post.

“I can’t stop thinking about the men who violate sexual boundaries, both in public and in private,” Whitney wrote on a post. “As a yoga teacher and student, I wonder — where is #MeToo in the yoga world?”

Citing “a long history of male yoga gurus who have used their spiritual power to dominate and abuse women,” Whitney asked: “Women, have you ever experienced inappropriate behavior from a male yoga teacher?”

“Let’s all come forward and share our stories in order to hold perpetrators accountable and create real change,” she urged.

Within mere days, the responses and comments accumulated more than 500 comments and 22,000 words from more than 50 contributors — almost all of them women who have lived or still live in Windham County — even though the post was restricted from full public access.

The discussion turned quickly to the general question of the abuse of power within the larger yoga community, and many focused on a specific individual in Brattleboro — first by allusion, and then by naming yoga teacher Peter Rizzo and his studio, Bhava Yoga, on the second floor of 21 Elliot St.

Whitney was not the first to write about the topic — a least one former student, Sarah Dandelions, a local yoga teacher, had made public accusations about Rizzo. But it took the #MeToo movement to get it started.

At least six of the more than 50 women who participated in the online discussion, including Whitney, charged that Rizzo’s hands-on approach to yoga caused them or others close to them physical injury.

Others jumped in, referencing behavior ranging from what charitably could be described as questionable to out-and-out allegations of verbal abuse. Almost all the women expressed support and solidarity.

Rizzo steadfastly, adamantly, and resolutely denies the claims of inappropriate behavior and any wrongdoing.

Whitney, a member of the steering committee of Brattleboro’s Woman’s Action Team, a group dedicated to social justice for women, contacted The Commons and forwarded the Facebook thread.

She has steadfastly insisted that the thread was a reflection of women speaking their truth, inspired by the #MeToo movement, where women began posting stories about rape, sexual abuse, domestic violence, and workplace trauma to online services like Facebook and Twitter.

Four months have passed since Whitney’s initial Facebook post, which she said was created with one goal: to help others avoid harm.

In that time, individuals who had publicly liked Bhava Yoga’s Facebook page were contacted by individuals within the Brattleboro Women’s Action Team to boycott his practice. A teacher who had contracted with Rizzo to use the Bhava space for her own classes was pressured to cut business ties.

Bhava Yoga is still a going concern in downtown Brattleboro, although Rizzo said the social-media boycott appeal has had an effect on his practice.

For these women, the experience amounted to a wave of female strength and solidarity and pride and activism, an exercise in finding their voices — and, in so doing, transforming the whisper network to a primal scream.

For Whitney and Sarah Dandelions, the former student who first spoke publicly, their actions have resulted in the threat of a lawsuit for defamation.

‘Pain processed through love’

The story takes place in a yoga practice that many people have found helpful, even exhilarating. Online reviews of Peter Rizzo’s classes have often been glowing, and even some of those who have come to confront him with allegations will say that they were taken by his energy and intensity. The sources who talked for this story routinely used the word “guru,” though Rizzo himself rejects the term.

“I have taken his class for almost three years, and he is a treasure,” said Tracy Snow, a current student. “He is old school, which is personally what I am always looking for in a teacher.”

Rizzo’s approach to “assists” has often been cited as a core element behind injuries in his practice.

Several individuals explicitly stated that they were injured when they studied with him. Others said that they believed that injury was common in Rizzo’s practice. Yet even some students who described their injuries still returned.

Willow O’Feral, a local documentary filmmaker and one of the steering committee members of the Women’s Action Team, told The Commons that she “can’t even talk about him to any group of people without someone else coming forward and being like, Oh, yeah, this happened to me or this happened to my friend.”

The claim of injury is one that Rizzo does not deny. “People get injured practicing yoga,” he told The Commons. “Injuries happen.” (See sidebar.)

“Pain processed through love becomes medicine,” he said.

One source for The Commons won a substantial injury settlement for harms she had experienced at Bhava Yoga.

Many sources have spoken of Rizzo’s personal magnetism and the sort of “guru power” that he exerts.

