Tuesday, July 9, 2019

Acceptance and Denial

On May 16th Nigel Marshall and I conducted an opinion poll in a private facebook group of 337 certified and authorized ashtanga teachers. The results are as follows (respondents were permitted to check more than one answer):

1. What do you think about the accusations against Pattabhi Jois?

a. I think they constitute sexual assault      77%

b. I think they fall under the category of inappropriate/inconsiderate/uninformed or mistaken                                                      26%

c. I think Pattabhi Jois did nothing wrong    3%

d. I don’t know                                             5%

2. Do you think victims of assault deserve to have a statement of acknowledgement?

Yes                                                              92%

4. Do you think the victims of assault deserve to have an apology for the lack of acknowledgment?

Yes                                                              76%

This group is made up of more newly authorized teachers (only a few of KPJ's original certified teachers are members) and of the 337 members only 39 responded. It is likely that many members of the group are simply no longer active on facebook. However, in spite of the fact that only 10% of the group responded, perhaps one can conclude that the poll is statistically representative of the general opinion in the group. 

There is a clear acceptance that Pattabhi Jois sexually assaulted his students - but acceptance is not the same as being willing to take action or even say anything publicly!

Some teachers, including Sharath, have made indirect acknowledgements - their websites no longer mention Pattabhi Jois or parampara. Some have called this a whitewash, a re-branding, which it clearly is, but it is also an acknowledgement of the truth about KPJ's actions. This is, perhaps, a small step in the right direction or it could also be just an attempt to avoid or deflect awkward questions.

A few days after creating the poll, I also wrote to around 40 senior teachers originally certified by Pattabhi Jois who studied at the Lakshmi Puram Ashtanga Yoga Research Institute, most of whom were not part of the private facebook group, requesting action to support those who had been sexually assaulted by him. https://www.facebook.com/aysnyc/posts/1411229935686598

I received only two answers! One answer supported the action I proposed, the other response was as follows:

"I am pained by your words.
Unable to breathe.
It is not as simple as heroes and monsters.
Don't force it to be black and white.
Placing today's definition on yesterday's experience entraps even the resilient into being categorized as victims of sexual abuse.
If consequently I am labeled such, then it is also my healing that is to be respected.
I choose to spend this day as my consciousness calls.
Privately honoring the 10th anniversary of Guruji's death.
Holding all that was precious close to heart."

This reaction came from one of two certified female teachers (both interviewed in the Guruji book) I had spoken to shortly after Matthew Remski contacted me, asking me for a response to the reports on KPJ's sexual assaults.

At the time, I told these two teachers about my intention to make a statement and discussed with them what they had experienced at KPJ's hands. They both responded that he had grabbed their breast while adjusting them in trikonasana and pasasana, that they had told him: "Guruji not there, here!" And had moved his hands from the breast to their shoulder. This was said with a chuckle and some amusement - as if KPJ had made a silly mistake. 

His adjustments were clearly not a silly mistake - they were repeatedly enacted even after women told him they were not welcome. As one of them later wrote to me: "Placing today's definition on yesterday's experience entraps even the resilient into being categorized as victims of sexual abuse." - Yes it does! 

The denial of KPJ's actions as abusive by these "resilient" and highly influential teachers has also led to the acceptance that what KPJ was doing was "OK". It also contributed to the belief that going to Mysore was safe and to the fact that many more students were sexually assaulted.

Another senior certified teacher, when I asked him about what he had witnessed, told me that on his very first trip to Mysore he had seen KPJ grab a woman's breasts while "adjusting" her in upavishta konasana. He felt powerless to say anything and continued to practice with KPJ for decades, actively promote his teachings with great devotion and to encourage his students to attend KPJ's classes.

How did students continue to study with KPJ even though they experienced or witnessed these abuses? How did teachers who witnessed this justify devotion to KPJ and dedication to his teachings? How were they able to justify sending students to Mysore in the knowledge that they would quite likely be assaulted and injured?

One phenomenon I have encountered repeatedly from teachers who refuse to acknowledge or even accept that students were sexually assaulted are statements such as: "What happened to those women is nothing compared to the traumas and assaults I have experienced" or "Being touched in that way is nothing compared to rape" or "I was also a victim of sexual or physical assault, therefore I do not feel a duty to say anything. My own suffering is more important and absolves me of a duty to be of help to others."

Many people who come to ashtanga practice with physical and psychological sickness and pain, attain health, strength, confidence and self-esteem. Teachers may also gain financial income, power and admiration. To admit to being part of a deception that has garnered that power and respect, with the consequent exposure to accusations of hypocrisy and gaslighting, it seems, is close to impossible.

