Ahimsa? Practice with Pattabhi Jois – Pain and Injury
Tuesday, January 1, 2019
Many people have asked me why my story is not alongside the other interviews in the book Guruji - A Portrait of Sri K Pattabhi Jois.
The book of interviews presents an overwhelmingly positive view of Pattabhi Jois’ life and teaching. It is a celebration of his life and work created with the collaboration and approval of Pattabhi Jois and his family. My own experience studying with him was not so unequivocally positive.
By the time Eddie Stern asked me if I would like to make a book with the interviews I had collected, I had some deep misgivings about the whole ashtanga scene - what was being presented as ashtanga yoga, the huge public classes, celebrity endorsements, youtube videos etc., but I thought it would be an interesting project, so I agreed.
When the book was finished, on the one hand I was pleased with the work we had done, but on the other hand I had the feeling that the book did not represent my own view of Pattabhi Jois and Ashtanga Yoga. As the perceived author it would seem I have some responsibility for the message of the book. But I have never perceived myself as the author - only as a facilitator - the authors are the individual interviewees, though I certainly did have a large role in the choosing, editing and organizing of the material.
I am sure that some of interviewees are now unhappy about being included in this volume. A good number of them had not been to Mysore for many years and had ambivalent feelings about Pattabhi Jois but wanted to talk positively for the project. So I owe an apology on the behalf of some of them for not presenting their views fully. Not that anything was edited out.
There has been a lot of misleading and deceptive talk around Ashtanga and Pattabhi Jois that has increased in depth and breadth over the years. It germinated in the early years and has grown into a cult of devotion around the practice, Pattabhi Jois, Sharath and the institute in Mysore.
All of us who practiced with him bought into certain levels of delusion about his true stature as teacher and the purity and effectiveness of the practice he taught.
But I know that I am not alone in feeling an increasing dissonance over my years of practice in Mysore. It has taken time to fully understand why. Various facts have come to light over time which when put together must give us serious doubts.
Our practice with Pattabhi Jois was not as perfect as teachers like to make out. Everyone, even those seen as very close to him struggled both in their practice and in their relationship with him.
All of us experienced pain in our practice with Pattabhi Jois. There were a lot of injuries - some of them caused by his adjustments, some by our over-zealousness. And most of us went through periods of doubt, estrangement, disapproval and humiliation in our relationship with him.
Brad Ramsey: “It hurt from the first day to the last, at least something hurt, there was always something."
About three weeks into my first practice in Mysore, as he roughly yanked me into Marichyasana D, my right knee made a huge cracking sound as the meniscus tore. I was in shock, there was no pain initially - Pattabhi Jois told me to breathe and relax and he bound me deep in the pose. Afterwards the knee was very painful and I had difficulty walking.
He insisted that I come back to class the next day and the next and each day he put me back in the posture. After 10 days my knee was pain free. While the injury had given me cause for distress, the healing seemed almost a miracle (the damage to the meniscus was not repaired, but I learned how to use my body in such a way as to avoid further injury and pain).
Soon afterwards, I was injured again as I was “taught” baddha konasana - Pattabhi Jois pushed my right thigh to the floor with his hand and then stepped forcefully on my left thigh with his left foot. As he pushed the left thigh down there was the sound of tearing muscle and fascia and a sickening crunch as the hip was torn open.
I had no time to think as he shoved my torso forward with his hand and knee and I found my face flat on the floor, my hips completely open. I entered some kind of altered state of consciousness and when he let me up, as my back straightened and my hips "relaxed" there was an intense spasm of pain and a shock of electricity shot up my spine and continued to tingle around my sacral area.
This injury took over two years to heal and a further fifteen years for the scar tissue and swelling to disappear but did not undermine my faith in Pattabhi Jois at the time. These were horrible injuries but I continued to practice.
If you tried to tell KPJ you were in too much pain – he would say: “Pain?” "Yes!" “Much pain?” “Yes!” “Ah! Very good! Hahahaha!” It was an effective method because the psychological component is significant and laughing about it releases some of the pain which is due simply to the anticipation. But he would not take pain as an excuse to avoid the asana.
There was a culture amongst the students to airbrush injury. Injuries were called “openings” - if the opening was painful, it was because the body and mind were impure. An injury implied a setback – we did not want to admit to that – it could be a learning opportunity, a way forward.
When I was injured the first time and my knee made a huge crack - someone in the front row turned around and exclaimed: “Good pop!” and everyone laughed. This normalized the idea that pain was a necessary component, an amusing component of yoga practice and that injuries caused by Pattabhi Jois' were not injuries but "good pops" and "openings".
