How do we co-create safer yoga and spiritual communities?
Through dogged investigative work, careful listening to survivor stories of assault and abuse, and close analysis of the cultic mechanisms at play in the sphere of Pattabhi Jois’s Ashtanga community, Matthew Remski’s Practice And All Is Coming offers a sober view into a collective and intergenerational trauma.
It also offers a clear pathway forward into enhanced critical thinking, student empowerment, self-and-other care, and community resilience.
Concluding with practical tools for a world rocked by abuse revelations, Practice And All Is Coming opens a window on the possibility of healing— and even re-enchantment.
While Mathew Remski is the courageous, insightful, and compassionate author of this informative, challenging, and thought-provoking book, this book is clearly a group effort. Equal parts theory, training manual, expose, and memoir, Practice And All Is Coming ... is a foray into the difficult topics of personal agency, spirituality authority, and cult dynamics. In addition to his clearly articulated understanding of the problems inherent in many spiritual schools, Mathew provides hope for healing the confusion and anguish that arise in the heart of sincere practitioners when they are betrayed by the revered powers in which they have placed their trust. If you practice or teach yoga, please consider this book an essential companion on your path.
Christina Sell, author of Yoga From the Inside Out, My Body is a Temple, and A Deeper Yoga.
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Matthew Remski was one of the first teachers to speak out on social media about physical and emotional injury and trauma in yoga. In doing so, he created a safe space for people to connect with each other over shared experiences and ultimately heal their own trauma. Practice and All is Coming: Abuse, Cult Dynamics, and Healing in Yoga and Beyond sheds light on the sexual and physical assault that has taken place in the yoga community, while providing a resource that helps teachers and students recognize when they may be in an unsafe situation and empowers them to protect themselves. This book should be required reading for every yoga teacher training.
Trina Altman, BA, E-RYT 500, PMA-CPT Creator of Yoga Deconstructed© and Pilates Deconstructed.©
This is a horrifying and necessary tale that all current yoga practitioners and teachers need to know and reckon with. Jois and Ashtanga had a significant influence on what yoga is today in the U.S. and worldwide—from the ethics practices of teachers, to the way we pedestal (and isolate) teachers, to assists, to studio culture. This centers Ashtanga yoga, but as Remski suggests, it is relevant to every yoga lineage, and of course we know that it’s culture-wide. Remski recognizes the qualities of isolation, lack of agency, victim-blaming, and silencing present in these survivors’ accounts as implicit in rape culture. The responsibility therefore extends beyond the “perpetrators”, and falls on all of our shoulders as bystanders and participants in “yoga community”. We need to face and discuss this history and that of any harm in order to move into the true promise of living out yogic teachings — harmlessness, integrity, generosity, non-attachment, and the wise use of sexual energies.
Jacoby Ballard, Yoga Teacher and Social Justice Educator.
Packed with interviews of horrific abuse and real stories of recovery, Remski presents us an authoritative guide on the effects of sexual abuse, misconduct and trauma in the modern, globalized yoga world as well as analysis that invites the possibility of change to this culture of abuse. The struggle and resilience of the interviewees make for an intense and powerful read. It is in the context of colonial, plundering and appropriation of yoga culture that yoga has come bearing the scars of its violent impacts with the West. Remski does not pretend to separate himself in some false veneer of objectivity. He reflects on and owns his privilege as a cis white man and speaks to his learning curve in becoming an ally and even accomplice to those more often targeted for abuse. In fact, this is what makes the book so powerful: Remski himself is committed to unpacking and transforming the cult dynamics and cultures that surround such abuse and in doing so, shows us how we can do our part as well. Practice and All is Coming offers hope and practical solutions for those who seek — and I do hope this is all of us — an end to the cycle of trauma, abuse of power and sexual violence in yoga culture today.
Susanna Barkataki, Founder & Director of Education, Ignite | Yoga and Wellness Institute.
Matthew Remski opens a window into a part of the yoga world most people have never seen — a world where trusting seekers with open minds and full hearts are cruelly betrayed. He explores how this happens, what the sometimes debilitating and pervasive after-effects can be, and how to heal from it all. By interviewing many former followers and experts in the field, Matthew offers the reader a wonderfully rich and up-to-date synthesis of data and practical information. His book is unique, as it provides a significant amount of hard-hitting personal stories and facts while simultaneously being infused with sensitivity and an awareness of the impact these can have on those reading the book who have been through trauma. I will certainly be recommending this book to my clients and colleagues.
Rachel Bernstein, LMFT, Educator and Therapist, Cult Specialist, Host of the “IndoctriNation” podcast.
Matthew Remski has written a painstaking and unflinching book that details multiple women’s first person accounts of sexual abuse at the hands of Ashtanga yoga founder K. Pattabhi Jois, and the subsequent denial and cover up within his community. This is a vital read that highlights the courage of the women who came forward within a culture of cognitive dissonance, unquestioning obedience, and magical thinking, in which pain is re-labeled as healing, injury as opening, and isolation as enlightenment. At the same time, Remski thoughtfully navigates how yoga teachers and practitioners can continue to practice yoga today in all forms, while acknowledging the darker side of its origins. A heartbreaking and illuminating read.
Sarah Court, PT, DPT, e-RYT.
I welcome the powerful voices of the courageous, truth-speaking women that are heard so clearly in this valuable study. I applaud Matthew’s sensitive and subtle exposure of power imbalance, and his impeccable intentions to bring the voices from the margins to the centre. I give thanks that his moral compass guided him to reveal a crucial issue at the heart of modern yoga, and I hope that everyone who has ever shown up to a yoga class reads this book. I recommend it as required reading for every yoga teacher training course on the planet.
Uma Dinsmore-Tuli, Ph.D., Ph.D., Author of Yoni Shakti: A Woman’s Guide to Power and Freedom Through Yoga and Tantra.
For those of us who consider ourselves yoga teachers it may be especially important to scrutinize ourselves and our community with clarity and honesty, in particular when to comes to the issue of power. Yoga, with all of its promise, is as susceptible as any other human institution to becoming an environment for the abuse of power and all the suffering this engenders. With Practice and All is Coming, Matthew Remski has done us a great service by applying intellectual rigor to help us see how destructive power dynamics can set in and fester, and then by suggesting how we can make yoga practice a safe, respectful, and empowering experience for all who show up.
David Emerson, YACEP, TCTSY-F | He/Him/His, Director: The Center for Trauma and Embodiment at JRI, author Trauma-Sensitive Yoga in Therapy and co-author Overcoming Trauma through Yoga.
