Ashtanga Yoga—Accountability, Acceptance and Action in the Arena of Sexual Appropriateness and Hands-On Assists by Kino MacGregor
Update: This blog was published in late 2017 and has been edited in April 2019.
As a victim of the most heinous type of sexual assault, rape, at the hands of a yoga teacher, it both saddens and alarms me to read of the accusations of inappropriate touching in hands-on assists by my teacher, the late K. Pattabhi Jois. Let me start off by saying that I believe the victims and I offer them my sincere apologies. There is nothing that can restore your innocence and inviolability in the yoga world after suffering such an abuse of power. I know this all too well.
Men have been touching me in an inappropriate manner since I was 10 years old, maybe younger. The earliest incident I can remember is when my guitar teacher allowed his hand to graze over my pre-pubescent breasts as he passed the guitar over to me. I didn’t say anything because I was flattered by the attention of both my teacher and an older man. I remember my body flushing hot and feeling embarrassed and I instinctively “knew” I shouldn’t say anything. I don’t know why but, perhaps because some other young girls did say something, one day I arrived to find that my music lessons would be taught by a new teacher. This new teacher was younger, less flashy and more technical. And, most importantly, he never touched me in an inappropriate manner. While I did not pursue a career in music, my second guitar teacher established a clear boundary that allowed me to explore my musical interests in a free space.
When I read the stories about what women have experienced at the hands of my cherished teacher, K. Pattabhi Jois, at first I felt a cognitive dissonance that astounded me. The question that I could not grapple with was whether my angel of a teacher could have played a role to others similar to what that first guitar teacher and the yoga who assaulted me was to me? It breaks my heart. Speaking as a victim of many degrees of sexual assault myself, my emphasis is on the victim first and foremost. While I cannot personally verify their stories, I will not make any excuses for his past behavior or defend him. I will simply say, I’m so sorry you were hurt. And I will commit myself to creating a safe space in the yoga community at large to prevent sexual abuse, sexual assault, manipulation, exploitation, sexual misconduct or other actions that harm students.
One thing that has become abundantly clear for me is that I am not qualified to adjudicate this matter. In a recent case involving a allegations of sexual misconduct by a senior Iyengar teacher, an independent investigator was hired. I respect that process immensely because if there is one thing that I can say definitively it’s that I am biased by my positive experience with the Ashtanga Yoga method. Similarly, while no one can judge the experience from the outside, there are certain standards that I believe we as a yoga community can set up. Victims themselves may fall into the psychological trap of making excuses for their abuser. I certainly did (you can read my #metoo blog for more on that). One thing that I am clear about is that the story that is hardest to tell is the victim’s. When you experienced a boundary being crossed, then a boundary was crossed. If someone touched you in an unwanted way, you feel it and register it and will never forget it. After the sheer number of women who come froward, I do not doubt KPJ touched them in ways that violated their boundaries. Not only am I truly sorry for what you experienced, but I am eternally grateful to each and every woman that has come forward. First, perhaps it is because you spoke out and made your claims known that when I went to practice with my teacher I did not experience the inappropriate touching in assists that you experienced. Perhaps because you voiced your concerns, the culture of Ashtanga Yoga in Mysore under the helm of R. Sharath Jois today is totally devoid of the types of questionable assists some have experienced or witnessed in the past. While I know that this does not erase your pain or trauma, I hope that it will ameliorate it somewhat and give at least some meaning to all you have been through. Second, your sharing has sparked a much needed debate and discussion about this shadow. It is now up to the Ashtanga community to grow together and uphold yogic values.
