How We did not Acknowledge Sexual Assault Happening Before our Very Eyes
Tuesday, December 25, 2018
I practiced at the “old shala” – the Ashtanga Yoga Research Institute in Mysore from 1991-2000 and spent around 2.5 years at the institute over 7-8 trips. During that time I was aware of only one claim of sexual assault against Pattabhi Jois. A few weeks into my first trip a ripple of gossip spread through the small community of students: a female student had angrily demanded her money back from Jois claiming that he had sexually assaulted her.
I sought the council of senior female students who were there practicing at the time. They reassured me that his intentions were benign. They said he had also “taught” them mula bandha by touching them on the perineum or anus. At this point I had not personally witnessed anything and could only accept the interpretation of his devoted long-term female students. And so we forgot her story.
But it did make me start to watch his adjustments more closely. Some of them were definitely beyond the edge of what would be considered acceptable in normal circumstances but because he gave them to men and women in equal measure it was hard to see any perverse intention.
Photo: Blaine Michioka -
We questioned the appropriateness in context: should this be regarded as a purely therapeutic or medical context? Does that justify the intimateness of the adjustments?
He already had quite a large belly and he tended to use it as a “prop” while he was adjusting. In a good number of the standing poses such as Trikonasana, Prasarita Padottanasana etc, he would stand behind the student and press his belly against his/her buttocks while adjusting. In other poses he would lie down on top of the student using his full body.
I looked to see if he was pressing his genitals on students but concluded that his belly was in the way. I am now realizing that for students who were shorter (such as Karen Rain), when they bent forward and he adjusted them from behind, his genitals made contact with theirs.
After his wife Amma died in 1997 there was a huge outpouring of affection from the students. Pattabhi Jois cried every day for weeks. Students came to sit with him every day and this started a tradition of hugging and kissing that continued thereafter. From this time on, female students regularly received a full body hug and a squeeze of the buttocks both after back-bending with Jois and on leaving the shala after practice, they would also sit on his lap and kiss him on the lips. (edit 12/27/18: this was happening with some students much earlier - but became the norm for all female students afterwards)
But there was no talk of sexual assault, although there were sometimes whispers of salacious gossip. I heard, for instance, that Pattabhi Jois had been arrested on a trip to Hawaii when a female student made accusations against him. Was this just a case of misunderstanding? Charges were apparently not pressed when Pattabhi Jois’ senior students were able to explain his actions.
So there was a confusing blurred line - was Pattabhi Jois’ touch loving and with good intention or was he getting some sexual gratification? His life otherwise seemed to have so much integrity that we could not believe that his intentions were not pure.
There have always been dissonant voices in Mysore. Some students complained about Pattabhi Jois’ adjustments, some about his supposed love of money, others were jealous or ambitious and frustrated etc..
Of course there have always been dissonant voices outside Mysore we should have listened to more carefully – teachers such as David Williams and Danny Paradise have long warned students away from Mysore because of the injuries and sexual assaults that happened there.
But those who decided to be there and to dedicate time to learning from Jois had the choice: listen to all the dissonant voices or try to pursue one’s spiritual sadhana. Those who were “serious” about practice tried to avoid those who were always critical. And so, not seeing any concrete evidence of sexual assault nor hearing of any further incidents, we assumed his actions were benign and if anyone started bad-talking him we would try not to listen.
There were several other factors which helped to obscure his actions: students use drishti during practice, the room soon became crowded, it was usually pretty dark, there was no place to easily observe the room from outside - so we were able to avert our eyes.
But the main reason was that we were not open to hearing criticism of Pattabhi Jois. His purity was sacred to us: it gave his words and instructions authority. We were invested in the practice, and in teaching it - it was in our interest that he was the real thing. Maybe we would admit he had some minor human weaknesses but not to the fact that he blatantly violated the most basic yogic and human moral principles. We wanted to believe because to think otherwise would undermine everything we were striving for. So there was a kind of willful blindness.
Whatever anyone says, Pattabhi Jois was a guru (not a sat guru). He told you what to do and you did it. If you lacked motivation he would put you there himself. There was no question, no debate. Even outside class he was not available for a conversation about your practice - you were simply expected to do it, no complaints, no expectations, with faith and devotion.
So there was no place to address anything that happened between the teacher and student, no opportunity to question or express doubt. We were simply supposed to have faith in the teacher, in the system: he told us he had a perfect guru and was teaching the perfect system - how could we question that?
There was also no place within the Mysore Ashtanga community to express discomfort - you were either in, in which case you swallowed your doubt, or out, in which case you left the community and practice. It is hard enough speaking about being sexually assaulted but how difficult would it be to discuss with people who are so invested in the purity of the perpetrator?
A few years ago I was showing some footage I had recorded in Mysore in the late 90s to a female student who was in the video. As we watched, I became disturbed by the way Jois was touching her. I had never noticed this before and I said to her - don’t you think something is not right? But she had no memory of discomfort and only positive things to say about her time in Mysore.
I had watched the video many times but I had never noticed this before. It made me reflect on how selective we are in taking in information, how easy it is to filter. I went back and looked at the video again after these allegations resurfaced and found evidence of several clear cases of sexual assault.
It also makes me reflect on how people see the same event with different eyes. What is acceptable or even pleasurable for one person is an abuse of trust, a violation for another. In a recent conversation with senior female students, they recounted how in trikonasana or pasasana Pattabhi Jois attempted to adjust them by holding their breast - their response, with humor, was to move his hand to the shoulder and say: "No Guruji not there! Here!"
Since the 90s, allegations, videos and images have surfaced periodically in the media. While the steady stream of new cases has certainly rocked the faith of many, the question always remained: what was his intention? Could one see a motive other than that he was giving an adjustment?
But today our understanding of sexual assault has become more refined: sexual assault does not have to be erotic in nature – abuse takes place when someone physically controls another person’s body and violates them without consent. This puts our historical assessment of Pattabhi Jois’ adjustments in a new light: we were focusing on his motive or intention not on the harmful effect of his actions.
It is with a heavy heart that I feel I need to speak about these things. These facts are out there and need to be acknowledged. We need to come to terms with these facts and understand how they have intertwined with our own practice and personal relationship with Jois.
Many people are being mislead by deceptive talk about KPJ and Ashtanga Yoga - this deceit is part of a branding, marketing phenomenon which is participated in by 100s if not 1000s of individuals for financial gain and for power. These lies are an insult and further injury to those abused and injured by Jois.
In the near future, Matthew Remski will be publishing a book about the incidence of sexual, physical and psychological abuse in Ashtanga Yoga (as well as other lineages). He tried in vain to get anyone from within the Ashtanga community to talk to him. We all suspected his motives and no one would co-operate with his research. But he did focus our attention on the facts.
His book will be the assessment of an outsider, of someone who was never there, has received witness testimony but was not a witness himself. Even though he has been meticulous in gathering evidence his analysis of the how and why may be flawed, in which case we may have more confusion as a result.
For this reason I think it is wise for us to start to have a discussion about what we saw and experienced and what motivated us to avert our eyes or deny what was happening. Acknowledgement is important for all of us but we also need to find ways to understand what happened and why and to discuss where we can go from here.