Amongst the responses to the revelations of sexual abuse that have marred a number of yoga communities, Practice and All Is Coming is unparalleled. Of immense value to both practitioners and academics, the text centers the voices of the female victims of serial abuser Pattabhi Jois and illuminates the wider psychoanalytic and structural conditions that enabled such abuse. Practitioners will be gifted a demystification of transnational yoga and a way to both understand and prevent the toxic dynamics that have produced abuse. Academics will find a strong case for the utility—and even ethical necessity—for bringing cultic studies back into the field of New Religious Movements. With this ambitious and well-executed text, Remski has established himself as one of the most perspicacious and important scholar-practitioners of contemporary transnational yoga.
Ann Gleig, Associate Professor of Religion and Cultural Studies, University of Central Florida.
The future of yoga depends on our ability to reconcile a past fraught with abuse and injury. If we ignore the pain that was caused in the name of yoga, our communal body will never heal. Yoga will go the way of step aerobics and the power of the teachings will evaporate into the history books. The first step in healing is acknowledging that there is a problem, and that is what Matthew Remski so powerfully demonstrates in Practice and All is Coming: Abuse, Cult Dynamics, and Healing in Yoga and Beyond. This is a text that can heal the wounds of yoga and allow us to re-imagine it as a safe practice for everyone, free from abuse and injury.
Jivana Heyman, Founder and Director of Accessible Yoga.
This is a potent treatise, bringing well-needed thoughtful and measured scrutiny to a controversial subject. Remski provides a thorough exposition of one of the icons of modern yoga – not to simply critique or discredit, but more to examine possible solutions to the unveiled issues. The book itself is part of the solution, in that it provides a platform enabling previously-muted voices to be heard. In response to these voices, he goes on to construct a research-grounded framework that elevates safety and inclusivity. This could be the means to propel the field of yoga forward with more integrity, and indeed, more authenticity. This book should be considered required reading for all those involved in yoga therapy training, and I strongly recommend it to all yoga professionals as well.
Cassi Kit, Director, Faculty, and Administrative Coordinator, School of Embodied Yoga TherapyYoga, Therapist (C-IAYT, PYT).
Starting with the first principle of yoga which is non-harming (ahimsa), and applying the clear seeing of meditation (dhyana), Remski offers us a framework for understanding how confusion and messiness around lineage and power has led to so much pain and suffering inside the world of yoga. This is also a guidebook in the yogic principle of self-study (svadyaya) helping us all look honestly at ourselves and our community. I am so grateful that finally, Remski offers us a way forward — with both practical means and inspiration - to remind us that yoga is a living practice and in the end, always about relationship.
Cyndi Lee, author of Yoga Body, Buddha Mind; OM yoga Today; OM yoga, A Guide to Daily Practice; OM at Home, A Yoga Journal; and the OM Yoga in a Box series.
As globalized convert yoga finally recovers from the drunken honeymoon of orientalist cultural appropriation it enjoyed for a century or so, it finds itself sober and shocked, #MeToo revelations toppling school after school. Matthew Remski’s deep reporting here on just one of these tragedies offers not a simple indictment of Pattabhi Jois’s person or teaching, but a broad-reaching call for the best of Western theory and activism to be brought to a problem created by colonial encounter and resolvable only by changing the terms of that encounter. The book, like the yoga it deconstructs, unfolds “a vinyasa of meanings,” moving between the psychodynamic implications of the guru-student tradition and the harm-reduction practices that could both preserve and irrevocably change it. Most importantly, Remski centers the voices of women, using his position to witness and amplify their narratives in their own words. Few other books from within the convert yoga community ask so fluently and humbly how sincere non-Indian practitioners might be in wise relationship with the ancient lineages of Yoga, and the culture that developed them. Few outside it describe a tragedy of the modern colonial encounter with such an intimate and heart-rending precision.
Sean Feit Oakes, PhD.
Matthew Remski has authored a remarkable book. His fair examination of some of the cultish and dogmatic elements in yogic culture—and the impact they’ve had on women, in particular—is erudite, well-researched and engaging. But what’s of particular note in his work is the empathy, sensitivity and respect he takes in addressing the abuse inherent in authoritarian systems. In doing so, he’s created a testament to those whose lives have been directly impacted by such abuses of power.
Carrie Owerko, Senior Level Iyengar Yoga Teacher, Laban Movement Analyst, Functional Range Conditioning Mobility Specialist.
This book is the result of a herculean effort by Matthew Remski in giving a voice to and unearthing the rampant, darkest, dirtiest, disturbing open secret in the yoga world. The painstaking research and interviews, all of which have helped open the floodgates, is truly commendable, and will serve as a foundation for setting better mechanisms for prevention of abuse in the name of spiritual practices and even in other walks of life.
Dr. Nivedita Pingle, M.B.B.S. Yoga Vidnyan Visharad.
Thank you Matthew Remski and the courageous women who have stepped forward to offer this pivotal work. Practice and All is Coming is a service to humanity, to the yoga world at-large, to long-time practitioners and future generations so that we can evolve into cultivating a safe space that all beings deserve. This incredibly thorough, sensitive and somatically sophisticated work is ESSENTIAL to the evolution of yoga for the maturity to unpack the shadow of abuse, body-image distortion and power-dynamics effecting many without conscious awareness of these undercurrents, while also recommending best practices and a PRISM method to move forward so that we may work towards ending abuse of all forms and transforming dominance-structures so that all beings are respected, safe and empowered in their journey of embodiment.
Shiva Rea, author, Tending the Heart Fire and founder Samudra Global School for Living Yoga.
While Matthew Remski is the courageous, insightful, and compassionate author of this informative, challenging, and thought-provoking book, this book is clearly a group effort. Equal parts theory, training manual, expose, and memoir, Practice and All is Coming: Abuse, Cult Dynamics, and Healing in Yoga and Beyond is a foray into the difficult topics of personal agency, spirituality authority, and cult dynamics. In addition to his clearly articulated understanding of the problems inherent in many spiritual schools, Remski provides hope for healing the confusion and anguish that arise in the heart of sincere practitioners when they are betrayed by the revered powers in which they have placed their trust. If you practice or teach yoga, please consider this book an essential companion on your path.
Christina Sell, author of Yoga From the Inside Out: Making Peace with Your Body Through Yoga, My Body is a Temple: Yoga as a Path to Wholeness, and A Deeper Yoga: Beyond Body Image to Freedom.