There are evidently mixed motives for not saying anything, but I have come to believe that many ashtanga teachers have experienced trauma in their childhood and that this is a contributing factor in their denials and unwillingness to make a statement about KPJ's abuses. It also causes them to deflect blame for their own complicity back onto victims of KPJ's abuse who are willing to speak out publicly.


"What is denial? It is a state of incomplete trauma. It is the condition of being stuck in the very first stage of unprocessed trauma: shock and disbelief. It is the prolonged inability to believe that the parent you thought loved you, only used you....

Denial gets projected onto everything concerning love in adult life through power dynamics....

You can find yourself devoting your entire life to an abusive guru or spiritual leader, protecting their bad habits, watching as they engage in sexual assault, without ever wavering in your love, hoping in vain they will one day return it....

This denial can be so strong that when victims start to speak up about this guru, followers staunchly defend him, deflecting his behavior and blaming the victims....  

To wake up from protecting someone to whom you give your power, you need to allow yourself to know that everything you valued was a sham, that this person you thought was so special didn’t have special powers, that they stole the love you freely gave to them to feed their power addiction, that they exploited you and everyone else who came near them, that they were incapable of loving, that they filled the emptiness created by lack of self-esteem with power, and you filled the emptiness created by your lack of self-esteem with your investment in their power, so it would rub off on you....

To wake up from protecting an authority figure...  means that you have to acknowledge that your entire life has been invested in something that was worthless, and that you were spiritually and emotionally stuck, even as your worldly power and status increased." 

Anneke Lucas - The Girl in the Ditch - https://annekelucas.com/writing/2019/5/25/the-girl-in-the-ditch

These profound reflections of Anneke's came as a result of my attempts to mediate or heal a rift between her and someone who had staunchly defended Pattabhi Jois after he had sexually assaulted her. His response to these attempts at healing and mediation was to deflect blame and responsibility back onto Anneke. The result of this was to re-victimize her and take her back into her trauma.

After several days of dark reflection, she re-emerged with new insight and strength and wrote this piece about her early experience and the dynamics of abuse and denial as they get re-hashed continuously throughout life.


We are imperfect beings. We all have weaknesses. One of the reasons teachers do not come out and say something is that it opens us up to accusations of hypocrisy. "When you point the finger, there are four fingers pointing back at you." This is true. "Let the one who is without blame throw the first stone!"

The reason to speak is not to criticize - it is to give support to those who have been assaulted. It is to foster and facilitate healing, acknowledgement and understanding. In doing so we expose our own faults, our own complicity, we open ourselves up to scrutiny.

Many teachers feel the need to be some kind of example to their students, at least to hide their imperfections. How can we teach yoga and still have human frailty and faults? Students also want their teachers to be perfect, to be an example of what yoga can do for you.

That is how students wanted to feel about KPJ. Even if he showed some human weaknesses, we wanted to believe they were minor and insignificant. We wanted to elevate the qualities that made him into an authoritative guru, into an example of human excellence.

We inherited the guru system from him in our teaching. It is a system of power. It is a system that elevates the teacher to unquestionable authority, a transcending of normal human frailties and imperfections. But this is to create a deception, an untenable illusion - a lie that inevitably has to break down and be revealed for the falseness it represents.

We are no more evolved than our students, in fact we may often be less evolved! We may be in deeper delusion and denial and we may have even been involved in criminal complicity and collusion, in grooming students for sexual assault and gaslighting their experiences. 

Those of us who have profited from our association with KPJ and have promoted his name and teachings have a duty to be of service to those who have been harmed. This may undermine the image we have cultivated over decades and expose us to scrutiny. This may expose our teachings and stories about ourselves as a sham. Instead of being a disaster, this should prove to be an opportunity to evolve, to become honest, to move closer to truth.

As I said to the teacher who wanted to spend the anniversary of KPJ's death in her own positive memories:

"Of course it is painful to own this statement - that should be no surprise.

Again, I will emphasize that this is a move to help those who have felt violated by KPJ's actions.

There is NO DOUBT that the way he touched some students was completely wrong - I know you saw it and even experienced it, as you expressed it to me last time we met.

The fact that it happened repeatedly even though he was asked not to do it indicates that he did not respect women in the way you want to believe, in a way that is supportive of genuine spiritual experience and evolution. Your personal journey, then, does not respect the real experience of others, nor does it support their healing or spiritual evolution. And ultimately it cannot be called spiritual, because that has to be something selfless. Following the yama is not personal, it honors others.

It may not feel healing for you, it may open a wound, or it may make you look at a wound that is there and you are avoiding looking at. But it is healing for those whose experience has been denied and undermined.

I respect that we all have our personal journey and ways we feel comfortable with thinking and speaking and do not judge you if you are not comfortable owning this statement yet."

She responded: "Thank you for this response. There is much truth in it." But she has been unwilling, as yet, to make a public statement.

