Monday, January 7, 2019

Sweet Lies and Bitter Truth

For many years I tried to follow the principle often suggested by Pattabhi Jois:

"Speak the sweet truth, don't speak the truth which hurts but don't lie no matter how sweet it sounds."

According to yoga - not causing harm is more important than telling the truth. 

Sometimes lies are necessary to protect those who are vulnerable. But a lie always causes harm in some way. It is impossible to achieve perfect ahimsa. Yogis suggest remaining silent as much as possible to avoid causing harm - since they should not lie.

After many years of struggling with my desire to speak the truth while at the same time to follow the injunction to avoid causing pain, the balance has shifted. Lies can cause deep harm and the truth about these lies can no longer be hidden.

In the ashtanga yoga community, sweet sounding deceit has helped to shield Pattabhi Jois' actions from scrutiny, they have stifled the voices of his victims and they have created a cult, an ashtanga religion, a culture of devotion to a flawed individual. Every one of us is a victim to some extent. Those who do not recognize it vehemently attempt to deny it and try to suppress the voices of those who are willing to speak up.

Following on from the above quote, Pattabhi Jois would then say:

"Speaking the sweet truth is very difficult. That is why you have to practice asanas and then pranayamas for a very long time to purify body and mind. Then, when these two stages are perfect, Yama and Niyama can be mastered."

I asked him: "Krishnamacharya taught that Pranayama practice should not be attempted without first practicing the Yama and Niyama. How does that fit in with what you are teaching?"

He turned on me angrily and said: "Do you always tell the truth? The perfect truth? If you tell one lie, the whole of Yama and Niyama is destroyed!" He told me to shut up and do my practice - eventually I would understand.

In 2011 I went to Sao Paolo to interview Maria Helena De Bastos Freire for a potential second edition of the Guruji book. Maria Helena had invited KPJ to a conference in Brazil in 1973. Many times KPJ had proudly told us about this, his very first trip abroad. 

When I went to interview Maria Helena, I discovered that Pattabhi Jois never made the trip! His visa had been denied and yet he continued to boast about the story for decades. I was in shock - why had he lied? It was the final nail in the coffin for me.

He did not tell the truth. He also had the tendency to exaggerate, to talk in extremes - "If your inhale is 10 seconds long, your exhale should be 10 seconds, if it is 20, the exhale should be 20." What kind of lesson was he trying to teach?

He often tells the story of how, when he was a boy, he performed kapotasana for 30 minutes while Krishnamacharya stood on his stomach and gave a lecture. Who feels comfortable in kapotasana for more than one or two minutes? Maybe a very few people. For 5-10 minutes? 30 minutes? With someone 3-4 times your weight standing on your stomach?

KPJ says a sharp root dug into his shoulder while in the pose. Is the shoulder anywhere near the ground in kapotasana? This is clearly a tall story - a lie.

How much else about KPJ's story can we believe?

~

Satya is not just truth telling, it means speaking sweetly. On various occasions I witnessed KPJ talk in a derisory way about people of darker skin color, of muslims and of other yoga teachers. At times we also experienced his anger, displeasure or derision.

He told us that he was teaching exactly what he had learned from his guru, a practice that had been passed down since time immemorial, it was the perfect system, we should not change anything. But it is clear that he departed significantly from Krishnamacharya's teachings though he attributed his own innovations and interpretations to ancient authority.

There are many untruths spoken about Pattabhi Jois and the system of Ashtanga Yoga for the purpose of financial gain and consolidation of authority and power.

Contrary to what is often said, Pattabhi Jois was not a great scholar or Yogi. Krishnamacharya did not teach him any yoga philosophy until his last years in Mysore. KPJ studied Advaita Vedanta not the Yoga Shastra in college. We were very impressed by his use of sanskrit but had no way of assessing his knowledge and so students started using words like great yogi and scholar as if they knew what they were talking about.

Since telling one lie would destroy all of the yama and niyama, KPJ gave us the impression that we need not pay too much attention to them until we had strengthened and purified our bodies. Based on what we know about him we have to conclude that KPJ never perfected the pranayama (or yama/niyama) stage according to his own interpretation of the "shastra".

The attitude that we should just practice and not think had a two fold consequence: in practice - do not question, just obey - total surrender of mind and body to his instructions/adjustments - a complete surrender of power. The second consequence is - do not question the system - until the mind and body have been transformed through practice, you are not capable of understanding why or how it happens and what are the next steps or if it actually works.

It is the nature of the guru system to not respect the individual voice. Transmission goes in one direction - payment in the other. 

Satya - speaking the truth - is that which leads from darkness and ignorance towards light and ultimate truth. In any talk about this relative world, truth is always colored by subjectivity and will always generate a range of feelings across the spectrum of people engaged in the debate. 

