Update on the Ashtanga Yoga sexual abuse scandal

Back in April 2019 I published a long blog on this website about the horrendous unfolding sexual abuse scandal which engulfed the Ashtanga yoga community. This is an update to that blog and an explanation of why some of us still teach a form of Ashtanga, while explicitly distancing ourselves from any association with the whole Mysore tradition formerly led by Pattabhi Jois (known as Guruji) and now by his grandson Sharath.

Since the blog was written, and following a long campaign by survivors, Sharath has belatedly made a mealy-mouthed apology for his grandfather’s behaviour and “inappropriate adjustments”. He also complained that he did not know about it and berated some senior teachers in Ashtanga world for not doing more to prevent what happened. This is a bare-faced lie. It is inconceivable that Sharath was not aware of Jois’ sexual abuse. His behaviour was widely known. In one instance, Jois was publicly denounced by the husband of a female workshop participant as having sexually assaulted his wife. And there are accounts of more than one meeting which Sharat attended with others from the Mysore entourage where Jois was confronted about his abuse and promised to stop. He didn’t.

For years and years, the whole Mysore operation knew exactly what was happening. They knew full well that at every course in Mysore and at every workshop round the world they organised, a proportion of the women there would be sexually abused by Jois. And they did nothing. They kept the money rolling in while hundreds of women were abused. 

As my original blog pointed out, this is a gross betrayal of the core principles of yoga philosophy (Ahimsa: non-violence; and Satya: truth). They permitted violence against their students and lied about their ignorance. Sharath and the Mysore juggernaut is morally bankrupt. And yogis should have nothing to do with it. They shouldn’t support it, promote it, encourage people to attend its events or flaunt its “authorisation to teach”. Who in their right mind would want to say that they had been granted permission to teach by a serial sexual predator or those who covered it up? It would be like boasting about being taught by Jimmy Saville or Harvey Weinstein or those who covered up their crimes.

Some of us who teach Ashtanga were never involved in the Mysore set-up and never went along with its dogmatic obsession with teaching exactly how Pattabhi Jois dictated. I never went there as I didn’t like the “cultish” behaviour that those who had been there reported. I never encouraged people to go there or followed the strict instructions laid down by Pattabhi Jois about what postures could be taught to whom and when. I thought it was nonsense then and still do.

But I do still refer to myself as teaching Ashtanga – why? As the original blog mentioned, there have been sexual abuse scandals in virtually every yoga tradition – sometimes by the main guru themselves and in other cases by leading followers of the guru. It is sadly endemic. But that does not stop those of us who understand the huge potential benefits of yoga from wanting to teach it. We are however duty bound to distance ourselves explicitly from the abusers and those who covered it up. But it does raise legitimate questions about how we describe what we teach and what we call it.

In the Ashtanga world, it was indeed the founder and undisputed leader of that tradition, Pattabhi Jois, who was responsible for that sexual abuse. And it was covered up by the rest of the Mysore entourage.  If the Ashtanga practice had adopted the name of Pattabhi Jois – Jois Yoga or similar – I certainly would no longer describe my teaching as Jois Yoga. In the broader yoga tradition, the word Ashtanga has much wider connotations – for example as a description of the eight limbs of yoga, including yoga philosophy, pranayama and meditation. Ashtanga is also now very widely known internationally as a strong form of dynamic vinyasa yoga with many participants blissfully unaware of the Pattabhi Jois scandal. 

I have therefore continued to use the term “Ashtanga” as a description of the type of yoga I teach. At the same time, I always make clear that I do not teach it in the traditional Mysore style and that I do not associate with its traditions, or Patthabi Jois and his successors, namely Sharath Jois and the others who covered up Jois’ abuse.