When I arrived in India, I was at a crisis point in my life – I was sick and in physical and emotional pain. I sold all my possessions and spent my money on a six month trip to Mysore to heal myself. I travelled 1000s of miles and had invested a huge amount of hope. So when I was injured so early in my trip, I felt I could not leave, I had to give it a chance.
Many of the other students were in the same boat. We already harbored a great deal of suffering and had invested a huge amount into getting to Mysore. Feeling pain in the body was often easier for us than feeling the mental pain that distressed us. We wanted radical change, we were looking for intense purification and catharsis – so it was no surprise that pain was part of the process.
It is possible that the period at the beginning of the 90s was particularly intense: there were a maximum of eight students in the room with both KPJ and Sharath adjusting - so we were "assisted" in every posture. We looked like the walking wounded as we exited the shala and limped off to breakfast.
In spite of the injuries, I was intrigued by the sensations I had experienced – could that have been Kundalini tingling in my spine after my baddha konasana “opening”? I was also reassured by the healing powers Pattabhi Jois and the practice seemed to have.
As a naive beginner I had not known what to expect. The practice and Pattabhi Jois seemed to be authentic. Pain seemed to be part of the process - I did not know any different. It seemed to be a fast track to deeper flexibility, purification and spiritual evolution.
As I continued to practice my pain would go away but when I came back to Mysore the next year Pattabhi Jois started cranking on me again in kapotasana, bringing my hands onto my heels. It was so intense that every day I wondered if I would be paralyzed, I was in a great deal of pain and it probably caused a significant amount of damage.
In 2002 I saw an x-ray of my spine for the first time – it was quite a shock to see how misshapen it was. The spinal deformity cannot be attributed to the aggressive adjustments alone but they were obviously not helping, as one would have hoped. I continue to have pain in my body - I suspect many others who went through the mill also still have pain.
I have told the story many times of how Pattabhi Jois injured me on my first trip to India. But I have always told it in the context of how he healed me of the injury and the significant lessons I learned in the process. I had put a gloss on the story and had not fully acknowledged the negative aspect of it.
I was a complete beginner. I did not properly understand what had happened to me, so I accepted it as part of the process. But the truth is that Pattabhi Jois badly injured me several times and did not take responsibility for it but made me feel there was something wrong with me that had to be corrected.
It was only after reading Karen Rain’s story and for the first time really accepting what Pattabhi Jois had done to her that I began to properly reassess my own experience. I had consistently experienced a great deal of pain in Mysore, much of it due to Pattabhi Jois cranking on me. Why had I stayed? What had allowed me to stay? Even though I thought my eyes had been open for a long time, it was not completely so – I still harbored denial about my own experience with him.
This is the case for many of you out there. I know we also had wonderful times in Mysore but we only want to have happy memories. We have glossed over the bad parts to make a nice shiny memory. It does not serve us. It is denial. Letting go of it is a liberation, an opportunity for deeper healing and growth.
There are probably many more people who were injured by Pattabhi Jois than were sexually assaulted. There are 100s, perhaps 1000s. Many just left the shala and never came back. We don't hear their voices.
There are also many practitioners like myself who continued to practice and were also injured in Mysore – we have rationalized the experience and forgiven Pattabhi Jois.
Brad Ramsey: “In a lot of schools of yoga, if it hurts you are doing something wrong. And if you were a perfect physical and mental specimen already then I can see how that might be true. If you are altering the status quo in an unpleasant way you might want to stop, if you were already perfect. But if you feel growth coming from it and see things changing that need to be changed… The series is just a mold towards a body that meets the requirements for spiritual advancement, I believe. I don’t think you can get there without pain. I never met anybody who really did…”
Pattabhi Jois taught that pain was due to impurities in the body, so we took responsibility for it. We had a choice – if it was too much we could leave. If we chose to stay we accepted the pain as part of the process. We saw positive change happening – we became healthier, stronger, more flexible, more disciplined. He seemed to have healing powers – so we gave him the benefit of the doubt.
KPJ told us how intense his teacher was – he was very proud of it - it made us feel that we should have the same pride in him and in the intensity of our practice. We felt like warriors – perhaps like Nietzsche we dreamed of the superman, like him we declared: "What does not kill me makes me stronger!"
