Sunday, November 24, 2019

Mantras of Misdirection

I have said on various occasions that ashtanga practice and teaching need to be re-thought. Here is a first attempt to address the subject.

One of the most problematic issues is that Pattabhi Jois told his students that they should teach exactly the way they learned to practice without changing anything.

Many long term teachers, recognizing various problems with and limitations of the method as imparted to them have, indeed, made changes. Some teachers have adapted their teaching based on their own personal research with decades of practice and others have incorporated teachings from other teachers.

However, since the beginning of the 90s, a growing obsession with the "purity" of the practice as taught by KPJ has ensured a greater and greater coherence and obsession with the "correct method" - with an exact following of the way it was handed down in Mysore.

I was myself part of this trend, someone who had the desire to find a definitive and authoritative method. For me, this came from a growing disillusionment with KPJ and the belief that at least he was passing down a coherent and pure method from his teacher (something I now recognize as being untrue), that allowed me to free myself from his authority. But for many it was a way of feeling that they were close to the source, that they could, themselves, be authoritative.

Those who did not follow the correct method - that included teachers who never studied in Mysore, or were never authorized or certified by KPJ - were derided and devalued by the Mysore faithful. Those who adhered most closely to the Mysore way were praised and elevated in status.

There are many features of value in what KPJ taught, but also a number of features that are problematic and lead practitioners away from the true goals of yoga.

People regard Ashtanga Yoga as a "thing". This is an inaccurate definition. Ashtanga Yoga, whether you are speaking of KPJ yoga or Patanjali yoga is a collection of practices not a coherent unity. Practitioners adhere to some but not all of the principles, parts but not all of the sequences.

The different features are:

specific sequences of asanas and vinyasas
specific way of breathing
specific way of developing a practice
specific collection of principles while practicing i.e drishti, bandha etc
specific alignment in asanas

No two people have the same practice or adopt all the principles completely. In fact, there has been variation in the way each of these principles has been taught over the years. But there is a false idea that there is a definitive or perfect way. This idea is one of the obsessions that needs to be discarded both because of its plain impossibility and because of the inappropriateness of the idea (each individual has unique needs and should adopt a unique practice).

The differences may seem subtle or even non-existent when practice is taught in a led format, however, it takes just a little observation to see that no two people in such a class can or do have identical practice.

These are some of the principles that, in my opinion should be thrown out. As mentioned above, those who have been teaching for longer, have already eliminated most of these ideas - this piece of writing is mostly provided for my generation and later, for those who have trained in Mysore since the early 90s.

Mantras of Misdirection:

"You should have only one guru"

This holds true if you have an enlightened teacher who can give you comprehensive knowledge but is incorrect if that teacher is limited in knowledge and furthermore it is dangerous if that teacher is giving wrong knowledge or is abusing your trust, mind or body.

Guru bhakti is valuable if the teacher is pure but plunges one into delusion and pain if the teacher is tainted. An imperfect teacher is capable of transmitting authentic knowledge if he or she is connected to a true source but devotion to such a teacher is dangerous and inappropriate.

Telling students they should not have any other teachers is a way of cementing power, ensuring dependency and guaranteeing a revenue stream into the teacher's pocket. It is a cynical ploy justified by scriptural authority.

"Inhale should be the same as exhale"

Although this is an interesting concept and worth exploring it is not a traditional approach to breathing in asanas and is definitely wrong for many students.

This is definitely at odds with what Krishnamacharya and all other authentic teachers have taught. Breathing is related to mind. Through controlling the breath, you control the mind. Perhaps, when the teacher controls the student's breath, he also controls the student's mind. Could this have been the way KPJ and other teachers are able to gain power over their students?

Exhale is the pranic breath, the purifying, relaxing breath, the breath used for meditation and introversion of mind. Inhale is the apanic breath, the breath that supports extraverted activity. Should these two be balanced, or should one emphasize developing prana over apana?

It depends if yoga is being used for meditation, exercise or for therapy. It depends on the inherent constitution, health condition and needs of the student.