I hope teachers will find the courage to participate in the healing of others, even if it means looking at their own pain. Because ultimately it will lead us all towards the light of truth and evolution and away from the darkness of denial and falseness.


In our correspondence Anneke shared these further thoughts:

"When people use power to cover their lack of self esteem due to their unresolved trauma, the victimized child part that is hidden beneath that mantle of power will come out in exactly the way "X" is projecting onto me. You see, I am doing well. I am strong. I have looked at my trauma, felt all the pain and grief and anger and all the feelings that had to be suppressed to survive, and I speak publicly about what happened to me. 

Every time I speak, it takes courage. I know people are going to not believe me or attack me, and this is also what I expect. Though I am often surprised at how positively people react to my story, what I get from most of the ashtanga crowd is what I have come to expect. 

Someone who has never examined their own pain carries within themselves the sense of being victimized, but it is not connected to their original abuse. So when this pain is triggered, as it often is in people when they read or hear of my abuse, they hate me for speaking up about it. They project onto me "trying to act like the victim" because their abused child self has imposed on themselves that they should never act that way - they should never speak out - they are too afraid. 

They see in my strength, the power of their former abuser, who overpowered them. Then they project those negative feelings they had to keep from their own perpetrator onto the person who shows strength by speaking out. Underlying this weakness is envy (for the strength they don't have)."


How do we acknowledge the authority of teachers? It is through their practice. Teachers are generally admired for their physical practice - they are certified as advanced or authorized as qualified to teach Primary or Intermediate based on their physical practice. Teachers also promote themselves through photos and videos of themselves, or anecdotes about how they were practicing posture "x". 

The idea has been cultivated that it is virtuous to get up at the crack of dawn and to be dedicated to intense advanced practice. However, asana practice is just therapy. There is no virtue in going to therapy. Therapy may even not work - the body may be strengthened and look good, but the mind may remain un-evolved, may even become more dysfunctional. It may just be an opportunity to indulge in narcissistic self gratification.

Asana practice without deep introspection and analysis does not lead to psychological healing. In fact, it may lead to a deeper suppression of trauma: detachment that is cultivated through acceptance of physical pain and effort experienced in practice may be qualitatively similar to the dissociated feelings caused by trauma.

Some teachers cultivate the idea that working hard is a virtue, that teaching is service. But those teachers who work so hard may also be earning huge sums of money, they are also earning the esteem of others, they are also gaining power and authority. The motive is not necessarily to be of service to others - it may very well be financial gain and power.

The certification/authorization system is a house of cards. It is all based on having the best looking practice. It says nothing about the inner work, or lack of it. It says nothing about the spiritual evolution or otherwise of the individual. Often, advancement in asana can lead to more attachment to the physical, more attachment to the body and self admiration.

Practice may lead to us admiring an emperor with no clothes, a straw man or woman, a good-looking empty shell that hides an inner weakness that does not permit the courage to come out and say: "I was wrong! I am sorry!" It may lead an individual to deny wrong-doing, to deflect blame and to cause re-traumatization to other victims of trauma and abuse.

Through dedication to practice it is possible to transform the body into an "ideal" form. Looking good is the obsession of our modern times and can lead those with low self esteem to gain some power by impressing others with their physical feats and good looking bodies.

Today many teachers advertise themselves through videos and photos of themselves doing advanced asanas. The attractiveness of these images is often "enhanced" by the wearing of skimpy or revealing outfits that sexualize asana practice and has led to the monika "soft porn yoga" in some circles.

I believe this may often be the result of body dysmorphia - a mental disorder characterized by the obsessive idea that some aspect of one's body or appearance is severely flawed and needs to be fixed - often brought on by childhood trauma.

Through Pattabhi Jois' teaching one has been led to conclude that advanced asana practice equates to being an "advanced yogi" - an idea that has been cultivated by such individuals to promote themselves as authorities on yoga. But there is clearly no correlation between a strong, deep or sexy physical practice and knowledge about or experience of true yoga. 

With the demise of the authenticity of KPJ and his teaching comes a parallel demise in the authenticity and authority of such ideas. Acknowledging the abuse and the implicit undermining of the system that equates "advanced" asana practice with advanced yoga is an undermining of the very support of authority, power and admiration placed in these individuals. Acknowledgement may then reverse the apparent improved self-esteem or reveal the original trauma that has been suppressed but not healed.

This fact stands in the way of acknowledgment.

Monday, May 20, 2019

Does Ashtanga Yoga Work?


Does Ashtanga Yoga work? "Of course it does!" Say its adherents and teachers. But what does it mean - to work?

