Why Ashtanga Yoga Still Matters (At Least to Me) by Kino Macgregor
It has taken me nearly two years (way too long by many standards) to write this blog. I have needed all this time to come to the staggering conclusion that K. Pattabhi Jois, who was one of my yoga teachers, sexually assaulted women under the guise of adjustments. This realization has shaken me to the core. I am not here to swear off Ashtanga yoga, nor am I here to defend his actions. What I am here to do is say that what he did was wrong.
I am mad at K. Pattabhi Jois for what he did. Mad is perhaps not exactly the right word. Furious. Angry. Enraged. Livid. Disappointed. Disillusioned. Disheartened. Heartbroken. Betrayed. Maybe all that comes closer to the messy emotions that brew within me.
The question is no longer a matter of whether or not K. Pattabhi Jois did what he has been accused of. That matter has been confirmed by the victims’ stories, eye-witness accounts of teachers far more senior than I am, and the recent Instagram post by my teacher R. Sharath Jois, the grandson of K. Pattabhi Jois, confirming that the accusations are in fact true. I cannot profess to know why K. Pattabhi Jois did what he did, nor does the question of why matter at this point. From what I can surmise it seems evident that K. Pattabhi Jois assaulted these women and the effect was long-lasting trauma. They were deeply hurt and many still are suffering and may never fully recover. I am so sorry for their pain.
Many teachers and practitioners of Ashtanga Yoga, it seems, knew about Jois’s behavior. I did not. I had no first person experience of the actions in question—it never happened to me and I never saw the abuse happening. Prior to the more recent release of the victims’ stories following the #metoo movement, no one at any moment had approached me with a personal account of being inappropriately touched or assaulted by Jois and no one had shared images or video with me documenting his actions. I was a student of K. Pattabhi Jois and am now a student of his grandson R. Sharath Jois. I am not here to pass judgement on any of my fellow practitioners or teachers. My intention in writing this blog is to focus the dialogue around an admission of truth and to begin the necessary steps towards justice and healing.
Many other students and fellow teachers sit in the same boat as I do—we were utterly ignorant of Jois’s egregious behavior and we feel a mixture of guilt, confusion and anger at venerating a man whose actions were not as lofty as the ideal he represented. We believed in the man, the myth and the legend. To me and many others Jois was an icon of the promise of yoga, an incarnation of all that yoga proclaims to be. It has not been easy for me to admit the betrayal and anger that I feel in my heart towards this man that I once revered so highly.
Now I, along with many other Ashtanga Yoga practitioners and teachers, sit at the intersection of two seemingly oppositional truths—the realization that our teacher K. Pattabhi Jois sexually assaulted some of his students and our own years of dedicated Ashtanga Yoga practice.
Some of my fellow Ashtanga practitioners have closed their shalas, quit the practice and cast off Jois entirely. Some activists protest all practice of Ashtanga Yoga and demand that people swear off the method. I’m not there and I doubt I will ever be. For now, I’m willing to hold these two truths side by side. One being that the method of Ashtanga Yoga—the poses, the discipline, the breathing, and many other aspects of the practice—has great benefit. The other is that the grandfather of the lineage, K. Pattabhi Jois, sexually assaulted women while he was teaching. I can both condemn the wrongful behavior of K. Pattabhi Jois and also still find meaning in the practice that he taught. The question I am asking myself is whether someone who was flawed and committed harmful acts did in fact create a good system of yoga and whether that system itself is worth continuing, evolving and practicing. To me, it is.
I am not without blame. At first I resisted the claims of sexual assault, calling the adjustments only inappropriate. I did not immediately side with the victims. Instead I searched for ways to justify the reported behavior, finding corroborating evidence in the testimony of students who said that they had in fact benefited from being touched in their genitalia by Jois. I have been slow to admit the faults of my teacher and quick to deflect and defend. The turning point for me happened when R. Sharath Jois along with other senior teachers confirmed witnessing the harmful actions of K. Pattabhi Jois. It took me hearing it from within my own community before I was willing to believe the victims. That in and of itself is problematic. A combination of loyalty and self-interest blinded me to reality. I’m sorry that it took me this long to see the truth.
Now that I am seeing clearly, I am committed to restorative action. Open discussion and admission of the mistakes of the past is a necessary first step in healing for all parties. While some have been critical of R. Sharath Jois’ Instagram post, the very fact that R. Sharath Jois publicly acknowledges his grandfather’s abuse opens the door to a whole new chapter of the Ashtanga Yoga practice and lineage. No longer are we debating whether this happened. Instead, Ashtanga Yoga practitioners and teachers, myself included, must come to terms with what is now fact and deal frankly, unapologetically and truthfully with the harm that has been done by K. Pattabhi Jois.
There are those who implicate me in the abuse, which I find both offensive and factually inaccurate. I did, however, perpetuate the guru culture surrounding Jois. I propagated the notion that Jois was a highly evolved human being, someone whose spiritual realization was much further along the path than mine. That in and of itself could have created a closed-loop circuit within which no victim’s voice could have been heard. It took me a long time to fully accept the charges levied against Jois and take corresponding actions. I am sure that I have much more work to do to fully process this matter. This is not the end, but rather the beginning of what is perhaps a new era in Ashtanga, and maybe also in yoga overall.
