Some people are natural artists, others athletes or astrophysicists. I’m a natural worrier. One of the very first things I remember my father telling me was, “Let’s cross that bridge when we get to it.” I worry until I have done everything I can to unravel and understand the pieces of the misaligned puzzle that is the object of my concern. I then worry until I do whatever I can to reassemble the puzzle in a way that feels right. Then I can stop worrying, until time to take the puzzle apart again.
For the past 9 months the ashtanga yoga puzzle has been eating away at me. I have been grappling with how to address the sexual, spiritual and physical abuse by Pattabhi Jois. Other pieces within the bigger picture of ashtanga have also become sources for worry: physical injury as a result of adjustments, power struggles and misuse of power, feelings and displays of anger and intolerance, avoidance and confusion in regard to all of the above. Plus there are pieces like splintering within communities, finger pointing, denial, fundamentalism and dismissal of statements and ideas without pause. The picture is made all the more confusing by two pieces specific to my personal experience of ashtanga: the underlying benefits I've experienced through the practice and my own personal relationship with Pattabhi Jois and his family. As I read back over this paragraph, no wonder I’ve been worried!
In December, when I first learned of the extent of the sexual abuse perpetrated by Pattabhi Jois, I was outraged. I was also hurt and angry. Made so as much by my own actions as by his—I had to reckon with the fact that I, among others, had participated in allowing the behaviors to continue and people to be hurt.
In the beginning the impulse to defend the context surrounding my perspectives and actions, as well as denial and confusion arose quickly. Yet I soon saw that until the victims of his abuse felt some foothold of healing, for me to voice my thoughts and process increased their suffering and made it possible for me to avoid facing what all this really meant. There were many days when I just wanted it all to go away.
But then on other days I felt strong. Fears associated with sticking my neck out, with not knowing whether I was doing the right thing now so as not to cause more suffering, and an underlying fear of the unknown would subside. On those days it seemed I was seeing clearly that I needed to first listen and support victims and then offer to participate in a non-defended, open dialogue in the spirit of trust. So that is what I have mostly done with the hope that a genuine, constructive, appropriately timed conversation would unfold and support healing, not only for victims, but for others within and outside the ashtanga community. I'd hoped that once those who'd been injured the most began to feel a sense of support and the possibility of healing, then perhaps the ashtanga lineage itself could organically begin to evolve and heal.
The hope for true acceptance, healing and change keep me going, and the catalyst for this process seems to be feedback. Recently I’ve gotten feedback that it would be helpful for me to be more specific and clear about what I believe and what I am doing to address the problems. I admit I have hesitated to do so through this medium of the internet because it is here--especially on social media--that I have witnessed and been the object of mean and unfair reactionary responses to attempts to address the issues. These kinds of responses fuel the flames of a different form of abuse. Though they may focus on certain problems for a time, they seem to alienate and, in the end, often cause division, dismissal and intolerance. They make us all become stuck.
I’ve thought that speaking out again might just make things worse. Then I learned just today that in one of his early teaching visits to Boulder Pattabhi Jois "adjusted" at least one female student by putting his finger in her vagina. This is digital rape! I did not know about the incident until today. The person who was assaulted in this way may have tried to tell me and I may have minimized her experience. I don't know. One thing I do know, though is the definition of digital rape. You can Google it. I know as well that had we known what he did we would have acted differently than we did at the time. Richard and I are horrified and apologize for our ignorance and the pain that it caused.
Clearly, there are some long standing problems within the ashtanga world and the ashtanga system. My experience is that problems can sometimes be addressed, even solved, just as puzzles are, by pulling the various pieces of the problem apart and out of context before reassembling them to revel the full picture.
So in this piece that’s what I’m doing; pulling things apart in an effort to facilitate healing. I speak of real and potential problems within the ashtanga system and how Richard and I address them. We do not have definitive answers or advice that we expect everyone to necessarily follow. We are not offering our context and our thoughts on why we and others have made mistakes in addressing the abuse and other problems over the years. Perhaps another time. But to do so now is likely to cause more harm to the women who recently have come forward to speak up.
We can only explain what seems right for us as individuals to do at this very moment. I offer this in a spirit of care, non-harming and respect.