Some sources have also suggested that Rizzo’s bearing and demeanor are sometimes sexually inappropriate in his classes, and that he also has transgressed unspoken moral boundaries — or widely accepted protocol in educational settings — when it comes to sexual relationships with his students.

Rizzo has refuted these claims strongly, and no one has made a criminal claim against him in Vermont. He emphasizes that he conducts his classes in a circle, not in rows, and says that anyone can see what he is doing.

Since December, Rizzo has had his students choose one of three cards — green (“yes”), yellow (“maybe, but ask”), or red (“no, thanks”) — to signify what level of assists they want.

Rizzo has changed how he approaches the question of what are called “assists” or “adjustments” within yoga practice — actions where the teacher places his hands on a student to help them achieve a proper position.

Imminent legal action?

At press time, Rizzo’s lawsuit against Sarah Dandelions and Diana Whitney (see sidebar) has not yet been filed.

In draft documents — marked “for negotiation” — and shared with Whitney’s lawyer, Michael S. Lewis of Rath Young Pignatelli, Rizzo claims “defamatory statements” against both women and alleges “substantial financial losses” at Bhava Yoga because of the public discourse provoked by the two women.

In a response to the filing, Lewis wrote to Contino: “Your client’s ill-advised, threatened lawsuit does not change her position on the matter. It steels her resolve.”

Lewis told Contino that Whitney “is not interested in demands scripted right out of Trump’s playbook on how to silence social justice movements.”

Whitney has made her position clear in several interviews with The Commons.

“I am a feminist activist, and I do that work in a number of different ways in our community, and beyond,” Whitney said. “Through my writing, through being a founding member of the Women’s Action Team…this is a part of my life now.

Whitney described that activism as “a hundred percent of what led to the Facebook post.”

On April 13, Whitney received word from her attorney that Rizzo would soon be filing the lawsuit that stemmed from her Facebook post.

And she did it again.

Her new Facebook post about the legal threat against her brought dozens more posts and comments.

For his part, Rizzo says that the main intention of threatening the lawsuit is his hope for an open discussion — a goal that Whitney has roundly rejected. Rizzo had offered to sit face to face with those accusing him, a scenario that the women’s action team has described as re-traumatizing.

“I am willing to come talk, and they are not,” said Rizzo. “I would like my name cleared.”

‘I want him to stop hurting people’

For some of the women who describe injuries from Rizzo’s adjustments, the new red-yellow-green card system comes too late.

Dandelions — a longtime Bhava student and, for approximately one year, an instructor there — asserts that she was injured by Rizzo in her first class eight years ago.

“In a posture [sitting in a loose Lotus position], he dumped all his weight onto my upper back,” she said. “My intercostal muscle was hurt — it was a muscle, not a rib.”

She also talked being shamed in one class. “He told everyone to look at me, said she’s lost weight,” she said. “I just literally sat there and froze. No one stood up for me.”

Suzanne Kingsbury, a longtime local writer and teacher who recently relocated to Connecticut, spent time in Rizzo’s sessions at Bhava Yoga and says she, too, was physically injured.

“He stepped on my back and pulled my shoulders,” she said, “and you are in this weird thing, very intense with the music blaring.”

Kingsbury described her experience of the class, which she took a number of years ago.

“Essentially, he paid a lot of attention to me,” she said, “doing assists and so on to the exclusion of the other students, just focusing on me. He would give me a massage and ask me to stay after.”

“The yoga class was very compelling, with intense music, like an endorphin high, almost like an addiction,” said Kingsbury.

“Then people started getting hurt. It dawned on me finally that this was toxic, and I stepped away.”

One woman described her own experience in detail, an injury that she experienced in 2012 and that took her two months to recover from.

“I was lying down in a difficult back bend called ‘reclined hero pose,’” she said. “Peter came over and stood on my thighs. He is what I would say over 6 feet tall and about 200 pounds, and he came and stood on my thighs for a while, which completely immobilized me.”

“I didn’t feel pain, but I felt a pretty intense pressure in my lower back,” she said, noting that in yoga circles, this adjustment is known as “being put on the rack.”

“So then he stepped off after standing for a while on my thighs,” she continued. “[He] walked around behind me, and pulled my arms out over my head, put them on his ankles and basically did a ‘downward dog’ over me to stretch me out — that’s the key ‘put on the rack’ part — with his full weight.”

