— by Jubilee Cooke
Although I always knew what had happened was wrong, I did not understand that I was a victim of sexual assault until the Access Hollywood tape was released in the fall of 2016. In the weeks and months that followed, I remember thinking, “The yoga world has its own serial ‘p***y grabber.’ His name is Pattabhi Jois. Why isn’t anybody talking about this?”
A year later, people were talking about it. What surprised me most were the doubters. I did not foresee that the accusations of Jois’s sexual misconduct would be a revelation to so many, even to some high profile Ashtanga yoga teachers. Images capturing Pattabhi Jois in the act have been circulating around the internet for many years. I thought everybody knew.
On J. Brown’s podcast just last week, Beryl Bender Birch, one of Jois’s most famous students, agreed with me. “Oh my God, everybody knew!” she said of participants in Jois’s classes on his 1987 American tour. Bender Birch goes on to name several dedicated practitioners in attendance who would become highly regarded, senior teachers of Ashtanga yoga.
I went to Mysore (now officially Mysuru) in the summer of 1997, a full decade after Birch says she clearly witnessed what was happening. If, as she says, “everybody knew” that Jois was assaulting women, why didn’t somebody warn me not to go?
I had studied Ashtanga yoga with two teachers in Seattle for a couple of months in 1995 before they left for Mysuru for an extended period of study. My training with them continued for several months in 1997 upon their return. I enjoyed the challenge of the practice but continued to pursue other interests in yoga and meditation. For years I had dreamed of studying with a living yoga master in India. My teachers’ dedication to their practice and their trips to Mysuru motivated me to pursue my dream and study under Pattabhi Jois.
Another source of inspiration was the February 1995 issue of Yoga Journal: the “Power Yoga” edition. The magazine included several feature articles on Ashtanga yoga and its offshoots. I finally had both the determination and an opportunity to travel to India to study yoga.
When practice got intense in my Seattle Mysore-style class, my teachers warned me: if I thought their adjustments were strong — just wait until I get to Mysore. As it turned out, their strong adjustments were a good preparation for what was in store — with one exception: the “special adjustments” that Pattabhi Jois provided only to women.
The trip to Mysuru was not easy. It involved a missed flight to India, spending the night in Mumbai in a car stuck in traffic and an exhausting train ride from Mumbai to Mysuru. But when I finally arrived at the hotel where I would be staying for a few weeks, I was excited to see that the cover model for the “Power Yoga” issue of Yoga Journal was staying there too. My dream was actually coming true.
Back in 1997, Pattabhi Jois was still holding classes at his home in a room that held 12 students at a time. Students would arrive in the morning over the course of several hours and wait on the stairs outside of the room for a practice space to open. During my three-month stay, I made my way fairly quickly through the primary series.
The abuse began when, midway through the primary, Jois grabbed my genitals while swinging me back from Padmāsana (full lotus) after Kukkuṭāsana (an arm balance in lotus). The first time it happened I felt sickened and violated the whole day. He performed the “assist” daily after that, and I eventually became numb to it.
That summer I progressed through the backbending sequence in the first half of second series. Jois regularly adjusted me in each of these backbends. I can recall four ways in which he assaulted me: grabbing my genitals during the swing back from Padmāsana after Kukkuṭāsana and also in Supta Vajrāsana, lying on top of me with his groin aligned precisely with mine during the Supta Hasta Pādāṅguṣṭhāsana vinyasa set (a supine overhead split), and placing his hand on my breast to twist me deeper during Pāśāsana (noose pose).
In his most peculiar behavior, 82-year-old Jois would stand behind me throughout a group of asanas and, after each vinyasa, thrust his pelvis back and forth several times in a humping motion as he pushed my buttocks in downward-facing dog, cueing me to do the next posture. Years later, a teacher told me of a female ashtangi who had coined the term “butt-f**k-asana” for this move.
Jois’s manner of assaulting me while he was making adjustments wasn’t what I had signed up for, but I resigned myself to continue. I had travelled so far, at significant expense, and reasoned that at least my studies in Mysuru would look good on a yoga resumé. In retrospect, however, I do not feel proud of my time spent studying under Pattabhi Jois or believe that it is anything to boast of. Unlike my music studies in Mysuru which invoke warm memories of appreciation and admiration for my sitar ustad, remembering my yoga training that summer initiates an internal struggle difficult to characterize — a pain of sorts begins to rise up, an unwanted feeling that I immediately attempt to wrestle down, possibly in an effort to avoid my shame over allowing Jois’s abuse.