As an example of the harrowing process it took to confront KPJ and the resulting changes I include this blog written by childhood sex slave survivor Anneke Lucas:
As an effort to outline a course of action, Karen Rain and Jubilee Cook have written this recent article:
As a rape victim it is important for me to be both sensitive and clear. There are degrees of sexual assault. Without mincing words, what KPJ stands accused of is both groping, “dry-humping” and digital penetration. Without lessening the deleterious effects of this violation, it must be said that we are not discussing rape. I say this not to mitigate the impact of claims brought up against KPJ, but to clarify exactly what claims are being made. For those unfamiliar with the term “sexual assault”, I believe it deserves a little clarification. RAINN (Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network) indicates that the term “sexual assault refers to sexual contact or behavior that occurs without explicit consent of the victim. Some forms of sexual assault include:
•Fondling or unwanted sexual touching
•Forcing a victim to perform sexual acts, such as oral sex or penetrating the perpetrator’s body
•Penetration of the victim’s body, also known as rape”
The actions of KPJ as described by the victims qualify as sexual assault and were inappropriate. This behavior would not be tolerated in any yoga studio today by any teacher, male or female. The fondling and unwanted sexual touching would be grounds to fire any yoga teacher in any yoga studio around the world. To think otherwise is blindness or worse, gives permission for renegade teachers to touch students under the guise of “spiritual awakening”.
A larger issue at stake here is that there is little recourse that victims of any type of sexual assault have in the yoga world. After being sexually assaulted to the highest degree by a yoga teacher myself I pursued action in the yoga world in an effort to get accountability and I got very little. I reported the action done to me (and numerous others) to Yoga Alliance only to get a standardized reply. They have since contacted me in an effort to rectify their inexcusable response and I can only hope that my complaints lead to dialogue, discussion and ultimately reform. I reported the incident to my teachers in India and they were accordingly horrified. R. Sharath Jois, KPJ’s grandson, understood the gravity of the situation and said he would speak with said teacher. He later removed this man from the list of Authorized Ashtanga Yoga teachers.
As both a practitioner and teacher in Ashtanga Yoga community, it is evident to me that I am neither interested in suppression or denial, nor will I participate in a culture of complicity. Instead I am deeply committed to dialogue, discussion, evolution and reform. Many others feel the same way. Just look online and you will see teachers and students of the Ashtanga Yoga method deeply invested in this very public process. In the leadership of R. Sharath Jois, you will find a dedicated teacher of the Ashtanga Yoga method who emphasizes the yamas and niyamas. He leaves no room for unclarity in his adjustments and treatment of women and maintains absolute appropriate sexual boundaries with all his students. Some argue that Sharath’s impeccable treatment of women is “proof” of KPJ’s destructive actions. Yet to acknowledge that said behavior has in fact changed and been removed from the Ashtanga Yoga system is evidence of the resilience of the system of Ashtanga Yoga and the community of teachers and students who practice the method. If the purpose of the recent sharing has been to encourage victims of abuse to heal and to encourage positive reformation of the Asthanga Yoga system, let that be done. But to judge, condemn, rehash, denigrate and blame an entire system of practice is neither fruitful nor healing. Before we can get into the discussion of the positive or negative qualities of the Ashtanga Yoga method we must be absolutely clear that any of the destructive behaviors related to sexual misconduct are no longer happening and that there are restorative actions taking place from within the community. From my perspective the behavior regarding sexual misconduct is non-existent not and discussion around positive change is starting to happen.
Ashtanga Yoga as taught by Sri K. Pattabhi Jois is larger than one person, just as countries are larger than any one leader despite what damage a destructive leader may do to a great country. For students going forward, there is a distinction that must be made between the method and the man. As KPJ said himself, he taught what his teacher Sri T. Krishnamacharya taught him. It would be a grievous misunderstanding of the yoga tradition to throw out the entire lineage of Ashtanga Yoga because of the mistakes of one man (whose actions have been largely accounted for and removed from the system of Ashtanga Yoga). Ashtanga Yoga is also based in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, not only the physical teachings, but the spiritual lineage. References to Ashtanga Yoga as a “cult” that perpetuates sexual assault are simply a gross mischaracterization of the spiritual lineage of yoga and defames the hundreds of thousands of practitioners who have benefited from the practice and numerous teachers who have given their lives to the teaching yoga. We must question what the intentions of anyone who uses such inflammatory language truly is. If it’s to effect healing, it is at best ineffective and at worst further traumatizing. If it’s to effect change, it is neither constructive nor solutions oriented. If it’s to damage and destroy with no care or concern for the impact it makes, it succeeds.
