ASHTANGA YOGA TEACHER AND FORMER CO-OWNER OF THE YOGA WORKSHOP
IN LIGHT OF the recent discussion around issues of sexual abuse and harassment that has swept the entertainment, political, and now yoga worlds, I find myself heaving a huge sigh of relief. As a woman who has had her own harrowing experiences with male abuse of power, sexual assault, rape, and betrayal of intimacy over the years, I’m relieved that these issues are no longer taboo to discuss.
But I am also filled with sadness. I’m sad that we, as a species, have treated each other with such callousness for thousands of years. I’m sad that I have not always known how to speak up, how to stand up in my own defense, or how to take action in the defense of others.
There is something particularly foul about sexual misconduct in the context of yoga. Yoga is a path of insight into the roots of decency and desire—into both the glorious and shadow sides of human nature. There is a deeply personal and, for many, an intimately spiritual aspect to yoga. Students often come to yoga in a vulnerable position, pursuing balance, calm, and a clarity of mind. When a yoga teacher sexually abuses a student, it is not only hypocritical, but also incredibly damaging to the student and the tradition. This kind of behavior can throw sincere and innocent students off the path for years, if not lifetimes. It is tragic. Yet sexual misconduct within the yoga world is common.
In fact, it is well documented that my own teacher, Sri K. Pattabhi Jois, whom I love dearly, had certain “adjustments” that he gave to female students that were invasive. Many of these adjustments were sexually inappropriate, and I wish he had never done them. On some level, I also wish that I had spoken publicly about them before now. Yet these adjustments were confusing, and not in alignment with all the other aspects of Jois that I knew, so I didn’t know how to talk about them without disparaging the entire system.
This has been a confusing part of my relationship with my teacher and the yoga community as a whole. Why did he do this? Why didn’t I speak up about the inappropriateness of his assists? Why didn’t others? Why didn’t I make it my mission to expose his wrongdoings as a demonstration of an irreparable flaw in the Ashtanga system?
First and foremost, I still think Ashtanga is a remarkable system of learning and transformation. It is a system of practice that has worked for me and many other students over the years. I do not see Jois’s behavior as a flaw in the system, but a flaw in the man. I think this is part of the reason why, until now, I have only spoken privately to students who ask about this. I have such deep love for the practice—a practice that has saved my life.
When I take a step back and turn my gaze to the future, I see an opportunity for deeper contemplation and an imperative to stay authentic, honest, and real. There is a burning need to question and to look ever deeper at ourselves, our teachers, and the yogic traditions we love in order to find the seeds of truth that lie within. When we place teachers on a pedestal (or, as teachers, when we allow students to put us on one), honest inquiry becomes impossible, and the deep contemplative insight and compassion that is at the heart of yoga may never arise. If the ground of the inquiring mind becomes eroded, then deeply destructive things—like sexual misconduct—find an environment in which to thrive.
Today things have changed. The accounts of sexual misconduct that at one time might have been dismissed are now being met with open minds, support, kindness, and respect.