I observed other women receiving adjustments similar to mine, especially the groin-on-groin Supta Hasta Pādāṅguṣṭhāsana/ Trivikramāsana assist. Hamstrings of both men and women were injured on a regular basis with Jois’s adjustments in this posture, although Jois handled men differently, without touching their genitals.
Male students sometimes complained about receiving less attention and fewer hands-on assists from Jois than their female counterparts. I recall a female student arguing in response that, since women were not allowed to attend as many classes each month as men, it all balanced out. Female students were required to take a “lady’s holiday” during the first three days of their menstrual cycle. In spite of receiving fewer classes with their monthly fee, some women looked forward to the restful break from the intensity of practice during their “holiday.”
Jois and some of his female students would hug, and even kiss, affectionately after he had helped them with finishing backbends. As if reversing roles with his guru, 25-year-old Sharath, Jois’s grandson, acted responsibly and held forward rigid arms to keep female students at bay after these backbends. He seemed embarrassed of his grandfather’s behavior.
Students would wait in line to prostrate before the guru after practice. I was uncomfortable with this at first, even though I had previously touched the feet of one of my sitar gurus, as was the custom. The first time I bowed before him, he said, “Good, good,” but I felt conflicted. My heart wasn’t in it. I promptly learned to quickly turn my head after standing up in order to avoid a full kiss on the mouth. His kissing was in violation of cultural taboos, as I understood them. Public displays of affection were rarely seen in India at that time, and kissing on the mouth was still largely censored from Indian films. Also, keep in mind that Jois’s wife, affectionately known as Amma, remained elsewhere in the house while Jois was groping and kissing his much younger, Western female students.
While in Mysuru, the topic of Jois’s “adjustments” on women’s private parts frequently arose in conversation. Some students would say “Of course it’s sexual” and “If he did this in the United States, he would go to jail.” Others would counter, “He’s transmitting śaktipāt,” or “I don’t think it’s sexual at all. He’s just adjusting my Mūla Bandha,” although the latter arguments failed to explain his dry humping or why he kissed his female students on the lips. In my own experience, it did not feel sexual. Rather, it felt like he was relishing in his power to violate obvious boundaries without repercussions, in full view of everyone in the room.
In the discussion following the “revelations” of Jois’s abuse, I have seen comments indicating that the cultural differences between the West and India need to be taken under careful consideration. Therefore, I will share how Jois’s behavior struck several of his fellow Mysuru residents.
After yoga practice, I would spend most of my afternoons at a small shop that sold writing supplies. The shop was run by a family that my yoga teachers had befriended. My teachers had told me that this family could help me find a Hindustani music teacher. The parents were originally from northern India. Both the father and an adult son were amateur musicians. I also met the mother and two other young adult daughters. Since I had studied some Hindi at university and made a trip to northern India for further language training a few years earlier, I was able to have basic, slow-paced conversations with the mother who did not speak English, but could understand it. On most days, I would visit with the family for hours and was scolded when I did not show.
One day I shared with the family how Pattabhi Jois was adjusting me, touching my breasts and genitals. The mother became very upset. In Hindi, she began, “You tell him…” Then, for the first and only time I ever heard her speak English, she said emphatically, “Don’t touch my body!” I was not brave enough to comply with her imperative and confront Pattabhi Jois, but her words made a deep impression that gave me vital inner protection.
That summer Pattabhi Jois was charging over $300 per month for the morning classes, and the price continued to rise. When I shared the amount with the family at the shop, they were shocked. To give some perspective, the Mysuru family told me that if I worked full-time for them, I would be lucky to receive the equivalent of $1 per day.
This little stall-like shop was a regular meeting place for many friends. During my afternoon visits, I met several local professional musicians and others, including a banker and a journalist for the local paper. One day the journalist stopped by, and the family shared with him how Pattabhi Jois was touching me and how much he was charging for lessons. The journalist left the shop with a new mission, saying, “I’m going to write an exposé.” That was the last I saw of him, and I doubt he ever wrote the article, given that I was his only informant. Please note, however, that no one at the shop defended Jois’s behavior or told me that I didn’t understand what he was doing because of cultural differences or suggested that I had somehow “asked for it” by not wearing enough clothing. In fact, all of these residents of Mysuru condemned it.