The path to truth from ignorance is a painful one. Ignorance is like sleep, heavy. Waking up from a bad dream takes a bit of time. One feels a bit groggy, uncertain, at first one needs to check what was dream and what is real.

Recognizing the truth is healing. But it takes time to let go of established paradigms of thought. The process is often painful and we resist going there. But we have an opportunity here to eliminate this tamasic veil of maya that has been laid across the minds of yoga practitioners and see how this mechanism of willful self delusion has operated, still operates, at many levels to obscure our realization of truth.

Tuesday, January 1, 2019

Ahimsa? Practice with Pattabhi Jois – Pain and Injury

Many people have asked me why my story is not alongside the other interviews in the book Guruji - A Portrait of Sri K Pattabhi Jois.

The book of interviews presents an overwhelmingly positive view of Pattabhi Jois’ life and teaching. It is a celebration of his life and work created with the collaboration and approval of Pattabhi Jois and his family. My own experience studying with him was not so unequivocally positive. 

By the time Eddie Stern asked me if I would like to make a book with the interviews I had collected, I had some deep misgivings about the whole ashtanga scene - what was being presented as ashtanga yoga, the huge public classes, celebrity endorsements, youtube videos etc., but I thought it would be an interesting project, so I agreed.

When the book was finished, on the one hand I was pleased with the work we had done, but on the other hand I had the feeling that the book did not represent my own view of Pattabhi Jois and Ashtanga Yoga. As the perceived author it would seem I have some responsibility for the message of the book. But I have never perceived myself as the author - only as a facilitator - the authors are the individual interviewees, though I certainly did have a large role in the choosing, editing and organizing of the material.

I am sure that some of interviewees are now unhappy about being included in this volume. A good number of them had not been to Mysore for many years and had ambivalent feelings about Pattabhi Jois but wanted to talk positively for the project. So I owe an apology on the behalf of some of them for not presenting their views fully. Not that anything was edited out.

~

There has been a lot of misleading and deceptive talk around Ashtanga and Pattabhi Jois that has increased in depth and breadth over the years. It germinated in the early years and has grown into a cult of devotion around the practice, Pattabhi Jois, Sharath and the institute in Mysore.

All of us who practiced with him bought into certain levels of delusion about his true stature as teacher and the purity and effectiveness of the practice he taught. 

But I know that I am not alone in feeling an increasing dissonance over my years of practice in Mysore. It has taken time to fully understand why. Various facts have come to light over time which when put together must give us serious doubts. 

Our practice with Pattabhi Jois was not as perfect as teachers like to make out. Everyone, even those seen as very close to him struggled both in their practice and in their relationship with him.

All of us experienced pain in our practice with Pattabhi Jois. There were a lot of injuries - some of them caused by his adjustments, some by our over-zealousness. And most of us went through periods of doubt, estrangement, disapproval and humiliation in our relationship with him.

Brad Ramsey: “It hurt from the first day to the last, at least something hurt, there was always something."

About three weeks into my first practice in Mysore, as he roughly yanked me into Marichyasana D, my right knee made a huge cracking sound as the meniscus tore. I was in shock, there was no pain initially - Pattabhi Jois told me to breathe and relax and he bound me deep in the pose. Afterwards the knee was very painful and I had difficulty walking. 

He insisted that I come back to class the next day and the next and each day he put me back in the posture. After 10 days my knee was pain free. While the injury had given me cause for distress, the healing seemed almost a miracle (the damage to the meniscus was not repaired, but I learned how to use my body in such a way as to avoid further injury and pain).

Soon afterwards, I was injured again as I was “taught” baddha konasana - Pattabhi Jois pushed my right thigh to the floor with his hand and then stepped forcefully on my left thigh with his left foot. As he pushed the left thigh down there was the sound of tearing muscle and fascia and a sickening crunch as the hip was torn open.

I had no time to think as he shoved my torso forward with his hand and knee and I found my face flat on the floor, my hips completely open. I entered some kind of altered state of consciousness and when he let me up, as my back straightened and my hips "relaxed" there was an intense spasm of pain and a shock of electricity shot up my spine and continued to tingle around my sacral area. 

This injury took over two years to heal and a further fifteen years for the scar tissue and swelling to disappear but did not undermine my faith in Pattabhi Jois at the time. These were horrible injuries but I continued to practice.

If you tried to tell KPJ you were in too much pain – he would say: “Pain?” "Yes!" “Much pain?” Yes! Ah! Very good! Hahahaha!” It was an effective way to diminish pain because the psychological component is significant and laughing about it releases some of the pain which is due simply to the anticipation. But he would not take pain as an excuse to avoid the asana. 

