A long history of sexual misconduct haunts this popular practice. Here’s how some Ashtangi yogis are moving forward.
For most dedicated Ashtanga yoga practitioners, 2018 has been a painful year of reckoning. We’ve had to excavate the past and face uncomfortable truths about Pattabhi Jois, the now-deceased founder of this much-loved practice and the subject of accusations of historic sexual assault.
I’m ashamed to admit that I knew about the sexual assault soon after I first started a daily Ashtanga practice 17 years ago. While I practiced with Jois several times before his death, I was not a close student of his and never saw the abuse first hand. But I did see videos on the Internet; I did laugh off and dismiss the furtive, dark gossip in Mysore, India, cafes and in practice rooms everywhere from New York to Singapore to London; and I did turn a blind eye.
“This is a Long Overdue Mea Culpa”
This is a long overdue mea culpa, and perhaps one shared by others like me—average, everyday Ashtanga practitioners who chose to brush off the assault accusations either because we didn’t believe it, or because the practice felt (and still feels) deeply transformative. Ashtanga yoga has served as a bedrock for my life, and for many years that was more important than the abuse itself, which, well, felt very distant. After all, it happened so many years ago, and to women I didn’t know.
Those women, such as Karen Rain and Anneke Lukas, deserve an apology. First and foremost, that apology should come from the K Pattabhi Jois Ashtanga Yoga Research Institute (KPJAYI).
(Sharath Jois, the director of KPJAYI and grandson of Pattabhi Jois, has not publicly acknowledged or spoken about the abuse, and did not return requests for an interview for this story.)
A few teachers, though arguably not enough, have come forward to apologize to Jois’ victims, acknowledging their culpability in the abuse, whether that was because they ignored it like I did, or sent their students to practice with Jois knowing full well the risks.
“As a student who knew of these inappropriate adjustments, I should have behaved differently, and I apologize (that I didn’t),” said Paul Gold, an Ashtanga teacher in Toronto. “I rationalized [Jois’] behavior. I downplayed students’ negative reactions and chose to focus on the reactions of women and men for who these adjustments weren’t offensive or weren’t given. I wanted to study with Jois and chose to focus on the good rather than let the bad create a situation where I would have to make hard choices or take a stand.”
Karen Rain, who studied with Jois for a total of 24 months from 1994 to 1998 in Mysore, has become the most prominent and vocal victim of what she said was repeated sexual assault at the hands of Jois.
“I considered the way he handled women unethical,” Rain says, adding that back then, students would discuss the way Jois touched his female students but only behind closed doors and never to Jois himself. “At the time I was only able to be consciously aware of and discuss the sexual abuse of other women. I was not fully accepting of having been personally sexually abused by him. I had disassociated during the sexual assaults. When there is disassociation there is also dis-integration of memory and cohesive understanding.”
As for myself—a long-time Ashtanga student, KPJAYI authorized teacher, and the yoga manager at a collection of London yoga studios—I’m ashamed to admit I turned a blind eye for so long, and wish to apologize to the victims that it took me years to come forward, to stand up and rail against their abuse, and to stop ritualizing Jois. There is much to make up for.
In order to do that, we must examine the very root of the problem: the dynamic of the student-teacher relationship itself. The hierarchical nature of this relationship creates a clear power imbalance where, in this case, Jois’ students did not feel in a position to question his decisions and actions no matter how unethical his behavior. His victims returned year after year because they dismissed and rationalized the abuse as something else; their capacity to understand what was happening to them was impaired by their disassociation. Jois was able to abuse his students because the guru-sisya model, which lacks checks or balances, allowed it.
“As long as the guru dynamic remains, it is an opportunity for future abusers to build upon and take advantage of the same dynamic,” says Greg Nardi, an Ashtanga teacher in Miami, Fla.. “Systems that consolidate power and remove accountability structures for harmful actions only encourage the darker sides of human behavior, and they do not empower anyone. It has taken me some time to recognize that by participating in the guru system, I have been both accountable for supporting and oppressed by this dynamic that has caused harm to Pattabhi Jois’ victims.”
Last month, Nardi turned in his Level 2 authorization to KPJAYI, a courageous move given that he was one of Pattabhi and Sharath Jois’ most influential teachers. Nardi has joined London-based teacher Scott Johnson and Cornwall studio owner Emma Rowse to form Amayu, an educational organization where authority is completely decentralized in an attempt to create a very different power dynamic that is a marked departure from the traditional model, where one person (the teacher or guru) is in control of what is taught and how it is taught.
Every teacher who becomes part of the Amayu cooperative must take trauma sensitivity training, and anyone who practices in an Amayu-registered studio must agree to a code of ethics where the rights and dignity of all students are respected and backed by a transparent grievance procedure.
“In order to ensure that Ashtanga yoga fulfills its potential as a healing system it must be stripped of harmful power dynamics,” says Johnson. “We actively promote a culture that fosters equality, empowerment, mindful living, compassion, and speaking up for those who are disadvantaged, disenfranchised and disempowered.”
