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.

Monday, March 25, 2019

Parampara and the Cult of the Guru

A recent comment in an authorized teachers' discussion group requested advice about working with students suffering from PTSD.   

"For sure you don’t need nothing extra special. Just teach tradition of Parampara" Came one reply. 

"Wow, that’s an irresponsible comment. I would think people suffering from PTSD might need a little more than parampara...." came a response.

"If you finish 18 years of teaching yoga and more then 20 practice for sure you will be able to understand what means Parampara and Yoga Therapy. I know what Im saying, but what others will do with this knowledge its not my responsibility." - the original respondent commented.

To follow parampara has become the mantram of newly minted yoga teachers from KPJAYI that means something like: to follow tradition or the guru's teaching.

The comment is shocking both because it is completely tone deaf to the suffering endured by the victims of KPJ's abuse and because of the inappropriateness of the suggestion in context.

From the introduction by Dr B van der Kolk to Overcoming Trauma through Yoga - by D Emerson and Dr E Hopper: 

"Our bodies are programmed to automatically respond to physical threats by fighting or fleeing. An experience becomes traumatic when the natural fight/flight defense is aborted. When you are assaulted and realize that there is nothing you can do to stave off the inevitable, this self protective system may break down, resulting in the inappropriate activation of fight/flight reactions in response to minor subsequent irritations, and an inability to regain a sense of safety and relaxation.

While the mind usually shuts down during a traumatizing experience, the bodily sensations associated with immobilization and helplessness carry the memories of having absolutely no control over the outcome of your life...

The most profound legacy of trauma may be this timeless feeling of being battered by unbearable physical sensations...  accompanied by the conviction that you are utterly helpless to do anything about it." 

Does parampara prepare the teacher to work with those with deep trauma? Clearly not. We need to expand and deepen our understanding of yoga, trauma and trauma therapy before embarking on such a course. But the pressing need is there: we are surrounded by victims of trauma.

The above mentioned comment is particularly troubling at a time when we should be becoming sensitive to the needs of the many traumatized individuals amongst us and is symptomatic of much that is wrong with the way Ashtanga is being presented by KPJAYI. 

Trauma Informed Yoga

Over the last few months I have been corresponding with Karen Rain. In light of the unlikelihood of hearing a statement from KPJAYI about KPJ's sexual abuse, I asked her what other outcomes she hoped to see. She replied:

"I’d love to hear them (Ashtanga teachers) say that they will seek trainings, teachings and counseling from outside experts in institutional abuse, trauma awareness and consent culture."

I requested some resources from her and she shared these:

Trauma informed yoga & other trainings:

An excellent resource for learning about sexual abuse is National Sexual Violence Resource Center. They offer online courses.

Here are some links to info on institutional abuse:

As teachers, we have a duty to educate ourselves and not just follow our gurus and their teachings blindly with obedience and compliance. 

Problems with the Guru Model

Karen continues:

"... I would love to hear Ashtanga and Shambhala teachers say: There are serious problems with our entire structure. It’s hard to face and own our accountability and how we profited from our complicity while other people were harmed. "

There are serious problems with KPJAYI and the guru model that Sharath espouses. 

The fact that KPJAYI has not acknowledged KPJ's sexual assaults or made an apology is symptomatic of these problems. KPJAYI's silence begs the question: does the institute represent its students and teachers? Or do students and teachers represent Sharath? 

Does KPJAYI's silence represent a cult-like suppression of the voices of those who are associated with the institute? Are students not free to speak out if they wish? Or should they follow the lead of the paramaguru?

The guru model requires the surrender of the student's will and ego - it places the student in a condition of supplication and compliance. It suppresses free thought and discourages question and debate. According to the KPJAYI website: 

“Knowledge can be transferred only after the student has spent many years with an experienced guru, a teacher to whom he has completely surrendered in body, mind, speech and inner being….. "

Students at KPJAYI are being asked to surrender in body, mind, speech and inner being to the guru, Sharath - only then will they receive the hidden knowledge from the paramaguru!

The KPJAYI's website continues: "(the guru) is like a father or mother who corrects each step in his student’s spiritual practice.”

Students are being advised to see their guru (Sharath) as a father or mother who can correct each step in their spiritual practice...? 

