In light of the recent refreshing, and sometimes stormy, climate of discussion and exposure around the issues of sexual abuse and harassment that has swept the entertainment, political and now the yoga worlds, I heave a huge sigh of relief. As a woman who has had my own harrowing experiences with male abuse of power, sexual assault, rape and betrayal of intimacy over the years I feel relief that these issues are becoming no longer taboo to discuss.
But I am also filled with sadness; the sadness that we as a species have treated each other with such callousness for thousands of years. I feel sadness too that I have not always known how to speak up, to stand up in my own defense or how to take action in the defense of others. And I feel sorry with the realization that even as we begin to air these injustices, we are tempted to sensationalize, leap to conclusions and condemnations, defiantly uniting in some important ways while driving wedges of deep division in other ways.
Recently it has come to the forefront that within the yoga community worldwide there have been numerous situations where well known and/or senior teachers have engaged in sexual misconduct toward students. These abuses have ranged from lewd comments, groping and inappropriate adjustments to rape. I am aware too that there have been many situations within various yoga lineages dating back for decades and centuries in which the main teacher or guru has perpetuated acts of sexual misconduct with their students. Some teachers have encouraged or forced sex between themselves and their followers while others have misled, mishandled or mentally and emotionally abused students. This has happened in the US as well as other countries throughout the world—including India.
There is something particularly foul about sexual misconduct in the context of yoga. Yoga is a path of insight into the roots of decency and desire, into both the glorious and the shadow sides of human nature. There is a deeply personal and, for many, an intimately spiritual aspect to yoga. Students often come to yoga in a vulnerable position pursuing balance, calm and a clarity of mind. The teacher is a guide on a delicate path of trust, truth and compassion. It is imperative that yoga teachers, like any spiritual guide, be impeccable in their relationships with their students. When, out of ego inflation, objectification of students, anger and a need for power, or for whatever reason, a yoga teacher sexually abuses a student it is not only hypocritical, but incredibly damaging to the student and the tradition. This kind of behavior can throw sincere and innocent students (and others) off the path for years if not lifetimes. It is tragic. Yet sexual misconduct within the yoga world is common.
In fact, it is well documented that my own teacher, Sri. K. Pattabhi Jois, (whom I love dearly) had certain “adjustments” that he gave to female students that were sexually invasive and inappropriate. One in particular that some have dismissed as an attempt to teach mula bandha was especially bad. I can say unequivocally that he never gave me that adjustment, but that I know he did give it to other women. I will also say that he did adjust me (and other students, both male and female) in Ubhaya Padangusthasana, elevating the student’s chest in such a way that with female students he had hands on their breasts.
These adjustments were sexually inappropriate and I wish he had never done them. On some level, I wish also that I had spoken publicly about them before now, but they were confusing and so much not in alignment with all of the other aspects of Pattabhi Jois that I knew, that I didn’t really know how to talk about them without disparaging the entire system. I can say that my experience was that he began doing these adjustments after foreign female students came to practice with him wearing very revealing Western-style clothing. To a provincial, orthodox Brahmin from a tiny village, who knows what these women looked like? Certainly they probably didn’t appear to be chaste or well bred. Around the same time, Western students stopped bowing to his feet in appreciation for class and instead began hugging and kissing him as a demonstration of gratitude. I am certain both of these things were mixed messages to him culturally.
Not to say that the scantily clad or overly effusive women were at fault for the sexually inappropriate adjustments. He was the teacher; even if he did misconstrue their message due to cultural differences, he should have seen through his own mind and through them. His behavior was wrong and it caused damage to many women, for which I, as one of his students, feel deep regret (as does Richard).
On several occasions his senior students and family asked him to stop. And he would. But by then students were programmed to line up in revealing yoga clothing and to hug him at the end of class. Time would pass and then the cycle would begin again. Until at one point senior students and family demanded in no uncertain terms that he stop, and he did. To my knowledge he never did any of those horrible assists again.
This has been a confusing part of my relationship to my teacher and to the yoga community as a whole. Why did he do this? Why didn’t I speak up strongly about the inappropriateness of the assists? Why didn’t other teachers? Why didn’t I make it my mission to expose his wrongdoings as a demonstration of an irreparable flaw in the Ashtanga system?
First and foremost, I don’t think that his perverse behavior is an irreparable flaw in the Ashtanga system. It is a system of practice that has worked for me. It has deepened and broadened into all the limbs of yoga for me and many other students over the years. So I do not see his behavior as a flaw in the system, but a flaw in the man. I still don’t understand why he did it, and I profoundly regret that he did, but his behavior is not a reflection on the system, his family, his senior teachers or students of Ashtanga. It is still a remarkable system of learning and transformation. I can say too that, in my experience, possibly due to this whole situation, most Ashtanga teachers—from the very top and throughout the lineage—are particularly careful that assists be without a hint of sexual undertone.
I think the reason why, until now, I have only spoken privately to students who ask about this is that I have such deep love for the practice (and ergo the teacher who brought me to it). This practice has saved my life. Pattabhi Jois had a direct and sweet teaching style (and he also had his flaws). He helped to transform my life in remarkably positive ways. His insistence that I not give in to the tendencies of my mind which wants always to rationalize its way out of truth and responsibility, his careful attentiveness and belief in the body’s ability to know from within, and his genuine kindness and humor beneath it all were profound teachings for me.