Yoga to the People’s Dark Secrets

It was a beloved chain, known for its accessibility and acceptance. But ex-employees say it felt more like a cult.

Photo: Jose Luis Pelaez Inc/Getty Images
Photo: Jose Luis Pelaez Inc/Getty Images
Photo: Jose Luis Pelaez Inc/Getty Images

For years, Yoga to the People billed itself as a different kind of yoga experience: Forget the expensive yoga mats, the designer leggings, the Instagram-ready studios, and the deified teachers; this was yoga stripped down to its essentials. The company emphasized accessibility and acceptance and fostered a sense of community that earned it a devoted legion of students and teachers at its studios across the country. “No ego no script no pedestals,” its website once read.

When the company abruptly shut down in early July, it seemed Yoga to the People was just another beloved business lost in its prime to the coronavirus pandemic. But according to former employees, behind the company’s shiny, friendly façade was a dark and dysfunctional workplace built on secrecy and manipulation. Their stories started coming to light just five days before Yoga to the People announced on its website that it was closing down for good. On an Instagram account called YttP Shadow Work, dozens of anonymous posts alleged widespread discrimination and misconduct. “I was told if I wore sexier clothes I would get to teach more classes,” reads one post. “At the end of the day, both black and brown people are being very abused here,” says another. Many of the posts have trigger warnings: “sexual misconduct,” “racial discrimination,” “body shaming,” “manipulation,” “suicide.”

Over the past three weeks, the Cut spoke to several former Yoga to the People employees who described getting sucked into an organization some portrayed as cultlike. Lured in by its affordability and welcoming atmosphere, employees said they quickly found themselves financially and emotionally dependent on a company that policed their appearance and behavior and exploited their labor. They described a company culture in which it was difficult to advance if you were not thin and white; grueling mandatory training sessions in which participants felt forced to publicly share their deepest personal traumas with their potential employers; low pay and unpredictable hours; and a mercurial, aggressive founder who regularly yelled at staff, who was feared and venerated by many in management, and who is, according to a Vice News investigation from July, an accused rapist who was frequently inappropriate with female employees. 

Now that the company has shuttered, blaming the coronavirus, many former YttP staff say they’ve been left without a sense of closure and are wondering how the dozens of allegations of misconduct may have figured into the decision. Some say they’re still fearful of retaliation from YttP leadership who remain influential in the yoga community. And although the business has closed its doors for now, some former employees expressed concern that those at the highest levels of the company will simply find new jobs and take YttP’s toxic culture elsewhere.

“This is yoga. This is supposed to be this healing practice,” said Brytta Byers, 26, a former YttP teacher in New York City. In reality, though, YttP “controlled your whole life.”

Greg Gumucio opened the first Yoga to the People studio on St. Mark’s Place in Manhattan’s East Village in 2006. It was a no-frills operation and proudly so. Classes were donation based (“Yoga is meant to help strengthen and stretch your arms and legs, not cost you one!” the company’s website once read), and students weren’t told which instructors would be teaching which classes. People were supposed to come for the yoga, not for the teacher — a philosophy Gumucio told the New York Times in 2010 he’d learned from Bikram Choudhury, the since-disgraced founder of the popular form of hot yoga known as Bikram yoga, who was Gumucio’s mentor and former employer.

Gumucio’s studio flourished, and by 2020 he had six spaces across the city as well as studios in San Francisco, Berkeley, Oakland, and Tempe, Arizona. “I truly believe if more people were doing yoga, the world would be a better place,” he told the Times.

Much of YttP’s appeal lay in the sense of community fostered there — or at least the veneer of it. Dedicated students were often scouted by staff and encouraged to sign up for YttP’s vinyasa teacher-training courses with the hopes that they would go on to become YttP instructors themselves.

Jill Bayne, 37, a former teacher and manager at YttP, said Gumucio taught her first class, back in 2008. She was immediately struck by his magnetic presence. “He was really nice to me,” she recalled. “He gave me a hair tie and made me feel special, and I just kept wanting to go back.” Bayne said that, as she started regularly attending YttP classes, she began to notice a cadre of women around Gumucio: “They were so beautiful and confident, and they spoke in a way that made me want to be a part of it.”

Even then, she said, there were mutterings about what happened behind the scenes at YttP. “I had heard rumors: ‘Stay away, don’t do the training, it’s a cult,’” says Bayne. “I was like, ‘Whatever, no it’s not.’” She signed up for a teacher-training course in 2009.