There was a culture amongst the students to airbrush injury. Injuries were called “openings” - if the opening was painful, it was because the body and mind were impure. An injury implied a setback – we did not want to admit to that – it could be a learning opportunity, a way forward.

When I was injured the first time and my knee made a huge crack - someone in the front row turned around and exclaimed: “Good pop!” and everyone laughed. This normalized the idea that pain was a necessary component, an amusing component of yoga practice and that injuries caused by Pattabhi Jois' were not injuries but "good pops" and "openings".

When I arrived in India, I was at a crisis point in my life – I was sick and in physical and emotional pain. I sold all my possessions and invested my money in a six month trip to Mysore to heal myself. I travelled 1000s of miles and had invested a huge amount of hope. So when I was injured so early in my trip, I felt I could not leave, I had to give it a chance.

Many of the other students were in the same boat. We already harbored a great deal of pain and had invested a huge amount in getting to Mysore. Feeling pain in the body was often easier for us than feeling the mental pain that distressed us. We wanted radical change, we were looking for intense purification and catharsis – so it was no surprise that pain was part of the process.

It is possible that the period at the beginning of the 90s was particularly intense: there were a maximum of eight students in the room with both KPJ and Sharath adjusting - so we were "assisted" in every posture. We looked like the walking wounded as we exited the shala and limped off to breakfast.

In spite of the pain, I was intrigued by the sensations I had experienced – could that have been Kundalini tingling in my spine after my baddha konasana “opening”? I was also reassured by the healing powers Pattabhi Jois and the practice seemed to have.

As a naive beginner I had not known what to expect. The practice and Pattabhi Jois seemed to be authentic. Pain seemed to be part of the process - I did not know any different. It seemed to be a fast track to deeper flexibility, purification and spiritual evolution.

As I continued to practice my pain would go away but when I came back to Mysore the next year Pattabhi Jois started cranking on me again in kapotasana, bringing my hands onto my heels. It was so intense that every day I wondered if I would be paralyzed, I was in a great deal of pain and it probably caused a great significant of damage. 

In 2002 I saw an x-ray of my spine for the first time – it was quite a shock to see how misshapen it was. The spinal deformity cannot be attributed to the aggressive adjustments alone but they were obviously not helping, as one would have hoped. I continue to have pain in my body - I suspect many others who went through the mill also still have pain.

I have told the story many times of how Pattabhi Jois injured me on my first trip to India. But I have always told it in the context of how he healed me of the injury and the significant lessons I learned in the process. I had put a gloss on the story and had not fully acknowledged the negative aspect of it.

I was a complete beginner. I did not properly understand what had happened to me, so I accepted it as part of the process. But the truth is that Pattabhi Jois badly injured me several times and did not take responsibility for it but made me feel there was something wrong with me that had to be corrected.

~

It was only after reading Karen Rain’s story and for the first time really accepting what Pattabhi Jois had done to her that I began to properly reassess my own experience. I had consistently experienced a great deal of pain in Mysore, much of it due to Pattabhi Jois cranking on me. Why had I stayed? What had allowed me to stay? Even though I thought my eyes had been open for a long time, it was not completely so – I still harbored denial about my own experience with him. 

This is the case for many of you out there. I know we also had wonderful times in Mysore but we only want to have happy memories. We have glossed over the bad parts to make a nice shiny memory. It does not serve us. It is denial. Letting go of it is a liberation, an opportunity for deeper healing and growth. 

There are probably many more people who were injured by Pattabhi Jois than were sexually assaulted. There are 100s, perhaps 1000s. Many just left the shala and never came back. We don't hear their voices.

There are also many practitioners like myself who continued to practice and were also injured in Mysore – we have rationalized the experience and forgiven Pattabhi Jois.

Brad Ramsey: “In a lot of schools of yoga, if it hurts you are doing something wrong.  And if you were a perfect physical and mental specimen already then I can see how that might be true. If you are altering the status quo in an unpleasant way you might want to stop, if you were already perfect. But if you feel growth coming from it and see things changing that need to be changed… The series is just a mold towards a body that meets the requirements for spiritual advancement, I believe. I don’t think you can get there without pain. I never met anybody who really did…”

Pattabhi Jois taught that pain was due to impurities in the body, so we took responsibility for our pain. We had a choice – if it was too painful we could leave. If we chose to stay we accepted all the pain as part of the process. We saw positive change happening – we became healthier, stronger, more flexible, more disciplined. He seemed to have healing powers – so we gave him the benefit of the doubt.

KPJ told us how intense his teacher was – he was very proud of it - it made us feel that we should have the same pride in him and in the intensity of our practice. We felt like warriors – perhaps like Nietzsche we dreamed of the superman, like him we declared: "What does not kill me makes me stronger!"