I’d like to share my own experience of Mysore, not to disprove anyone else’s but simple to share my own. It may be hard for women who were victimized by their experiences in Mysore or under KPJ to accept that I had a positive experience. Yet, I share this so that we can see the whole picture, one that is not black and white. I am willing and working to paint a full and complete picture here and also in my heart. I sit with the duality that KPJ was a healing for in my life and a destructive force in the lives of others. His method worked for me and harmed others.
In my many years of study, starting in 2000 with KPJ and R. Sharath Jois, I never once experienced or saw any inappropriate touching of any students. He never once touched any private parts on my body in the numerous times he assisted me. I also never saw him do any of the assists that have been mentioned recently online. If I dig down into the deepest reaches of my memory, I can recall a tangential story told to me by someone who advised me not to go to Mysore before my first trip. This person rattled off a laundry list of reasons which included as a side remark that the Guru was a lecherous old man. Couched in a series of other slanderous remarks I simply disregarded it. When I traveled to India to practice with KPJ myself and my experience was entirely focused on the practice and remained totally free of any inappropriate assists, I simply did not think of those statements again. This in an of itself may be problematic. One could accept that I never received said assists and yet question why, in a community where so many others who watched KPJ teach did in fact see these assists, I never saw them myself. Was I blind to the reality and subconsciously blocked it all out due to both love and fear? Or was I just so caught up in the intensity of my own practice and journey that I never really saw clearly? I can’t say definitely, but the fact remains impervious—I did not experience or witness any inappropriate touching by KPJ. Either I was simply not aware of it because it didn’t effect me personally (which is not an excuse but an admission of potential culpability) or the behavior was either already gone from the Ashtanga Yoga system when I began practicing with KPJ when R. Sharath Jois was more at the helm of the Institute in Mysore. I can only hope it’s the latter.
In light of recent allegations, I have watched videos and scoured photographs presented online as evidence of the behavior I never witnessed. I have reached out to students who experienced these assists in an effort to truly understand the depth of the issue. The “Mula Bandha” assist is the most perplexing and problematic. The first time I heard about this was when, a long while after KPJ passed away, a younger female student asked an older male student who practiced with KPJ if he ever received the “Mula Bandha” assist. He replied that he in fact had received the assist one time and that it had “fixed” his Mula. I’ve spoken with women who said that they received the assist and it benefitted them as well. Now, the flip side of this is that some (or perhaps most) women who received this assist registered it as inappropriate touching in the same way that my guitar teacher crossed a boundary when I was a child. This is the assist that would have allowed for digital penetration, which is a felony in some U.S. states.
The danger of saying that a yoga teacher is given permission to touch a deeply private and personal area because they alone can heal or wake the area up is the slippery slope standard that when universally applied can lead to psychological abuse and even rape. I’m not saying that the students who report that they were healed by KPJ’s assist were not healed—they by their own accounts were. I’m saying rather that the normalization of that type of touching is not acceptable in any healthy teacher-student relationship of our modern world. If KPJ did in fact heal certain ailments with this assist and did not in fact violate any principles of sanctity, it would be a one in a billion case. The larger issue is that in most cases it appears that the behavior was harmful. Another issue would be if no change was effected in the organization of Ashtanga Yoga, it would have normalized that same behavior in the culture itself. Male or female teachers may have thought: if the KPJ does it, so can I. They would be grievously mistaken to emulate the KPJ in this case. I point to my teacher, KPJ’s grandson, R. Sharath Jois, as an example of change. I have never met a single person, male or female, who has seen, felt or experienced Sharath cross any sexual boundaries. In fact, while you may receive assists from Sharath in class, if you’re female, you are advised not to touch Sharath at all.