In his introduction to the section on Ashtanga Yoga in the Yoga Sutra, Patanjali states:

yogāṅgānuṣṭhānād aśuddhikśaye jñānadīptir āvivekakhyāteḥ -YS II 28

This was one of the sutras that Pattabhi Jois quoted most often. It means:

"The practice of ashtanga yoga diminishes the impurities (in the mind and body) and cultivates the light of knowledge up to the point of (ultimate) discriminating knowledge."

Discriminating knowledge - viveka khyāteḥ - means the ability to see the difference between the true Self and the mind that is experienced in the state of samadhi.

The question is, does Ashtanga Yoga as taught by KPJ actually do this?

When I started making the interviews with senior teachers as a relatively immature practitioner, this was one of the questions that most intrigued me. Does the practice as taught by KPJ actually lead to samadhi and Self realization?

Only one interviewee was even remotely comfortable with talking about samadhi - you will not have to guess too hard who that was. Maybe it was because of my immaturity, maybe I did not know how to ask the right question or maybe I could not recognize the answers, but my conclusion at the time and since is that the answer is no!

To be fair, I should go back and do the interviews again - it has been 20 years since I made the first interviews - that is a significant period of time to deepen practice.

There is obviously an intended connection between what Pattabhi Jois taught and the Ashtanga Yoga as described in the Patanjali Yoga Sutra. In fact, KPJ often stated that what he was teaching was the "original" Patanjali  Yoga.

So how did we become so confused or misguided about the purpose and effect of KPJ's method? I believe it is because KPJ emphasized the practice of asanas so strongly and failed to elaborate the other limbs of yoga in much depth. 

He encouraged us to focus on discipline, strength and intense practice that should be continued, it seemed, indefinitely. Today, success in yoga is equated with "advanced" asana practice. Unfortunately this is KPJ's legacy.

"The term 'yogabhasya' is current in the sense of performing some asanas or physical postures and breath exercises called pranayama and even acrobats demonstrating wonderful physical feats are called yogis. This is a disparagement of the term. The Rishis who gave that word to us used it in the sense of the highest state in which the supreme goal of life is realized. It is derived from the root 'yuj' which means 'to unite or to be in the state of tranquility' - the state of union of the Jiva and Paramatma when all problems are resolved and the Self enjoys its natural and normal rest." *

KPJ always reiterated - yoga is chitta vritti nirodha - yoga is samadhi. Does the method of KPJ lead to samadhi?  It seems, in general, the way his yoga is practiced is good for health, strength and a degree of mental calm - but not the kind of peace associated with the state of samadhi.

He never gave much teaching about the other angas. He would only teach pranayama to very few people and said very little about the yama and niyama - his basic teaching was that they were very difficult and that they could not be perfected and one should not give them much attention until you had a strong body and mind, until you had perfected asanas and pranayamas.

Advanced Kindergarten Teachers

Asana practice is therapy. According to KPJ the first series is physical therapy, the second series is therapy for the nervous system and the third series is for strength. The third series, also called "advanced" is subdivided into four separate parts - these postures have no particular benefit beyond the first two series apart from greater strength - according to both Sharath and KPJ, these series are for demonstration purpose and for "circus".

And yet, many of those who practice these "advanced" asanas are at pains to advertise that this constitutes "advanced" yoga. Many of these "advanced" practitioners have little interest in the other angas - they do not like to do pranayama or meditate. It is a bit like saying you teach calculus when in fact you are just teaching adding and subtracting in kindergarten.

Those obsessed with asana practice have no time or interest to graduate from kindergarten - they are super advanced kindergarten teachers!

Since asana practice is therapy, what is the implication of continuing to practice with such intensity, for so long? Do "advanced" practitioners need more therapy or does the therapy not work for them?

Yoga is natural. If the body and mind are in a healthy condition, an inclination to sit quietly leads easily to deep states of meditation and samadhi. A truly healthy person does not need to practice asanas. The obsession with long advanced practice is a bit like the way many people have become addicted to medicinal drugs: what was intended for therapy has become an addiction or abused for recreational use.

Assessing the Teacher

It is said that the methods of the Guru are obscure and mysterious, that as neophytes one has no way of understanding why he may act in a particular way or why he may suggest certain practices. Only after long and devoted practice do we (possibly) gain understanding and in the meantime it is not productive to question, we need to surrender, have faith and devotion, we need to trust that the method will bring the results we desire: we thought that pain was part of the process, that KPJ's touch was healing - it did not occur to us that he was sexually assaulting his students.

We have a huge problem as yoga students: we cannot initially assess if what we are being taught is truly wholesome or genuine. Often there is discomfort and pain when starting a yoga practice. Is this normal? Is it the student's fault or the practice? Yoga cannot be understood intellectually, only through experience. Only through (decades) long and devoted practice does proper understanding come - but then only if the method/teacher is genuine. 