The vinyasa teacher-training sessions, known as TT, took place three times a year and were demanding, time intensive, and expensive: Each lasted ten weekends and cost somewhere between $2,500 and $3,200, depending on how early you signed up. TTs were generally composed of around 40 to 60 people, many of whom saw the training as a lengthy job interview. If you did well enough and were committed to the process enough, instructors implied, you’d soon be scheduled to teach YttP classes on your own.

It was a demanding, high-pressure environment, one that left students feeling strained and under constant scrutiny. Some said they felt pressured to adopt a restrictive vegan diet. “It started putting ideas into people’s heads that if you didn’t [go vegan], then you weren’t strong enough to be a yogi or you weren’t advanced enough,” said Sarah Thomas, 21, a former teacher and caretaker at YttP. The training was also emotionally and physically grueling.

Some employees compared TT to a conditioning of sorts. Although they enthusiastically signed up at the time, they now see it as a way to break them down, to make them more malleable to the whims and exploitation of YttP leadership.

The worst of it, many former teachers said, came a few weeks into the training: at a notorious session known as the Arm-Raising Weekend, a day participants repeatedly described to the Cut as “traumatic.” “Like, probably the most traumatic shit I’ve ever been through,” said one former teacher, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they worry that YttP leadership might reach out to their current employer or get them blackballed from other studios.

“I cried so much. I have never cried so much in my entire life,” Sophia Rouze, 24, a former YttP teacher, said of the experience.

The sessions would go like this: On the Saturday morning of Arm-Raising Weekend, one or more TT groups would meet, typically at the Upper West Side studio, YttP’s largest space in the city. The morning would be spent doing a dynamic meditation in which students were blindfolded and instructed to jump up and down, scream, and dance. In the afternoon, following a brief break, there would be an hour-long arm-raising session. One teacher trainer would stand on a bench facing the students and, over the course of an hour, guide them to raise and lower their arms — roughly half an hour up and half an hour down — in a strenuous and excruciatingly painful exercise. Participants described students crying and screaming during the arm raising, while more YttP instructors made their way through the crowd, encouraging students and, in some cases, helping them hold up their arms.

Immediately after the ordeal, arms aching, students were told to sit in a circle and share something they had never told anyone before. There was a strict choreography to the sharing circle: Each participant had to make eye contact in sequence with every other person in the circle, then repeat what the person before them had shared and then, finally, share their own secret. For example: “This is Naomi, and something no one knows about her is that she’s afraid of clowns. I’m Cindy, and something no one knows about me is that I’m gluten intolerant.” And so on and so forth.

Except, students say, the shares were rarely if ever that mild. The tone of the sharing circle was set by the teacher trainer who had guided the arm-raising exercise and who would share their secret first. “I don’t feel comfortable sharing what [the teacher trainer] said, but she said a very personal thing about herself,” Rouze recalled. “And then, because what she said was so dark and intense, it really felt like we had to match her level.”

Past participants recounted hearing students describe their mental-health struggles and physical and sexual abuse. They expressed their own overwhelming anxiety at having to share something personal in front of a group of up to 80 people, if multiple TTs were taking part in the exercise that day, and the stress of trying to choose a “secret” that was vulnerable enough to show they were committed to the training but not so dark that it could potentially affect how their future employers saw them.

The reasoning behind Arm-Raising Weekend was unclear. Some former students said they remember being told it was a way for future teachers to learn how to better hold space for emotions their students might experience during classes. Another said she remembers being told that vulnerable teachers are better teachers. Gumucio, students were told, loved the exercise. Two former students referred to it as a process of “trauma bonding.” (One post on the YttP Shadow Work page alleges that, after one arm-raising session in 2015, facilitators made a list of trainees’ names and what each of them had shared and sent it to YttP upper management.)

“I’m trying to understand why I submitted to this,” Nikki Palma, a 37-year-old who underwent the training, told the Cut. “But there’s a social pressure of having all of your people around you and having to be the one who walks out. And there’s also a power dynamic. It’s all of your bosses. And you get this feeling that … it’s good to be vulnerable if you want to be a teacher, so you have to do these things. And it’s just coercive.”

Multiple former YttP teachers mentioned one student in a 2018 TT who died by suicide shortly after her Arm-Raising Weekend. “I remember she had a young daughter, and she had her daughter very young. I remember her being like, ‘This is the first thing I’ve done for myself in so long,’” Palma said of the student. “I just can’t believe they continued to do arm-raising after that.”

After completing the ten weeks of YttP vinyasa teacher training, students would partake in an apprenticeship period in which they were expected to teach 25 classes for free. Students were not generally informed that they would be expected to teach for free until the very end of their training, and even after they completed their requisite 25 unpaid teaching hours, multiple teachers said they knew people who never ended up on the schedule, with no explanation.