There were a lot of people who found the going too intense in Pattabhi Jois’ shala – I suppose we thought of ourselves as superior in some way. Our sadhana exacted sacrifice and dedication - even pain. Those who could not take it left – they made all kinds of excuses but our perspective was that they just could not take the heat.

I don't think Pattabhi Jois was evil or violent – we had a great deal of affection for him. We learned a great deal from him. Sometimes his adjustments were too forceful or careless and they caused injury – I don't think he ever intended to hurt students though sometimes his adjustments were made with too much force and passion. 

But there are clearly traces of himsa that were transmitted to KPJ from Krishnamacharya and also from his upbringing. Pattabhi Jois ran away from home at age 12 because he was tired of the beatings and humiliations he was receiving from his family. His son Manju did the same thing - he kept running away for the same reasons (KPJ beat his children too) - after their first trip to the USA Manju stayed and remained estranged from his father for several decades.

K's teaching methodology was very strict. He used to beat them if they could not perform an asana correctly. He demanded complete obedience, humility and respect from his students. If students stepped out of line they were punished and humiliated.

There are elements of this in Pattabhi Jois' teaching. You had to please him in order to progress. If you showed impatience or ego, you would be humiliated and punished by his displeasure and a long wait to learn new postures.

Sharath and many other teachers have embodied this way of teaching. At a recent teacher training at the institute in Mysore a student who was being assisted in a backbend fell down and broke a vertebra - he was told by Sharath to get up and do it again. He walked out of the training.

On the subject of himsa, there has been a huge elephant in the room for decades that no one has spoken about publicly: the suicide of Pattabhi Jois' son, Ramesh.

Based on witness accounts of those close to Ramesh, his father had a significant role in causing him to take his own life.

~

Brad’s statement about practice should be considered carefully: 

“The series is just a mold towards a body that meets the requirements for spiritual advancement, I believe. I don’t think you can get there without pain. I never met anybody who really did…”

The idea that perfection of asana and the physical body leads to spiritual advancement has become a central mantram of Ashtanga Yoga. This is false. Asana practice is therapy – it creates a foundation – it allows us to sit. That is when real yoga starts. 

You will notice that Brad says: "a body that meets the requirements..." he does not mention the mind. This is the missing piece.

Himsa is the antithesis of yoga. Too often tapasic fervor leads to injury. The first principle of yoga is ahimsa - can a system of yoga violate this principle at the outset?

Because of our attachment to practice, to our story, to Pattabhi Jois we gloss everything including pain as good and pure. As Patanjali says – raga, attachment, makes us see the object of our love (the impure) as pure. We don't recognize that the emptiness and craving that causes this attachment perverts our perception of the purity (impurity) of the thing that we think will remove our pain.

The statements about his sexual abuse are forcing us to open our eyes wide – it is an opportunity for us to separate the truth from the fiction we have woven about our practice and relationship to him. 

Teachers have a particularly difficult time because they not only have to consider what yoga means personally but also have to present what they teach. In presenting Ashtanga Yoga we reference and buy into certain levels of the narrative, the history, the purpose etc. even if we do not necessarily wholeheartedly know what we are saying is true. There is further motivation to gloss over ambiguities and cultivate an image of authenticity, depth and spirituality around KPJ and the practice to increase the attractiveness and financial value of what we teach.

We created stories about our experience but none of them are true – they are stories that help us resolve incongruences (such as the coincidence of pain/injury and healing/evolution) in our experience.

Some of these stories became solidified at the earliest stage of practice, when we are most open, vulnerable and impressionable and so the delusion they have created runs deep. 

We wanted to have a perfect system and a perfect Guru. We have promoted our teachings on this premise – we gave Pattabhi Jois the benefit of the doubt in so many ways and have internalized that acceptance. Now we have to accept that there may be other deep flaws in Pattabhi Jois’ teaching.

It is remarkable that I did not recognize Pattabhi Jois' harmful actions through the injuries I received. We were engaged in a mutual gaslighting that denied the truth of our experience. However, as I started to explore the yoga sutra, I read:

"In the presence of one who is established in Ahimsa (non-violence), all creatures cease to feel hostility."

The culture at AYRI was highly competitive. Students attempted to be as "yogic" as possible, but there was a great deal of jealousy, narcissism and self-righteousness barely beneath the surface. There was not a feeling of peace and contentment, more often there was ambition, envy, frustration, injury and pain. This did not feel like an environment one would expect in the presence of an evolved being established in non violence.

Some people have said: "Pattabhi Jois was not a great yogi but at least he was a great asana teacher!"

This now needs to be reconsidered.

