I am signing this Pledge to acknowledge the harm that has been done in the name of Ashtanga Yoga and which I participated in from Mar 1999 on my first trip to Mysore until Sep 2018 when I tendered my resignation via email as an authorized teacher with the KPJAYI.
When Karen Rain’s account of Pattabhi Jois sexually abusing her surfaced on Facebook in Nov 2017 during the #MeToo movement my default reaction was to hold space for her testimony. I struggled with cognitive dissonance and made some inadequate and harmful responses at the time, but I immediately understood that her testimony needed to be reckoned with and supported. My mind resisted, I went through many of the gas-lighting rationalizations that have become familiar responses from the ashtanga community, particularly minimization and interpretation of events of which I had no direct knowledge. I also felt that Pattabhi Jois’s intentions were misunderstood. I faulted him for not obtaining consent and for taking liberty with someone’s body without any empathy for how it made them feel, but not for intending to sexually assault his students. After reading victim testimony, having discussions with victims and witnesses and having done a lot of soul searching, I have since come to see that Pattabhi Jois’s actions went far beyond intimate adjustments that were open to misinterpretation and realize that his actions were intentional, harmful and based on his own need for power and gratification. When I tried to see beyond the projection that I had built around Pattabhi Jois, what I found was a series of memories that made me certain that this was not an open debate.
I can only apologize to the victims whose accounts of assault I weighed and judged before taking their testimony at face value. Due process is important, but since Pattabhi Jois is dead we only have the court of public opinion. I am impressed with the victims who remain clear and strong while their testimony is attacked in the court of public opinion. Signing this pledge is one small attempt to make amends for that.
In my inner searching, I first remembered that from 2000-2003 I didn’t return to Mysore and contemplated never returning because I was disillusioned with Pattabhi Jois. I since have realized the many ways that I was groomed by photos in shalas, hagiographies, and teacher testimony widespread in the yoga community to project infallibility onto Pattabhi Jois. I perceived an inner need for a guru to guide me towards the acceptance that I thought would be granted through yoga. When I met Pattabhi Jois, I showered him with affection and while I grew a lot as a result of my travel to India, my discipline and practice, and my faith, I also saw his attachment to money and his treatment of women. The way he kissed women on the mouth and massaged their buttocks made me feel uncomfortable. I remember several intense conversations in the Post Office House, where I was staying in Lakshmipuram in 1999 where students were talking about Pattabhi Jois kissing women on the mouth and making irreverent jokes about some of the adjustments. The adjustment in supta hasta padangusthasana was nicknamed the “penetration pose”. Some laughed this off, some excused it because of his age (he was 84 at the time). Others got really upset at the irreverence. I don’t remember hearing anyone say that Pattabhi Jois was assaulting them*, but it wasn’t a safe space to disclose in that way. What I do know is that the assault was openly discussed. I think at 25 years old, while it bothered me, I wasn’t mature enough to call it sexual assault and consciously recognize it in that way. I assumed that if it was serious then someone would say or do something. I didn’t have the courage or education at that time to be that someone. I wasn’t educated in the dynamics of rape culture. I minimized the assault by using euphemisms like “dirty old man” and “flawed.” These are the same euphemisms that we are still hearing from Jois apologists to minimize and excuse sexual assault. My desire for my own development and the acceptance and joy that came from novel experiences in a foreign land with interesting people had me center my own experience and disrupted my ability to empathize and recognize what I likely wouldn’t have tolerated in different circumstances.
These memories are enough for me to know that the assaults did happen even if I didn’t see the full extent of the assaults or realize how much suffering they actually caused. However, with multiple victim testimonies and first hand witness accounts my own memories aren’t necessary. The victims can speak for themselves.
I apologize for my own part in enabling the ongoing assault from 1999 when I first traveled to Mysore until 2009 when Pattabhi Jois died. Because I was able to minimize the assault, I could compartmentalize the discomfort I felt and relegate what I witnessed to a human flaw. I even congratulated myself for my maturity in being able to see Pattabhi Jois as human and make the distinction between him as a guru and a man. I sympathized with him and felt protective over him because of the demands of the community. On this shaky ground I built a reverential relationship to a sex offender and promoted him as a master.
