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The Sexual Abuse Scandal in Ashtanga Yoga

Some of you will have heard about the crisis engulfing the international Ashtanga community, concerning Pattabhi Jois (the founder and leader of Ashtanga Yoga, known as Guruji, who died in 2009), and the K. Pattabhi Jois Ashtanga Yoga Institute (KPJAYI). But I know from conversations I have had that many of you are entirely unaware of it. I think it is essential that all those practising Ashtanga in the local yoga community are fully informed about this crisis and have enough information to draw some lessons from the whole sad affair.

I would want to stress that I am not singling out the Ashtanga community – it is an unfortunate fact that this is just the latest in a long line of sexual abuses scandals that have affected many of the major yoga styles and lineages – Bikram, Jivamukti, Anusara, Kundalini, Manouso Manos in the Iyengar tradition, Satyananda, Kausthub Desikachar and countless more – see this list compiled in 2015 of yoga sexual abuse scandals involving gurus: https://theyogalunchbox.co.nz/a-compehrensive-list-of-yoga-scandals-involving-gurus-sex-and-other-inappropriate-behaviour/ . Shannon Roche, chief operating officer of the Yoga Alliance internationally in 2018 commented that “almost every yoga tradition” now has its own sexual abuse scandal: https://www.kqed.org/news/11690316/metoo-unmasks-the-open-secret-of-sexual-abuse-in-yoga Ashtanga yogis need to confront these issues in our own community and the wider yoga community.

On Thursday I attended Norman Blair’s studio in London for the launch of an excellent book about the crisis called “Practice and All is Coming: Abuse, Cult Dynamics and Healing in Yoga and Beyond” by yoga teacher and author Mathew Remski. It is an important account of what happened and what needs to change in the yoga community to prevent similar future scandals.

I have discussed this summary of the issues (below) with a number of Ashtanga teachers and practitioners, in particular Sophie Cleere whom many local Ashtanga yogis will know from when she covered in 2017 the Mysore at Brighton Natural Health Centre and her Ashtanga classes at Revitalise. She also co-runs a yoga studio in Reading that offers non-traditional Ashtanga classes. Sophie has been practising Ashtanga for 20 years and teaching for 15 years. She was authorised by the KPJAYI institute in Mysore to teach Ashtanga but has now renounced her authorisation in the light of the revelations about Pattabhi Jois and the KPJAYI institute: https://www.instagram.com/p/BuQojrZluT_/?utm_source=ig_share_sheet&igshid=1b0v2mpf4fui5

Briefly, here is a summary:

1) Pattabhi Jois (PJ) systematically sexually abused certain women students at Mysore and in his travels. Some of this was straightforward sexual abuse, some under the guise of “adjustments” and sometimes under the guise of “welcoming” and “saying goodbye” to women students. The numbers of victims could well number in the hundreds. More and more women are coming forward to describe similar abuse. Many witnesses, including a few well known Ashtanga teachers, have come forward to corroborate the accusations. There is also some pretty explicit video evidence of his sexually abusive “adjustments”. His actions had a devastating effect on some of the women by their own testimonies. I would strongly urge people to read the testimonies of the victims before making judgements. The case against him is extremely compelling (See this interview by Matthew Remski with Karen Rain, a long-time advanced practitioner with Pattabhi Jois and who posted the first detailed account of his sexual abuse in 2017: http://matthewremski.com/wordpress/karen-rain-speaks-about-pattabhi-jois-and-recovering-from-sexual-and-spiritual-abuse-video-interview/, and this account: https://medium.com/s/powertrip/yoga-guru-pattabhi-jois-sexually-assaulted-me-for-years-48b3d04c9456?fbclid=IwAR1HOM8WFNbftphfmIkfjjROk48YPXgnLOWNe05o46AyQkfJrmvw7hyUDEM

2) Leaders of the Ashtanga community in Mysore were aware of the sexual abuse allegations for two or three decades. There was apparently at least one (maybe more) meeting(s) held with PJ and the family following specific accusations where he was told by the family to stop behaving in this way – which he reportedly did briefly, before reverting back to type. 