Tuesday, December 25, 2018

How We did not Acknowledge Sexual Assault Happening Before our Very Eyes

I practiced at the “old shala” – the Ashtanga Yoga Research Institute in Mysore from 1991-2000 and spent around 2.5 years at the institute over 7-8 trips. During that time I was aware of only one claim of sexual assault against Pattabhi Jois. A few weeks into my first trip a ripple of gossip spread through the small community of students: a female student had angrily demanded her money back from Jois claiming that he had sexually assaulted her.

I sought the council of senior female students who were there practicing at the time. They reassured me that his intentions were benign. They said he had also “taught” them mula bandha by touching them on the perineum or anus. At this point I had not personally witnessed anything and could only accept the interpretation of his devoted long-term female students. And so we forgot her story.

But it did make me start to watch his adjustments more closely. Some of them were definitely beyond the edge of what would be considered acceptable in normal circumstances but because he gave them to men and women in equal measure it was hard to see any perverse intention.



Photo: Blaine Michioka -
from:http://yogaconciencia.blogspot.com/2012/04/guruji-pattabhijois-reliquias.html

We questioned the appropriateness in context: should this be regarded as a purely therapeutic or medical context? Does that justify the intimateness of the adjustments?

He already had quite a large belly and he tended to use it as a “prop” while he was adjusting. In a good number of the standing poses such as Trikonasana, Prasarita Padottanasana etc, he would stand behind the student and press his belly against his/her buttocks while adjusting. In other poses he would lie down on top of the student using his full body.

I looked to see if he was pressing his genitals on students but concluded that his belly was in the way. I am now realizing that for students who were shorter (such as Karen Rain), when they bent forward and he adjusted them from behind, his genitals made contact with theirs.

After his wife Amma died in 1997 there was a huge outpouring of affection from the students. Pattabhi Jois cried every day for weeks. Students came to sit with him every day and this started a tradition of hugging and kissing that continued thereafter. From this time on, female students regularly received a full body hug and a squeeze of the buttocks both after back-bending with Jois and on leaving the shala after practice, they would also sit on his lap and kiss him on the lips. (edit 12/27/18: this was happening with some students much earlier - but became the norm for all female students afterwards)

But there was no talk of sexual assault, although there were sometimes whispers of salacious gossip. I heard, for instance, that Pattabhi Jois had been arrested on a trip to Hawaii when a female student made accusations against him. Was this just a case of misunderstanding? Charges were apparently not pressed when Pattabhi Jois’ senior students were able to explain his actions.

So there was a confusing blurred line - was Pattabhi Jois’ touch loving and with good intention or was he getting some sexual gratification? His life otherwise seemed to have so much integrity that we could not believe that his intentions were not pure.

~

There have always been dissonant voices in Mysore. Some students complained about Pattabhi Jois’ adjustments, some about his supposed love of money, others were jealous or ambitious and frustrated etc..

Of course there have always been dissonant voices outside Mysore we should have listened to more carefully – teachers such as David Williams and Danny Paradise have long warned students away from Mysore because of the injuries and sexual assaults that happened there.

But those who decided to be there and to dedicate time to learning from Jois had the choice: listen to all the dissonant voices or try to pursue one’s spiritual sadhana. Those who were “serious” about practice tried to avoid those who were always critical. And so, not seeing any concrete evidence of sexual assault nor hearing of any further incidents, we assumed his actions were benign and if anyone started bad-talking him we would try not to listen.

There were several other factors which helped to obscure his actions: students use drishti during practice, the room soon became crowded, it was usually pretty dark, there was no place to easily observe the room from outside - so we were able to avert our eyes.

But the main reason was that we were not open to hearing criticism of Pattabhi Jois. His purity was sacred to us: it gave his words and instructions authority. We were invested in the practice, and in teaching it - it was in our interest that he was the real thing. Maybe we would admit he had some minor human weaknesses but not to the fact that he blatantly violated the most basic yogic and human moral principles. We wanted to believe because to think otherwise would undermine everything we were striving for. So there was a kind of willful blindness.

Whatever anyone says, Pattabhi Jois was a guru (not a sat guru). He told you what to do and you did it. If you lacked motivation he would put you there himself. There was no question, no debate. Even outside class he was not available for a conversation about your practice - you were simply expected to do it, no complaints, no expectations, with faith and devotion.

So there was no place to address anything that happened between the teacher and student, no opportunity to question or express doubt. We were simply supposed to have faith in the teacher, in the system: he told us he had a perfect guru and was teaching the perfect system - how could we question that?

There was also no place within the Mysore Ashtanga community to express discomfort - you were either in, in which case you swallowed your doubt, or out, in which case you left the community and practice. It is hard enough speaking about being sexually assaulted but how difficult would it be to discuss with people who are so invested in the purity of the perpetrator?