I’ve spent a lot of time reflecting these past years to figure out how that happened. I’ve spoken to victims, I’ve taken trauma sensitivity training, I’ve taken yoga therapy training, I’ve spoken to my peers, I’ve sought counseling and spoken to experts outside of ashtanga yoga, I’ve spoken to my students past and present. I spoke in glorified terms about Pattabhi Jois and groomed students who I then recommended to go study with him. It was reported to me that when Pattabhi Jois would come on tour I would simultaneously recommend students to practice with him and warn them that he can be a little “hands-y”. I was shocked when a former student told me that because I had completely forgotten.
Many of the dynamics that enabled the abuse to go unacknowledged for so long still exist in the ashtanga community and are in some ways stronger. The authoritarian power structure in the ashtanga yoga lineage sometimes creates a dynamic that can leave students always feeling like they are not doing enough or in the correct way. As a teacher, I’ve taught as a representative of the Jois method with the objective of making sure that people continue to practice. I’ve tried to work benevolently within the system to empower students to make safe choices around their body and their practice while still fitting into the structure that I had invested so much time and effort in. I had built a lot of my identity around my position as an experienced authorized teacher. I walked a tight rope of using my power and position to give practitioners permission to practice in ways that made them feel safe and empowered but staying within the system. I can’t work within the system anymore. I shouldn’t have to interpret the system and grant permission so that the power dynamic of the system does no harm. If the dynamic harms people it requires structural change.
I recognize that I have benefitted tremendously through my association with the KPJAYI and many others have had positive experiences. However, having taught classes and workshops internationally I have had innumerable instances where practitioners and teachers have expressed doubt and ambivalence about the method. I have even had these conversations with leaders in the community who have privately expressed doubt while publicly promoting the method. I have been one of those community leaders. I’ve had times of faith and times of doubt. What I have come to believe is that practice does not need to be static, it can be responsive and adaptable and still be effective. It is only the rigid application of the practice in a way that does not listen to and empower the well being of practictioner’s that is to blame, not any inadequacy on the part of practitioners. Instead of interpreting the method to encourage practitioners to continue I am more interested in holding space for practitioners and equipping them with tools that will empower them to come to their own conclusions and methods around the practice. I recognize the many times and ways that I have valued the system over the account of the practitioner.
In addition to resigning my authorization, I am closing my shala in Fort Lauderdale on Nov 25th. The reasons are complicated and not solely to do with the revelations of abuse, though these revelations have influenced so many decisions I have made for the past 2 years.
I will continue to teach, but I need some time to regroup and see how that will look going forward in the wake of this tidal shift that re-centers, or at least potentially de-centers, power within the ashtanga community. I still consider myself an ashtangi and I still teach ashtanga because I have found benefit in the practice and continue to do so, but I will no longer teach or practice to honor Pattabhi Jois.
Many people say that the harm is in the past and since Pattabhi Jois is dead then we should all move on. Not only is this disrespectful to the victims who are still living with the effects of Pattabhi Jois’s actions, it is also bypassing. By not just letting it go or trying to move on, I have been able to reflect and have many conversations and trainings that have caused me to learn and grow and I intend to continue.
To those who will say I’ve lost my way, that I am no longer a real ashtanga practitioner or teacher, or that I should call what I do something else, I reject that paradigm completely. If no longer being a Jois apologist means that I have lost my way then the definition of the correct way is narrowly defined and barely representative of the diaspora of global practitoner’s. My legitimacy as a practitioner is not a matter of public opinion. I have no interest in calling what I teach something else or creating another yoga brand. I still choose to stop venerating Pattabhi Jois. There is a new paradigm around teaching yoga that is emerging and I pledge to be a part of that shift. The first part of that is supporting victims and platform-ing their story of the practice so that we can learn from the past and recognize the ways that we are still struggling under the burden of the perpetrators who taught us our practice.
*After inviting feedback from Karen Rain about this statement she offered valuable perspective and a subtle grammatical tool that places blame in the correct place. I’ve edited the voice here to show Pattabhi Jois was the perpetrator acting on victims rather than it was the victims being acted upon by an unnamed source. You can read her full response to this statement here.