I returned from Mysuru with an injury in my upper right hamstring. Not feeling ready to go back to my Seattle Mysore-style class, I went to the class of a teacher from my pre-Ashtanga days. When my old teacher asked me if I was angry with Jois for getting injured, I responded that what really bothered me was that he had touched my genitals and breasts during assists. My teacher acknowledged that he had seen a video in which Jois had adjusted women inappropriately.
After a few months, I went back to the Mysore-style class and, one day, brought up how Pattabhi Jois would swing me back from Padmāsana to Caturaṅga Daṇḍāsana by grabbing hold of my genitals. One teacher admitted that he had been troubled by these assists when he first arrived in Mysuru. A nearby female student jokingly said that Jois could have at least asked, “Can I grab your crotch?” To my surprise, my other teacher insisted, “Well, it is the best adjustment!”
This is the same teacher — Catherine Tisseront — who Karen Rain mentions in her interview with Matthew Remski, the one who died of cancer in her mid-forties and who perhaps had received even more invasive adjustments from Pattabhi Jois than Karen had. Catherine had many wonderful qualities, but was prone to erupt in misdirected rage. I now wonder if her anger was at least in part a result of Jois’s sexual assaults on her, even though, in her view, these assaults were “the best” — skillful, high-level yoga assists.
Jois did not violate all of his female students during this period of time. One of my later Ashtanga teachers, an unusually strong woman with an advanced asana practice, had travelled to Mysuru during the1990s. She told me that he had never touched her inappropriately, although she did not minimize my own story.
While I was disgusted by Jois’s behavior and disappointed that my teachers had not warned me about it, I was equally distraught by Jois’s enablers and apologists. After I returned from India, I revisited the Yoga Journal issue that had been an inspiration for my journey to Mysuru.
In one article titled, “Ashtanga Mysore-style,” Beverly Fredericks describes Jois as a teacher “of awareness, simplicity, and love in its largest sense” and “of discipline tempered with a child-like lightness of heart.” Jois was radiant and possessed a certain je ne sais quois. He was also charming and cute, frequently scolding students with “Bad Lady” and “Bad Man.” When I was in Mysuru, he called me “Seattle.” I found my nickname endearing but sometimes wondered if he even knew my good name, as they say in India.
Every year the organization where I teach yoga requires me to take a child sexual abuse prevention training. And every year I re-learn about grooming behavior. I learn that child predators often befriend parents and charm children to gain their trust. Jerry Sandusky was frequently described as a “big kid” and engaged in “horse-play” as he showered with his young male victims. Larry Nassar was “warm, gentle, and kind” as he assaulted young female athletes in the presence of their parents during medical examinations. The most successful predators hold high social standing. Both Sandusky and Nassar were pillars of their communities.
Looking back, I would now argue that Jois’s charm, “simplicity” and “child-like” manner were indicative of a grooming behavior that lent an air of safety and innocence to the room during his daily sexual assaults. Jois, the pillar of Ashtanga yoga, enchanted students, disarming them, thus making it easier to disregard his more sinister actions. Many of his victims became compliant in this atmosphere.
In the title feature from this issue, “Power Yoga,” Anne Cushman devotes several paragraphs to Jois’s adjustments. Cushman explores two sides of the debate over Jois’s forceful adjustments. In support of Jois’s teaching practices, she includes comments from leading Ashtanga advocates. On the dissenting side, she describes practitioners who acknowledge rumors of injuries resulting in “torn muscles, blown-out knees, and even crushed vertebrae” as belonging to “heretical Ashtanga circles”. Unfortunately, she quotes no one directly. Notably, the paragraphs in this section describe nothing unseemly, let alone sexual assault.
Also in this section we read Jane MacMullen’s statement that in order to become certified to teach, “Guruji has to have had his hands all over you in every pose”. To my post-Mysuru eyes, this took on a hyper-literal meaning that few uninitiated readers would have grasped.
Nancy Gilgoff remarks, “There’s a science to adjusting, and Guruji knows it.” Gilgoff claims that her chronic migraines were healed by the “skillful manipulations” of Pattabhi Jois. I do understand that many have reaped tremendous benefit from their training with Jois. However, during my stay in Mysuru, I heard more people complain of injuries, especially hamstring tears, than I ever heard praise Jois’s “skillful manipulations.”