3) The K Pattabhi Jois Ashtanga Yoga Institute (KPJAYI) in Mysore has to date not made any public statement on the accusations – neither confirming nor denying them. It has not acknowledged the truth of the accusations, and as they are extremely serious and potentially libellous if untrue, its silence is revealing. Nor has it apologised to the victims of the abuse of students in its care. Its silence on the whole affair is little short of scandalous. It has however (with no explanation) introduced new guidelines on ethical behaviour for its teachers.

4) While the basic case against K Pattabhi Joi is increasingly becoming accepted as fact, a number of well-known Ashtanga teachers around the world have failed to make any public statement or acknowledgement of the accusations or informed their students about them. Many continue to have pictures of PJ on the walls of their studios and/or uncritical references to him on their websites, and continue to travel to practise with the KPJAYI in Mysore and to publicise their “authorisation to teach” from the Institute without any reference to the behaviour of the Institute over this whole affair. A few have quietly taken down their pictures of PJ, and others have also with no explanation adopted “Guidelines” on ethical behaviour. The approach of some of the leaders of the orthodox Ashtanga community round the world appears to be to keep their heads down and hope the storm blows over, in order to get “back to normal”. This seems to be due to a number of factors: a degree of denial of some or all of the accusations; a fear that any scandal may deter people from practising Ashtanga (I intend to continue practising and teaching Ashtanga as I know it undoubtedly has many benefits if taught with compassion, in a non-dogmatic fashion and with appropriate safeguards); concern for their studios’ or teaching livelihoods; concern at the possible loss of their teaching authorisation from KPJAYI; and a fear of being cast out from the Ashtanga community which is an important part of their lives.

5) Some of the women whom Jois assaulted:
* Karen Rain https://medium.com/s/powertrip/yoga-guru-pattabhi-jois-sexually-assaulted-me-for-years-48b3d04c9456?fbclid=IwAR1HOM8WFNbftphfmIkfjjROk48YPXgnLOWNe05o46AyQkfJrmvw7hyUDEM
* Jubilee Cooke http://www.decolonizingyoga.com/why-didnt-somebody-warn-me-a-pattabhi-jois-metoo-story-jubilee-cooke/ ;
* Anneke Lucas https://www.yogacitynyc.com/single-post/2016/03/07/Why-The-Abused-Dont-Speak-Up
have become powerful advocates for justice and reform.

Some well-known teachers and authors, both from the Ashtanga community:
* Matthew Sweeney https://saraiyoga.wordpress.com/2018/03/17/the-sexual-misconduct-of-pattabhi-jois-my-thoughts-accountability-and-5-changes-to-pledge-my-support-for-the-victims ;
* Gregor Maehle https://www.jbrownyoga.com/yoga-talks-podcast/2018/11/gregor-maehle?fbclid=IwAR0SLG8M9qeRRhY0HpOJqdDw8_IYv94Gb5_ZxWCfD1pcPsMSwCCSqpI_Es0 ;
and others from the broader yoga community (Diane Bruni, Donna Farhi) have come out fully supporting the women whom Jois abused, and called for the Ashtanga community to come to terms with and learn some lessons from what has happened. Perhaps most significantly, Guy Donahaye – author with Eddie Stern of the definitive authorised biography of Pattabhi Jois: “Guruji: A portrait through the eyes of his students” has also now fully accepted the allegations and urged a comprehensive re-think of the legacy of Pattabhi Jois: https://yogamindmedicine.blogspot.com/2018/08/guruji-metoo.html

6) Obviously these sexual abuse scandals are not new – Jimmy Saville, the Catholic Church, Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey, etc (and accusations against other yoga teachers such as Bikram have been known for a long time). And I previously referred to those in the yoga community too. But the response of some in the Ashtanga community sadly mirrors the response of many institutions – initial disbelief, keeping one’s head down and hoping it goes away, minimising the PR damage to the brand, apologising eventually, making some minor system reforms to show you have “learned lessons” etc. Although in some ways the response of the KPJAYI is worse. At least the Catholic Church, the BBC and most of Hollywood eventually acknowledged the abuse and apologised – the KPJAYI uniquely has not. The first two elements of the yamas and niyamas (the tenets of yoga philosophy) are: Ahimsa – non-violence, and Satya – truthfulness. Patthabi Jois committed sexual violence against some of his women students, and the KPJAYI institute has covered up the truth. It is a betrayal of the core of yoga philosophy.

