Why We Need To Talk About The Sexual Abuse Committed By Pattabhi Jois by Jessica Blanchard

Ashtanga Yoga Primary Series

In case you’re wondering, Pattabhi Jois was the modern guru of Ashtanga Yoga.

He brought Ashtanga Yoga to the west and taught for more than fifty years from his home in Mysore, India. 

Recently, several women have come forward with allegations of sexual assault against Jois. This had lasting impact on the lives of these women. Karen Rain tells of her experience in this interview. And this article describes the experiences of Rain and the other eight women.  Why the Abused Don't Speak Up,  by Anneke Lucas describes her experiences with Jois. 

From the interview and the article, it is clear that his actions were abusive on several levels. This poses an ethical dilemma for the Ashtanga community.  Do we forget about Jois? Do we erase him from the lineage? 

The allegations against Jois are deeply disturbing. The Ashtanga community needs to hear the words of the women he abused. Only then can we come together and heal.

I’ve practiced Ashtanga yoga for more than 18 years. As the owner of a yoga studio and a longtime teacher of Ashtanga, I feel compelled to share my story and how these allegations have changed our approach to Ashtanga at Balance Yoga & Wellness. 

I believe that we need to process what happened why it happened and make sure that we create an environment that is safe for teachers and practitioners. 

Between 2004 and 2007 I spent time studying in Mysore with Pattabhi Jois.

Unlike many, I didn’t experience Jois as a divine guru. He was my asana (yoga postures) teacher. I enjoyed my time studying with him and over the years I developed a deep affection for him. He used to give me little pieces of chocolate, and the occasional tiny cup of sweet, milky Indian coffee. I was authorized to teach Ashtanga by Jois in 2006.

My own perception was that Jois treated women differently from men -- they got hugs after practice and sometimes more attention in class.

I’ve never followed certain rules set by the Jois family, like no studying with other teachers. I’ve been a longtime student of Sri O.P. Tiwari of the Kaivalyadham. The Kaivalyadham offers a way to bring pranayama to all students, and doesn’t reserve pranayama for those doing advanced asana. This lineage also encourages questioning, philosophical study, and living the yamas and niyamas, points that are missing from what’s taught in Mysore.  

I am very sorry for the women who were abused by Jois. His abuse of power was wrong. And the silence from the Ashtanga community is unfortunate. When I learned of the allegations, I had a frank discussion with students and other teachers. The dialogue is sometime painful but essential.

I recently spoke to Matthew Remski about my reactions to the allegations against Jois, and the way forward. Coming out of that conversation, I felt a sense of clarity about my own path as an Ashtanga teacher.

I hope that both students and teachers of Ashtanga can learn from this dark place, and that we can come forward with positive changes to the Ashtanga method.

1.  We've removed all photos of humans from the yoga studios. 

I also had conversations with students who had been victims of sexual abuse and trauma, and they expressed how seeing the face of Jois, an accused sexual offender, is triggering. I understand this and decided immediately to remove his photos from the studio practice spaces. 

No human should be presented as a deity. When we hold people up as ‘gurus’ we give them power that they shouldn’t have. We also project an idea of perfection on humans, when we all know that no one is perfect. 

We also removed the photos of Tiwariji and Ammachi from altars. While we still love and are grateful for their teachings, we don’t need them to be presented as deities. 

We encourage students to use their voices and also to access the teacher within. We do our best to foster a community of yogis, not a hierarchy.

2. We offer students consent cards for hands-on adjustments. 

The consent cards have "yes" on one side and "no thank you" on the other. Students can use them to make a choice about physical adjustments. I’ve had discussions with the students about hands-on adjustments. They know they can use the cards and can change their mind at any time during class. 

3. We modify the Ashtanga series to be appropriate for students. 

Yoga is most effective when it’s fine-tuned to fit a students physical, emotional and spiritual needs. In smaller self-practice style classes, teachers can work with students to find a yoga practice that fits their needs. Some students need postures to open and stretch their hips, quads, or shoulders before doing backbends.

The Ashtanga series are wonderful starting templates, and with a few changes they can work for most students. We encourage students to practice with awareness, connection and feeling, regardless of their physical prowess.  

4. We look beyond the physical manifestation of yoga postures.

Does something magical happen if you bind in Marichyasana D? What about standing up from backbends?  

Often in Ashtanga, students are told to stop if they can’t bind (catch their hands)  in a posture. While I understand why this was done, it seems one-dimensional. One student may have long limbs that allows them to bind easily. Binding is not a measure of their concentration, breathing, or steadiness. When deciding if a student is ready to progress in the series, I assess their dedication, age, focus, breathing patterns, and physical state.

Often some postures that are later in the Primary or Second series will help the students. I do not insist that students, especially those over 50, stand up from backbends before moving to Second Series.

Getting too routine or dogmatic isn’t necessarily good for growth. Jus as we encourage students to find the teacher within, we encourage students to explore the guidance of a teacher. 

5. With students consent, we give verbal, correctional and gentle physical assists. 

Our hands-on adjustments/assists may serve several purposes. Often I simply put my hand on the upper shoulder to remind students to relax their upper trapezius. Teachers often notice patterns that students may not recognize. I help students to find a safe alignment in some yoga postures or sometimes to deepen a posture or bind their hands.

We do not offer "intense" physical adjustments. We listen to the students.

Each person has agency over their own body. We always respect students wishes. 

6. We encourage an ongoing dialogue between teachers and students. 

Much of the healing from yoga comes from relationships. As a teacher, I value the opinions and feelings of my students. I encourage feedback and ask their opinions. As my teacher Tiwari often says, “Yoga is unity in diversity.” I believe that through a diversity of beliefs we can come to universal feelings of community and compassion. 

So what's next?

We continue to listen to the women who were abused by Jois.

We continue to practice all the limbs of yoga.

We continue to heal. 

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