It really does take a long time to understand what yoga is. Intellectual understanding devoid of experience does not get one far, nor does experience without theoretical understanding. It is said that it takes around 12 years for a practice to become properly established. Until that point, it is hard to make an assessment whether the practice yields the desired result.

Even after twelve years, understanding is scant. Don't be mislead by the apparently wise asana teachers whose words of wisdom demonstrate deep knowledge... asana is just the kindergarten of yoga. Intellectual study does not reveal proper understanding - yoga changes you to experience something different, something that cannot be understood rationally.

Further Confusions

What is yoga? We do not know! Yoga is not understood through putting on the garb of a yogi or through much study - yoga can only be known through yoga - deep meditation and samadhi. Yoga is the transformation of the mind into a different state - it is experienced in that state but cannot be understood intellectually.

If practitioners do not desire to progress beyond the stage of asana, how can they be expected to know what yoga is? If you practice asanas for several hours a day, where do you have time to meditate? If you need to continue practicing asanas for decades, for your whole life, does this indicate either that you need a lot of therapy or that the therapy is not working? KPJ gave little indication about how the subsequent stages should be practiced or experienced - as a result, most of us remain at the level of asana and do not progress much beyond.

Some years ago I used to meet regularly with a famous certified teacher to discuss yoga philosophy. On several occasions, he concluded our discussion by saying: "I don't really know what yoga is!" The first time he said this, I thought to myself: "Really?"  But when I reflected on his remark, I realized that I, too, did not know what yoga was. It really takes a long time to get a depth of understanding, and I have realized since that time, that without developing all the other limbs of ashtanga yoga, a proper understanding will continue to evade us.

For this reason, I believe, practitioners should not become teachers until they have progressed well beyond the asana stage. How can one teach yoga if one does not know what it is? Even if you know asanas "well", how do you know if the way of practicing will lead to the further steps? If the practice method is faulty in some way, one may never get insight, one may continuously lead your students in a false direction.

Immature teachers have no choice: Fake it till you make it - or just follow parampara!

I do not believe that KPJ was properly familiar with the higher stages of yoga and that is why he did not teach them. Instead, he told us to practice intense asanas continuously. The result is that his "ashtanga" practice is misdirected or limited and leads, instead, to an obsession with asanas and the physical body. He did not allow inflexible students to progress even to the stage of pranayama.

Flexibility is not a qualification for yoga. Flexibility is mainly genetic and has nothing to do with being adept at yoga. In fact very flexible practitioners are often excessively tamasic (lazy, depressive, dull minded, unstable) - they need strong asana practice to gain stability. Stiff students by contrast often develop a much better grasp of the other limbs of yoga.

Jocks and Intellectuals

Today there is a schism between yoga practitioners and yoga theorists. This has generated a huge confusion about what yoga actually is.

On the one hand we have books by "advanced" asana teachers and on the other hand we have books by armchair intellectuals. Very few books about yoga are by experts in both theory and practice.

The reason for this, I believe, is that in general people are either good with their minds or with their bodies but seldom both. There are, of course, exceptions. Intellectual academics in their ivory towers are generally not so comfortable in their bodies and those who become obsessed with their bodies are seldom facile with their minds. As a result, our books about yoga are produced by disembodied minds on the one hand and mindless bodies on the other - the result is a great deal of confusion!

McShtanga and Kentucky Fried Jois

It is said that it takes twelve years for a practice to become properly established. Until we have practiced asanas for this significant period of time, our understanding of this stage will be superficial and incomplete. It takes twelve years to master each stage. Fortunately the rudiments of pranayama, dharana etc. are integrated into the asana practice taught by KPJ, so some of the other limbs are being developed simultaneously. But unless one pays attention to yama and niyama and until one develops a formal pranayama and meditation practice these stages do not evolve and proper knowledge about yoga and how to teach yoga will not arise.

As ignorant neophyte yoga teachers we have no choice but to follow parampara - follow tradition. An honest immature teacher admits he or she knows nothing. Since we are ignorant, perhaps the best option is to become a vehicle for our teacher's teaching. This can become hugely problematic if the teacher's guidance is in some way tainted.

It would seem that students should not become teachers until they have practiced for at least twelve years - enough time for asana practice to be established. Even then, teachers would only be established in asana. Another twelve years to establish a practice of pranayama. Until we have properly understood, it is just a case of the blind leading the blind.

All of us departed to some extent from what we were taught. We all saw that some of KPJ's adjustments could not be or should not be replicated in the West - this was the first departure. From here on, everyone, including the KPJAYI has made changes. These changes are made incrementally over the years as we discover better ways to serve our students.

But in the beginning one has little choice but to imitate the teacher. This is what we were instructed to do: to teach exactly what we had learned. We were given rudimentary theory but were mainly instructed to practice with diligence and not think too much.