In emphasizing equality of inhale and exhale, while performing intense asanas, is it more likely that inhale gets emphasized, that apana is cultivated rather than prana? From my observation, this is often the case.

KPJ also stated that there should be no pause between inhaling and exhaling, but that the breath should flow smoothly. This is also at odds with what Krishnamacharya taught - he often taught breath retention in asanas - even in vinyasas!

"You should always practice mula bandha"

It is wrong to be thinking about practicing yoga 24/7. We have responsibilities and should experience pleasures and joy in life, as well as pursuing spiritual practice. If we devote all our time to sadhana, then we will not fulfill our responsibilities properly and tend to our families in a wholesome way.

Yoga has to be balanced by bhoga (experience/pleasure). If we spend too much time on either one of these two, the other suffers. Each individual is unique: some are born with strong detachment and samskaras suitable to intense sadhana and others with strong attachments, family ties and responsibilities. Each person has to find the healthy balance.

"You should teach exactly the way you learned it"

The "traditional" teaching method is imbued with authoritarianism. There were many injuries and abuses. Little needs to be said about the danger and falseness of this statement.

"There is one way to practice - do not us an incorrect method"

Everybody learned it differently - every body should have a unique practice. Uniform practice engenders envy, ambition, self-judgment and doubt.

There is a religious belief amongst many practitioners that is if you do the "correct" physical method, it will lead to definitive results. Contrary to the assertion of many ashtanga teachers, asana practice has a minimal impact on spiritual evolution.

Asana practice is good for health.

There are many types of asana practice, some are a bit better than others. Ashtanga yoga is not the best, is not the one method for every one, is not even a specific method but a collection of techniques that each individual selects from but does not practice completely.

If this perfect method yielded the imputed results, then the proof of that would be the teachers who have practiced for longest with the most adherence to this method. Have a look around and ask yourself if those long term practitioners actually imbue the qualities of realization and enlightenment?

I would venture the idea that the more intensely you practice, the longer you practice with intensity, the more you need the therapy that practice brings. But also, since this practice has to be continuously maintained for so many decades, you have to wonder if the practice actually works? Surely, if you got the therapy, you could stop the practice?

Asana is good for health and stress relief - it does not lead to an ounce of enlightenment! Well, maybe just an ounce. Teachers who promote such an idea are pulling the wool over your eyes and taking your money.

"Yoga is 99% practice and 1% theory"

Patanjali explains that sadhana (practice) has three components - tapas, or discipline/austerity, Svadhyaya or Self study and Ishvara Pranidhana - surrender of the ego to higher principles.

KPJ was reacting to pandits who professed knowledge about yoga without practical experience. Many of his sayings, that have become mantras to the faithfully devoted, were spoken for effect and were not intended to be taken literally.

If you practice asanas without knowing why or what your destination is, where will you end up? If your teacher has an incomplete idea about which direction he is guiding you, then you will not reach the destination.

You need to have an idea about the goal. Then you can understand better how practices can lead you to the goal. Without this basic information you will have no sense of direction. Without a road map to reach this destination you will be lost.

What is theory and what is practice? Abhyasa - practice, according to Patanjali, is the effort to establish purity and concentration of mind. It is not the effort to do a handstand or deep backbend. The effort to establish concentration in meditation involves a process of self analysis. Obstacles to meditation are physical and mental - in order to eliminate them, one needs to observe them, understand them and find ways to eliminate them.

In the process of analysis, one is also involved in observing what belongs to the mind/body complex and what transcends or lies beneath it - what is conscious, witnessing or aware - and what is the content or object of that conscious attention. This is a process of understanding theory - practice is understanding theory as reality - only once reality has been experienced is theory no longer relevant.

If you just practice with no understanding or no effort at understanding theory you will have no sense of direction and no success.

"Practice and All is Coming"

This is meaningless. "Don't practice and all is coming" is an equally valid statement. As with most things KPJ said, his quotes have been taken out of context and re-framed as part of the branding of his method.

When students were craving for new postures, disappointed or envious, this is something he would say, to reassure them. Do not stress, if you practice diligently, you will progress.

