At first, Liz Gawel enjoyed teaching at Down Under School of Yoga. She felt seen and supported at the Newton-based yoga studio, especially by owner Justine Wiltshire Cohen, whose frequent praise made her feel special.
“There was a lot of sun shining on me in the beginning,” she said.
Before long, though, the feel-good vibe turned toxic, Gawel said, and she watched Cohen berate staff members, sometimes until they cried. Eventually, Gawel grew desperate to leave, but it wasn’t that easy. Cohen required employees to sign a noncompete contract forbidding them to teach at any yoga studio, gym, or private residence near Down Under for a year after leaving.
“I couldn’t get out without jeopardizing everything, and Justine knew it,” said Gawel.
In May, two dozen former Down Under teachers and managers, calling themselves #BostonYogaUnites, posted a letter online demanding that Cohen do away with the contract, claiming it had caused “significant pain and heartache.” Twenty-five current and former owners of other independent studios publicly supported the campaign, citing yogic principles of Ahimsa (non-harming), Asteya (non-stealing), and Satya (truthfulness). It worked. Cohen scrapped the noncompete and apologized on Down Under’s website: “The employment agreement ... feels punitive, overreaching, and contains clauses that make people afraid. I’m embarrassed and I am very sorry.”
But getting rid of the contract wasn’t enough for some former employees. They accuse the prominent yogi — Down Under has three studios and is set to open two more — of being a bully whose management style is antithetical to the compassionate philosophy she espouses.
Cohen’s behavior was harsh and hurtful, according to more than a dozen former Down Under teachers and managers interviewed by the Globe. They’re calling attention to it, they say, to “prevent future harm” to the Boston yoga community.
Many current Down Under staffers disagree, however, and have come to Cohen’s defense. More than 35 teachers, including some who have worked with Cohen for a decade, sent a letter to the Globe stating that #BostonYogaUnites is waging a “cancel campaign.”
“We stand by Down Under, a successful female-owned business that has proudly made it through the pandemic and changed this industry for the better,” the letter reads.
Cohen herself acknowledges the problems the noncompete contract caused, but says her critics, many of whom now own or work for other yoga studios, are out to destroy her business.
“It’s very obvious what this is,” she said.
The rancorous back-and-forth has exposed a paradox in a world that strives to embody peacefulness. For all the dogma about mind/body harmony, yoga is a multibillion-dollar business worldwide, and perfecting the Tree pose doesn’t guarantee tranquility. Indeed, a number of teachers interviewed by the Globe describe yoga as an often hypercompetitive community — studios vying for teachers, teachers vying for students — rife with mistrust and backbiting.
While born out of spirituality, yoga has not been exempt from turmoil. As the ranks of its devotees have grown — an estimated 35 million Americans regularly do yoga — some high-profile purveyors of the ancient practice have been accused of acting like cult leaders, exploiting the trust and adulation of their followers. Bikram Choudhury, for example, the charismatic, Speedo-clad founder of the global “hot yoga” brand that bears his name, faced multiple lawsuits, ranging from sexual harassment to rape, before abruptly fleeing the United States in 2016. Likewise, Pattabhi Jois, the influential Indian teacher who developed Ashtanga yoga, was accused of sexual abuse by several women before his death in 2009.
In Boston, Baron Baptiste, a former Choudhury protege whose “power yoga” blends classic poses with an aerobic workout, operated successful studios in Cambridge and Brookline in the early 2000s. But legal wrangling over alleged misdeeds by Baptiste and his business partners — each claimed the other engaged in “unprofessional conduct with students and/or instructors” — took a toll, and Baptiste, whose celebrity clients included Raquel Welch and Tom Brady, sold his local studios.
Cohen eventually bought the Cambridge space once occupied by Baptiste. By then, she was already operating Down Under studios in Newton and Brookline, offering daily classes for the public, and also a 200-hour teacher-training course — cost: $3,500 — that’s proven to be popular with aspiring yogis.
From the outset, Cohen, a native Australian who started teaching yoga in a Newton church in 2004, says her goal was to create a different sort of studio, one devoted to the student experience, not to pioneering trendy new styles of yoga or hawking pricey yoga pants. In contrast to many studio owners, Cohen treats her staff as employees, not independent contractors; she matches retirement contributions and provides health insurance to anyone teaching at least 12 classes a week.
During a 90-minute interview in the basement of her Cambridge studio, Cohen sat barefoot and cross-legged on a cushion, her long hair fixed in two tight braids. She spoke quietly, but with a vehemence and precision characteristic of someone with her background: Cohen debated competitively in college and has a law degree from the University of British Columbia.
“The models I saw out there were mom-and-pop places where it’s total drama, backstabbing, instability, and no one can put bread on the table,” Cohen said, “and corporate places, exemplified by YogaWorks and CorePower, where you’re a widget in a larger shareholder-driven model.”
Her model has worked well enough to currently employ about 60 teachers and 10 managers, none of whom, she said, lost their jobs during the pandemic. While many other studios in Boston and around the country went out of business, Cohen said hers survived mostly because she was aggressive in tapping the federal Payment Protection Program, securing two loans totaling $770,000.
