Pattabhi Jois and Metoo
I studied with Pattabhi Jois in Mysore, India between 1991 - 2001 and his guidance has remained influential in my teaching even though I have departed somewhat from what I originally learned.
In 1998 I started a project of interviewing KPJ’s senior students and family and over a period of 12 years collected over 40 interviews, a selection of which were later published as the book: Guruji: A Portrait of Sri K Pattabhi Jois through the Eyes of His Students.
This book focused on all the positive aspects of Pattabhi Jois’ teachings and became an influential handbook for those practicing Ashtanga Yoga. But over the years I had many misgivings about Pattabhi Jois and the way he taught and in 2018, in the wake of the Metoo movement, started to write and speak about this publicly. These writings were originally published on the blog “mindmedicine” and a selection of these have been preserved here.
Pattabhi Jois and #Metoo
Friday, August 31, 2018
Dear fellow students of Pattabhi Jois and practitioners of Ashtanga Yoga,
We have been silent for too long. Most of us have witnessed or experienced both physical injury and sexually invasive touch by KPJ. Those who continued to practice with him and promote his teaching found ways to rationalize his behavior. Many of us lived with ambivalence - were his actions intentional or accidental? Today we can be in no doubt that Pattabhi Jois sexually assaulted many of his female students:
If you have not done so already, please take a moment to read Karen Rain’s testimony:
It is not easy to do. If you practice Ashtanga Yoga, if you love KPJ, if you teach Ashtanga - reading this will distress you. It threatens the whole purpose behind your yoga practice, it threatens your business and it undermines a relationship that may be very close to your heart, but it is your duty, not just to the victims of abuse, but also to yourself.
I think by now most of us have come to accept that Pattabhi Jois' adjustments were questionable at times but to recognize that he actively and persistently sexually assaulted some of his students is very difficult to accept and acknowledge for several reasons:
To acknowledge that one has been pursuing a "spiritual practice" with devotion to a sexual abuser with the implicit ramifications for one's own practice would be hugely distressing. The closer a teacher was to KPJ, the more their authority rests on his - if his authority is undermined, so is theirs. To speak out would be to risk alienation from the Jois family and the Ashtanga community. The ramifications are potentially damaging to our financial, social and spiritual wellbeing.
I believe it is important for all of us to acknowledge the truth. If we deny the victims' testimony, we stand in the way of their healing process: if their words cannot be shared and accepted as true, it is very difficult for them to find release from their pain. But it is also important for us to be honest for our own sake! What is yoga if it is not a path of truth?
One of Pattabhi Jois' most quoted sayings is: "Do your practice and all is coming!" KPJ practiced for decades and what came to him included behavior that caused harm to many people. Can we accept this as yoga? Do KPJ's imperfections invalidate his teachings? This is a question we are compelled to ask.
My initial reaction to Karen’s account was to question/doubt her experience: If she was being abused on a daily basis, why did she continue a daily practice with Pattabhi Jois for two years? I wanted to find justification for rejecting her testimony. Then I reflected on my own experience: KPJ had badly injured me several times in my first few months of practice and thereafter and I continued to come back for more: the desired fruits were so attractive that we were prepared to go through a great deal of suffering to grasp at them.
I wanted to find independent confirmation and so I went back and reviewed old video footage of Jois teaching in Mysore and saw several clear cases of sexual harassment. Then I also spoke to a member of a small inner circle of students who hosted him on his world tours and who confirmed that they had known about a persistent "problem" of sexual assault going back over many years.
Why has no one with this knowledge spoken out? If a teacher has been knowingly denying KPJ's sexual abuse and promoting his teachings as a spiritual practice then he has participated in cultivating a deception in a most cult-like way.
By sending students to study with him, he is also open to allegations of "grooming". These failures could be hugely damaging to a teacher's reputation. But being close to the family would make it almost impossible to speak out, considering the pain it would cause them.
It is not surprising that almost no teachers have spoken out yet or acknowledged the truth. Teachers wanted to show how close they were to KPJ, how perfect that relationship was and how perfect their practice was in Mysore. This conferred authority and authenticity. To speak badly would be to undermine the brand and to alienate oneself from the source. But now to acknowledge one has had huge admiration, love, respect and has even represented and promoted a sexual abuser for many years will initiate a severe existential crisis. The truth will be acknowledged by all but it will take some time.
Since his death, KPJ has been elevated to a position of sainthood. Part of this promotion has been due to the book of interviews I collected and published with Eddie Stern as "Guruji: A Portrait of Sri K Pattabhi Jois" which paints a positive picture of his life and avoids exploring the issues of injury and sexual assault. In emphasizing only positive stories it has done more to cement the idea that he was a perfect yogi, which he clearly was not.
By burnishing his image, we make it unassailable - it makes us doubt the testimony of those he abused. This causes further harm to those whose testimony we deny and to ourselves.
I would like to offer my sincere apologies to all victims who were harmed by KPJ or by his teachings as passed through his students for my part in cultivating this image of perfection that denies the suffering and healing of many. I would also like to apologize for taking so long to write this - it was not easy to do.
I believe it is our duty to ourselves and to all those who were hurt by KPJ and whose words and truth and healing has been ignored and rejected for so long, to listen with open hearts, without judgment, without defensiveness, for to do otherwise is to cause more and more pain for everyone.