Open Letter to Elena Brower

CW: spiritual and emotional abuse

A photo from the first time I met Elena Brower at Wanderlust Stratton in 2013

Hi Elena,

t’s taken me five years to write this letter to you. In that time, I’ve started several drafts and then given up because I feared no one would believe me or you and your rich friends would find ways to delegitimize me. Both fears will likely come true to some degree, but no one can take away what is true to me and that’s what I’m about to share. This letter might be addressed to you, but it isn’t for you as much as it’s for me and the other people who have been harmed by you. We deserve to be seen. It’s important that you know that I have no attachment to the outcome. I know that other people have challenged you and your choices in the last few years and your response has been to play the victim and shirk accountability, so I’m not expecting your response to this to be any different. I know I’m taking a big risk by posting this and this feels pretty scary, but it was you who told me and the rest of your Art of Attention students that feeling scared means you’re about to do something amazing. So here’s to being amazing.

When I first heard your name in 2012, I was your standard, low-earning, spiritually-bypassing white woman yoga teacher; culturally appropriating a practice that wasn’t mine. I was naively altruistic and a survivor of abuse who thought therapy was for people who didn’t have it as bad as I did. I was desperate for community and would do anything to belong.

Your posts on Instagram, and your engagement with my comments and messages made me feel seen in ways I hadn’t yet been seen. You seemed to exude magic and light and appeared to have this uncanny knack for seeing love in a world that wanted to stamp it out. I painted you pictures and mailed you love notes. I wanted so badly to be included in your seemingly inviting and loving circle.

So I did what I’m sure many before me and after me have done. Under your influence, I signed up for every training I could afford. And when I couldn’t afford it, I took out personal loans from my bank to make it possible. I tried to sell Pangea Organics Skin Care and DoTerra as your downline. I failed, but failure is built into the success of every MLM framework, so this shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone. I found proof of a minimum of $6,400 spent on trainings, flights to the trainings, lodging while at the trainings, Pangea Organics and DoTerra starter kits and marketing materials. I also spent countless unpaid hours promoting your work, studying your teachings, emulating your verbiage and evangelizing your offerings. I didn’t earn enough as a teacher or in your downline to pay off any of these costs, and I don’t personally know anyone who did. I’m not writing this because I want my money or time back, I made peace with those losses a long time ago. I’m writing this because I know I’m not alone.

In 2013, I applied to be a part of your Art of Attention teacher training at Virayoga, which closed shortly after the training ended, under claims that it was no longer profitable (even though you had just completed a 33-person training that cost $3,300 per person. That’s $108,900 for those of us who hate both math and capitalism). When I was accepted, I was overjoyed. I felt I had gotten my coveted invitation to your inner circle and was about to step into a new life. Both were true, but not in the ways I had hoped.

Thanks to your encouragement and your reference, in 2014, I moved from Minneapolis to NYC to work for a company that paid me less than what I made back home and demanded double the work while my cost of living quadrupled. It felt like a dream come true at the time, but when I reflect on the negative impact this had on my financial, psychological and physical health, I wonder how much better off I would be if I had made a different choice and just stayed put in Minneapolis.

The rest of this letter serves to remind you of some of the ways you have caused harm. This harm is tricky and insidious because it’s emotional and psychological. But as we know, emotional harm affects the same part of the brain as physical harm. I’m doubtful you will remember most of this, but I’m going to ask anyway.

you remember when I had an anxiety attack during the Art of Attention teacher training in 2014? I was in the back of the room, trying to calm myself down quietly and you saw that my attention wasn’t on you. So you yelled in a stern voice for me to come to the front of the room. I said, “No. I don’t want to.” And you said, “Come here, right now.” I don’t know what I thought you would do if I didn’t listen to you, but I sat next to you and you told me to turn my head to the left (?) and breathe. I obeyed. You gently put your hand on my back, which is a confusing thing to do to someone after yelling at them when they are already very dysregulated. You continued to lecture as I sat there in front of 30+ women, and dissociated. No one spoke up for me. Everyone seemed to revel in awe at your perceived magic because they all thought you calmed me down, not knowing I had just unhinged myself from reality in order to keep myself safe. You used me as a prop. You didn’t ask me what I needed, you assumed to know and you were wrong, but it didn’t matter because you were perceived in a way you wanted to be, and that seems to be more important to you than the harm you caused.

Do you remember when I asked to talk with you on the phone to ask for advice about my boss at the job you helped me get in NYC? He had been sexually harassing me and I wasn’t sure how to navigate it without losing my job. I also wanted to tell you about something you had done that had made me uncomfortable. At that point, I was under the impression that you were open to this sort of feedback. I tried to use a conflict resolution tool you taught me from the “life coaching” entity Handel Method, but as you may recall, it backfired.