In this illuminating book Matthew Remski brings light to the often-bypassed toxic dynamics and deception that occur in the yoga subculture and new-age spirituality. Through compassionate inquiry, Remski provides a platform for honest discourse into cult dynamics, power imbalances, and why as humans we might trade autonomy and authenticity for acceptance under the guise of healing and community. To practice compassion, we must first acknowledge suffering and yet victims’ voices continue to be silenced and edited in order to protect images in the Ashtanga community and beyond. As more abuse and manipulation is uncovered and exposed many schools, studios, and practitioners are reluctant to “throw the baby out with the bathwater”. However, Remski challenges us to examine who is the baby and what is the bathwater, separating our own healing and self-awareness practices from branding and systems of power. In addition to providing insight into the psychology of attachment and contemporary distortions of the guru model, this book provides reflections on how to move forward and ensure that these shadows do not continue to undermine equality, empowerment, and healing in the yoga community. To the women who courageously shared your stories: may you continue to feel heard, respected, and supported.
Michele Theoret, MACP; President and lead facilitator Empowered Yoga, Mindfulness & Lifestyle, Director BEology Project Foundation.
Trouble in yoga paradise . . . In this lucid, measured, incisive and compassionate book, Matthew Remski lays bare the toxic dynamic of manipulation, indoctrination, negation, and deception that oftentimes undergirds guru worship in such complex social systems as the yoga subculture. As he demonstrates, when enabled by their cult followers, mulabandha-adjusting spiritual autocrats posing as enlightened beings can prove just as toxic to the broader culture as pussy-grabbing political demagogues posing as successful real estate developers. More than an expose of the sexual predations of a renowned guru figure, Remski has also provided the yoga community with a road map to self-healing and closure.
David Gordon White, Distinguished Professor of Religious Studies, emeritus, University of California, Santa Barbara.
VOLUME 1 OF THE WAWADIA PROJECT
PRACTICE AND ALL IS COMING:
Abuse, Cult Dynamics, and Healing in Yoga and Beyond
Copyright ©2019 Matthew Remski
All rights reserved
No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic of mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by an information storage or retrieval system, without written permission from the publisher. For information, contact:
Embodied Wisdom Publishing Ltd
140 Ashworth Bush Road
RD7 Rangiora 7477 New Zealand
Sonya Rooney, Christchurch, New Zealand
Cover and text design:
978-0-473-47207-8 (pb)/ 978-0-473-46771-5 (ePub)
978-0-473-46772-2 (Kindle)/ 978-0-473-46773-9 (PDF)
Practice and All Is Coming: Abuse, Cult Dynamics, and Healing in Yoga and Beyond
Disclaimer: The author and publisher have made every effort to ensure that the information in this book was accurate and complete as of 1 January 2019. Regretfully, we have not been able to include any revelations between that date and going to press. Consequently, the author and publisher do not assume and hereby disclaim any liability to any party for any loss, damage, or disruption caused by errors or omissions, whether such errors or omissions result from negligence, accident, or any other cause.
Environmental Responsibility: To ensure we minimise our environment impact we ensure the printers we contract have current chain-of-custody certification for fiber used throughout the production process. This includes the following European or Americacertifications:
The Forest Stewardship Council™ (FSC®)
Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification™ (PEFC™)
The Sustainable Forestry Initiative® (SFI®).
Dedicated to the women harmed by K. Pattabhi Jois, and to everyone working for a culture of care and justice in the yoga world and beyond.
SPECIAL THANKS TO…
The ever-patient WAWADIA contributors. Especially Studio Patron Empowered Yoga in Edmonton (Michele Theoret), and Patrons Linda McGrath, Joseph Goodman, and Clemens Schumacher.
And to Galen Tromble, for his generous and unconditional financial support of the project. You can find Galen’s work, which applies the teachings and practices of yoga to the challenge of climate change at climateyogi.org.
For support, wisdom, and encouragement: Donna Farhi, Lauren McKeon (my editor at The Walrus), Theodora Wildcroft, Carol Horton, Be Scofield, Tiffany Rose, Jamie Mathieson, Yvonne Werkman, Steve McGrath, Frank Jude Boccio, Andrew Tanner, Shannon Roche, Elizabeth Kadetsky, Kathryn Bruni-Young, J. Brown, Cassi Kit, Anne Pitman, Jivana Heyman, Leena Miller Cressman, Emma Dines, Laurel Beversdorf, Jill Miller, Jules Mitchell, Ted Grand, Christine Wushke, Sarah Holmes de Castro, Asia Nelson, Susanna Barkataki, Teo Drake, Jacoby Ballard, Rachel Brathen, Danielle Kinahan, Ariana Rabinowitz, David Rendall, Miranda Leitsinger, Linda Malone, Natalie Miller, Carly Budhram, Chris Calarco, Daniel Clement, Tamar Samir, Ann Gleig, Jason Birch, Jacqui Hargreaves, Jim Mallinson, Mark Singleton, Christopher Wallis, Alexandra Stein, Jennifer Freyd, Dan Shaw, Andrew McDuffee, Ruth Warner, Sean Feit Oakes, Leslie Hayes, Colin Hall, Elizabeth Emberly, Jason Sharpe, Uma Dinsmore-Tuli, Nirlipta Tuli, Tatjana Mesar, Dimi Currey, Norman Blair, Birgitte Gorm Hansen, Ann-Charlotte Monrad, Kalli Anderson, Pam Rubin, David Remski, Jill Remski, Cathleen Hoskins, John Bemrose, Danielle Rousseau, Christi-an Slomka, and The Yoga Service Council.
Thank you to Maitripushpa Bois, my editor, for helping me find the pathway from criticism to empowerment.
And to Alix Bemrose for your insight, support, weathering the backlash and abuse alongside me, and for being you.
In fact, it is in the nature of the Indian tradition that the student should strive to understand the teacher, for in striving, and not from being spoon-fed, is knowledge revealed.
—Eddie Stern, Preface to Guruji: A Portrait of Sri K. Pattabhi Jois Through the Eyes of His Students1
DEDICATION AND THANKS
READ, REFLECT, PARTICIPATE
“I’M NOT EVEN SURE HE KNEW MY NAME”
What This Book Will Do
A Map (Beginning with Where I’m Coming From)
Using the Language of Cultic Studies, Carefully
Male Violence in Modern Yoga
About the Title
Voices That Spoke Out
Self-Care While Reading This Book
Reclaiming “Victim”: Solidarity and Spirituality
PART ONE: LEARNING TO LISTEN
That Time I Silenced My Friend
Recognition and Denial, Outside and Inside
Denial and Recognition: Micromoments
Pre-empting Denial, Nurturing Recognition
PART TWO: TWO SURVIVOR STORIES
Isolation and the Personal Sphere
The Yogi Who Disappeared
A Mutual Friend, A Shared Story
Personal Pain, Structual Harm
PART THREE: DEVELOPING DISCERNMENT
“No One Joins a Cult”
Deception and Its Role in “Bounded Reality”
Listening to Mysoreans
Yoga Beliefs, Yoga Marketing, Yoga Knowledge
The Strange Case of the Yoga Korunta
On the Antiquity of “Vinyasa” and the Sequences
Is Ashtanga Yoga a Parampara?
