This is long overdue but I want to take the opportunity afforded to me through the writing of this fortnightly blog to address an issue which, I’m ashamed to say, I’ve avoided for the last year.
It’s through Karen Rain and her work with Matthew Remski that I first heard about the sustained sexual assaults by Pattabhi Jois on some of his students (you can see a video of her interview at the bottom of this page). It was so shocking to hear about this, that, for a long time, I have been unsure of how to respond. My reaction was to just stick my head in the sand and try to avoid the controversy.
More recently, I’ve come to the realisation that, in solidarity with all survivors of sexual abuse, as a dedicated student and teacher of the ashtanga yoga system and someone who has an association with the shala named after Pattabhi Jois (as an authorised teacher), I have a responsibility to the students at our shala to condemn this abuse and offer support (and a voice) to Pattabhi Jois’ victims.
I do feel like I owe it to you all as students of the shala to state very clearly that we believe the claims made by the accusers of Pattabhi Jois. It is undeniable that he sexually abused many of his students. There is photographic and video evidence. The arguments and excuses that have been put forward, (although tempting for those who would like to believe that their spiritual guru was innocent of such acts) are flimsy at best and wantonly obstructive of the healing process at worst. Victim-blaming, as is so often the norm in sexual abuse cases, is a sad element of the defence of Pattabhi Jois.
“Why did they keep going back to practise with him if they were being abused?”
“Western students were wearing very revealing clothes and he was from a very traditional Indian family, he wasn’t used to that”.
These are the usual knee-jerk reactions we might have when faced with something we don’t want to believe. I actually found myself coming up with this nonsense myself at first.
Let me just engage in a little thought experiment here though:
In my class at the shala, an attractive student wearing a revealing outfit comes in. She thinks I’m the best teacher she has ever met (just go with me here!) and is even a little flirtatious with me. It is obvious, though, that she is also emotionally vulnerable. She says that she gets a lot of benefit from the yoga practice and also from having me as her teacher at the shala, but the vulnerability is still there. She’s constantly seeking attention from me.
Is it ok for me to start putting my hand between her legs when I’m adjusting her? Or grinding my crotch into her? And if I did it once without any consequences would that make it ok for me to do it again the next day?
Of course not. If I did that, it would be an abuse of power and a sexual assault and I should be charged with a crime.
If anything, a student in that position needs to be taken care of even more than usual, not sexually exploited. The argument of ‘why did they keep going back’ is a moot point. Although those students who kept returning to the abuser, may have some underlying, unresolved issues, that fact does not give their yoga teacher carte-blanche to sexually abuse them! The idea is entirely abhorrent.
It should be said that the same standards must apply to female teachers and their students and to both heterosexual and homosexual abuse.
Pattabhi Jois was never my teacher (I did two led classes in Mysore with him in 2007 after he had become unwell earlier that year). Sharath was my teacher since my first visit to Mysore in 2007. Pattabhi Jois was always more of a figurehead for ashtanga yoga than a teacher for me; an inspirational figure. And everyone spoke about him in such glowing terms that I never really questioned it. The book of interviews with senior ashtanga yoga teachers entitled “Guruji – A portrait of Pattabhi Jois through the eyes of his students” curated by Guy Donahaye further cemented his reputation in my eyes.
Since Karen Rain raised the issue of sexual abuse at KPJ’s hands Guy Donahaye has come out very strongly in support of her and I urge you to read his blog posts on the subject. I suggest you start with this one.
All of this is not to say that Pattabhi Jois didn’t have any good qualities and the fact remains that he is the one who kept ashtanga yoga alive. We have a lot to be thankful to him. But we absolutely cannot and must not excuse sexual assault or abuse in any context.
You may have noticed that, when we moved into the new shala, the photos of Pattabhi Jois that we had on the windowsills of the old shala did not re-appear. This was not an accident. We’ll also be removing our teaching certificates as they contain an image of him. This is not an attempt to write Pattabhi Jois out of the history of ashtanga yoga, or even our own personal journey, but it is out of respect to anyone who may have suffered sexual assault during their lives and who may be triggered by seeing a picture of a known abuser at a yoga shala.
I can only apologise for ignoring this issue for so long.
If anyone wants to talk about this to either Suzanne or myself in person we’re always available at the shala.
If it’s helpful to hold some sort of get-together at the shala to discuss this as a group we’re open to that too.