By Karen Rain
I was sexually assaulted by Pattabhi Jois. I studied in Mysore, India for a total of 2 years between 1994 and 1998. According to the US Department of Justice, sexual assault is any type of sexual contact or behavior that occurs without the explicit consent of the recipient. Pattabhi Jois predominantly sexually assaulted me by humping me in supine postures. I could feel his penis pressing against me. At the time I didn’t feel like I could do or say anything to stop it without risking being shunned by the guru and the community.
While practicing yoga under those conditions, I didn’t learn to listen to my body. I didn’t deepen embodiment. I learned dissociation and spiritual bypassing. I left Ashtanga Yoga completely in 2001, preceded and followed by several years of confusion and pain. Telling my story now, I am realizing how much Pattabhi Jois robbed me of and I am finally recovering the vitality which was stolen.
I know that the audience for my story is mixed. Some people will fully believe and support me, others won’t. My hope in entering into the #MeToo conversation is to help create a culture with zero tolerance for sexual assault. I write about my experience with Pattabhi Jois. However, I think the mechanisms of this situation are not exclusive to it. Thus, I am writing this for anyone who would like to see a world free of sexual assault.
Besides being a victim of sexual assault, I also witnessed Jois fondle, grope and hump many women. Other women have also made claims about Jois.
How did this happen? How did it go on so long? I think a lot of it was the bystander effect. We think something’s not right, but no one else is speaking up, so maybe it’s OK. In Mysore, if someone did ask about the behavior, it was minimized.
I minimized it internally and in conversation with fellow Ashtanga students. I said, ’It could be worse, he could be having affairs with his students.’ But if we say ‘less severe’ violations aren’t a big deal, we deny the victim the voice of their experience. Plus, we don’t help prevent more severe violations from happening. Many abusers start with ‘less severe’ violations and progress from there.
I said, ‘It doesn’t feel sexual to me.’ I know that assault can sometimes feel sexual to victims. But often it doesn’t. In my case, I was dissociating when he was humping me. I once pushed his hand off my breast and he never tried that again. Other people have tried to soften the facts by saying that when women stopped him from doing something, he didn’t try again. This overlooks the fact that even if he ‘only’ assaulted a woman once, he still assaulted her. Furthermore, many abusers groom or test the waters to see what they can get away with. We said he was being ‘respectful.’ That is not respectful, that is strategic.
The same applies to him stopping at times when he was given an ultimatum. He stopped because he didn’t think he could get away with it, not because he was feeling contrite. There are numerous references in comment threads that the assaults did not end in 2001, but continued into the last years of his life, while some people claim they stopped.
There are a few other things that are being overlooked. Kissing women on the mouth and grabbing their buttocks while hugging them goodbye is sexual assault. This behavior would not be tolerated in other teacher/student situations. Jois could do this because of his power, which he abused.
While I was studying in Mysore, a random man groped me on a bus. I beat him up. My fellow Ashtanga students supported me and understood my rage. However, we were supposed to acquiesce to the fact that Jois behaved in a similar manner daily. Also, most of the time I was in Mysore, Amma, Jois’ wife was still alive. I have not seen anyone mentioning her and how unkind his behavior was toward her.
There are people saying ‘nobody is perfect’ or ‘Jois was only human.’ Yes, people are complex. I am not saying Jois should have been perfect, or that he wasn’t human. I am saying that sexual assault is intolerable, rather than just a ‘human thing.’ ‘Intolerable’ means it outweighs the merit or power of the perpetrator. To create a world with zero tolerance for sexual assault, we can’t make exceptions.
For people who want to be supportive of victims, please be aware of statements by Ashtanga teachers that employ the following strategy: admit ‘something’, state how that was not their personal experience, minimize claims, justify and reinterpret behavior, ignore clear victim testimony, and glorify Jois and his teaching. This is insensitive to victims. Its purpose is to assuage Ashtanga students and practitioners, and perhaps the authors themselves.
I’ve seen several statements like that. I’d like to note that Greg Nardi apologized to me for defending Pattabhi Jois. Andy Gill, Paul Gold, Sarai Harvey-Smith, Gregor Maehle, Monica Gauci, Jessica Blanchard and Eunice Laurel have written very respectful statements.
For those people who witnessed sexual assaults and are silent, what you are saying is ‘this doesn’t really matter to me.’ If you think it is too late to say something, it’s not. People continue to talk about the Holocaust and the slavery of African Americans in the US to help prevent similar things from happening again and to work towards justice. Silence, or not talking about abuse, will never help stop it. Even if the perpetrator is dead, speaking openly about the abuse and being respectful of victims will affect culture.
As restorative justice, I hope that Ashtanga Yoga reinvents itself. This is not impossible. Kripalu Yoga did it after the scandal with Amrit Desai. Reinvention would include ceasing all public display of feel good images and public discourse lauding other aspects of Jois. I don’t hear people publicly celebrating all the achievements and merits of Harvey Weinstein right now. And if there were a ‘Harvey Weinstein School of Film Production,’ probably the name would be changed.
For too many decades the celebration of Jois has been public, while his unconscionable behavior was kept private and hushed and images of it were even removed/blocked from the internet. Someone was going to do a piece about my story in 2012, but was threatened with a law suit.
I do trust that there are people who practice Ashtanga Yoga who both want to know the truth and don’t want to hide it. I’m heartened by a comment that Tina Myntz Zymaraki made when sharing one of my testimonies on Facebook:
‘Perhaps the ashtanga community might begin to acknowledge and hopefully heal our shared wound.’
This issue is no longer a secret within the Ashtanga community. The global yoga community is looking on and waiting to see how the Ashtanga community handles it. There are some more ideas I’ve heard, that I also agree with. These include creating a code of conduct for instructors and incorporating consent and transparency into teacher training. The KPJAYI could make a formal statement that acknowledges the wrongfulness of Jois’ behavior and expresses an unequivocal apology to any student who was harmed by him. And all teachers of the lineage could follow suit.
Here is my own statement of responsibility: I was intensely involved in Ashtanga Yoga for several years. During that time I did my share of glorifying Pattabhi Jois and recommending studying in Mysore. If anyone went there on account of me and was hurt in any way, I am so sorry. I also offer my sincerest apologies to anyone I hurt with my adjustments while teaching. I know of at least six people and there are probably more. I was not very skillful or attuned. I wish I could go back and do things differently.
Because I can’t go back, I am speaking out now, to be a part of a movement toward a safer, more transparent and more just future.