“It’s probably sheer willpower that got us through the pandemic,” Cohen said, choking up. “It’s fair to say I am a powerhouse of a leader.”
In conversation, Cohen uses words like “respect” and “authenticity” to describe her management style, but her critics are dubious.
“It’s interesting when you read Justine’s literature and all the things she says the studio stands for,” said Mary Wixted, one of Down Under’s earliest instructors. “Justine is the one who’s actually causing the drama,” said Wixted, “bullying, manipulating, and disparaging.”
Former Down Under teachers said they initially felt adored by Cohen. She was extravagant with praise, they said — characterized by some as “love bombing”; gave them flowers on their birthdays; promised them greater responsibility right away; offered to have her husband or nanny provide child care; and used words like “marriage” and “family” to describe the bond between studio and staff.
In addition, teachers say, meetings were often held in Cohen’s home, in a bedroom on the third floor of the 5,000-square-foot Victorian house in Newton she shares with her husband, Jeff, a lawyer, and the couple’s five children.
“She created a work environment so close and intimate within the first six months of knowing her,” wrote one former Down Under teacher, who asked not to be identified out of concern Cohen would retaliate against her. “Calling me her soulmate, musing about buying me the house for sale in her neighborhood.”
Looking back, several teachers say they believe they were coached by Cohen to be loyal and unquestioning. If they spoke up, they said, Cohen would criticize them, engaging in the sort of behavior that a nondisparagement clause in Down Under’s employee contract — prohibiting “gossip, bad mouthing or subtly undermining another teacher, the manager, owner” — sought to prevent. Cohen has since removed the clause.
“In this yoga world where health and wellness and truthfulness are supposed to be important, I felt like I’d been duped,” said Gawel, who started teaching at Down Under in 2014 and left a year later. “Many meetings veered into an uncomfortable place. Perceived shortcomings and personal lives were discussed openly, even if the person in question wasn’t at the meeting.”
Former teachers say Cohen would sometimes badmouth and belittle employees, occasionally in front of co-workers. They cite an incident when, in front of 40 colleagues and trainees, she chastised a trainee who was demonstrating how to teach a headstand.
Cori — she doesn’t want her last name used out of fear of retaliation — was present that day, and was so upset by Cohen’s outburst that she quit the training and wrote an e-mail to Natasha Rizopoulos, one of Down Under’s most senior and respected teachers.
“It was an unbearably awful moment to witness,” Cori wrote. “I’d honestly never seen such purposeful shaming in a professional setting before.”
But Bronwyn Kieve, who’s worked at Down Under since 2012, was also at that training, and she defends Cohen’s response.
“The truth is, teaching a headstand wrong is very dangerous. If [the teacher] felt sad about the critique, I’m sorry, but you’re in a teacher training and you got the answer wrong,” said Kieve. “I don’t think [Cohen’s reaction] was inappropriate, honestly.”
Cohen rejects claims that she has sometimes mistreated employees.
“I definitely demand excellence from everyone at Down Under and I don’t believe I have bullied anyone,” she said. “Like all owners of any small business, I often have to make difficult decisions that some of my employees do not like.”
In an e-mail to the Globe, Rizopoulos said she supports Cohen, adding that running a successful yoga studio can be challenging.
“Have there been bumps along the way? Inevitably, yes. Have some people felt bruised? Again, yes,” Rizopoulos wrote. “When I asked [Cohen] to consider her history with some of her detractors, she offered a comprehensive and full-hearted apology to those who felt harmed by her. This is true leadership.”
Cohen’s apology, posted on the Down Under website, reads: “I am deeply sorry for the hurt I caused and ashamed for not responding before now.”
Going forward, Cohen said, she’ll let others handle discipline and terminations. “I joyfully relinquish being the arbiter of codes of conduct,” she said, adding that she’s dealt with cases of alcoholism, drug addiction, and sex among employees in the past.
The Down Under teachers who support Cohen note that not only has the noncompete contract been eliminated, but Cohen allowed them to rewrite the studio’s employment agreement and it’s now more flexible.
Stephen Gresham, Down Under’s faculty director, acknowledges that Cohen “can be direct and, in some instances, hurt the feelings of others,” but he insists that #BostonYogaUnites’ characterization of her behavior is “incomplete and sadly skewed.”
The former teachers who are complaining “appear to want to drive away students, undermine the credibility of the school, intentionally hurt some faculty, and perhaps be in service of their own benefit,” Gresham wrote in an email.
Former Down Under instructor Einat Peled-Katz, who teaches now at JP Centre Yoga, Boston Yoga Union, and Artemis Yoga, said #BostonYogaUnites simply wants Cohen to treat teachers in a manner consistent with basic yogic principles.
“She hurt so many people,” Peled-Katz said. “If we’re willing to talk about it, maybe it will stop.”
But Cohen thinks her critics aren’t being truthful about their motivations.
“This is revenge dressed up as social justice,” she said.
Cohen believes Down Under has become one of Boston’s most successful yoga studios because of her determined leadership.
“I marry my people, for better or for worse.”