Sweet Lies and Bitter Truth

Monday, January 7, 2019

For many years I tried to follow the principle often suggested by Pattabhi Jois:

"Speak the sweet truth, don't speak the truth which hurts but don't lie no matter how sweet it sounds."

According to yoga - not causing harm is more important than telling the truth.

Sometimes lies are necessary to protect those who are vulnerable. But a lie always causes harm in some way. It is impossible to achieve perfect ahimsa. Yogis suggest remaining silent as much as possible to avoid causing harm - since they should not lie.

After many years of struggling with my desire to speak the truth while at the same time to follow the injunction to avoid causing pain, the balance has shifted. Lies can cause deep harm and the truth about these lies can no longer be hidden.

In the ashtanga yoga community, sweet sounding deceit has helped to shield Pattabhi Jois' actions from scrutiny, they have stifled the voices of his victims and they have created a cult, an ashtanga religion, a culture of devotion to a flawed individual. Every one of us is a victim to some extent. Those who do not recognize it vehemently attempt to deny it and try to suppress the voices of those who are willing to speak up.

Following on from the above quote, Pattabhi Jois would then say:

"Speaking the sweet truth is very difficult. That is why you have to practice asanas and then pranayamas for a very long time to purify body and mind. Then, when these two stages are perfect, Yama and Niyama can be mastered."

I asked him: "Krishnamacharya taught that Pranayama practice should not be attempted without first practicing the Yama and Niyama. How does that fit in with what you are teaching?"

He turned on me angrily and said: "Do you always tell the truth? The perfect truth? If you tell one lie, the whole of Yama and Niyama is destroyed!" He told me to shut up and do my practice - eventually I would understand.

In 2011 I went to Sao Paolo to interview Maria Helena De Bastos Freire for a potential second edition of the Guruji book. Maria Helena had invited KPJ to a conference in Brazil in 1973. Many times KPJ had proudly told us about this, his very first trip abroad.

When I went to interview Maria Helena, I discovered that Pattabhi Jois never made the trip! His visa had been denied and yet he continued to boast about the story for decades. I was in shock - why had he lied? It was the final nail in the coffin for me.

He did not tell the truth. He also had the tendency to exaggerate, to talk in extremes - "If your inhale is 10 seconds long, your exhale should be 10 seconds, if it is 20, the exhale should be 20." What kind of lesson was he trying to teach?

He often tells the story of how, when he was a boy, he performed kapotasana for 30 minutes while Krishnamacharya stood on his stomach and gave a lecture. Who feels comfortable in kapotasana for more than one or two minutes? Maybe a very few people. For 5-10 minutes? 30 minutes? With someone 3-4 times your weight standing on your stomach?

KPJ says a sharp root dug into his shoulder while in the pose. Is the shoulder anywhere near the ground in kapotasana? This is clearly a tall story - a lie.

How much else about KPJ's story can we believe?


Satya is not just truth telling, it means speaking sweetly. On various occasions I witnessed KPJ talk in a derisory way about people of darker skin color, of muslims and of other yoga teachers. At times we also experienced his anger, displeasure or derision.

He told us that he was teaching exactly what he had learned from his guru, a practice that had been passed down since time immemorial, it was the perfect system, we should not change anything. But it is clear that he departed significantly from Krishnamacharya's teachings though he attributed his own innovations and interpretations to ancient authority.

There are many untruths spoken about Pattabhi Jois and the system of Ashtanga Yoga for the purpose of financial gain and consolidation of authority and power.

Contrary to what is often said, Pattabhi Jois was not a great scholar or Yogi. Krishnamacharya did not teach him any yoga philosophy until his last years in Mysore. KPJ studied Advaita Vedanta not the Yoga Shastra in college. We were very impressed by his use of sanskrit but had no way of assessing his knowledge and so students started using words like great yogi and scholar as if they knew what they were talking about.

Since telling one lie would destroy all of the yama and niyama, KPJ gave us the impression that we need not pay too much attention to them until we had strengthened and purified our bodies. Based on what we know about him we have to conclude that KPJ never perfected the pranayama (or yama/niyama) stage according to his own interpretation of the "shastra".

The attitude that we should just practice and not think had a two fold consequence: in practice - do not question, just obey - total surrender of mind and body to his instructions/adjustments - a complete surrender of power. The second consequence is - do not question the system - until the mind and body have been transformed through practice, you are not capable of understanding why or how it happens and what are the next steps or if it actually works.

It is the nature of the guru system to not respect the individual voice. Transmission goes in one direction - payment in the other.

Satya - speaking the truth - is that which leads from darkness and ignorance towards light and ultimate truth. In any talk about this relative world, truth is always colored by subjectivity and will always generate a range of feelings across the spectrum of people engaged in the debate.

The path to truth from ignorance is a painful one. Ignorance is like sleep, heavy. Waking up from a bad dream takes a bit of time. One feels a bit groggy, uncertain, at first one needs to check what was dream and what is real.

Recognizing the truth is healing. But it takes time to let go of established paradigms of thought. The process is often painful and we resist going there. But we have an opportunity here to eliminate this tamasic veil of maya that has been laid across the minds of yoga practitioners and see how this mechanism of willful self delusion has operated, still operates, at many levels to obscure our realization of truth.

guy donahaye