7) Most of us cannot influence much in the Catholic Church, Hollywood or the BBC – but we can help to play a small part in our own sphere of work and influence – the Brighton yoga community and specifically the Ashtanga community. It is easy to disapprove the failures of the big institutions like the BBC and the Catholic Church, but it is hypocritical if you do not respond when it happens in your own community. I feel that our responsibility is to help “clean up our own back yard”. It is not enough to “move on” from such a crisis. We all have a responsibility to learn from it.

8) And that learning requires us to scrutinise the “guru” concept. There is a similar thread running through the sexual abuse crises in the BBC, the Church, Hollywood and, sadly, the yoga community – and that is the abuse of power. The abusers systematically used their powerful positions within their communities to carry out their abuse without fear of being challenged. Initially, their victims were confused and traumatised that it could possibly be carried out by the person they revered and trusted, and then felt that their accusations would never be believed, and finally they feared that if they did speak out, they would be ostracised within the very community that was so important to them. Thanks to the #MeToo movement the women whom Pattabhi Jois abused found the courage to speak out about what happened to them. They deserve and demand our support.

9) This catalogue of sexual abuse cases within the yoga community should force us to critically re-appraise the entire notion of the reverential and all-powerful yoga guru to whom we cede our power. It is clear from the sheer volume of fallen gurus that the old adage: “Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely” remains true and relevant to the yoga community. Within the traditional Ashtanga community, this should cover broader issues than sexual abuse. It should also include:
* the highly dogmatic approach to teaching the practice and the “granting” of postures to students;
* the dangerously strong regime of “adjustments” causing serious injuries to many students and the mantra of “working through pain” to achieve postures – see Karen Rqin blog https://karenrainashtangayogaandmetoo.wordpress.com ;
* the dubious method of authorising people to teach on the basis of the number of hours they have practised in Mysore, rather than any recognisable teacher training;
* the entire hierarchical edifice of KPJAYI with its past & current gurus (Pattabhi Jois & Sharath Jois) whose judgements and views are considered to be absolute and beyond questioning.

10) I hope that this summary of the crisis will help encourage informed discussion within the Ashtanga community and beyond about all these issues; that it will lead to more Ashtanga teachers and practitioners standing up for those who have been abused within our community; and that a healthy discussion can lead to lessons being learned about our responsibilities and rights as yogis, students and teachers. One contribution towards this will be a round table discussion about these issues at the Brighton Yoga Foundation’s annual yoga festival in July – which will be chaired by Peter Deadman from Brighton Natural Health Centre, and to which Matthew Remski has been invited, along with people from different yoga and meditation traditions that have had to face up to sexual abuse within their communities. This is not something we can afford to ignore. Yoga is on the cusp of a major breakthrough into the mainstream of daily life. Yoga in Schools is growing exponentially, and now the NHS has expressed willingness to have yoga on the menu of “social prescriptions” that every GP in the country can offer. All of this growth of the influence of yoga is at risk if those institutions like the NHS and schools do not see proof that the yoga community takes seriously the personal safety of its students, and that it has confronted these yoga sexual abuse scandals and learned the lessons to minimise the possibility of them re-occurring.

Davy Jones, 6th April 2019

Davy has been practising Ashtanga yoga for 20 years and teaching it for 11. He has always taught Ashtanga in a non-orthodox fashion. He is also Chair of the Brighton Yoga Foundation.

Please send any comments to: davy@inspirationyoga.net

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