One thing is certain—the legend of K. Pattabhi Jois as an angel or a saint is forever gone. And, truthfully, I think that’s a good thing. We fellow students are now caretakers of this practice. The practice was always bigger than any one person and now each of us bears a responsibility to do our best to practice and uphold high moral standards. Similarly, it seems that yoga and perhaps all spiritual traditions are moving into a post-authoritarian era, a new chapter where the practitioners themselves are empowered to find their own path and rely less on the traditional notion of a guru. I am not suggesting a total disregard of the guru-student model, but perhaps a much needed update.
A question that all traditional styles of yoga may do well to ask is what practice looks like in this new era of yoga. There is a delicate line to walk between respecting the authority of the teacher and replacing the old flawed gurus with new ones, who are equally human and fallible. Yoga will need to redefine what the teacher-student relationship looks like now. And yet, we privileged Westerners would be cautious in applying academic standards of critique to an Indian system of spiritual practice lest we repeat a colonial conquest of an age-old culture. The guru system, if it is to survive, needs an update to account for our contemporary era along with the throngs of Western students of yoga, meditation and other spiritual practices. It would be ideal if the most authoritative voices and progressive ideas came from within Indian culture itself rather than the lofty platform of Western pedagogics. A deep investigation and update of the guru model is something that I believe needs to happen and it is an on-going process in my own mind. While there is clearly room for more in-depth reflection on this matter, I will not elaborate further on this here.
If we are to embrace a post-authoritarian view of yoga with an updated guru model, then perhaps it is up to the community of practitioners as a whole to play a role in the execution of appropriate actions to move the Ashtanga Yoga practice forward. R. Sharath Jois’s post publicly acknowledging the abuse creates the framework for us within the Ashtanga Yoga community to act for the benefit of all. We Ashtanga Yoga practitioners and teachers can do our personal best to make amends for the harm Jois has done and ensure the safety of future generations of Ashtanga Yoga students in our own classrooms. But, perhaps there is more that might come to be from within the community itself, such as the publication of a more formal, unified statement from all Ashtanga Yoga teachers, a conference to help define the future of this method of yoga and the establishment of a therapy fund for the victims of Jois.
I am taking actions within my own sphere of influence to set up the safe space of practice for future generations of yoga practitioners. By working in community with larger organizations trained in assisting victims of sexual assault I hope to dedicate myself to setting up a support structure for victims of sexual assault within the yoga world from any tradition to get the support and help they need. Let’s be clear, the issue at stake here is far bigger than only Ashtanga. As a survivor of sexual assault myself, the issue is personal for me. Sexual violence affects millions of people each year. Every 92 seconds a person in the United States is sexually assaulted. 1 in 6 women and 1 in 33 men in the United States have been the victim of rape or attempted rape. The statistics show that women are regularly assaulted and the world of yoga is no exception. Just read through the yoga #metoo stories published by Rachel Brathen to get a glimpse at the scope of the systemic issue and the frequency with which students are assaulted by their yoga teachers.
If yoga, and certainly Ashtanga Yoga, has a future, it must make room for the voiceless and elevate stories of the wrongs of the past so that we build a better foundation for the next generation. I seek to create better systems of practice, education, and accountability that empower both students and teachers to live with greater purpose, inclusivity, compassion and intelligence. If there is a safe space where victims can report abuse and be heard by trained professionals outside of the inner circle of their closed practice network I believe that would better support victims in coming forward. With the help of some really powerful networks, I am working on creating such a structure now. That is my work. That is what I can contribute.
I continue to practice today, not out of reverence for a flawed man who passed away, but out of an empirical truth felt and experienced within my own body, that is, that this method of yoga works for me. That may be difficult for the victims to fully fathom and accept. I understand and accept that my decision to keep practicing Ashtanga Yoga may itself be triggering to the victims.
There is much to discuss within the world of Ashtanga Yoga if we want to keep it a living tradition. There is much work to do to make yoga a safe space for all students. We have many issues to attend to in the Ashtanga Yoga world, all of which can only be addressed once we are crystal clear about the mistakes of the past. There is a question regarding accessibility. As Ashtanga Yoga is structured now it is designed so that only flexible strong able-bodied students with the financial means to make multiple trips to India become respected teachers. I’d like to change that. There is a question regarding asana-focus. I’d like to elevate the standards of teachers to include a strong background in philosophy, meditation and other more subtle practices. There is a question of diversity such that this practice tends to include mostly members of the dominant culture wherever it is taught. I’d like to change that by lifting up marginalized voices and teachers within the Ashtanga Yoga tradition. But, perhaps more than anything else, I want to assure all future students of this lineage that their voices will be heard when they report any instances of violation, assault, abuse, manipulation or otherwise inappropriate behavior on the part of their teachers.
My work is to make the tools of traditional practice available and accessible for all, so that we may all awaken together, in a safe space, with respect, and with love.
Testimony of K. Pattabhi Jois Victims
R. Sharath Jois IG Post on K. Pattabhi Jois
Actions I have taken in response to the recognition of Jois’s assault—
1. Removed photos of him from my home altar, my website and from the yoga center that my husband and I run (Miami Life Center).
2. Out of respect for the victims I am no longer referring to him as Guruji, but as K. Pattabhi Jois or KPJ.
3. Published this statement in support of victims— https://www.kinoyoga.com/statement-in-support-of-the-victims/
4. Share the full truth about Jois whenever I teach Ashtanga Yoga
5. Taken my memoir Sacred Fire out of publication.
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