“Again, it wasn’t acute pain, it was like a twinge and like a pressure, and then by that evening it had really flared into a sacrum injury,” she added. “It was at least two months in which I wasn’t able to practice yoga.”

“I’ve heard these stories for years and did nothing about them except stay away, and while acknowledging they were hearsay, encouraged others to practice elsewhere,” Kevin O’Keefe, a local yoga teacher, wrote on the thread as one of the few male participants.

“We are all conditioned for as many as 20 years as students to obey our parents, teachers, and any other authority figure,” O’Keefe told The Commons in an email statement that elaborated on his comments online.

“When difficult situations arise it is common to be caught off guard, give people the benefit of the doubt, or simply ignore them or not want to be the squeaky wheel,” said O’Keefe, who cautioned against a why-didn’t-you-say-something-at-the-time response.

“Given what I am hearing, a more conscious and responsible yoga teacher might have steered away from any assists a long time ago,” he said. “These waters are murky and deep. For the health of all involved, it is good to clarify them and for the conversation to continue.”

For another former student, injuries suffered in the one class she took from Rizzo resulted in a medical case settled for $55,000, compensating for $28,000 of expenses she had documented and future medical needs.

“At the beginning of the class in which he injured me, I told him point-blank that I had an old back injury that both he and I needed to be aware of and careful of,” she said. “He was dismissive of this information, but I didn’t realize at the time that his dismissiveness could lead to his injuring me.”

Rizzo “was pushing me in a position and it was hurting me,” she said. “I told him that it hurt, and he did not stop or let up on his pressure at all. So I finally said, straight out, ‘I want you to stop.’ He acted surprised and actually said, ‘You want me to stop?’ I said yes, and he stopped.”

“I thought that that interaction had made it clear that he needed to back off in general,” she said.

After she was injured, she called Rizzo, who “essentially blamed me for my injury and offered to ‘work’ with me one-on-one free of charge in order to help heal it,” she claimed.

“I got so angry, because I had been clear with him,” she said. “And he had ignored and overridden my knowledge of my body and my clearly stated boundaries.”

“I just want to tell you what the injury was that he caused,” she said. “I had told him I had an old injury and he needed to be careful, and then I was in this position.”

She went on to demonstrate a yoga position that resembles a sort of cross-legged, loose posture, sitting on the floor, with the left lower leg stacked on top of the right lower leg.

“I was learning forward like that, and I was very familiar with the position,” she said. “He got down on his knees behind me and he put his arms over me so that they were along mine and his head was right here, and I couldn’t really breathe very well because his weight was almost all on me, and I was like, ‘This is weird; no one has ever done this before, and I hope he gets up soon.’”

She asserted that he didn’t ask permission to perform this assist.

“Then he pulled my arms out, and I went flat to the ground, and then he said, ‘Now forgive someone,’” she said. “Because that’s a posture where in your hips they say in yoga is where you hold things, and so that posture is a place where if you were holding and you could get a release there. So that was with me — that violation was with me. It just makes me so sad....”

“A teacher’s position in yoga,” she said, “especially in yoga, where you trust someone and want to be exploring here... so....”

Her voice failed as she began to weep.

“I want him to stop hurting people,” she said. “That’s what I would love to see happen.”

‘I am also not pretending to be a eunuch’

A number of sources for this story, as well as on Facebook, suggested that Rizzo’s assists during class, and his actions after class, have broken sexual boundaries between a teacher and his students.

Many allegations regarding a physically inappropriate dimension to Rizzo’s practice involve inappropriate posture, scanty dress that exposes him, and touching that can seem sexual in nature, such as fondling, all of which stem from his approach to assists.

Rizzo categorically rejected all these allegations in an interview with two Commons reporters in the presence of his attorney.

“I’m not touching people for my satisfaction,” he said. “That happens in a whole different realm, and I am also not pretending to be a eunuch.”

Emily Shapiro is not a yoga teacher. She is a younger woman who practiced yoga with Rizzo at various points in the last decade.