This presents a great problem both for teachers and for students. Students cannot asses if a teacher really knows what he or she is talking about and teachers do not know what they are talking about! As ignorant teachers we have no choice but to say - "my teacher taught it this way" - we have to fake it until we make it! We are all deceivers - we do not know what we are talking about - and the danger is that we lead our students astray - or worse!

Warning to New Students!

There are several deceptive ways that teachers promote themselves to give the impression of authority and authenticity: 

On the one hand teachers "demonstrate" their advancement - they "put on the garb of the yogi" - they post selfies and youtube videos of their "advanced" practice - they proliferate the false idea that advanced asanas are advanced practice and that this makes them authorities on yoga. 

On the other hand teachers can demonstrate their authenticity by speaking in sanskrit, chanting mantras, performing pujas, teaching philosophy and claiming to teach the pure method learned from the guru.

A third way of gaining name and fame is celebrity endorsement, elevating one's name by performing virtuous acts and by promoting the guru and showing how close you are to him.

Promoting oneself through asana brings yoga to its lowest common denominator - it is yoga for the masses - McShtanga Yoga - "over one billion yogaburgers sold!" 

Advanced teachers promote the idea that it is virtuous to get up at the crack of dawn to do practice and to dedicate many hours and much effort to it. Yoga practice is totally self-serving! It does not serve anyone else, if anything it easily becomes a narcissistic endeavor. 

Teaching long hours and having many students makes you rich, famous and adored, not virtuous! Giving generously to charity while letting others know about it is not charity, it is self-promotion! Looking good! Don't be deceived by these transparent marketing and self-promoting devices!

Promoting the idea of authority via closeness to the source, celebrity endorsement and demonstrating authenticity through showing other practices such as talking or teaching in sanskrit etc, may make students feel it is the "real thing" - finger-licking "authentic southern style" good!

Why is it that nearly all the biggest spiritual gurus have been found to be corrupt? The bigger the name, the more likely that power has gone to their heads and that they have been corrupted. The more their teachings are promoted, the less likely that there is authenticity in them. 

A teacher's grasp on truth is inversely proportional to how much their teachings are promoted: the number of posted yoga selfies, youtube videos, facebook friends, and instagram followers they have.

A real yogi never shows her practice, avoids crowds, lives simply without possessions or wealth and wants to maintain peace and quiet to support meditation and samadhi and is thus hidden from the world.

How do you find a true teacher? How do you find a true yoga? It is said that when the student is ready, the teacher appears.

Real Ashtanga Yoga

Pattabhi Jois' method is a potentially effective way to establish an asana practice. It clearly does not work for everyone in the way it is taught "traditionally", however it is a wonderful blueprint for establishing an asana practice if elaborated with intelligence and sensitivity.

Ashtanga Yoga has eight parts and without elaborating all eight limbs it is not complete nor will it lead to the desired end. Pranayama is one of the most valuable tools of yoga practice and is the gateway to the internal practices that lead towards the ultimate goal - unfortunately KPJ did not help many students to establish this practice.

He set the bar too high for developing a pranayama practice and he invested too much intensity into asana practice. He imprinted his own rajasic, violent and controlling nature onto practice and created confusion and doubt rather than clarity and confidence in the true method of elaborating all eight limbs.

* Swami Sri Ranga Priya - from The Mahaguru and the Mandiram - published in "A Souvenir" 1974 

Why Teachers May Take Time to Acknowledge Abuse

What is abuse? There are various categories that we recognize as abuse: there is child abuse, spousal abuse, racial abuse, physical abuse, sexual abuse, verbal abuse, to name a few common categories.

They all have one thing in common, they cause harm to another human being. Included within the definition of child abuse is abandonment, humiliation, intimidation, exposure to witnessing violence of a physical or verbal nature.

Anyone who experiences a power differential in a relationship, whether it is familial, social or in an employment situation can also be easily exposed to abuse. If a person is vulnerable or has been previously exposed to trauma, they are further open to being harmed by power differentials that disrespect them - situations that do not necessarily have such a strong impact on those who have good self-esteem and have generally been treated well in childhood and beyond.

There are certain relationships and circumstances that engender vulnerability, deference, acceptance, culpability, inferiority etc., such as having a high respect for an individual because of status, knowledge, education or projected spiritual virtue that can open an individual up to subtle disrespect, manipulation, humiliation and other forms of harm.

A student teacher relationship is one of these and a relationship with a priest or spiritual guru is open to the full range of possible abuses.

In our society, it is estimated that 20% of all children are exposed to sexual abuse, 25% of children experience physical abuse, it is further estimated that 30% of all relationships are tainted by physical violence that exposes children to further traumatization through witnessing. 

We can add to this, exposure to violence through the media - almost all children are brought up on a diet of violence and eroticism through watching TV and movies and through other news media. So violence and trauma is endemic in our society.