This language is highly alarming against the background of recent events. Clearly, neither KPJ or Sharath are either qualified or should have been trusted to do this! 

As we have seen from KPJ's actions, the guru model is wide open to abuse, it is dangerous and should be discarded. It only works because the guru (supposedly) has secret knowledge you have to deserve to receive once you have surrendered your inner being to him.

For this model to work, the guru has to be absolutely pure, otherwise surrender is sure to lead to some degree of exploitation and manipulation. Surrender will also lead a student to imbuing not just the positive teachings of the guru but also the negative character traits: the more deeply you surrender to the guru, the more like him you become!

The guru model did not serve KPJ's students. It served some in the short term but I think we will all find that it has not served us in the long term. It acted as an enabling power for physical, sexual and psychological abuse. 

Sharath is perpetuating and deepening the sway of the guru model and students should be aware of this before they slide into dependency after surrendering to him. This reliance will deepen if students become teachers and become economically dependent on honoring the guru model.


It is quite possible that Sharath surrendered his body and mind to a deeper and fuller extent than any other student. It is also probably a fact that Sharath has taught more students than any other ashtanga teacher. This makes him a kind of expert, a specialist in the way Pattabhi Jois taught asanas to large groups of students.

Although this makes Sharath an authority, since we now have to reassess KPJ's teaching, it also provokes significant questions about the authenticity or depth of this specialism and therefore also his hegemony over the definition of what "real" ashtanga yoga is.

The fact that KPJ guided each step in Sharath's spiritual evolution like a father, now makes Sharath's claim to authoritative knowledge somewhat dubious. 

If ashtanga yoga is just a sequence of asanas, then I can see how he could somehow be an expert, but we would not call it "ashtanga" or even "yoga" without the presence of the other limbs. Asana is only one facet: it is beginner's level yoga.

But because KPJ was tainted by himsa and had other failings, we also have to question the how as well as the what of his teaching. How did KPJ teach? Does Sharath teach exactly the same way? Probably as much as he can. Should that be considered good or a way that leads to actual yoga? 

The system is clearly not complete without further research and elaboration and the method is tainted in ways we are probably still blind to. If we are to find evolution and healing, we need to move away from this established model. We need to honor research, and we have to question this tradition. 

In the last post (Ashtanga Parampara or Brand?) I was not attempting to imply that KPJAYI's and Sharath's teaching are inferior to KPJ's and AYRI's, my point was that there are many contemporaries of Sharath and many teachers with more experience than him who have been practicing and researching for decades.

All long term students have done their own research and molded their teaching accordingly. That includes Sharath. Sharath does not represent the perfect or pure model of Pattabhi Jois yoga but a specialism in a limited aspect of it.

I believe this is where we have to look if we want to make ashtanga yoga whole. Whereas the KPJAYI has always been an exclusive club which has tried to control and define the ashtanga narrative, we must now expand our horizons to find proper understanding, practice and teaching. 

Poison Pedagogy

Exposing Poison Pedagogy and the way it suppresses early traumatic memories and the acknowledgement of child abuse by society is a central theme of psychologist Alice Miller's groundbreaking book: Thou Shalt Not be Aware: Society's Betrayal of the Child:

"The advice regularly given in the old pedagogical manuals was to "break" the child's will at as early an age as possible, to combat his "obstinacy," and to always impart to him the feeling that he is guilty or bad; they stressed that one should never allow the impression to arise that the adult might be wrong or make a mistake, should never give the child an opportunity to discover adult limitations, but the adult should, on the contrary, conceal his or her weaknesses from the child and pretend to divine authority."

Poison pedagogy is a system of child rearing which says parents always have the best interests of their children at heart. They are beyond blame and reproach and their intentions are always deemed to be for the good of the child. If the child acts up it is never the fault of the parent. Such disobedience or inability to please the parent is punished and rooted out.

At an early age children are completely dependent on their parents and totally vulnerable. Their survival is dependent on the parents. Parents are omnipotent, gods of supreme power that have to be pleased in order that children deserve and receive what they need.

If children experience trauma in relation to their parents at this young age, they are somehow able to suppress memory of it due to their total dependence for survival on the person who is both a god and a monster. These suppressed memories later lead to various symptoms such as depression, OCD and PTSD.