For those who did make it onto the schedule, staying on it required constant jockeying to remain in management’s good graces. And the pay was low: Although YttP claimed it paid teachers $35 for an hour-long class, teachers said they were expected to show up half an hour before each class and stay half an hour afterward to clean up, meaning they were in reality working two hours per class, thus making only $17.50 per hour of labor. And because the scheduling process was so opaque, it was difficult for employees to plan how much income they could expect from week to week; management would change the schedule at random so students couldn’t come to specific classes in hopes of training with a certain teacher. This might have elided nicely with YttP’s mission, but it left teachers in the lurch: One week beforehand, they were expected to send their scheduling managers all of their possible availability for any given week and to remain available during those time slots, but sometimes instructors wouldn’t get word they’d be teaching a class until the night before or, in some cases, a few hours prior.

“They put this hold on you. You have to be financially dependent on them,” said the employee who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “You don’t have a life — especially if you’re getting 12 to 15 classes per week, or even more, and you don’t have a set schedule.”

Employees described a pervasive sense at YttP that if you didn’t look a certain way or behave agreeably enough, you would be punished. Navigating the strict company culture was particularly difficult for employees of color, who said they had to deal with offensive, ignorant comments from management. Sarah Thomas, a former YttP employee whose family is from India, said that she often felt tokenized and that she was asked twice to go to the house of Alena Wertalik, the director of East Coast operations for the company, to cook Indian meals for her and explain to her “authentic” Indian culture. (Wertalik did not respond to multiple requests for comment from the Cut.) Javier Daniel, a former manager at YttP’s 27th Street hot-yoga studio, said two Hispanic teachers told him separately that the studio’s co-owner had overheard them speaking Spanish together and told them, “This is America. You have to speak English here.” Three employees also pointed out to the Cut that, although there were few Black people in senior management positions, on multiple occasions Black staff were specifically asked to participate in, and were prominently featured in, the company’s promotional photo shoots.

The YttP Shadow Work account includes dozens of stories of employees and students of color facing discrimination from their bosses and colleagues. One poster who identified himself as a Black man, said that when he attended a friend’s class, a white teacher who was participating in but not teaching the class raced up to him and demanded to know whether he had paid for his mat, even though many white students in the class had taken mats without paying. Two posts recalled separate incidents of white teacher trainers telling a story about a Black woman donating money to the KKK. “The director of operations, who is a white cisgendered thin-bodied woman, glorified that action as a moment of ‘seeing one’s own hate that lives inside of them,’” read one.

Other employees said that they were scrutinized for not being thin enough and that managers and teachers talked openly and encouragingly about eating almost nothing. Palma, who identifies as fat, says Wertalik once invited her to do a training module that required going on a restrictive diet beforehand and avoiding animal products and processed food. At the training, Palma remembered, Wertalik said, “It’s okay to be a little hungry.”

“I remember being like, Why are you saying this to me?,” Palma said. “Knowing that I’ve had disordered eating in the past, knowing that I’ve heard other teachers talk in our trainings about having issues with disordered eating … having someone in authority say that to our group felt really problematic.”

She said another teacher told a parable about a monk who ate only bean sprouts every day, and when he finally “splurged” and ate peas with butter, he had an orgasm. A similar post on the Shadow Work page describes a master teacher talking to students about how little food their bodies needed and saying it was safe to eat only watermelon for days in a row. “I can’t even count the amount of times I had someone tell me not to eat, comment on my body, comment on my food choice as ‘not a yoga teacher’s, and even had a manager take food out of my hands before a hot class,” read another post. “I had so many friends tell me they never felt worse about their bodies before practicing at YttP.”

Often, employees said, they were too afraid to speak up. Those who did raise concerns about problems in the company said they were penalized — either by being verbally berated by management, removed from the schedule for weeks at a time, or both. This contributed to a culture of fear and secrecy and a clear message to employees: Don’t ask questions, and do as you’re told.

The tone was set at the top with Gumucio, workers said. Although staff said he spent most of his time in Colorado, several teachers I spoke with said his visits to New York City were stressful and disruptive. “You definitely saw fear in the managers when he was in town,” said Palma.

Gumucio was described as mercurial — jovial and charming one minute and drawing people in with his praise, only to suddenly flip and become aggressive and enraged the next. Sometimes he would wine and dine employees, taking them out to lavish restaurants and paying for expensive dinners, before inviting staff to hang out at his apartment until the early hours of the morning. At these dinners, drinks flowed freely, and the conversation often veered to the personal. Thomas said she was invited to one of Gumucio’s infamous dinners when she was only 19. Despite being underage, a fact she believes YttP staff knew, she was served several drinks. Gumucio, she said, kept asking her questions about her romantic relationship.