Teaching That Flows from One Empty Vessel to Another
Parampara As “Intimate Bond”
Are Adjustments “Traditional”?
“Tradition” and “Force”
The “Mulabandha Adjustment”—Or Sex That Is Not Sex
“Openings” or Rationalizing Injury and Intrusion
The Conundrum of Pain, Therapy, and Transcendence
The Deception of Guruji
PART FOUR: DISORGANIZED ATTACHMENTS
Cult Analysis Models: Starting with “Deception, Dependence, Dread of Leaving”
Attachment Theory Primer
My Experience at Endeavour Academy
Disorganized Attachment: Quotes from Ashtanga Materials
PART FIVE: A LONG SHADOW, BRIGHTENING
Bargaining with History and the Present
Alleged Assaults, Following a Pattern
Alleged Rape in Mysore
“I Sat on Guruji’s Lap All the Time”
Jois’s Echo in the Culture of Implied Consent: Example from a popular book
Adjustments and Sexualization of Practice
Bargaining at an Ashtanga Conference
Struggling to Listen
PART SIX: BETTER PRACTICES AND SAFER SPACES: CONCLUSION AND WORKBOOK
Towards “Networks of Empowerment”
Better Practices: Personal Skills
The PRISM Model
Safer Spaces: Tools and Strengths in a Post-Lineage World
APPENDIX 1: A TRANSCRIPT
APPENDIX 2: INTERVIEWEE STORIES
APPENDIX 3: REQUEST TO KPJAYI FOR AN APOLOGY
Would you like to help build safer communities by contributing to a shared understanding of toxic group dynamics? There’s an online opportunity to do just that in conjunction with the conclusion of this book.
Part Six summarizes the analytical principles used in this book to examine the context and enablement of abuse within yoga and spiritual communities. In addition, it offers over 50 study questions for teachers, trainees, and group administrators to help foster communities of transparency and care.
An online service has been built for members, teachers, and trainees in yoga and other spiritual organizations to respond to, collate and submit their study questions as part of their ongoing personal and professional development.
With the consent of participants, we will collate, proof, and publish some of this material to a dedicated blog for broader discussion. Through this initiative, the ideas in this book may stimulate ongoing research, discussion, examination, and accountability that nurture community health and safety.
The URL below will lead you to the book’s endnotes with live links, embedded video and podcast resources, and research articles cited.
You can access those resources and gain access to the online workbook here: https://embodiedwisdom.pub/paaic-resources/
This book records the graphic testimonies of women who describe being sexually assaulted by an acclaimed yoga master while practicing in his classes. It also documents the ways in which their experiences were denied, rationalized, or spiritualized by fellow practitioners, some of whom knew full well what was occurring. The testimonies are arranged to preserve accuracy while minimizing gratuitous detail and repetition. There are also several graphic descriptions of video and pictorial evidence that depict assault.
This material is presented here with context, analysis, and calls-to-action, in the hope of building safer spaces for the practice of yoga, Buddhism, mindfulness, eco-spirituality, and other forms of self-help, self-inquiry, and healing.
For some thoughts on self-care while reading, please go to page 30.
—Interview with “T.M.”a 3/30/2018.
Full transcript in Appendix 1 (seep. 293).
Let’s see. I was a very adventurous, spirited young woman with a desire to connect and belong. I know many people reframe that as some kind of pathology or ego-seeking something, but I think it’s a desire that all humans share, to have meaningful connection.
I had encountered Ashtanga. I thought it was great. I was a little bit of an extreme personality. I like to push things all the way to their limit to see if the ideas and the promises worked. In my mid-twenties, I went to Mysore for eight months.b
I was one of Pattabhi Jois’s favorites. He basically dry humped me every day for eight months in multiple positions. His infamous “adjustments” of sticking his crotch in your ass or your crotch, and then just pumping. Like it literally was dry humping. People think that that’s a funny term that I’m using, but it’s actually descriptive.
Immediately, I was told…
I’m sorry I have to laugh on some of this—even at the time, I was laughing, even though I found it deeply confusing and went along with it during that eight months—
I was told that “It was not sexual.” I was told immediately that this was not sexual.
I was like: “Really? Because a guy’s crotch in your ass or your own crotch, pumping in the early morning, that’s not sexual? What is it?”
They would develop very elaborate ideologies and rationalizations for what this was. This was some kind of Shakti whatever.c I was like, “Yeah, but isn’t that sexual?” In what definition of Shakti do you have that there’s not something sexual happening?
Jois was quite fixated on me in these behaviors. I was there, in a foreign country with very thin social ties. It makes complete sense to me that I was quite confused and didn’t really know how to respond, particularly since people got strangely jealous of the fact that I was one of his favorites and were wondering why they weren’t getting that attention. As though this were some kind of lauded place for a person to be.
Of course, no one would admit openly to being jealous.
I’m not even sure he knew my name. I didn’t get any sense that I was an important student that he was transmitting something to. That was not the experience. It was more like I was a piece of ass in an open position that he could dry hump. That’s what it felt like to be the receiver, and then the chorus of interpretations of that morphing it into something else, as a special thing, was just incredibly confusing for me.
may grace protect us
may grace nourish us
may our studies be vigorous and radiant
may we not hate each other
as we nurture peace in ourselves
and for the world
—Adapted from Taittirya Upanishad, this is a mantra traditionally chanted at the beginning of studies.
This book presents a case study of abuse, institutional betrayal, and healing as it has occurred and is unfolding within diverse parts of the late Pattabhi Jois’s Ashtanga yoga community. It more fully documents the testimony from women who Jois sexually assaulted than has been previously covered. It will report on intergenerational echoes of harm within that part of the Ashtanga world that has remained professionally and emotionally identified with Jois and his teaching style. Analysis will show that the Jois event resonates with imbalanced and gendered power dynamics between teachers and students in the wider yoga world.
The reporting will track how the globalized,d now-instantly-connected, and diverse Ashtanga network has responded to the abuse revelations in both defensive and progressive ways. This will provide an instructive example of how the mechanisms of in-group social control and even society-wide rape culture operate—but can also begin to dissolve—as a yoga community moves through crisis and towards new growth. The conclusion will center upon action items for personal and collective awareness and accountability, offered with the intention of helping to foster safer spaces for not only yoga practice, but also any spiritual or wellness endeavor centered on group activity.