A further consequence of abuse is that when these children grow up and become parents, they then impose the same poison pedagogy on their own children.

Society's and psychologists' upholding of poison pedagogy prevented the acceptance of the sheer volume of child abuse prevalent in our society until very recently. Memories of child abuse which arose in therapy were attributed to sexual fantasies of children and were dismissed as unreal.

Something similar is happening in the guru model. On the KPJAYI's website the guru is even described as being like a father or mother who guides every step of the child. The guru is pure, beyond reproach, a leader and the students are impure, dependent and lack knowledge. Student reports of abuse were likewise dismissed as unreal/subjective.

The guru system is no democracy. It is a remnant of male dominated autocracy. You cannot feel free within it except by surrender to its rules. Without surrender there will always be dissonance. It requires the transfer of power from student to teacher. Students are told to have only one guru, to not question, to dedicate long and continuous practice to his instructions, to show respect and pay dues...

In Krishnamacharya's and Pattabhi Jois' teaching model, as further influenced by Sharath, total obedience and respect is expected from the student. The student is expected to attend class without expectation or desire for any advancement. The student should not desire to get more postures, should not desire to learn pranayama, should not desire to be authorized or certified. The only reason one is supposed to practice at the KPJAYI is out of love for the guru and devotion to what he teaches.

But the truth is that every student goes to Mysore with the desire to learn something. Every student wants to learn more postures, to become authorized or certified... why would they spend thousands of $$ and so much time unless they thought they would learn something new?

But desiring anything was completely discouraged. Yama and Niyama were taught in a practical and harsh way - when perceived imperfections of the student's ego arose i.e. frustration, impatience, anger etc., the response was often punishment and displeasure not compassion, guidance, understanding or love.

When a student asked why KPJ would not teach him new postures, Sharath responded: "He does not think you are good enough." This was accepted in humility by the student.

In order to progress, students have to hide their desire, they have to show their devotion to the guru, they have to find ways of pleasing him, of catching his attention. They pretend that they are at peace, satisfied with their advancement in practice, with their relationship with the guru, in spite of the fact that there is usually some measure of cognitive dissonance. When he notices ambition or disrespect he punishes the student, so she pretends to have no ambition and remains inwardly afflicted.

For so many years, many of us could not see or acknowledge abuse. Bad memories were somehow suppressed while good ones were embellished and exaggerated. 

Each time new evidence of assault came out, we could not believe that the virtuous guru could be responsible. Any such reports had to be caused by the distorted view of the victim.

As products of a system of poison pedagogy, we spoke its language and used it to suppress the truth.

Power of the Guru

Psychological manipulation is just one symptom of the guru model. With teachers, the control is extended to an economic co-dependency. This in turn leads teachers to be advocates and servants of the brand and narrative that emanates from KPJAYI.

Against the silence emanating from the institute, what is the duty of the institute's advocates (ie teachers)? Is the institute anything without its students? Have they surrendered their bodies, minds, voices and inner beings?

Are they trapped in a narrative which supports them financially and gives them power but which must now be challenged? Is it easier just to try to preserve the status quo and hope these horrible stories will go away? Will speaking out attract displeasure from the guru?

A test of the cult status of the KPJAYI is whether its students and authorized teachers voices remain suppressed.

Will teachers be willing to respond to Karen's desire and acknowledge that:

"It’s hard to face and own our accountability and how we profited from our complicity while other people were harmed." 

Even if the guru does not feel this way, has he got the power to prevent his students from expressing themselves?

Thursday, February 28, 2019

Ashtanga Parampara or Brand?

Shortly before KPJ’s death, Sharath started talking about parampara. There was a concern that after his death that the “practice” could become corrupted or impure without a central authority linked to the “original teachings”. Parampara is tradition which goes back through generations of teachers linked to a particular guru - it implies tradition and is intended to indicate authenticity and consistent teachings going back through generations.

In this case, talk of parampara was also intended to solidify authority in a forward direction - ie to establish that authority was shifting from KPJ to Sharath. Sharath even changed his name from Rangaswami to Jois to complete the branding process and establish himself as the rightful successor. Now he calls himself Ashtanga Paramaguru - a title bestowed by whom exactly? A title, perhaps no more meaningful than a degree certificate you can purchase online.