Some people who are highly critical of Ashtanga Yoga have used this debate to question all assists as dangerous. Besides the contentious “Mula Bandha” assist and obvious issues such as dry-humpinh, there are many other assists which may look disturbing when photographed but actually not violate any boundaries. I am not willing or ready to create black or white guidelines around certain assists. I cannot say, for example, that my pelvis or belly will never make contact with a student’s. But I can definitively say that touching of genitalia with the hands or fingers is no appropriate in yoga class. That’s a line I’m willing to draw clearly. There are numerous examples of grey zone assists, but let me address just one called Durvasaana. This advanced asana in the Ashtanga Yoga Third Series has been presented as evidence of KPJ’s inappropriate behavior. While at risk of incriminating myself let me share a video of myself assisting a student in this same pose:
My pelvis is behind hers, her body resting on mine. Without that full body contact I would be unable to support my student. To say that this assist is ok because we are both female is sexually discriminatory. The assist is deemed ok by a convergence of factors which include the precision of anatomical detail, the intention and feeling behind it from the teacher, and the experience of the student which must confirm that no sexual boundaries were violated. The few times that I myself have received this assist were extremely beneficial for my own practice—the added stabilization provided by the teacher allowed me to relax far beyond anything I might achieve on my own. Judging hands-on assists solely from photographs and videos applies a superficial cookie-cutter approach to the human body, something that neither fits any mold nor responds to one-size-fits-all approaches. Instead, the human body itself is a miracle of engineering genius coupled with a complex web of emotions and thoughts. To judge the proverbial book of assists by its cover would be to fall into a trap of delusion. Instead, to judge hands-on assists a combination of factors must be taken into account including the teacher’s training, anatomical knowledge, empirical results, student testimony, and more. Take massage therapy as an example. If the therapist was photographed at the exact moment they were palpating the deep six (such as the obturator internus) or the groin (such as the origin of gracilis) there will surely be numerous photos that produce a suspicious result. The assumption of sexual intention and inappropriate touching in any proximity to private areas may lead professionals of all types including massage therapists, doctors and yoga teachers to leave vast swaths of the body untouched for fear of legal action or public shaming when no wrong-doing was actually present. This would be a tragic result since these regions are some of the places in the body that need the most healing and awareness.
Yet body workers cannot be given free permission to touch wherever they want under the auspices of healing—that would open the door to a potential onslaught of sexually inappropriate behavior without recourse. In yoga, there are certainly some assists that cross boundaries, are inappropriate and have no place in our contemporary yoga world such as the “Mula Bandha” assist. These assists have been thoroughly removed from the official teaching methodology of Ashtanga Yoga and deemed unacceptable. If we follow the evidence that shows that certain assists which crossed moral and ethical lines have since been removed from the Ashtanga Yoga method, we must acknowledge that the system itself has been responsive to change and evolution. Thus, from a moral and ethical standpoint, we must then ask if we punish the sins of our grandfathers on their heirs. Holding R. Sharath Jois and every teacher of Ashtanga Yoga personally accountable for KPJ’s actions would be akin to discovering that someone’s grandfather was a perpetrator of violence only to hold them personally accountable for punishment and retribution for the sins of their ancestors. This type of judgement seems to have ended in the Biblical days of the Old Testament. The channels of justice in our current society include publicly acknowledging the negative consequences of past actions, instituting changes within the system or organization and embracing the victims in a space of healing and offering reparations. Beyond that, what else can we ask for?
I include Pema Chodron’s in-depth interview regarding the allegations of inappropriate sexual behavior brought up against her teacher Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche as a case in point of the complex process around working through a Guru’s troubling behavior as a devoted student not just of the individual but of the lineage itself:
As a lifelong student of Ashtanga Yoga I leave this process more committed than ever to the system of Ashtanga Yoga and to the daily devotional practice of asana six days a week grounded in the principles of the yamas and niyamas. My heart will have to grow big enough to hold the paradox of remaining forever faithful to the Ashtanga Yoga method, working to heal the negative effects of some of KPJ’s actions and effecting positive change both in the world at large and in the Ashtanga Yoga community that is my yoga home. After speaking with the highly trained professionals in the field of rape and trauma therapy, I’ve compiled four constructive pillars to effect change in the yoga world and it is my hope that the Ashtanga Yoga community becomes a leader in this reformation. This is the beginning, not the end of the dialogue:
1. Listening— Deeply and honestly listening to the hurt and/or individuals is vital. The ability to acknowledge any wrong-doing or harm that was experienced while providing a stable base within the community is crucial. We must create a safe space where victims of abuse feel supported in sharing their experiences while at the same time we bring our attention to constructive actions for positive change that can be implemented. I’m not sure what the best forum for this is and I wonder if it could it be online, at a yearly gathering of students at KPJAYI in India or something else entirely? I propose that we set up a yoga hotline where victims of sexual assault can report abuse and get the tools needed to heal and potentially pursue legal action if they choose to do so.
