Recently an interview with Karen was released that I recommend watching*—especially if you are a serious ashtanga practitioner.
In the interview Karen talks of her experience over the course of several years studying in Mysore. She speaks about how within the ashtanga practice she felt she had “found her ticket” not as a career but as a path in life. Yet quite early on in her practice she began also to feel uncomfortable with some of the “assists,” and experienced cognitive dissonance and dissociation. She explains that this response happened in part because of the denial and language used by the ashtanga community and that she knew she would be condemned if she spoke up about it. Eventually she left Mysore and the ashtanga world, and not too long after stopped her practice altogether. Karen, like so many of us, minimized her experience and ignored it for many years. She also developed PTSD and some health issues during the 20 years she sublimated the experience.
Besides hearing Karen’s story first hand, the most powerful part of this interview to me is that, although it is clear through the tone in her voice and her presence just how hurt she has been, she, none the less, explains in level-headed terms, her experience. Using accurate language and explicit words to describe what happened allowed her—and me as the listener—to fully understand what she went through. Karen was traumatized, groomed and abused both sexually and spiritually by Pattabhi Jois.
For those of us who worked closely with Pattabhi Jois or who practice ashtanga now, using terms such as sexual abuse to describe his behavior can sound so harsh and loaded that the temptation is to reject the terms—along with Karen and others with similar stories—out of hand. Yet if you listen closely to the interview, Karen does not use these terms vindictively, but in context of standard clinical language used to describe sexual misconduct and abuse.
Karen is offering insight into a very troubling part of the lineage of ashtanga yoga if only we can hear it.
She is not suggesting we reject our practice or the lineage altogether. Instead she is encouraging us to look more closely and honestly at ourselves, our lineage, our preconceptions, our biases, and how we bring the ashtanga lineage forward. I think it is important that we do so.
For me it has been a turbulent time since when, in December, I posted an article on our website contemplating Pattabhi Jois’ behavior. For years I had found it confusing and troubling yet didn’t think of his behavior as abuse or assault. Like others who for various reasons were not impacted as deeply as Karen I was able to overlook, rationalize and deny the severity of the situation. I didn’t quite know what to do all those years, so I saw what I wanted to see and did virtually nothing.
Since my post I’ve thought extensively about the whole issue. I’ve communicated with Karen about her experience and I’ve learned about others besides Karen who were victimized. I also have talked to some in the ashtanga community who didn’t experience his “assists” as abuse, and still others who deny that he touched women in these ways. Yet when we hear of the profound suffering Karen and others experienced I think we all have the moral obligation to set our own perspective aside as we listen, and to respect those strong enough to tell us something we don’t want to hear.
We all have a long road ahead of us if we are to heal; each in our own way. There will be many steps ahead of us, and we must take them, carefully, consciously, attentively and one by one. I firmly believe that listening and communicating openly with one another is the first step; it is how we must begin if there is to be process of healing.
I am overdue in supporting the victims of Pattabhi Jois’ sexually abusive behavior by putting my biases and desire to rationalize how I didn’t see the situation clearly aside for now and by listening to what they have to say with an open mind and a welcoming heart. I am in the process of reexamining what I believe in, how the practices I do daily support or prevent me from seeing others as clearly as I am capable of.
I see this as a time when the ashtanga lineage has an opportunity to evolve into one that is founded in truth rather than avoidance or denial, openness rather than tunnel vision, caring for others rather than putting ourselves first. I will do my best to continue to question my conclusions over and over again. To continue listening to the perspective of others—those with whom I easily agree, but also, and perhaps especially, those who challenge what I say.
It is time too that I apologize publicly to anyone who was injured or harmed by Pattabhi Jois or by my actions or lack there of. I offer my sincere apology to anyone who was sexually abused or harmed in any way under my watch, to anyone who wanted to talk to me but felt they couldn’t, to those who mentioned things to me but minimized their story because I didn’t seem receptive. I am always available now to listen or talk about any of this by email (firstname.lastname@example.org), or if we are in the same place together, in person.
*I am not unilaterally recommending everything on Matthew Remski's website, where Karen's interview appears. At the same time, Matthew’s careful attention to Karen has helped her tremendously to face this real and difficult part of her life and to begin to heal, and for that I am very grateful.