Is there actually an identifiable succession of knowledge? Is the word parampara, used in this context, in any way meaningful? Is the practice the same today as it was 20 yrs ago, 40 yrs ago? Or 100 yrs ago? Were the postures practiced in the same way? Were the vinyasas the same? Was the breathing method the same? The answer to all these questions is No! All of this has changed.

Pattabhi Jois always used to say: “I teach exactly what Krishnamacharya taught me without changing anything.” If we take the statement literally it is clearly untrue. He also implied that the sequences and vinyasas were taken directly from the Yoga Korunta - this also seems very unlikely.

We can see many differences in the teachings of Pattabhi Jois and Krishnamacharya. We can easily compare the vinyasas and sequences and see major divergence. Instructions on breathing, use of bandhas and alignment in postures also differs significantly.

But the KPJAYI’s website states about parampara: “the teacher and student form the links in the chain of instruction that has been passed down for thousands of years.” 

This is clearly not true - the practice is new. The Ashtanga lineage really starts with Pattabhi Jois. Although he owed his foundation to Krishnamacharya, his research led him in a different direction.

This posture was practiced by Indian students at AYRI in the 90s

The old shala in Lakshmi Puram was small, intimate, womblike. It was known as the Ashtanga Yoga Research Institute. KPJ was researching, innovating and adapting yoga practice to the individual.

His work was therapeutic and healing: he taught at the Ayurvedic Hospital, he worked with diseases and disabilities. The practice was more adapted to the individual. But we were the lab rats on which he did his research (not all of us survived).

In Yoga Mala he clearly states that not all postures are suitable for everyone - sometimes another posture should be substituted. Although in the early years he followed this principle, in later years this approach was increasingly abandoned. As more and more students came, the practice became more uniform and streamlined.

There have been many changes to the sequencing and vinyasas over the years. For instance, when Nancy Gilgoff and David Williams originally learned from KPJ, there were far fewer vinyasas -  whole groups of postures were practiced, left and right side without jumping back. This is only one example. There are many.

In the old shala, every student had a unique experience of studying with KPJ. He told each of us to teach exactly the way we had learned it from him. This means that students who became teachers in the old shala have a variety of different interpretations of how and what to teach. In the beginning there were only a few Western students and we practiced together with the Indian students. Their approach to yoga was very different from ours: for us it was intense spiritual sadhana, for them it was exercise, therapy and social.

Parsvottanasana as taught by Krishnamacharya
Note the head position and toe grip
Drishti and Alignment?

Western students also played a significant role in the way the practice evolved. For instance, even though KPJ rejected BKS Iyengar's teaching techniques, Western students brought his alignment principles into the Ashtanga Practice. KPJ also adapted the practice to Westerners needs and interests - to their ambitious nature, their interest in strength and power and away from traditional yogic values.

Western bodies were typically stronger, fitter and younger than the Indians’. We were also much more ambitious, motivated and competitive. Perceiving this, I assume he adapted the practice giving more and more emphasis on strength and deep flexibility. But I think KPJ underestimated Western ambition, competitiveness and narcissism.

It seemed the perpetual theme in Mysore was ambition - ambition to progress. The structure of learning tended to emphasize the prowess or achievement of the body and hence narcissism, instead of being destroyed by yoga was often amplified.

As his shala became more and more popular with Western students, he also began to travel more and more. Although he always encouraged students to come to Mysore to practice, his system was being presented more and more in the led style. At the same time increasing numbers of people were able to learn from videos - thus completely undermining the traditional way of teaching with its emphasis on the individual needs of each student (beginner students are no longer welcome in Mysore).

I felt like Norman Allen, who stated on meeting KPJ: “I could see which way he was going, and it was opposite (to mine).” (KPJ's interest was moving towards the West, ours was moving towards the East)

In the early days, KPJ spoke about yoga philosophy and the spiritual aspects of yoga but with the surge in student numbers and all the different languages, communication became more and more difficult until he pretty much gave up and mostly offered the following explanation:

"Yoga is concentration. You are here, your body is here, but your mind keeps going to other places. One minute it is here, the next minute you are thinking about some delicious food, you are thinking about your home... concentration is very difficult.