It should be no surprise, then, that a very significant proportion of students attracted to yoga have experienced trauma in one way or another. I would imagine that the numbers attracted to yoga are actually higher than the societal averages, since yoga can be a way for many people to seek healing from their pain.

It is a factor of child abuse that victims often have a great love for their abusers. Their abusers are usually a (male) parent and because they are also dependent on the parent for survival itself, a complex of attachment that often suppresses memories of abuse is projected onto this figure. The figure may become godlike, all powerful, divine and beyond reproach.

Abusers are often charismatic and lovable. Most of the time they seem like ordinary, even exemplary individuals, widely admired for virtuous acts and worldly success. This makes it much harder to make sense of the individuals dark side, that may only emerge in the intimacy of a one-on-one engagement (that could include an action in a public place).

A guru becomes a father figure for many that have previously experienced abuse as children and when the guru is abusive, this relationship may feel even more "right" and familiar and as a result difficult to recognize for what it is and to break.

In the face of this abusive relationship a student wants to project only positive qualities on the new father replacement - the student is more likely to elevate the guru to divine authority and status as a result.

Since our society is so pervaded by violence, a yoga practice that is hard, intense, at times painful seems par for the course. A teacher that exacts discipline, humility (humiliation), is somewhat harsh, expects a great deal is attractive and familiar.

A subtle violence within practice can be interpreted as tapas - a purifying disciple that leads students from weakness to strength, from sickness to health, from insecurity to confidence, in short from darkness to light.

However, even if there is tapas in practice, a true teacher, a true yogi, is pervaded by love and compassion for the student, does not make the student suffer, but nurtures and encourages the student, does not humiliate, make the student feel unworthy, does not harm the student physically or psychologically.

A true teacher recognizes the divinity and purity within the student, not the imperfections. The student recognizes his own imperfections when comparing himself with the spiritual teacher. The teacher exudes love and compassion that gives the student motivation to heal, not harsh words, harsh lessons or harsh adjustments. 

Because we are so immersed in a violent culture, we may not recognize the violence of the guru for what it is. It may seem mild compared to mutilation caused by white phosphorus in warfare, it may seem mild in comparison to the humiliations and traumas of childhood abuse. As a result we accept the dissonance and doubt we experience in a relationship with him. We take ownership of the pain we experience in the relationship and call it our own, we refuse to project it onto the one who may be our hope for emancipation and cannot break away from the abusive relationship.

I believe this is one of the core reasons why so many of Pattabhi Jois' students are unable to break with him. Even though the stories of physical and sexual assault are numerous and impossible to deny, still, there are many who cannot name it for what it is. It is an oedipal crisis - one cannot kill the father.

Of course the other major reason for not naming assault for what it is, is the financial and reputational investment in the relationship. If you have spent decades living a lie and making money from it, to admit to this error could lead to a huge personal loss.

Monday, April 8, 2019

Brahmacharya? Sexual Violence and its Effect on the Transmission of Knowledge (Parampara)

Trigger warning: this post contains videos and descriptions of sexual assault.


"Upon being established in Brahmacharya there is the attainment of vital energy" - YS II 38 - as translated in Yoga Mala.

If there was one yama KPJ was established in, I felt surely his vital energy was proof of mastery over brahmacharya. How wrong I was.

He did not speak much about the yama and niyama but he did devote seven pages of his book Yoga Mala to the five yama. In one page he covers four of the yama: ahimsa, satya, asteya and aparigraha, giving each one a single paragraph. He then devotes six pages to Brahmacharya alone!

Why did he write so extensively about Brahamacharya? Perhaps his struggle with this was foremost in his mind.

He explains: "Becoming one with the supreme Brahman alone is brahmacharya." Then he goes on to make the curious statement: "Were the holding of vital fluid itself brahmacharya, it would be a thing impossible to do." This looks like an acknowledgement that he found it impossible to control his sexual desires - it is not a statement you would expect a yogi to make but with hindsight it does explain a lot.


There is a story that I have not shared until now. While making one of the later interviews (around 2009), a highly respected certified teacher asked me to turn off the recorder as he related an incident in which he had witnessed Pattabhi Jois "having it off" with a female student in the shala, while he was practicing in the same room. As I recall, they were the only two students in the room at the time. 

I was too shocked to believe what I had heard. Surely it was a misinterpretation? There was often moaning and groaning when students got adjusted very deeply - wasn't that it? "No," he asserted, "they were having full on sex." I still thought somehow he was making fun of me and could not bring myself to question him further - it just seemed too outrageous to be true and until now it seemed too shocking to share.

But it seems that knowledge about KPJ's behavior was an open secret in the 70s and 80s - something that was actively suppressed as practice became more popular thereafter.