This book will center voices like that of T.M. while offering cultural, social, and psychological contexts and resources for understanding how the assault and betrayal of care happened, and was allowed to happen, for almost three decades. It will cover how the abuse was hidden from members implicitly, through the idealization of Jois as “Guruji”e in everyday conversation, and explicitly, through published media that presented Jois as a purely wholesome figure. Uncovering these dynamics will help explain why—even though Jois’s behavior had been an open secret—T.M. and other women didn’t know about it before they practiced with him, and were still encouraged to go study with him. It will help to explain why, when they questioned the behavior, it was rationalized and even made out to be a sign of Jois’s spiritual power.
Tools from the literature of cult analysis will be useful in unpacking the mechanisms at play in recruiting, retaining, and deploying members who wind up both participating in and being victimized by abusive dynamics. The central task here will be to show how interpersonal and group forms of deception—the first of all cultic mechanisms—can be used to manipulate the beliefs and behaviors of group members, while also covering over the harm a group commits. The most important cult-studies resource used here is the work of Alexandra Stein, which will help to show how the power dynamics at play between an abusive leader and their students can show signs of “disorganized attachment” patterning.2 This is seen when the students are caught up in a cycle of running towards the very person who harms them, in an anxious search for love.
Invoking a concept like “deception” in the opening pages necessitates a disclaimer: this book is not about evil or intentional malice. The deceptive notions explored here—that Pattabhi Jois was a spiritual master, that his technique was ancient, that his touch was healing, and that injuries were signs of positive advancement—might have been consciously or unconsciously held by practitioners. They might have been communicated through earnest attempts at care. It’s impossible to say. We won’t be examining people’s intentions. Rather, we’ll focus on impacts by peering into the gap between what was said and believed about Jois and his method, and the reality of what was experienced. We’ll explore how this gap allowed the abuse to be initiated through social grooming, escalated through somatic dominance framed as love and intimacy, and allowed to continue for so long.
Because deception and disorganized attachment patterning are by no means unique to the Jois story, the frameworks of Stein and others can shed helpful light on what seems to be a pandemic of institutional failure of care within large yoga communities and other spiritual and self-help organizations. The field of cult studies is famous for its internal disagreements, but consensus stands firm around one idea: education about toxic group dynamics makes us all less susceptible to them.
It would be both unjust and counter-productive for the reader to come away from this book associating the term “Ashtanga yoga” with an airtight, uniform, all-abusive organization. The community inspired by Jois’s yoga is far too diverse for that. Researchers point out that a “cult can be either a sharply bounded socialgroup or a diffusely bounded social movement held together through a shared commitment to a charismatic leader.”3
Today’s Ashtanga yoga practitioners orient themselves along a broad spectrum of commitment to that leader. Some are dyed-in-the-wool devotees to Jois, even after his death in 2009, and endow his method with supernatural value. They may be few in number, but they can hold social positions with broad influence. Less committed or professionally enmeshed practitioners simply love the meditative sensuality of the movements and breathing. They don’t center their emotional lives around their yoga mats, and would never think of making a pilgrimage to Mysore or lighting candles in front of Jois’s portrait.
Within this spectrum, but usually closer to the “sharply bounded” center of a group, cultic harm can emerge whenever the charismatic spark of leaders and their high-profile followers meets the dry wood of members’ aspirations. Add the winds of cross-cultural mystique, misunderstanding, misogyny, greed, ambition, and the sunken costs of devotion, and this contact can ignite a firestorm of full-blown exploitation. It can burn individuals like T.M. in ways that change the course of entire lives, while causing smoke damage to the wider industry.
There are countless tragic elements in this story. But it is not, overall, a tragedy. The fact that the global Ashtanga community is diverse and the fires of its harm are localized means that it has a natural resilience and capacity for reform. So while it is useful to identify cultic dynamics where they burn in order to promote safer yoga practice generally, this book also includes the voices of Ashtanga leaders who have begun to analyze and deconstruct the power dynamics that have been harmful. They also practice along a spectrum of experience and commitment. Among them are those who have struggled to put out the cultic fire within themselves, as well as those who were only barely singed. Following a close examination of what the abuse was and how cult dynamics enabled it, these reformers provide the basis for the ultimate theme of this book’s subtitle: healing.
Now we can lay out the priorities and challenges of this endeavor, and introduce the voices at the heart of the story.
The first task involves clarifying both methodological issues (how we talk about things) and positionality issues (why we talk about them, through points of view that are influenced by experience or privilege).
Providing a basic account of my own cultic experience in two yoga-type groups, for instance, will both ground my presentation of the relevance of Stein and other researchers, while also making my personal and activist investments in this history more transparent.
In a similar vein, briefly describing my embodied experience in the broader “cult” of toxic masculinity and male violence—and their impacts on people’s agency in learning environments—will shed light on why I zero in on this neglected theme in the history of modern yoga. It will strengthen an examination of how the male-dominated leadership of Ashtanga yoga suppressed stories like T.M.’s for so long.
But it will also reveal a weakness: I participated in this suppression, simply by being invested in the patronizing (and patriarchal) marketing narrative of yoga culture. There was a time when I, like many others, wanted to believe that yoga spaces by definition were safe spaces, and that a good student should interpret the offenses of yoga masters (often rationalized as “skillful means” or “crazy wisdom”) as beneficial spiritual challenges, instead of reporting them to the police.
My blind spots and learning curves will become clear as the Introduction merges into Part One: Learning to Listen, which recounts how I initially sidelined the abuse story of my friend Diane Bruni while ignoring the video evidence of Jois’s assaults for years. I feel it’s important to show how my own fear and shame thickened a potent barrier to safety and justice in this arena: the dominant culture’s unwillingness to face its shadows. As a professional, English-speaking, white male yoga teacher, I’m part of that dominant culture. I had to learn how not to defend it from its shadier realities. By showing how I was educated by my interviewees about abuse, victimization, truth-telling, and recovery, I hope to provide a small example of how listening is hard for a beneficiary of the dominant culture—which is dominant in part because it is set up to not listen—yet still is learnable.
That learning is complicated by the personal and group tension between recognition and denial that vibrates as abuse stories come to light. Almost all of the women who share their stories in this book describe some degree of internal splitting between knowing that what was happening to them was wrong, and a socially conditioned response that told them to ignore or deny it. By examining how the yoga world responded to the video evidence for Jois’s behavior (p. 46), we’ll see how this tension scaled up into a group phenomenon, in which many people felt that what they were seeing was wrong, but simultaneously found ways to minimize, deflect, or deny that feeling. Part One will conclude by introducing a best-practices tool called PRISM. This was designed to ease this tension between the recognition and denial of abuse in the yoga and other spiritual worlds, provide a pathway towards resilience, and hopefully help end intergenerational harm.