There were a lot of people who found the going too intense in the shala – I suppose we thought of ourselves as superior in some way. Our sadhana exacted sacrifice and dedication - even pain. Those who could not take it left – they made all kinds of excuses but our perspective was that they just could not take the heat.
I don't think Pattabhi Jois was evil or violent – we had a great deal of affection for him. We learned a great deal from him. Sometimes his adjustments were too forceful or careless and they caused injury – I don't think he ever intended to hurt students though sometimes his adjustments were made with too much force, passion, impatience and imprecision.
But there are clearly traces of himsa that were transmitted to KPJ from Krishnamacharya and also from his upbringing. Pattabhi Jois ran away from home at age 12 because he was tired of the beatings and humiliations he was receiving from his family. His son Manju did the same thing - he kept running away for the same reasons (KPJ beat his children too) - after their first trip to the USA Manju stayed and remained estranged from his father for several decades.
K's teaching methodology was very strict. He used to beat them if they could not perform an asana correctly. He demanded complete obedience, humility and respect from his students. If students stepped out of line they were punished and humiliated.
There are elements of this in Pattabhi Jois' teaching. You had to please him in order to progress. If you showed impatience or ego, you would be humiliated and punished by his displeasure and a long wait to learn new postures.
Sharath and many other teachers have embodied this way of teaching. At a recent teacher training at the institute in Mysore a student who was being assisted in a backbend fell down and broke a vertebra - he was told by Sharath to get up and do it again. He walked out of the training.
On the subject of himsa, there has been a huge elephant in the room for decades that no one has spoken about publicly: the suicide of Pattabhi Jois' son, Ramesh.
Based on witness accounts of those close to Ramesh, his father had a significant role in causing him to take his own life.
Brad’s statement about practice should be considered carefully:
“The series is just a mold towards a body that meets the requirements for spiritual advancement, I believe. I don’t think you can get there without pain. I never met anybody who really did…”
The idea that perfection of asana and the physical body leads to spiritual advancement has become a central mantram of Ashtanga Yoga. This is false. Asana practice is therapy – it creates a foundation – it allows us to sit. That is when real yoga starts.
You will notice that Brad says: "a body that meets the requirements..." he does not mention the mind. This is the missing piece.
Himsa is the antithesis of yoga. Too often tapasic fervor leads to injury. The first principle of yoga is ahimsa - can a system of yoga violate this principle at the outset?
Because of our attachment to practice, to our story, to Pattabhi Jois we gloss everything including pain as good and pure. As Patanjali says – raga, attachment, makes us see the object of our love (the impure) as pure. We don't recognize that the emptiness and craving that causes this attachment perverts our perception of the purity (impurity) of the thing that we think will remove our pain.
The statements about his sexual abuse are forcing us to open our eyes wide – it is an opportunity for us to separate the truth from the fiction we have woven about our practice and relationship to him.
Teachers have a particularly difficult time because they not only have to consider what yoga means personally but also have to present what they teach. In presenting Ashtanga Yoga we reference and buy into certain levels of the narrative, the history, the purpose etc. even if we do not necessarily wholeheartedly know what we are saying is true. There is further motivation to gloss over ambiguities and cultivate an image of authenticity, depth and spirituality around KPJ and the practice to increase the attractiveness and financial value of what we teach.
We created stories about our experience but none of them are true – they are stories that help us resolve incongruences (such as the coincidence of pain/injury and healing/evolution) in our experience.
Some of these stories became solidified at the earliest stage of practice, when we are most open, vulnerable and impressionable and so the delusion they have created runs deep.
We wanted to have a perfect system and a perfect Guru. We have promoted our teachings on this premise – we gave Pattabhi Jois the benefit of the doubt in so many ways and have internalized that acceptance. Now we have to accept that there may be other deep flaws in Pattabhi Jois’ teaching.
It is remarkable that I did not recognize Pattabhi Jois' harmful actions through the injuries I received. We were engaged in a mutual gaslighting that denied the truth of our experience. However, as I started to explore the yoga sutra, I read:
"In the presence of one who is established in Ahimsa (non-violence), all creatures cease to feel hostility."
The culture at AYRI was highly competitive. Students attempted to be as "yogic" as possible, but there was a great deal of jealousy, narcissism and self-righteousness barely beneath the surface. There was not a feeling of peace and contentment, more often there was ambition, envy, frustration, injury and pain. This did not feel like an environment one would expect in the presence of an evolved being established in non violence.
Some people have said: "Pattabhi Jois was not a great yogi but at least he was a great asana teacher!"
This now needs to be reconsidered.