I was in Mysore with Karen Rain a couple of times and do not remember her saying anything about sexual assault. I remember her speaking negatively about Jois and as a result did not spend much time in her company. I can understand why it would have been so difficult for her to have spoken out, how she also somehow wanted to believe. To some extent we all colluded and even years after the fact, the blindness it engendered is difficult to cure.

A few years ago I was showing some footage I had recorded in Mysore in the late 90s to a female student who was in the video. As we watched, I became disturbed by the way Jois was touching her. I had never noticed this before and I said to her - don’t you think something is not right? But she had no memory of discomfort and only positive things to say about her time in Mysore.

I had watched the video many times but I had never noticed this before. It made me reflect on how selective we are in taking in information, how easy it is to filter. I went back and looked at the video again after these allegations resurfaced and found evidence of several clear cases of sexual assault.

It also makes me reflect on how people see the same event with different eyes. What is acceptable or even pleasurable for one person is an abuse of trust, a violation  for another. In a recent conversation with senior female students, they recounted how in trikonasana or pasasana Pattabhi Jois attempted to adjust them by holding their breast - their response, with humor, was to move his hand to the shoulder and say: "No Guruji not there! Here!"

Since the 90s, allegations, videos and images have surfaced periodically in the media. While the steady stream of new cases has certainly rocked the faith of many, the question always remained: what was his intention? Could one see a motive other than that he was giving an adjustment?

But today our understanding of sexual assault has become more refined: sexual assault does not have to be erotic in nature – abuse takes place when someone physically controls another person’s body and violates them without consent. This puts our historical assessment of Pattabhi Jois’ adjustments in a new light: we were focusing on his motive or intention not on the harmful effect of his actions.

~

It is with a heavy heart that I feel I need to speak about these things. These facts are out there and need to be acknowledged. We need to come to terms with these facts and understand how they have intertwined with our own practice and personal relationship with Jois.

Many people are being mislead by deceptive talk about KPJ and Ashtanga Yoga - this deceit is part of a branding, marketing phenomenon which is participated in by 100s if not 1000s of individuals for financial gain and for power. These lies are an insult and further injury to those abused and injured by Jois.

In the near future, Matthew Remski will be publishing a book about the incidence of sexual, physical and psychological abuse in Ashtanga Yoga (as well as other lineages). He tried in vain to get anyone from within the Ashtanga community to talk to him. We all suspected his motives and no one would co-operate with his research. But he did focus our attention on the facts.

His book will be the assessment of an outsider, of someone who was never there, has received witness testimony but was not a witness himself. Even though he has been meticulous in gathering evidence his analysis of the how and why may be flawed, in which case we may have more confusion as a result.

For this reason I think it is wise for us to start to have a discussion about what we saw and experienced and what motivated us to avert our eyes or deny what was happening. Acknowledgement is important for all of us but we also need to find ways to understand what happened and why and to discuss where we can go from here.

Monday, October 1, 2018

Deafening Silence and the Importance of Making a Statement.


There has been a deafening silence from the Ashtanga community about the revelations of sexual assault perpetrated by Pattabhi Jois. I hope it is because people are in shock, not because they are sticking their heads deeper into the sand.
  
I am sure many people desire to say something but don't know what or how to say it. There are also many who are afraid to speak or question if it is their place to say something. There are, of course, some who are still in deep denial. There are many personal reasons to resist speaking out. But this silence looks like a cover-up, a denial that these events took place.

The victims need to hear your voices! They do not believe you have accepted the truth.

Many probably feel pressure to make an apology. Are we responsible for covering up the harmful nature of his actions? What is our role in promoting his name which simultaneously undermines the credibility of the witness testimony and causes further damage and pain?

It will take time to see how deep the rabbit hole of self-deception has gone. It will take time to see and accept with open eyes what actually happened. Only then will we feel ready to speak about this. Only then will it feel appropriate to say something.

But in the meantime there is something we must all do. Even if we are not ready to apologize, it is necessary for the victims to know that we have heard them, that we have compassion for their suffering and accept their truth.

It is not enough to say: “I never saw anything, I never experienced anything.” If you believe the victims but are trying to pretend that everything is OK – where will that lead? Yoga practice is a movement towards truth – digging your head in the sand just perpetuates your delusion and the pain of the victims.

The first principle of Ashtanga Yoga is ahimsa – not harming – the positive expression of ahimsa is love, compassion, care – has Pattabhi Jois’ himsa become institutionalized? Where is the compassion? Is the only concern self-preservation, maintenance of power and revenue producing structures?