Part Two: Two Survivor Stories, will delve into the testimony of two women—Karen Rain and Tracy Hodgeman—to give an immersive experience of what abuse in some parts of Ashtanga yoga felt like, the interpersonal betrayals that rationalized their suffering, and some of the processes by which they gained clarity about what happened. The interviews with Karen and Tracy unfolded over many meetings and several years. Their words, and the process by which they became able to speak, form the groundwork for an alternative history of Ashtanga yoga, and a community in transformation.
Part Three: Developing Discernment, will expand outwards into the social betrayals that can result from a yoga group’s value claims. We’ll see how a blend of Ashtanga literature and advertising covered over the abuse at the root of the community, while building its market value globally. This literature scaled the interpersonal deception experienced by women like T.M. upwards into a form of propaganda.
Central to this literature has been the 2010 book Guruji: A Portrait of Sri K. Pattabhi Jois Through the Eyes of His Students, edited by Jois disciples Guy Donahaye and Eddie Stern. Nine months after the Jois abuse revelations erupted in November 2017, Donahaye wrote the following.
Since his death, Guruji has been elevated to a position of sainthood. Part of this promotion has been due to the book of interviews I collected and published with Eddie Stern… which paints a positive picture of his life and avoids exploring the issues of injury and sexual assault. In emphasizing only positive stories it has done more to cement the idea that he was a perfect yogi, which he clearly was not. By burnishing his image, we make it unassailable—it makes us doubt the testimony of those he abused. This causes further harm to those whose testimony we deny and to ourselves.4
A large focus of Part Three will be on the “loaded language” that some Ashtanga content providers have employed, and how it can be used to both establish authority and inhibit questions. This close reading of Ashtanga-specific terms and ideas can be applied to the claims of any yoga or spiritual group.
According to cultic studies pioneer Robert Jay Lifton, loaded language is audible in any “thought-terminating cliché”, which compresses complex problems into “brief, highly reductive, definitive-sounding phrases, easily memorized and expressed.” Not only can this jargon defend against scholarly investigation and victim-centered accounts of experiences within a community, it can also begin to constrict the imaginations of those who use it, year in and year out.5 This will be important to remember in Part Five: A Long Shadow, Brightening, where we witness some Jois disciples struggle to let go of the idealizing language they used for decades to assert and reaffirm who he was.
Part Four: Disorganized Attachments, will present the heart of Stein’s work in relation to examples from Ashtanga literature and interview data. Stein’s work is approachable and applicable to every relationship a yoga, spiritual, or eco-spirituality practitioner might have to any teacher or group. It’s particularly applicable to the language of devotion in certain Ashtanga circles, where, as we’ll see, Jois was explicitly presented as a safe and protective father figure. In this section, I’ll interject a brief account of my daily experience in one yoga-related cult that exemplifies Stein’s description of the highly aroused state generated by the confusion of love and harm. I believe that this is an important set of sensations to understand, because spiritual groups can easily interpret the hypervigilant awareness of intense shared practice—which feels so alive and on the edge of something, but may also be tangled up with uncertainty and fear—as a sign of spiritual awakening.
Part Five: will open with evidence that the enabling of Jois’s sexual assaults in the Ashtanga community is not isolated: it’s an intergenerational problem. We’ll look at two public allegations. The first is of sexual assault by a Jois-certified teacher, and the other an allegation of rape against a teacher authorized by Sharath Rangaswamy, now also known as Sharath Jois. Rangaswamy is the grandson of Pattabhi Jois, and the current director of the Krishna Pattabhi Jois Ashtanga Yoga Institute (KPJAYI) in Mysore. Also included is a brief review of documents from a lawsuit against a Jois disciple and senior teacher in New York’s Jivamukti Yoga School who used her experience of intimate cuddling with Jois after classes to rationalize sexually harassing her female apprentice.
Although it has recently begun to adopt consent policies for physical touch by its teachers, the Jivamukti Yoga School contributed historically to the popularization of Jois’s implied consent context for touch. This was one of the key factors that permitted Jois’s assaults, and inhibited his victims from resisting them. Another factor is the gender imbalances and normalized sexuality of some parts of Ashtanga adjustment culture, as we’ll see in a promotional video made for certified Ashtanga teacher Tim Miller, and an essay published by authorized teacher Ty Landrum.
As senior Jois disciples began to grapple with increasing public awareness of Jois’s assaults in the winter of 2017–2018, several released statements of deep regret, but only partial acknowledgment and limited accountability. Part 5 will continue with a brief survey of some of these statements to show how the loaded language, “self-sealing”, and victim-blaming processes characteristic of high-demand groups can both hide institutional abuse and hamper even well-meaning attempts at reform. Yet all is not negative. This part closes with a focus on the voices of Ashtanga teachers who have stepped into leadership roles as the culture finds its resilience. Some are starting to organize structures outside of KPJAYI, as we’ll see from the mission statement of the Amayu Community, recently formed to foster “excellence in Ashtanga yoga training, mentoring and development, driven by consent and student empowerment.”6
The ultimate goal of this book is for the reader—especially any student, teacher, or trainer within a spiritual community—to come away with:
memorable and practical information on the basic energies and patterns of toxic group dynamics that permit abuse, and
personal and collective strategies for being able to intuit signs of that toxicity, and to let those who have been most impacted by it lead the discussion of remedies.
Part Six: Better Practices and Safer Spaces: Conclusion and Workbook is written as a resource for practitioners dedicated to understanding and mitigating toxic group dynamics in yoga and beyond. It provides a list of the critical feeling and thinking skills that can help to shield individuals against the deceptions of toxic groups. It will then introduce some best practices for leaders and organizations in the field. Central among them is the PRISM model for promoting transparency, accountability, and harm reduction for future practitioners and group members. Its five steps are summarized here.
Pause to reflect on the idea that each yoga/spiritual method and community carries value, but also, potentially, a history of abuse.
Research the literature on the method to find and understand that history.
Investigate whether the harm has been acknowledged and addressed.
Show how you will embody the virtues and not bypass the wounds of the community.
Model transparent power sharing and engaged ethics for future practitioners.
A further tool offered is a scope of practice for the study of yoga humanities, designed to help students and teacher trainees interrogate the sources they learn from. With books like Guruji on the market providing advertising for an unregulated industry that up to this point has been dominated by charismatic men, they need it. Part Six is also a workbook. Each section contains a series of educational essay/reflection questions that will help students, trainees, and trainers become clear on how the principles and strategies are applicable to their inner lives, relationships and communities.