The weekend prior, I was in savasana in one of your classes at Virayoga, and your partner was next to me. For those of you who haven’t been to a packed, NYC yoga studio, that means he was less than 5 inches from me. As I lay there resting, I heard soft moans of pleasure, whispers of love and kissing noises. I didn’t open my eyes, but I went stiff. I felt too close to this type of intimacy and it felt very inappropriate, even if it was consensual between the two of you. Do you remember what you said when I told you I felt uncomfortable? You shouted at me, again, over the phone that day. You said, “You asked for this, Tatum. You wanted more love in your life and you got it and now you can’t do anything but complain. You need to learn to see things for what they are.” I quickly apologized.

Do you remember when I asked you how much to charge for my private yoga sessions? $150-$200, you said. “What about the students I have who can’t afford that?” I asked. You scoffed, “What about them?” What a strange thing to say when you speak so often about the importance of all the money and resources you (and DoTerra) donate.

Speaking of weird money things, you always talked about us knowing our worth and not doing things for free or cheap, and I realized too late that that rule didn’t apply to the work we did for you. I was your assistant during several classes at Virayoga and Wanderlust for free. I was the social media manager for Virayoga and I was given one class to teach there, just 6 months before you closed its doors. I was underpaid for both. You must have known that because you wrote me a $200 check once and said, “This is for everything.” I feel like “everything” costs more than that, but I got a personal check from Elena Brower so I was riding high. I thought my proximity to you was enough payment and that someday you would thank me publicly and promote me and help me get where I wanted to be as a teacher. That didn’t happen. Not to me anyway.

Throughout all of these incidents, I continued to attend your classes whenever I could. I sang your praises on the internet. As an abuse survivor, nothing you were doing was as bad as what I’d experienced in my church or within my family structure. If anything, it was familiar and comfortable, but not as bad. Plus, you taught me that every challenge I faced was something that I chose. I chose my family, I chose the abuse, and I chose it because I had something to learn. What terrible victim-blaming thing to say to a vulnerable, tender woman in her late 20s and early 30s, who prostrated herself before you. It’s taken years of therapy for me to fully accept that none of that was my fault.

I started to get a sense that this wasn’t all it was cracked up to be when I failed to do anything profitable with those oils, and yet DoTerra became the topic of every call I had with you. I remember asking you for advice about acupuncture school and you told me which school to attend and that I must sell DoTerra if I want to be able to afford it.

In 2016, I had my second-to-last conversation with you. I left NYC and moved back to Minneapolis, I told you I wanted to be off the DoTerra team because it didn’t feel natural for me to try to sell oils at the end of a yoga class at a donation-based studio. I said, “I’m just not a salesperson.” You said, “It’s not selling, it’s sharing.” You went on to say a few more things to try to get me to stay on board, and I kept saying I was done. Then you said something that was so strange to me at the time, but makes perfect sense in retrospect. You asked me, without skipping a beat, “How is your relationship with your mother?” You said it like this was a logical follow-up question in this conversation. The part of me that loved you like I did when I was first accepted into your inner circle in 2013 thought you were psychic and magical. But the part of me that had been emotionally abused before knew something wasn’t right.

My relationship with my mom could be tenuous and you knew that because I told you everything. So I answered your question with the truth; things weren’t going well. So you said, “How about if we set up a regular call where you tell me all the things you wish you could say to your mom. You can talk to me like I’m her. You can lean on me whenever you want.” You explicitly instated yourself as a stand-in for my caregiver, when anyone with a pulse could see that you were and had been doing the exact opposite for years. You exploited my admiration of you and my skills. You play-acted as therapist, without a day of formal training. You underpaid me, you happily took my money, you taught me how to have boundaries and what Handel calls “difficult conversations” with everyone but you. Is that what a good mother does? I’m so glad I listened to the part of me that knew what you were doing wasn’t right and I stammered, “Uh…thanks for the offer. I’ll, I’ll think about it,” and ended the call.

The next and final time I reached out to you, I had finally been removed from your DoTerra team. I texted you asking you for a book recommendation on self-kindness because I was going through a very lonely, challenging time. I’d cut all these toxic people out of my life (except you) and I was looking for support. Your response? “Are you smoking pot?… How long has it been since you imbibed any substances?” You told me that if I didn’t stop smoking pot, you were “out.” This ultimatum is another signature Handel Group tactic. Your life coach had done it to you, so you did it to me. You also said you would talk to me every day if I quit smoking weed. Again, attempting to control me and increase contact with me when all I wanted was a book rec, Elena. You sent several texts about how I needed to quit sugar and weed because my destructive thoughts were a result of my liver detoxing. As I responded with several expressionless okays, realizing I needed to stop coming to you because it quickly got manipulative, you said the things you knew I longed for, like, “You are a beautiful leader and teacher and you’re valued. Agreed, no more pot?” I said a final, “Ok.” But I lied. I didn’t quit weed, because I didn’t want to. So I never wrote you back.