The evidence is out there plain to see. Denial of the truth is himsa – acknowledging the harm caused by Pattabhi Jois is compassion. It will help the victims and it will help us to move towards healing and truth.

I urge all Ashtanga teachers and students of Pattabhi Jois to say something.

The question is: can Sharath make a statement? Until he does, others fear to do so. They fear being struck off the official register of teachers. In the absence of a statement from Sharath, it looks like the official statement of the KPJAYI is denial that anything untoward has happened. He has probably known more about this than anyone for many years and has not said anything about it publicly. On the contrary, he has done everything to cultivate an idea that his grandfather was a great yogi and saint.

He is thus in an impossible position: if he acknowledges abuse then he admits to dishonesty and manipulation of the ashtanga narrative for the purpose of consolidating power. If he says nothing or denies it he is equally seen as dishonest and responsible for causing more harm. He is damned either way. The first way will undermine his authority and power but save his humanity, the second way is to lose his soul and perpetuate a cult of deceit.

Without his guidance I know some elements within his student body are looking for ways to rebut and refute the evidence by undermining the credibility of those who have spoken out, thus causing further harm to the victims. It is therefore his duty to acknowledge the abuse and to apologize on behalf of the official Pattabhi Jois institute and curb the attacks.

We have profited from a system that has caused harm to others. Is that different from buying an item that has been produced by exploitation of labor or the environment? Our profit has come at the cost of others. We did not cause the harm but what gave us good (we have to question how much harm is hidden below the mental platitudes we feed ourselves) also caused others harm.

We cannot get away from this fact – we are not responsible but we are connected. And we have the power to increase their pain and to reduce it.

Acknowledgement does not seem like a big deal but it is huge. It is vitally important, it is our duty.

If yoga has been working for you then you will have the compassion to recognize this and do something. If yoga has not been working for you, then you will continue to follow your own self-interest and profit.

Friday, September 28, 2018

Pattabhi Jois #metoo and the Supreme Court Nomination Process

Watching Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony against Donald Trump’s supreme court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, one could not help seeing the parallels in the Ashtanga community’s assessment of Pattabhi Jois’ guilt or innocence.

A woman with nothing to gain personally and with everything to lose, courageously speaks out about being sexually assaulted by a man held in the highest esteem by his community. The closing of ranks around the favored candidate has nothing to do with a sense for truth and everything to do with preserving and promoting power and control.

Her honesty is in question, not his. His rebuttal is the lack of corroborating witnesses. Without the support of a witness or evidence other than her memory, her testimony is doubted and her honesty and integrity are attacked.

We have seen the same distrust of testimony in the case of Pattabhi Jois but in this case we do have a lot of corroborating evidence. In the first place there is multiple witness testimony and secondly we have a lot of photographic and video evidence. Nonetheless, victims who have spoken out have been subject to attack and attempts to undermine their credibility.

When I watched Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony I was deeply moved. What courage it took, what personal cost. Many people have said this is a great day for women – it's a great day for humanity! Also an awful day – we see both truth, courage and selflessness as well as power, deceit and self interest on display.

Women are pushing back against the patriarchal system that has dominated society for so long – this is a wonderful thing - a social revolution. We sorely need a feminization of culture and society, of power structures and business models.

They need our help. These solo voices calling out the deeply ingrained male dominated control of all things – politics, law, media, business, yoga, narrative in general… stand vulnerable and alone. Their experience, although often in the presence of others, was perpetrated in a subversive, secret or hidden way – there were often no other witnesses – or witnesses who were deliberately looking the other way.

Their abusers were people of power, people who commanded high respect, people whose words were trusted, respected and even lauded as divine. It is truly a marvel to observe one woman’s vulnerable words taken in the balance against the entire history of male chauvinism as integrated into such icons of male power. What courage it takes to challenge such institutionalized power and authority!

It is only because these figures are in the public eye that their crimes attract attention and close scrutiny but this is not even the tip of the iceberg. We live in a society riddled with violence and sexual assault. It is estimated that 20-25% of girls are sexually assaulted before they reach adulthood, 35% of the perpetrators are family members and 96% are male. Such statistics should make us weep!

I can only imagine how deeply damaging and distressing being a victim of sexual assault must be – to then have the courage to speak out – not out of a personal motive but out of compassion for all those who could possibly be protected in the future takes huge courage.

Even if we have not been subject to attack, our children and our loved ones are all vulnerable. We should be highly motivated to find truth and healing. It is true that we have so much shame and discomfort and complicity in perpetuating the power structures – if we want to move forward and find healing, we have to live with our discomfort and complicity.

To all victims of abuse – we hear you! We believe you!

Please do not stop – you are changing the world – thank you for your courage!