I am not an Ashtanga yoga practitioner. For some Jois disciples, this means I fail a basic litmus test of credibility. They regularly ask me questions like: “If you don’t do the practice, how can you presume to know anything about what’s happening between Jois and his students?” The short answer is that I asked many of them what was happening, and listened to them answer in their own words.
Questions from outsiders, however, don’t always work. Timing and trust is everything. Larry Gallagher, a journalist on assignment to Mysore with Details magazine in 1995, asked Karen Rain (whose story is featured in Part Two) pointed questions about Jois’s “adjustments”, which Rain has now gone on to define as assaults. Rain remembers brushing the questions aside. She wanted it to seem like everything was okay. “I was in total denial at the time,” she says.
For different reasons than those of victims, many interviewees who witnessed Jois’s assaults struggled with questions of how much to say, whether to say it openly, whether to go on record, whether I was the right person to talk to, and whether my motivations were safe or positive or productive. They worried about friendships they have nurtured over the years, about betraying and being betrayed. Some were worried about whether speaking would destroy their careers within the culture. Nobody said outright that they were worried about the potential legal liability involved in admitting they knew that Jois was a sexual predator and did little or nothing to stop him, but this may have been a silencing factor as well.
Many interviewees seemed to exhibit what the late clinical psychologist Margaret Singer described as the “fishbowl effect”, reported by people who leave or are leaving highly charged groups. Singer uses the term to describe how former group members feel around friends and family as they readjust to life apart from the group. They can feel as though they are being constantly watched—both by group members wondering if they’ll be staying and what they’ll say if they leave, and non-group members, wondering if they are alright.7 Singer was writing in 1979, decades before social media began to compound this claustrophobic and shame-generating surveillance problem.
Some of the most high-profile Jois students and witnesses to the assaults who were eventually willing to speak out publicly are those who found success outside of the group long ago. Beryl Bender Birch and Bryan Kest, for example, both studied intensely with Jois but then peeled away from Jois’s Ashtanga to innovate forms of Power Yoga. They have both spoken out in acknowledgment of Jois’s abuse. People who still identify with Jois’s spiritual mastery have a much harder time. It’s very hard to remain within the fold and speak to an outsider or the media about one’s doubts, fears, or complicities without fear of social or financial repercussions, or deepening one’s own internal conflicts. This is an important clue to understanding the broader dynamics at play.
WHAT DOES “CULT” REALLY MEAN?
Those broader dynamics are often referred to with a popular but problematic term. The word “cult” is not only imprecise; it can be inflammatory and marginalizing. Even lifelong cultic studies researchers are conflicted about using it. “Even though we have each studied cults and educated people about this subject for more than 20 years, neither of us has ever felt completely comfortable with the term ‘cult.’”8 In certain quarters, it might itself be classified as a form of “loaded language”, employed to dismiss entire religious or political groups out of hand.
Janja Lalich and Madeleine Tobias provide a list of helpful synonyms for “cult”. They use terms like “high-demand”, “high-control”, “totalistic”, “totalitarian”, “closed charismatic”, “ultra-authoritarian”, and “self-sealed”.9 The term “self-sealed” is related to Lalich’s work on “bounded choice”, which she uses to describe an environment in which every occurrence is interpreted to suit the needs of the group or its leader.
When the process works, leaders and members alike are locked into what I call a “bounded reality”—that is, a self-sealing social system in which every aspect and every activity reconfirms the validity of the system. There is no place for disconfirming information or other ways of thinking or being.10
The notion of “undue influence” is another useful framework. Undue influence is a legal concept dating back over 500 years, applied to assess whether a contract formed between a person with more power and a person with less power is truly consensual.11 As we’ll see, non-consent is a core feature of the Jois landscape. Throughout this book, I’ll alternate synonyms for “cult” to soften any impression that we’re speaking about a precise phenomenon. We’re not. We’re talking about patterns and relationships.
Terms aside, the most widely accepted definition for what this book addresses as it explores how Jois’s abuse was enabled and obscured for years was first presented in 1986 by psychiatrist Louis Jolyon West and counseling psychologist Michael Langone. They write that a cult is:
a group or movement exhibiting great or excessive devotion or dedication to some person, idea, or thing, and employing unethical manipulative or coercive techniques of persuasion and control (e.g., isolation from former friends and family, debilitation, use of special methods to heighten suggestibility and subservience, powerful group pressures, information management, suspension of individuality or critical judgment, promotion of total dependency on the group and fear of leaving it), designed to advance the goals of the group’s leaders, to the actual or possible detriment of members, their families, or the community.12
A POTENTIALLY HARMFUL TERM
It’s a stark definition. There’s no doubt that it can be felt as degrading for members of groups to which it is applied. This problem is of great concern to scholars in religious studies, especially those who study movements like Ashtanga yoga professionally. To the consternation of some cult researchers, many religious studies researchers have sidestepped the labeling problem by using the term “New Religious Movement” to describe communities that they say meet the spiritual and social needs of their members in ways that resemble how older and more organized religions meet the needs of their constituents. They privilege the internal descriptions by which a group gives itself meaning. Their tendency is to value what a group says about itself, to understand its ways and longings according to the terms it uses. They do not apply analytical frameworks that alienate group members.
It makes sense. Nobody affiliated with any spiritual group wants to refer to themselves or hear themselves referred to as being cult members. Researchers of all stripes know that if they use the term, or allow its premises to influence their fieldwork, they may immediately lose interview access. Suspicious or threatened group members may not trust them. This could silence the most intimate and tender things the group would want to share about its experience. The entire research project—to understand why and how a group values what it does—may lack the input of the very people who live these values.
In my own experience, when I was “on the inside”, I would have angrily rejected the language of cult analysis as applied to my lived experience. I was lucky to have a dear friend who used a softer, more personal language to question my behaviors and convictions.13 It was only after withdrawing from these groups and re-establishing a safe haven of relationships outside of them—where I could recognize that I had been harmed and may have harmed other people within them—that I was able to hear and metabolize that language. At some point, the terms that had once sounded poisonous and shameful to me crossed a subtle line to become central to my own healing. Or perhaps it was I who crossed that line, into a world in which my thoughts were not so systematically controlled.
Insiders, outsiders, and scholars of all persuasions can argue ad nauseam whether “Ashtanga yoga” fits the technical definitions of “cult”. As you move through the evidence of this book, you might recognize some or all of the elements that West and Langone list at play. “Great or excessive devotion or dedication to some person, idea, or thing.” “Unethical manipulative or coercive techniques of persuasion and control.” “Use of special methods to heighten suggestibility and subservience, powerful group pressures, information management, suspension of individuality or critical judgment.” But how systemic are these elements in Ashtanga yoga today? How do we even define the boundaries of Ashtanga yoga, as a practice or community? The short answer is that it’s complicated, but it is also crucial to get this right.