Charting a New, More Ethical Path Forward
We can and in some cases already do interpret this system of yoga differently across the world; for too long we’ve been held hostage to the notion that it can only be taught and practiced one way. Five Surya Namaskars A’s, three B’s, standing postures, seated postures, backbends, closing sequence. No props. No new postures before you can bind, catch or balance. Hands-on assists is a given—not an option.
I still practice this way, and it works well for me. But now, I recognize that it doesn’t work as well for others.
At triyoga, where I work in London, we recently introduced the use of consent cards that students can use in any one of our 750 classes a week, which includes five robust Mysore programs.
These cards are placed in prime positions as students enter the studio and can be placed on their mat in silent communication to their teacher that they do not wish to be touched that day. Of course, it is our preference that students speak to their teacher; but if they don’t feel they can do that, these cards offer another option.
We’ve introduced these cards in an effort to bring more trauma-informed instruction in our studios. To be transparent, I knew very little about trauma when senior Ashtanga teacher Mary Taylor wrote a #metoo-inspired blog one year ago, essentially breaking open the abuse conversation amongst the global Ashtanga community. I’ve had to educate myself about how traumatic experiences from the past can play out in the present moment and sometimes in a yoga class, especially when touched without explicit permission.
My journey from total ignorance to something that has a bit more light is one I’m grateful for, and which I deeply hope will help future students. Many of us in the Ashtanga community have been fiercely criticized for getting it wrong when responding to Jois’ assault of women. And we did get it wrong. We were wholly unprepared for how to speak about it, and we used language that minimized what Jois did. (For example, we called it “inappropriate adjustments” rather than “sexual assault.”)
Unfortunately, this backlash has resulted in a paralysis to say anything at all, especially for those who found themselves struggling to hold both the abuse Jois committed with the transformative experiences they experienced when studying with their former teacher.
I don’t think that’s helpful for anyone. We have to be able to talk about this openly and without fear of retribution, indignation or humiliation. And I believe we can do that while still holding space for the victims.
“By and large we have processed this badly in the Ashtanga community,” says Ty Landrum, an Ashtanga teacher in Boulder, Colo., who runs The Yoga Workshop. “By not talking about [the sexual misconduct] we are repressing it and pushing it below the surface. Our yogic process has to be about our willingness to confront our shadows, and in some sense, make peace with them.”
For me, the shadow of Pattabhji Jois looms large. I’m still trying to figure out what role he plays in my practice and my love for it. As the creator of one of the world’s most practiced systems of yoga, he’s an undeniably important figure. We can’t whitewash him out of the picture, and I don’t think we should. Because to remove Jois from history would mean we deny the existence of his victims.
Where, then, does he belong? Surely not in a place of reverence as was the custom in many shalas around the world. At triyoga earlier this year, we pulled copies of Jois’ “Yoga Mala” and “Guruji: A Portrait of Sri K. Pattabhi Jois Through the Eyes of his Students” from our shops’ bookshelves. It felt wrong to reap economic benefits from books that glorifed a perpetrator of sexual assault.
Out of respect for anyone who has suffered sexual assault, many teachers have also taken down Jois’ images that hung on walls in practice rooms or sat on altars alongside statues of deities like Ganesha or Saraswati. “Pattabhi Jois’ photos came down from our walls immediately,” says Jean Byrne, the co-owner of The Yoga Space in Perth, Australia. For her, the abuse represented the very opposite of ahimsa, the very first yama that teaches the avoidance of violence toward others. “The photos were getting in the way of my practice and were triggering for many of our students.” Other teachers have chosen to keep those pictures in place, and have lost students because of it.
“This needed to come out,” says Maty Ezraty, the co-founder of YogaWorks who studied with Pattabhi Jois. “Maybe some of the teachers out there will start to realize that Pattabhi Jois wasn’t perfect. He’s not the only teacher that people should have studied with. [Ashtanga] is not the only method that has something to offer. When we put on blinders, we end up in a small space, and that’s where we are right now.”
It’s important to note that Sharath, by all accounts, has never violated sexual boundaries in the manner that his grandfather has. Sharath is an excellent, dedicated, and hard-working teacher. Some attribute his silence on the matter to cultural differences—that in India, it would bring great shame to impugn a family manner publicly.
I don’t accept that. Sharath has his foot firmly in the door of Western culture, and accepts huge amounts of money every year from Westerners who want to practice with him in Mysore. I believe he must speak to us in our language, too. So long as Sharath refuses to acknowledge the women his grandfather abused with an apology, and honor them with true reform that can only involve breaking apart systems of power and authority, we face a hard time moving forward and out of this heavy darkness.
The fissures will no doubt continue to widen for as long as it takes the Ashtanga community to work through our conflicted feelings toward Jois—and, even more importantly, for as long as it takes for all of us in the Ashtanga community to apologize to his victims.
About the Author
Genny Willkinson Priest is a yoga teacher and yoga manager at triyoga, Europe’s biggest group of yoga studios. She has donated the income paid for this article to The Havens, a London organization aimed at helping those who have been raped or sexually assaulted. Learn more at gennyyoga.com.