“I wish my story was clean and clear and cut-and-dried, but it’s messy and leaves me embarrassed and doubtful,” she said.

For a number of months, she had been attending Rizzo’s classes several times a week, when one day after class he invited her to his house for a swim.

“I now see this as his first abuse of power,” said Shapiro.

“I wasn’t that young, but I guess I was a little naive and stupid and flattered and I accepted,” she said. “I went to his house, and we did go for a swim and then it turned into something else. He came on to me strong, and I just went along with it.

“In the back of my mind, I knew this was wrong,” Shapiro said, “but he was someone I had respected, and we ended up going out a few times over the course of the next couple weeks.”

“I called it off,” said Shapiro.

“After I told Peter I wanted to stop seeing him, he waited outside my work one night. When I got off he confronted me in the parking lot and tried to convince me to continue.”

“I’m not sure how the situation escalated, but he ended up forcibly unbuttoning my dress and kissing me,” said Shapiro. “I managed to extricate myself somehow and spent many shaky minutes in my car before I could drive home.”

“I have decided I will go on the record,” Shapiro said simply.

Despite this event, Shapiro (“stupidly,” she said) subsequently attended Russo’s classes.

“During one of his classes, he assisted me under my leggings in downward dog pose,” she said. “On another occasion he injured my rib; I wasn’t sure if it was a fracture or a break.”

For his part, Rizzo acknowledges that he had a brief, consensual affair with Shapiro, who he described as a “nut case” and a stalker.

But he strenuously and categorically denies that he ever accosted her in any way.

“Emily had a consensual affair with me, yes,” he said. “Nothing ever happened, ever. Nothing happened in the parking lot. I never unbuttoned her dress. I never accosted her. Our relationship was over at that point, and that was fine with me.”

Another former student practiced yoga and worked with Rizzo on and off since he managed a studio in New York City.

“He is a very singular kind of teacher,” she said. “I loved Bhava Yoga. Nobody teaches class like Peter does. His sequencing is really intelligent — it really is truth in advertising, and it was a practice I could use.”

“I’ve known Peter for 20 years,” she said. “He is unusual — I find him an odd person and excellent yoga teacher. I don’t think it is a power thing — yoga is a transformative experience, and he provides an experience that elevates you.”

“I’m not going to defend him,” she said. “But I’ve never had a problem in working with him.”

Lisa Mendelsund, a yoga teacher who knew and worked with Rizzo in New York, said that similar rumors and allegations have dogged him through his career.

“And I always believed the allegations were credible,” she said.

Through happenstance, both Mendelsund and Rizzo ended up in Brattleboro, and she eventually shared studio space for her own separate practice.

She describes Rizzo as “a very, very imposing, domineering, opinionated person” with “a terrible sense of boundaries.”

“There’s room for me to care about Peter and to feel that he’s absolutely culpable of these allegations and probably should be [prohibited from teaching yoga],” said Mendelsund, who was deeply troubled about what she called the “bandwagon effect” of people litigating their experiences in the public forum.

She said that her concerns about acknowledging the effects on innocent bystanders — namely, Rizzo’s children — were met with accusations that she was a “silencer.”

Open secrets

“Anyone who is paying attention to the impact and effects of #MeToo is on a huge learning curve about a nationwide ‘open secret,’” said Lisa Kuneman of Guilford, who works locally as a therapeutic teacher.

“For many, #MeToo is the first time our culture has said, explicitly, that maintaining terrible and worsening statistics about women’s status through a practice of excusing the transgressions of people in authoritative positions is going to be challenged,” she said.

“It makes sense that in this circumstance, these women would find enough courage to get together and make a bad situation public,” said Kuneman.

“Sensing a potential for feeling heard goes a long way toward making this possible. #MeToo is rendering victims of a certain category of aggression visible for the first time. This feels safer than expecting to be blamed for the aggression or expecting to be accused of seeking revenge.”

One local observer who was aware of this story long before it became public and sometimes took classes at Bhava, but not with Rizzo, wondered about how a community heals itself within such a polarized context.

“As a result of my support as a Bhava customer, I have been getting pressured by a broadcast email to more than 50 people to boycott,” she said. “I worry that this may become a situation that includes elements of the oppressed becoming the oppressor.”

