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.

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