A couple of Ashtanga teachers have messaged me with very intelligent and considerate questions regarding my requests to the Ashtanga community.
They made an excellent point: if they just omit Pattabhi Jois from the history of Ashtanga yoga, wouldn’t that be a kind of denial? Wouldn’t we all be losing an opportunity to learn and help prevent abuse from happening again, both within Ashtanga and elsewhere?
I agree completely and stand corrected, as, at times I have thought it would be easiest, and would work, to re-invent Ashtanga without him, by omitting him. I now see the problems with that.
With this in mind, by re-inventing Ashtanga yoga without Pattabhi Jois, I mean: dismantling his merit and power as being the absolute authority of Ashtanga yoga.
I think that what to replace that with would be up to each individual or group of teachers. Important in that transition would be considering the dangers of sexual and other abuses, and the limits of making any one person an absolute authority.
The other question they asked was how they could address their own personal history with Pattabhi Jois in a way that is respectful of his victims and of victims of sexual abuse in general.
I want to thank these teachers and others who have the same questions. I also want to say that I wrote those requests not because I expected any Ashtanga teacher to be receptive to them. I wrote them for myself, for my healing, to reclaim my agency.
My agency was dry-humped and groped into oblivion. It got to the point where I couldn’t tell what I wanted. I couldn’t discern what felt good and what felt bad. And I couldn’t feel the safety or confidence needed to express those things as I slowly started to realize them.
Even last week I had a nightmare that Pattabhi Jois was on top of me. I wanted to say, to shout, ‘No! Stop! I don’t want you to do this to me!’ But in the dream, the words wouldn’t come out of my mouth. My body finally shook so hard that I woke myself up.
For those in Ashtanga who believe my story and the stories of other victims, I’ve offered suggestions for how to respond, of which I think the most important is to replace the euphemisms of ‘inappropriate assist’ and ‘adjustment’ with the words sexual assault or sexual abuse, when referring to Jois’s actions. This will help prevent future confusion about the behavior of other yoga teachers or people who we trust with touching our bodies, and who break that trust.
After an AY teacher begins to refer to the behavior of P. Jois as sexual assault/abuse, they’ll have decisions to make about how they want to relate to that more accurate language. Do they want to publicly venerate him? Do they want to publicly display his photos where victims of sexual abuse/assault might find them upsetting? Do they want to continue to use the titles ‘Guruji’ and ‘Sri?’ Do they want to find trauma sensitive ways to communicate their experience of him and discuss his historical role in Ashtanga?
For those considering these questions, here are a couple of resources I’ve heard might be helpful. I haven’t worked with them personally, so this isn’t an endorsement:
- An Olive Branch is a Zen Buddhist organization that offers support for institutional change when abuse has occurred.
- The Faith and Trust Institute is an interfaith organization that does some of the same work, and specializes in cases of sexual misconduct.
Both organizations provide training in recognizing and correcting toxic power dynamics.
In the discussion of whether or not what P. Jois did was sexual abuse, I think people have a notion of what sexual abuse should feel like. I’ve often heard and even said myself, ‘It didn’t feel sexual to me.’
Sexual abuse is about the behavior of the abuser. Is sexual abuse supposed to feel sexual to the victim?
Sexual abuse can feel bad. It can feel good. It can feel confusing. It can feel like nothing. It can make you feel like you don’t exist, which is similar to some descriptions of spiritual experience.
For people who had peak spiritual experiences in the presence of Pattabhi Jois, I invite you to consider that rather than transmission of something from him to you, it was self-generated from something that was already present in you.
I’ll end with a quote from Kripalu’s website about their history. ‘When the disciple is ready, the guru disappears.’