That is why you take asana practice. Practice, practice, practice for a long time without interruption. That way your body, mind and sense organs will become strong and pure. Then you will properly understand the yoga method."

Because there was nothing on offer beyond asana and pranayama (in later years pranayama was hardly taught at all) one was left with the impression that asana practice is everything - that one should not bother about the other aspects of yoga too much. But he was emphatic when he said: "This is Patanjali Yoga" and told us to study the Yoga Sutra. According to Krishnamacharya, the Yoga Korunta (the supposed source text of Ashtanga Yoga sequences) was a commentary on the Yoga Sutra.

By the end of the 90s the old shala was so full, it had to move. The new shala could fit 5 times as many students. From a small group of 10 to a community of 3-500 - this was a huge change. At the same time KPJ's foreign tours became more and more popular with 100s of students practicing at the same time. With the huge crowds, yoga became increasingly taught through led style (2x a week in Mysore), and with the advent of the social media has increasingly been presented more as a performance than a practice.

This is what Sharath inherited. KPJ's method changed with the students - he became more adept at managing large numbers - he increasingly taught to the lowest common denominator - the physical.

If there is a tradition, it is not the sequencing or vinyasa. It is not observing moondays or saturdays or sundays as rest days. It is not chanting the “Ashtanga mantram” (chanting was only introduced at student request).  All this has changed over the years. Is it faith in and devotion to the Guru? That is mainly what is suggested. But if the guru is tainted, his teachings may also be tainted - they may not necessarily produce the desired result.

Ashtanga Brand

Commodification of yoga started in the West. For decades, Sharath assisted his grandfather and hardly saw a penny of the large pile of cash that Pattabhi Jois started to acquire.

He was clearly jealous and disapproving of those Western students who exploited yoga for financial gain. Western students were making large sums of money, while he had to serve his grandfather for nothing. Unfortunately, this turned into a kind of bitterness and a desire to control student behavior and the revenue stream.

Now Sharath is a multimillionaire. A millionaire yogi? The mere association of the two words should make us pause for thought due to the incongruity. 

He enjoys making $250,000 per month while teaching in Mysore and probably much more when he is traveling. At the same time he controls how all his authorized and certified teachers practice and teach - they are forbidden from taking training from other teachers and channel a source of funds and reverence back towards him. He is the king, they call him the boss - they bow to his authority.

Ashtanga Yoga is not a practice. Everyone's practice is unique, based on individual samskaras, genetic inheritance and other factors. Everyone's experience through practice is also unique.

Sequences are unique, inner experience is unique but there are some common principles - I believe the sequences are a blueprint from which we can draw as teachers, but the actual practice of each individual is elaborated in a unique way based on individual needs.

It is not meaningful or accurate to say Ashtanga Yoga is Primary, Intermediate or Advanced Series - these are collections of postures which work therapeutically and are applied uniquely, depending on individual circumstances.

The Ashtanga Yoga Method KPJ often referred to is not the sequencing, but the principle of elaborating a practice in a step by step process. It is meaningless to talk about parampara - unless it means simply: "the way Pattabhi Jois taught it" and even this is meaningless because KPJ taught it differently to different students and at different times.

The end result (what Sharath inherited) is an inferior version. It is superior in its ability to generate financial value but much inferior in its ability to adapt to individual needs or to elaborate a genuine yoga practice.

It is unfortunate that the reigns of the ashtanga lineage were passed to Sharath when there were other teachers with more experience and insight. Many ask why Manju was not chosen.

Sharath often says that KPJ taught him so much. One has to doubt this - if it is true, he does not share that teaching... His interview in the Guruji book is one of the weakest. In fact we had to combine two interviews to get a bit more substance. He really only says one meaningful thing (which is not particularly helpful): "If you want to get to Bangalore, you have to get on the Bangalore bus." 

What happens when the bus has broken down and we can't get online to check google maps?

Do we really want to go to Bangalore? I suspect not.

We have to know where we are going and how to get there. Parampara purports to show how to get there but has not elaborated where there is, therefore one has to seriously doubt where that bus is headed...

We can see teachers getting richer. Can we see students becoming more enlightened?