The hardest part about this wasn’t never talking to you again, it was losing the community I thought I had while following you. When I shared my experience with others, I was uninvited to the club, friendships ended, people went silent. A few people even came to your defense, claiming you weren’t perfect and told me to accept it or move on. Others said, “She’s never been like that to me,” and went on assisting your classes and supporting your work. I want to remind those of you who are reading this that just because you weren’t harmed doesn’t mean she isn’t capable of harm and shouldn’t be held accountable.

Over the years you’ve blocked and unblocked me from your Instagram account and I only know that because every now and then I would try to visit your page to see if you’re still doing the same shit and to remind myself that losing you wasn’t a loss, but a gift.

But then, out of nowhere, last October, you messaged me from some obscure account that you use to sell “museum quality minerals” (aka really expensive rocks) to just say hi. I’ve never felt so gaslit by a simple hello in my entire life. You’re something else, Elena. I’m so glad I found a therapist who taught me that the way you treated me was not at all okay.

The only receipts I have are for that last text message conversation and your recent DM. You did your dirtiest work over the phone or in person, where no one could trace it. So I’m sure your business partners and followers will dismiss me as some quack who wants fame and attention. But as I said previously, I don’t want that. I just want to connect with the other people you’ve harmed and I want them to feel truly seen and validated, as they deserve to be.

Onward,

Tatum Fjerstad

Follow-Up

Initially published on September 29, 2021

After publishing the open letter, Elena responded on social media and in text messages, one of which she shared publicly on her story. This is my response and I will not engage further with her.

Elena,

I want to be clear: I didn’t do this to “take you down,” as you said in the last 8 minutes of your Instagram Live on Sep 24 (which was deleted on October 21, 2021).

As I stated in the letter above, I shared my story for others, not for accountability. This remains unchanged.

Your responses on social and via text* have created a new path on this journey that I cannot safely take with you. The aforementioned Instagram live, your post from the same day (which was also deleted on October 21, 2021, but I have included screenshots below), and your texts are a masterclass in gaslighting, which is a form of psychological abuse. You talk about me like I am a “sad,” unteachable girl who “slings negativity” to your 140,000 followers on Instagram and 88,000 followers on Facebook. Then, in a text, two days later you commit to a proper apology. I don’t have the space for your lack of integrity and incongruent behavior.

The experience you are having after I posted that letter is a natural consequence of your actions, which I did try to address with you privately, years ago, and you responded with anger, not true accountability.

The public post has brought me and others a lot of healing I don’t think most of us knew we needed. I’ve come to find that many people have experienced this side of you. Many others are realizing they had been harmed by previous teachers in similar ways. And others still are seeing that they had been complicit and also caused harm. I set a goal of finding connection when I wrote the letter and I have achieved it.

What you do next is none of my business. I don’t need or want anything from you.

And for those who say that Elena has brought you nothing but success and joy, I hear you. I am not invalidating your experience. Please don’t invalidate mine. What you do with the information you read in my letter is up to you.

*these texts were originally posted as screenshots within this update, but were deleted on 10/20/21 because I was emailed by Medium.com on the same day and told they were in violation of the websites terms, since Elena did not consent to having the texts shared publicly. Medium stated that if I did not take them down within 2 hours, this story would be deleted. Elena did however, share a copy of the first text she sent me on her Instagram stories (without my consent), which was viewable to the public. I have posted those screenshots below.

ADDENDUM: If you are someone who knew me from 2012–2016, I want to apologize for the harm I caused while under the influence of Elena and her community. I know I shared quotes and life advice on social media and in my classes that were for a demographic that needs less coddling and more accountability. I also had a huge hand in culturally appropriating, colonizing and commodifying yoga while working for a very well known festival. If you follow the thread back far enough, you’ll find that I’m the reason their social media took off and I used to feel proud of that. I’m not going to fully blame anyone for my bad behavior, because my behavior is my own, and I want you to know I’m sorry and I know that sorry is an action.

If a harmed person is reading this right now, I want you to know that I see you. I’m sorry she did this to you. You didn’t deserve it. You are more powerful than you know. Elena and people like her only serve to take that power away from you. You don’t need them, their validation or their support. If you are a victim of spiritual abuse, please find and follow @reclamationcollective on Instagram. The reason I can write this letter is because of the community I found there. If you are unsure whether or not you have been harmed, please read this article by Karina Ayn Mirsky, MA. I found it to be very helpful.

acupuncturist • spiritual abuse survivor • founder of move sit write