2. Responsibility and Accountability—There must be full transparency from the top where leaders take responsibility for mistakes made. The effort to acknowledge mistakes should ideally be done with measure and balance to both account for harmful actions and refrain from engaging in an implosion of self-punitive hate. In other words, we must be absolutely clear about what happened, one’s own role in it if any, while walking a fine line that does not employ a scorched-Earth paradigm of destruction. The focus must remain on the members who were hurt in the past or might still feel hurt and instituting remedies to safeguard against those same mistakes ever happening again.
As my experience shows, Yoga Alliance is a flawed forum for accountability in the yoga world. Perhaps the online community itself can provide a much-needed structure, or perhaps it is time for an alternate governing body to be founded in the yoga world with community, responsibility and accountability structures put in place from the start.
One thing that I’m certain of is that having white men at the center of a support system for abuse perpetrated upon women feels entirely flawed.
3. Action— Taking definite and concrete action to correct the problem is a must within an organization. Ashtanga Yoga has both a structure and a community centered around the Institute in Mysore. I find it unrealistic that without some accountability structures, whether through online community forums or a governing body that upholds moral and ethical standards, teachers (or human beings in general) will self-regulate. It could be argued that there is a necessary consequence that must be acted out in order for justice to be served and a governing body would need to execute that judgement. In the United States we have due process of law for exactly this reason. In spheres of influence that choose to enforce punishment outside a court of law, action taken by organizations could result in the firing of people who made the mistakes or in other forms of punitive measures. In our case KPJ has passed, so his behavior is now history and he cannot be “fired” even retroactively. However, those individuals who feel strongly about KPJ’s behavior and continue to teach under his name may find themselves in a difficult situation. Some restorative actions include referring to KPJ as KPJ instead of Guruji, removing potentially triggering photos of KPJ from practice and sharing and discussing openly the stories of victims. Along these lines, let me absolutely clear—I formally denounce the behavior described in vivid detail by the many women who have bravely come forward with their stories as inappropriate and out of alignment with what I believe yoga or basic human decency to stand for. Touching of genitalia and dry-humping has no place in the safe space of the Yoga Shala. Once we get clear on the mistakes of the past, perhaps we can work to create a new culture around Ashtanga Yoga now lead by R. Sharath Jois and work together to ensure that the mistakes of the past are not repeated.
4. Acceptance—For some this may mean living with a paradox. Many of KPJ’s students, myself included, may need to accept the fact that not everyone benefitted from KPJ the way that they did and that in fact many were hurt and traumatized by his actions. Some of those negatively effected in a direct and personal way may decide to change their path or loose faith in yoga in general. It is crucial that these individuals are not judged, but instead offered healing and love. For those who stay, we must recommit ourselves to the eternal and arduous process of reform and evolution.
I always say that when we practice yoga we have the possibility to change our world. This, in my opinion, is a case in point. By practicing yoga you have the ability to take a stand for the type of yoga world you want to live in. If there are an abundance of sexual assault stories in the yoga world, I am sorry to say that it is because there are an abundance of sexual assault stories in the world at large. Yoga exists within the larger societal context in which it operates. While we strive to be better and evolve, it would be naive to assume that yoga operates from entirely different standards than society. This is not an excuse but rather a call to even more sweeping action. Until we address the systemic issues in our society which perpetuate abuse and violence no real permanent change will happen. We will, in essence, chop off the head of one monster only to have it replaced by another. But if we support reform and change from within the systems that we play an active role in, we can create small incremental change in organizations and cultures that are receptive and open to healing and change. It is my belief and experience that the Ashtanga Yoga world is one such organization and culture, which is both open and receptive to change and evolution. Carrying the baton of Ashtanga Yoga in the world means embodying the eight limbs and living with as much moral and ethical integrity as possible. To be a yogi means to be a force of healing in the world and right now that healing must be focused within our own community. If we move forward with both intelligence and sensitivity we will be a model for yogis in the future.
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