“All I can say is that I hope the community comes to some resolve,” she said. “I hope that everyone involved can talk to each other — not come together to tell campfire tales, but I think any individual has a right to hear what people are saying, directly.

“And the individuals who are feeling all this pain, they have a right to address this directly. The question is how. It is all extremely complicated.”

‘What happened here?’

And that may be the largest question: how to address harms or perceptions of harms that take place within a small community that holds high ideals for itself, and how to help those who claim to have been harmed be seen and heard.

In his first letter warning two of the women to refrain from speaking about Rizzo, the yoga teacher’s attorney, Rick Contino, characterized the women’s descriptions of their experiences with Rizzo as “completely baseless and vicious lies.”

The attorney proposed a meeting where Rizzo would face his accusers and directly discuss their concerns.

“I am willing to be accountable to anybody. I am willing to talk to any student, and with anyone they want to bring with them. I am willing to sit with any mediator, and to sit in any company whatsoever, and be accountable. I have no problem with that.”

One of two women refused Contino’s proposal, while the other didn’t respond, Rizzo said.

One of the biggest questions that many have asked is why so many individuals felt for so long that they could not speak openly what they experienced or witnessed — the truths that they now unambiguously stand behind.

And one question that perhaps that can never fully be answered is how this constellation of injuries could remain publicly unacknowledged for so long in such a small town.

In so many ways, this story is a microcosm of what is playing out on the national stage: behavior that goes unacknowledged for years, even decades, because the people affected face personal complications or even legal action.

“The biggest question is the nature of our community,” said Suzanne Kingsbury. “You can’t talk about this without talking about denial. What happened here? How did this happen here?”

What do they want?

The transformation from whispers to shouts has brought its share of consequences.

People who have been close to Rizzo point to concerns about his family in the area and especially his children. One relative is embittered with Whitney and the “viciousness” with which the events unfolded.

“There are a lot of wounded, complicated people involved,” she said, imploring The Commons to refrain from asking further questions.

For others, the end game is about reflection, learning, figuring out resolution, and possible communal healing.

Sarah Dandelions shared that she has been working through a lot of guilt.

“I brought people into his studio,” she said. “I encouraged women to attend his classes.”

“I just want a yoga culture and community with zero tolerance,” she said.

For Whitney, one of the resonances and purposes in her willingness to advance this story has been her mother’s own experience at the hands of a guru-like figure in the 1960s, a man named Ira Einhorn.

She says Einhorn almost killed her mother in 1966.

Whitney’s mother did not report the crime — she felt afraid and silenced as a young woman.

In 1977, Einhorn did kill an ex-girlfriend. He fled to Europe and was finally extradited from France in 2001 after 23 years. He is serving a life sentence in the United States.

Rizzo said that the climate in his classroom has been changing and that there are some things he previously did not realize about his practice.

“I have been educating myself,” Rizzo said. “I have been reading books about trauma and yoga, and traumatized people. I can very easily see how somebody can misunderstand what I’m doing in the classroom, if I’ve touched them with my hands, for example.

“I have changed what I do in the classroom, and I realize now, and I didn’t realize this before, that there are people who could take serious offense at what I do. I could be really hurting people or scaring people without realizing it. I feel horrible about that and I am aware of that now.”

Rizzo, contacted this week, said that if anybody has been injured by him or feels like they have been improperly touched, it was not his intention: “I would say I am really sorry. I would really want to be more careful about that in the future.”

Asked directly, most of the women interviewed for this story said that they would like the truth to be told and for the injuries to stop. Many would like to see Bhava Yoga shut down.

In a current culture and climate that might inspire an ease of having these kinds of discussions online, or through an informal networking of friends and loved ones, does this situation perhaps encourage the community to seek ways of talking directly to one another?

O’Feral pointed out that Brattleboro’s community has been doing so — but to a point, and in secret — for a decade.

“When we know something, when we all know something, why aren’t we doing something about it?” she asked. “What is that thing that we could do?”

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Originally published in The Commons issue #455 (Wednesday, April 18, 2018). This story appeared on page D1.

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