Richard Freeman also comments on Jois’s adjustments in this same article:
“If you surrender to it, it works very well, because he gets you to do things that you thought you couldn’t do. He’s an expert about helping you overcome your preconceptions about what’s happening in your practice… The posture is just a method to overcome your mental conditioning. But it’s very hard for people to understand that.”
I know several teachers and students who have trained extensively with Freeman and hold him in the highest esteem, and I too have participated in two excellent weekend workshops with him, so I am reluctant to sound harsh. But frankly, this passage is the most distressing and left me puzzled for years after re-reading it. I was unable to reconcile the supposed virtue of surrendering to this man with his transgressions in my experience.
Pattabhi Jois had no respect for my personal boundaries, had forced my body into extreme positions to the point of injury, lewdly thrust his pelvis at my behind, and also kissed and repeatedly groped me against my wishes — or, to put it bluntly, sexually assaulted me. Surrendering to this man had not worked well for me. Jois had gotten me to do things that I didn’t want to do, not that I couldn’t do. His actions triggered more mental confusion, not greater clarity. I do not believe that Pattabhi Jois had my best interest in mind. He conveniently ignored the harm he caused in pursuit of his perverted proclivities. What, in Freeman’s mind, did I not understand?
A journalist for a local newspaper in the socially conservative city of Mysuru was eager to write an exposé on Pattabhi Jois’s sexual abuse and exorbitant fees. Yet, If any of the contributors to this Yoga Journal feature were aware of Jois’s abuse, none of them thought it was important enough to mention. Jois assaulted women in full view of everyone in his classroom. He clearly was not embarrassed or ashamed of his actions and, as far as I know, never showed contrition. How could a mainstream publication be blind to such an integral part of a story? These Yoga Journal articles troubled me for a long time.
Years ago, my meditation teacher, a Zen master from Korea, said that the trauma of sexual abuse can be most difficult to overcome. He rarely spoke in absolutes, never said it could not be healed, and was probably referring to childhood sexual abuse. But even though we were all adults in Mysuru and even if we set aside the risk of physical injury, what of the potential serious harm to the psyche? As I recently learned in a workplace training, a person who has been sexually harassed may manifest an array of adverse psychological and physiological symptoms including fear, anxiety, depression, shock, lethargy, sleep disturbances, and sexual dysfunction. In addition to the aforementioned symptoms, victims of sexual assault may suffer from dissociation, PTSD and other conditions. Many of these symptoms are forms of suffering that yoga is reputed to alleviate. Why would a yoga master behave in a manner so antithetical to the teachings, a manner that could easily trigger these disturbances in his students?
I truly did suspect that most serious Ashtanga yoga practitioners knew about Pattabhi Jois’s sexual assaults. Furthermore, I had long hoped that this matter would come to the attention of senior teachers and leaders in the Ashtanga yoga community and be addressed in a meaningful way. The ongoing lack of open discussion concerning Jois’s abuse, not to mention the reverently placed portraits of Jois in many yoga studios, has served as a silent stamp of approval for what he did to women, as if his sexual assaults truly were “the best.”
The complicity needs to end. We need to become better informed, learn to recognize predatory behavior, and remember that the sex offender is most often someone we know, and even trust, rather than the monstrous stranger lurking in the back alley.
From my perspective, if there were teachers who knew of Jois’s sexual assaults, they had a responsibility to tell their students in order to help them make an informed decision before studying with him. I would not have traveled to Mysuru had I known Jois was sexually abusing students in his classroom.
Still, I do not regret my journey as I would not have met so many kind and generous people in the beautiful city of Mysuru. My experience studying yoga in Mysuru has in no way deterred me from pursuing the path of yoga, and I remain an earnest seeker.
Jubilee has explored a variety of yogic and meditative disciplines since 1989. In addition to studying Ashtanga Vinyasa, she has completed trainings in Universal Yoga and ParaYoga. She has also practiced both Buddhist and Korean Taoist meditation. In 2009, she earned a Ph.D. in ethnomusicology at the University of Washington. Her doctoral thesis focuses on kirtan in the Seattle yoga scene and examines why and how Westerners have adopted Indian devotional chanting. She has taught yoga at the YMCA of Greater Seattle for 19 years.