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 It is likely that many members of the group are simply no longer active on facebook.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.

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