The way this statement has come to be a strap-line advertisement for ashtanga branding has become a self-fulfilling prophesy.

Yoga practice should bring us peace, tranquility, compassion, concentration and Self knowledge - not sexual assault, physical injury, psychological manipulation, doubt, envy, wealth, narcissism and flame wars!

Having done this practice, the result for many has been all these negatives and not the serenity and enlightenment that yoga should lead towards.

Appropriate practice with a clear target will bring the right results. Defective practice without a true goal will bring delusion and pain.

There are probably other factors that should be mentioned - I do not have all the answers or all the questions - my purpose is to open up discussion, not to give solutions.

Sunday, October 27, 2019

Ashtanga Teacher Statements

Getting senior teachers to make meaningful statements has been like pulling teeth. We can count on one hand the number of teachers certified by KPJ who have publicly acknowledged that he was guilty of sexual assault.

Although there has been some acknowledgement, the statements generally fall way short of any meaningful attempt to attenuate the harm that has been done, and more often than not, these statements have actually deepened the pain of those who have been hurt.

I can see that there are various reasons why representatives of the ashtanga community have resisted making meaningful public statements. Unfortunately none of these reasons can give us confidence that the individuals concerned have evolved on a true path of yoga.

Reasons why speaking out is particularly difficult for KPJ's students: 1. Identification of personal practice with KPJ and a method intrinsically connected to his authority. Nearly all students who continued to practice with KPJ became teachers. As a result they promised to teach exactly what and how they learned - so their teaching has also become totally identified with KPJ - with the implication that (2.) their authority (power) rests on his. This has implications for (3.) economic prosperity, (4.) personal integrity and (5.) peer respect.

Calling teachers out by name for their hypocrisy (un-yogic behavior - ie failing to observe satya and ahimsa) and culpability in cultivating and sustaining the guru myth has been partially effective - and it could result in more acknowledgements of KPJ's abuse and potentially more meaningful actions towards healing, however, we have to question whether this type of approach will really lead to sincere apologies and desire for healing.

My personal motivation to become active in this field has been two-fold: on the one hand I recognized my role (in publishing the Guruji book) of eulogizing KPJ with the resulting effect of minimizing and undermining the testimonies of those that he abused, on the other hand, I have recognized for years before now that the system of Ashtanga as promoted by KPJ was flawed (although it contains many good parts) and has required a thorough reassessment.

Although calling teachers out has been partially effective, I am not really sure about the appropriate way to move forward in terms of healing and acknowledgement. My instinct is that naming and shaming will not produce the desired result.

KPJ's culpability has been established as a fact, although there are a few deluded individuals who are in denial. I am not sure that there is really such a thing as, or the possibility of, justice for his victims (I believe we are all victims in one way or another), or that those involved in utilizing KPJ's system while bypassing and excusing this fact will ever consider reforming their ideas. Perhaps this can only happen if we are able to develop a meaningful understanding of the role of asana practice in the context of Patanjali yoga - this could give teachers the confidence to relinquish the need for rigid attachment to the system KPJ developed and hence also to his name and authority.

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

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.

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"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.

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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.

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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:

https://unguru.ca/services/?fbclid=IwAR1UWl6WlFW4qnwmOVN-f62-RtJJqqWTZi5k8my7l5tG5fPWbxK8iIdme6k

https://www.traumasensitiveyoga.com/?fbclid=IwAR0cY01rB2ZmeiosKzXHePmxN5Znjte4_EsVaimuCFiQD_CqW7aA26nA7UE

http://www.thebreathenetwork.org

http://www.yogasong.net/?fbclid=IwAR2KAiOPwocp_wKSgMYh7khaCfbBuHoLIAWSsHv3wsuQd40Qv5N-3PT08AE

An excellent resource for learning about sexual abuse is National Sexual Violence Resource Center. They offer online courses. https://www.nsvrc.org/

Here are some links to info on institutional abuse:

https://dynamic.uoregon.edu/jjf/articles/sf2014.pdf

http://cultresearch.org


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.

Authority

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?