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 KPJ. 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 KPJ, 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 KPJ, 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!" KPJ practiced for decades and what came to him included behavior that caused harm to many people. Can we accept this as yoga? Do KPJ'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: KPJ 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 KPJ'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 KPJ, 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, KPJ 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.