THE VALUE OF PRACTICE:
I feel it's important to put it out there that although my world has in some ways been turned upside down with doubts, fears, confusion and dismay, through all this I have continued to practice every day--as has Richard. Not as an avoidance or as a ritualistic act, but because practicing (not only asana) helps me to become embodied and feel grounded. Feeling grounded allows me to feel safe. Feeling safe creates an internal atmosphere for my mind to settle, worrying to subside and more clear perception and thinking to spontaneously occur. Clearer perceptions and thoughts serve as guides; informing me when I’m taking actions more—or less—in line with my core beliefs.
Becoming embodied allows me to remember that I really am part of the interconnected whole that is this world. When I get glimpses of that, it is less likely I’ll drop into the “ignorance” of separateness where I can avoid taking action to uphold the conviction I have that I wish to do the best I can to help alleviate suffering.
1. Within the context of ashtanga yoga Pattabhi Jois sexually assaulted some of his students. Students were emotionally, spiritually and mentally injured by his behavior. On occasion students were also physically injured by some manual adjustments he gave. Even since his death and to this day in some ashtanga communities, sexual abuse and injury from adjustments continue.
Sexual and physical abuse and assault are abhorrent and unacceptable under any circumstance—especially in the context of a spiritual path as has occurred in ashtanga. Physical injury from adjustments is avoidable and detrimental to the entire internal methodology of yoga.
2. The ashtanga system can be perceived as linear, hierarchical and/or formulaic in nature. The series are numbered and we “advance” through the postures. This can be mistakenly taken to mean that an advanced practitioner is one who can do “advanced” poses, rather than one who is tuned in to their internal experience and who is genuinely nice to others.
Seeing ashtanga in this linear way holds the door open for rigid thinking and can propagate an atmosphere for competitive rather than contemplative practice.
3. In many studios poses are doled out by the teacher based on external criteria, such as binding in a pose. This may be good if the teacher uses it to keep the student safe or give them insight into their mind and ego. But it also is fertile ground for disaster; establishing a power dynamic between teacher and student that can sour into an abuse of power. Abuse of power may manifest for students as consciously or unconsciously giving your power away to the teacher. For teachers, who have the upper hand in this power dynamic, it can manifest as fanaticism, narcissism, demands for obedience and loyalty—the stripping of another’s intelligence.
As teachers, students may want to “give us their power,” imagining they were helped, even healed, by us (rather than the process of yoga). They may want to put us on pedestals. If we succumb to these sorts of flattery and temptation, then true abuse of power is inevitable.
4. Manual and verbal adjustments and assists are an inherent, and potentially excellent, part of the ashtanga system. However, as well as establishing an atmosphere for learning, unskillful, rote or ego-driven assists can result in physical, sexual or mental abuse and injury. If the power dynamic of the teacher/student relationship is unhealthy, the stage for abuse, injury, denial, rationalization, minimization and perpetuation of the problems is set.
Creating an atmosphere in which feedback is solicited, welcomed and responded to as skillfully as possible is a means of truncating this pattern of injury, potential abuse and manipulation of power.
5. The seemingly unchangeable ritual that superficially defines ashtanga yoga can lead students and teachers astray. Rather than recognizing the structure as a tool for seeing through the ego, when misperceived it can result in a lack of inquiry and communication, fundamentalism, injury, abuse and a leaning toward cult mentality.
It is very important to continually listen, re-evaluate, drop preconceptions, look more closely at our beliefs and motivations and to adjust accordingly as we act with kind, compassionate intentions. To avoid slipping into a "cult" mentality, it is equally important to allow for differing interpretations, perceptions, doubts, questioning, suggestions and feedback from sources near and far from our closest friends.
Richard and I both apologize to those who have been hurt by us, Pattabhi Jois, or within the ashtanga practice. We also apologize for the roles we played in allowing the problems within ashtanga—in particular Pattabhi Jois’ sexually abusive behavior—to be glossed over or go unchecked for years.
We have always strived, in our old studio and our classes to create an atmosphere of safety, non-injury and intelligent, non-competitive practice. Nonetheless, recently we got feedback that not all students have felt comfortable telling us of injury or sexual harassment they experienced from some of the teachers at our studio. That they felt we minimized an experience they attempted to describe and therefore could not express the extent of the problem and their suffering. We apologize for this and feel grateful for the feedback.
In support of victims of Pattabhi Jois’ behaviors, and my own oversights and mistakes, I have reached out and listened to a number of victims. I’ve encouraged others within the ashtanga community to do so too as I think it is the vital first step toward healing. Richard and I have initiated and engaged in public (and private) discussions with students and teachers about the problems and denials, as well as actions that might benefit the victims and the evolution of yoga practice and community. We listen carefully and change our actions and opinions when we feel necessary, based on new information.