Friday, August 31, 2018

Pattabhi Jois and #Metoo


Dear fellow students of Pattabhi Jois and practitioners of Ashtanga Yoga,

We have been silent for too long. Most of us have witnessed or experienced both physical injury and sexually invasive touch by Guruji. Those who continued to practice with him and promote his teaching found ways to rationalize his behavior. Many of us lived with ambivalence - were his actions intentional or accidental? Today we can be in no doubt that Pattabhi Jois sexually assaulted many of his female students:

https://thewalrus.ca/yogas-culture-of-sexual-abuse-nine-women-tell-their-stories/

If you have not done so already, please take a moment to read Karen Rain’s testimony:

https://karenrainashtangayogaandmetoo.wordpress.com/

It is not easy to do. If you practice Ashtanga Yoga, if you love Guruji, if you teach Ashtanga - reading this will distress you. It threatens the whole purpose behind your yoga practice, it threatens your business and it undermines a relationship that may be very close to your heart, but it is your duty, not just to the victims of abuse, but also to yourself.

I think by now most of us have come to accept that Pattabhi Jois' adjustments were questionable at times but to recognize that he actively and persistently sexually assaulted some of his students is very difficult to accept and acknowledge for several reasons:

To acknowledge that one has been pursuing a "spiritual practice" with devotion to a sexual abuser with the implicit ramifications for one's own practice would be hugely distressing. The closer a teacher was to Guruji, the more their authority rests on his - if his authority is undermined, so is theirs. To speak out would be to risk alienation from the Jois family and the Ashtanga community. The ramifications are potentially damaging to our financial, social and spiritual wellbeing. 

I believe it is important for all of us to acknowledge the truth. If we deny the victims' testimony, we stand in the way of their healing process: if their words cannot be shared and accepted as true, it is very difficult for them to find release from their pain. But it is also important for us to be honest for our own sake! What is yoga if it is not a path of truth?

One of Pattabhi Jois' most quoted sayings is: "Do your practice and all is coming!" Guruji practiced for decades and what came to him included behavior that caused harm to many people. Can we accept this as yoga? Do Guruji’s imperfections invalidate his teachings? This is a question we are compelled to ask. 

~

My initial reaction to Karen’s account was to question/doubt her experience: If she was being abused on a daily basis, why did she continue a daily practice with Pattabhi Jois for two years? I wanted to find justification for rejecting her testimony. Then I reflected on my own experience: Guruji had badly injured me several times in my first few months of practice and thereafter and I continued to come back for more: the desired fruits were so attractive that we were prepared to go through a great deal of suffering to grasp at them. 

I wanted to find independent confirmation and so I went back and reviewed old video footage of Jois teaching in Mysore and saw several clear cases of sexual harassment. Then I also spoke to a member of a small inner circle of students who hosted him on his world tours and who confirmed that they had known about a persistent "problem" of sexual assault going back over many years. 

Why has no one with this knowledge spoken out? If a teacher has been knowingly denying Guruji's sexual abuse and promoting his teachings as a spiritual practice then he has participated in cultivating a deception in a most cult-like way. 

By sending students to study with him, he is also open to allegations of "grooming". These failures could be hugely damaging to a teacher's reputation. But being close to the family would make it almost impossible to speak out, considering the pain it would cause them.

It is not surprising that almost no teachers have spoken out yet or acknowledged the truth. Teachers wanted to show how close they were to Guruji, how perfect that relationship was and how perfect their practice was in Mysore. This conferred authority and authenticity. To speak badly would be to undermine the brand and to alienate oneself from the source. But now to acknowledge one has had huge admiration, love, respect and has even represented and promoted a sexual abuser for many years will initiate a severe existential crisis. The truth will be acknowledged by all but it will take some time.

~

Since his death, Guruji has been elevated to a position of sainthood. Part of this promotion has been due to the book of interviews I collected and published with Eddie Stern as "Guruji: A Portrait of Sri K Pattabhi Jois" which paints a positive picture of his life and avoids exploring the issues of injury and sexual assault. In emphasizing only positive stories it has done more to cement the idea that he was a perfect yogi, which he clearly was not. 

By burnishing his image, we make it unassailable - it makes us doubt the testimony of those he abused. This causes further harm to those whose testimony we deny and to ourselves.

I would like to offer my sincere apologies to all victims who were harmed by Guruji or by his teachings as passed through his students for my part in cultivating this image of perfection that denies the suffering and healing of many. I would also like to apologize for taking so long to write this - it was not easy to do.

I believe it is our duty to ourselves and to all those who were hurt by Guruji and whose words and truth and healing has been ignored and rejected for so long, to listen with open hearts, without judgment, without defensiveness, for to do otherwise is to cause more and more pain for everyone.