"...while the behavior may appear consensual, true consent is not possible when a power differential exists—such as that found in a student-teacher relationship." - Karen Rain & Jubilee Cooke

Because of the power differential and trust that a student must have in a teacher, a violation of sexual boundaries by the teacher is necessarily an act of violence, or himsa. KPJ's actions have been explained away by pointing out that he did not seem to be getting any immediate sexual gratification from them.

According to Ashtanga Yoga: lying, stealing, sexual perversion and greed are subcategories of violence: sexual assault is violence regardless of whether erotic satisfaction is achieved by the perpetrator or not.

"Sexual violence is not about sex. It is violence that misuses sex and sexuality to exert power over others: to control, intimidate or violate." - Karen Rain & Jubilee Cooke

We should clearly be able to understand that a yoga guru has no business touching a woman's sex organs: the act immediately negates his qualification to be called a yoga guru. For a common man, to grab a woman's genitals is considered a crime punishable by imprisonment: for a yoga guru, especially as it was repeatedly perpetrated, it is not just a crime, it is a violent sexual perversion.

When I go back and look at video footage of KPJ teaching, I see an inherent forcefulness or subtle violence in his approach that is incompatible with real yoga. It is not the path of kindness and compassion but a path of discipline, surrender to the guru's predilections and non-attachment to pain. 

We have been brought up on a culture of violence, so maybe KPJ's actions seem mild or even familiar or comfortable in the context of extreme physical training and discipline that is popular today. But violence cannot be the basis of yoga - its incidence indicates an inauthentic method.

"When Pattabhi Jois grabbed my genitals and breasts as he adjusted me in yoga postures during class, I, Jubilee Cooke, sensed that he was enjoying the rush of power and not necessarily deriving sexual pleasure. His brazenness in sexually assaulting students in the presence of others, while avoiding confrontation, further demonstrates his position of power as the leader of Ashtanga yoga."

I think this video supports Jubilee's observation (this is not Jubilee in the video). I cut the clip as KPJ presses his chest against the student's while "adjusting" her in virabhadrasana II and she shows clear distress because her face is shown. He stays with her through five postures and seems to be challenging her to keep her composure while he assaults her in each pose.


How has this inherently aggressive attitude impacted the evolution of ashtanga yoga through its teachers? One has to wonder what Sharath must have witnessed over the years and how much he must be disturbed and influenced by it.

Excerpt of an email from Jubilee Cooke:  

"... there is a matter that I have not heard anyone discuss -- how Pattabhi Jois’s abusive actions may have impacted Sharath’s psyche.... please also consider that Sharath most likely witnessed his grandfather sexually assault more women than anyone else who practices Ashtanga yoga. In fact, Sharath has quite possibly witnessed more sexual assaults than most other people in the world generally. 

How might he be traumatized by this? If I had seen a grandfather, father or uncle sexually assault young women, many of them my own age or younger, daily for years, I would be pretty knotted up inside, and without intervention, would likely exhibit symptoms of PTSD.

I have no background in psychology and therefore am in no position to give anybody an armchair diagnosis. But still, I'm surprised that more people haven't expressed concern for Sharath's well being or asked him if he has sought outside help or counseling."

KPJ was not just a grandfather, but effectively, Sharath's actual father: Sharath's father was away most of the time and KPJ fulfilled this role for him. So I think there is very good cause to suggest that Sharath may be deeply troubled. In this recent video to promote his new book he explains that he had a lot of anger as a young man:

Although there has been justifiable anger that Sharath has not spoken out about his grandfather's abuse, Jubilee's observations may also lead us to a better understanding of his inner conflict and to some compassion for his suffering.
Not only was he witness to abuse, he had to endure daily practice with, and adjustments from, KPJ for over a decade. We would come and go - stay a few months and then go home to recover. Sharath was there day in, day out. I know he experienced intense pain and physical suffering, no doubt much of his pain was psychological too. What impact did this have on his practice and his understanding?

"The words of wisdom of an incontinent person do not go deep into the mind of a disciple." - HH Aranya on YS II 38

KPJ was infatuated with the physical body, and it seems he has passed on this fixation via parampara where there is little knowledge about or interest in the stages of yoga beyond asana. The central and superficial theme of Sharath's new book, as he explains in the interview, is how to stay looking young. This is the limited extent of transmission via parampara.
KPJ used extreme measures, urged the impossible and was clearly misguided in some of his priorities. If, instead of advocating a three hour headstand, the same effort were applied to perfecting the yama, it would surely have brought success along with greater insight and deeper transmission of yoga theory and practice.

Clearly there is a pressing need for yoga teachers to observe brahmacharya. 

Furthermore, if we wish to gain access to a fuller and deeper expression and understanding of ashtanga yoga, we need to move away from the "authoritative" source of this tainted parampara and listen to those who have used it as a foundation for further research.