Not having a studio any more, the actions Richard and I have taken in an effort to work toward some restorative justice have been on a personal level. We have removed from our website photos and content of Pattabhi Jois that we felt was idolizing him.
We have chosen to leave reference to Pattabhi Jois on the lineage page of our site. Yet we will closely reevaluate what we say about him, the lineage and the teachings in light of all of these topics discussed here. As yet, however, we have not re-written that page. That will come.
Richard has been less proactive than me on this front. I’ve heard from some that they are disappointed by his lack of participation in the online dialogue and in reaching out directly to those who've been hurt. I also know that some of his statements on podcasts came across as if he doesn't care and is in denial. Unfortunately, the statements hurt, rather than helped victims.
Richard moves at his own pace and in his own time--as do we all. I live and work with him and see him every day gradually coming to grips with the situation. We talk about it a lot. From the beginning he has been deeply troubled by it. He has expressed to me and some others that he has been struggling to find the most truthful, authentic and supportive ways to express his sadness, disappointment and disgust at the needless harm and suffering that has occurred due to Pattabhi Jois’s behavior, while the true insight and depth of the yoga tradition was being ignored. He also deeply regrets any role he played in the perpetuation of the problems.
I assume he is not alone in reckoning with all of this. I think one thing that will help victims heal and ashtanga to redefine itself is to allow one another to process this complex and painful situation without immediately pouncing upon each other with accusations and disdain. I hope our community will cultivate tolerance for individual differences. I hope those who need time to process this will be give some time and that we each cradling one another in our hearts while continuing to hold each other's feet to the fire of intelligence and discernment so that in a lasting and caring way we can support an environment of change.
Richard and I are making a renewed effort to re-establish guidelines for all of our classes, workshops and intensives, underscoring our intention to have transparency, to listen deeply and to respond appropriately. We hope we make it clear that we welcome an ongoing, open invitation for feedback. We give a list of teaching principles to students who work with us. These last 9 months have inspired us to add to that list.
ADDITIONAL TEACHING PRINCIPLES:
- At the beginning of all teaching we will ask students to let us know if they have an injury, if they do not want to be assisted or if they become uncomfortable during an assist.
- We will never offer nor will we tolerate sexually ambiguous or abusive adjustments, comments or behaviors. They are off limits. This applies across the board; from us to students and our assistants, from assistants to students, and between students.
- We will consider assists carefully before offering them and will be clear in our intentions as we assist.
- We will work with students as individuals in terms of how we suggest details for practice, poses, and study in an effort to keep them safe while encouraging them to deepen in their learning.
- We will work to teach students how to customize and individualize their practices in ways that are appropriate to their circumstances.
- We will not present Pattabhi Jois, or anyone else, on a pedestal.
- We will be open to discussing publicly and in the spirit of truthfulness, integrity and owning our own mistakes, the problems and benefits we see within the ashtanga lineage and system of practice.
- We will encourage students to think for themselves, to read original texts, to study, practice and question.
- We will listen deeply to what and how students give us feedback in an effort to curtail minimizing stories and information shared.
- We will do our best to help students avoid injury.
- We will work to create an atmosphere of mutual respect and trust with students, teachers and others.
- Knowing that physical or sexual abuse, mental or physical injury that occurs within the context of one’s practice can be difficult to address with teachers, we will strive to create an environment in which students feel safe communicating with us.
- Although there will always be the teacher/student roles within classrooms, we will respect students as individuals and will encourage students to relate to us as fellow human beings rather than putting us on pedestals.
- We will listen with open minds to feedback. When receiving feedback will pause to consider it and check in with the one giving the feedback to make sure they feel heard.
- We aim to keep lines of communication open between those who’s opinions concur as well as with those who’s views differ from our own. In this way we intend to curtail misuse of power, slipping into fundamentalist perspectives and truncating the powerful learning process which can occur when practicing yoga.,
- We believe that the function of a community of teachers and students is that we keep each other in check. We will do our part.
- We aspire to be genuinely helpful and to keep alive within ourselves and those who study with us a spirit of inquisitiveness, kindness and honesty.
Having pulled things apart, I am in no rush to piece this puzzle back together. Perhaps it will be useful to some, perhaps not. It is certainly not my intention to cause more harm. Instead, my intention is to no longer allow fear and vulnerability to prevent me from being transparent as a step toward helping others to feel safe doing the same.