“I could see people around me giggling, laughing, getting more drunk,” she said. “I just straight up said, ‘I don’t want more alcohol’ … I was not really that happy.”

Gumucio could also be demanding and intimidating, and employees said this switch flipped regularly. Multiple people recalled him yelling frequently about trivial issues — technical difficulties with a projector, a light bulb being out in the bathroom, or dust in the studio. Managers were expected to be reachable no matter the time of day, and multiple former teachers described Gumucio calling staff in the middle of the night. They said they got the sense that it was a way of testing them to make sure they would pick up; if employees didn’t answer the phone, they said, they felt they ran the risk of being yelled at or having classes taken from them. Fear of being berated by Gumucio trickled down through the ranks at YttP, and teachers described managers asking them to work long hours and late nights for no extra pay ahead of his visits to make sure everything would be to his liking.

Staff were expected to cater to Gumucio’s every whim when he was around. Sometimes he and his wife, Haven, would drop in and teach classes without warning, taking a teaching spot — and income — from another teacher. Attending one of Gumucio’s classes while he was in the city was seen as a huge privilege for employees, even if YttP was an organization that theoretically shied away from the idea of star teachers — and even though he was known to yell at and inappropriately touch students in his classes.

“They were treated like gods,” said Thomas.

Though Gumucio’s shadow loomed large over YttP’s operations even when he was out of town, many employees described him as mysterious and elusive, and few knew much about his checkered past. As last month’s Vice News report found, Gumucio pleaded guilty to two felony charges in the ’80s — for forgery and motor-vehicle theft — and in August 2004, he was accused of rape in Kirkland, Washington, where he was working at the time. The police report, according to Vice, stated that the alleged victim said she met Gumucio through her mother, who took classes at his studio. After taking a job as a teacher at one of Gumucio’s hot-yoga studios, she told police, Gumucio called her over to his apartment; when she arrived, he opened the door nude, pinned her down, and raped her. When a police officer later reached out to the alleged victim for a follow-up, she did not respond to phone calls or to a certified letter. The case was closed in October 2004 “as exceptional status,” per Vice.

Years later, in New York, female teachers described Gumucio touching them inappropriately while making adjustments in yoga classes and at his dinners. Bayne described what she called a “harem” of attractive female teachers around him, and in 2010, she went to a YttP studio co-owner (the same person who was later accused of telling Latinx teachers to “speak English”) to express her concerns about rumors she was hearing regarding Gumucio’s inappropriate sexual relationships with certain teachers. Later that day, she told the Cut, she received a three-way call from the studio co-owner and Gumucio. On the call, she said, Gumucio did not deny her allegations and screamed obscenities at her, telling her that if she wanted to continue working for him, she couldn’t talk about him and that if she continued to talk about him, he would fire her. (Gumucio did not respond to multiple requests for comment from the Cut.)

“I know it sounds strange from the outside, but he controlled every aspect of our lives,” said Bayne. When she finally left YttP for good in 2012, after three years with the company, she said she was “a shell of herself.”

“I left. I just flew home to Colorado,” Bayne said. “I gave up everything that I had worked so hard for, because I was so traumatized. My eating disorder was worse than it had ever been; I was the sickest I’ve ever been, the most depressed … I had nothing.”

Over the past few weeks, as all these allegations of manipulation, abuse, and misconduct at YttP have emerged, former employees have found themselves wrestling with feelings of shame, anger, guilt, grief, and fear that a space that had at first been so inviting and important to them had become a space of pain and abuse for so many.

The former employee who spoke on the condition of anonymity said they wish they had left YttP earlier, but fear kept them in their position for years. “They mess with your psyche,” they said. “They made it seem like you won’t survive anywhere else.”

It isn’t clear what consequences, if any, YttP leadership will face in light of these allegations, or if they plan to revive the company. On July 31, two former YttP teachers texted the Cut to point out that the Yoga to the People Instagram account, which had briefly been deactivated, was back up, although the last post was made on July 7. In the meantime, those speaking out in the press and on Instagram hope that, in doing so, they can help those who suffered at YttP find some measure of peace.

“I’m so glad that there’s finally a platform for people to share their stories,” said Rouze. “Frankly, it’s about time. So many years of abuse and manipulation — it’s incredible that this organization was able to stay around this long.”

Yoga to the People’s Dark Secrets