The possibility that cult language might not only feel discriminatory but also be used to discriminate against earnest practitioners is not lost on those who seek to exonerate groups that have harbored abuse. In a blog post that claimed Jois’s “mistakes” had been “largely accounted for and removed from the Ashtanga yoga system”, Ashtanga celebrity Kino Mac-Gregor wrote that “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 [sic].”14 Here, MacGregor exposes the Achilles’ heel of cult analysis discourse—if it is used like a blunt knife. She does it, however, by conflating that portion of the Ashtanga world that abused and enabled abuse with the “spiritual lineage of yoga” in general. In response to such defenses, a discussion of cultic dynamics in the Ashtanga world has to pinpoint where and how those dynamics in fact did perpetuate sexual abuse, without tarring the entire community with the same brush. A survey of the community’s diversity is a good place to start.
FINDING THE “CULTIC” WHILE HONORING A DIVERSE COMMUNITY
If there’s an inner core to the global Ashtanga movement, it consists of senior teachers, now roughly between 50 and 70 years of age, who started practicing with Jois directly 30 years ago or more. Some were certified to teach the full method by Jois himself—the highest qualification the community recognizes. Some framed their certificates, hand-written by the master on now-yellowing paper. Some didn’t. Some maintained their status and relationship to the Jois family; some didn’t.
Downstream from the old-timers are teachers who have been authorized by the Jois family through KPJAYI. They have earned the right to instruct the method through their dedicated study pilgrimages to Mysore, where they now practice under Rangaswamy’s supervision. Certified and authorized teachers share the professional and social distinction of being “listed” on Rangaswamy’s official website.f 15 Most teachers of this rank have dedicated assistants who work with them every morning, back in their home shalas all over the world. Some assistants are on the KPJAYI track, while others are not. Some may develop dysfunctional relationships with their bosses that echo aspects of the relationships their bosses had with Jois. Some may not.
But beyond these pathways that lead away from and back to Mysore and the direct Jois legacy, there are parallel expressions of Ashtanga culture, only barely affiliated with Jois, his method, or even India. There’s Scott Johnson, who teaches every morning close to London Bridge. His class is called “Mysore Style”, but he’s never been to Mysore. Never saw the need to go. Norman Blair, also in London, practices and teaches “Ashtanga with Love and Props” at the shala of a colleague. (“Props” are blocks, straps, bricks, and other devices used to help practitioners get into postures. They are typically frowned upon by “traditional” Ashtanga teachers. Although, as we’ll see, “traditional” is a loaded-language term.) Norman originally learned Ashtanga from one of Jois’s certified teachers, but he never bought into the hierarchy. He’s not one for groups.
Alison Ulan in Montreal, who studied under Jois personally and has taught the method since the mid-1990s, never received formal authorization to do so. Kiran Bouquet, who was assaulted by Jois in 1983, still teaches Ashtanga yoga in her rural community in Australia. She too has never held any professional status in the world governed by Jois’s list. Finally, there are countless Ashtanga practitioners around the world who have become teachers through non-Ashtanga training programs, but whose teaching transmits the core principles of Jois’s method.
Then there are the students. There is no solid data on the levels of commitment and involvement amongst rank-and-file Ashtanga practitioners. Anecdotally, the demographic is diverse. There are people who are intrigued by the method alone, and have no interest in its leadership or even any community beyond those who show up on the same mornings they do. Then there are those who year by year wade deeper into the lifestyle, diet, ideology, and devotions that can lead to being on Jois’s list. Some visit their local shala six mornings per week, others twice, and still others practice only at home.
Bottom line: Jois’s legacy is now diffuse enough that Ashtanga communities around the world vary in size and can feel quite different from each other. There are hundreds of shalas, and many of them may quietly provide safe space for the business of yogic self-inquiry, largely independent of the somatic and psychosocial influence of the late master and his most dedicated inheritors.
Any community with cultural power will radiate the heat of an internal fire of passion, creativity, and highly charged relationships. This fire can burn members who are in the wrong place at the wrong time. The question for practitioners is not so much whether they should or shouldn’t engage with a loose global community such as Ashtanga yoga, but whether they can ask the right questions about where that heat is coming from, what it’s doing, and how close they really want to get to it. The study questions in Part Six are designed to help distinguish the cultic from the communal, to help feel when an initially inspirational fire swells into a destructive force.
I grew up in an all-male Catholic school environment in which corporal punishment was one of the primary ways in which the social hierarchy was organized. On a daily basis, I was either receiving corporal punishment, or watching it being administered to boys like me. As I researched the histories of the men who brought yoga to the non-Indian world from the 1960s onwards—Pattabhi Jois, B.K.S. Iyengar (1918–2014), Bikram Choudhury (1944–), and others—it became clear that this was a formative experience in their boyhoods as well.gThey all describe being physically abused while learning to do yoga.
When I began to connect my schoolboy years with my later experience of being forcefully and non-consensually adjusted by yoga teachers, I could feel in my bones a shared intergenerational pattern that had nothing to do with wellness or spirituality. In some communities, “yoga culture” can be a delivery device for what the broader culture, for good or ill, is already passing down.
Sixteen women in this book have accused Pattabhi Jois of sexual assault or digital rape. There is also photographic evidence that Jois sexually assaulted men, as well, although no male victims have publicly disclosed to date. Sexual assault and rape are not about sex; they are about power. My experience with male violence is that it is expressed early and abused often through dominance hierarchies set up between men. The normalcy with which men assault women’s bodies overflows from the violence that often forms a basic economy between men. One senior Jois student who wanted to remain off-record said it succinctly: Jois physically assaulted the men and sexually assaulted the women. It’s not rocket science to figure out which of those two targets was more familiar to him. You only have to skim Jois’s own account of being beaten by his teacher, Tirumalai Krishnamacharya, from the age of twelve.
“By the time he taught us ten asanas,” Jois once told his senior student Eddie Stern, “sometimes we couldn’t do them… he would beat us. And the beating was unbearable, that’s how it was. We were about ten or fifteen boys who didn’t care. We carried on unmindful of the beatings we got from him.”16 In later years, Jois repeatedly remembered Krishnamacharya as a “dangerous man”.17 Krishnamacharya himself described his own teacher in resonant, but less explicit terms. “Every slackening of effort was punished,” he recalled about what it was like to study with him, “every emotion banished.”18
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