Here is a link to a video interview I did entitled, “Karen Rain Speaks About Pattabhi Jois and Recovering From Sexual and Spiritual Abuse”
A couple of Ashtanga teachers have messaged me with very intelligent and considerate questions regarding my requests to the Ashtanga community.
They made an excellent point: if they just omit Pattabhi Jois from the history of Ashtanga yoga, wouldn’t that be a kind of denial? Wouldn’t we all be losing an opportunity to learn and help prevent abuse from happening again, both within Ashtanga and elsewhere?
I agree completely and stand corrected, as, at times I have thought it would be easiest, and would work, to re-invent Ashtanga without him, by omitting him. I now see the problems with that.
With this in mind, by re-inventing Ashtanga yoga without Pattabhi Jois, I mean: dismantling his merit and power as being the absolute authority of Ashtanga yoga.
I think that what to replace that with would be up to each individual or group of teachers. Important in that transition would be considering the dangers of sexual and other abuses, and the limitations of making any one person an absolute authority.
The other question they asked was how they could address their own personal history with Pattabhi Jois in a way that is respectful of his victims and of victims of sexual abuse in general.
I want to thank these teachers and others who have the same questions. I also want to say that I wrote those requests not because I expected any Ashtanga teacher to be receptive to them. I wrote them for myself, for my healing, to reclaim my agency.
My agency was dry-humped and groped into oblivion. It got to the point where I couldn’t tell what I wanted. I couldn’t discern what felt good and what felt bad. And I couldn’t feel the safety or confidence needed to express those things as I slowly started to realize them.
Even last week I had a nightmare that Pattabhi Jois was on top of me. I wanted to say, to shout, ‘No! Stop! I don’t want you to do this to me!’ But in the dream, the words wouldn’t come out of my mouth. My body finally shook so hard that I woke myself up.
For those in Ashtanga who believe my story and the stories of other victims, I’ve offered suggestions for how to respond, of which I think the most important is to replace the euphemisms of ‘inappropriate assist’ and ‘adjustment’ with the words sexual assault or sexual abuse, when referring to Jois’s actions. This will help prevent future confusion about the behavior of other yoga teachers or people who we trust with touching our bodies, and who break that trust.
After an AY teacher begins to refer to the behavior of P. Jois as sexual assault/abuse, they’ll have decisions to make about how they want to relate to that more accurate language. Do they want to publicly venerate him? Do they want to publicly display his photos where victims of sexual abuse/assault might find them upsetting? Do they want to continue to use the titles ‘Guruji’ and ‘Sri?’ Do they want to find trauma sensitive ways to communicate their experience of him and discuss his historical role in Ashtanga?
For those considering these questions, here are a couple of resources I’ve heard might be helpful. I haven’t worked with them personally, so this isn’t an endorsement:
- An Olive Branch is a Zen Buddhist organization that offers support for institutional change when abuse has occurred.
- The Faith and Trust Institute is an interfaith organization that does some of the same work, and specializes in cases of sexual misconduct.
Both organizations provide training in recognizing and correcting toxic power dynamics.
In the discussion of whether or not what P. Jois did was sexual abuse, I think people have a notion of what sexual abuse should feel like. I’ve often heard and even said myself, ‘It didn’t feel sexual to me.’
Sexual abuse is about the behavior of the abuser. Is sexual abuse supposed to feel sexual to the victim?
Sexual abuse can feel bad. It can feel good. It can feel confusing. It can feel like nothing. It can make you feel like you don’t exist, which is similar to some descriptions of spiritual experience.
For people who had peak spiritual experiences in the presence of Pattabhi Jois, I invite you to consider that rather than transmission of something from him to you, it was self-generated from something that was already present in you.
I’ll end with a quote from Kripalu’s website about their history. ‘When the disciple is ready, the guru disappears.
I’m really happy to see that there are some Ashtanga Yoga teachers who are saying Pattabhi Jois will no longer be the figurehead of the yoga they teach and teachers who are talking openly about the abuses committed by P Jois, thus offering students an informed choice if they do not want to study with someone who venerates a sex offender. I want to re-iterate that I do believe sex offenders are worthy of love and compassion, just not veneration. There is a difference.
I was recently flipping through a book to help teach kids about sexual abuse. In it they described ‘green flag’ people. People who are safe, who kids could trust to touch their ‘private parts.’ Those people were caregivers, parents and doctors. Looking at reviews online, apparently at the end, the book states that sometimes ‘green flag’ people can earn red flags. My comment here is about the concept presented. I thought Pattabhi Jois was a ’green flag’ person because I was devoted to Ashtanga yoga and he was the guru. Yoga gurus and teachers, healers, even people who work for social justice are not ‘green flag’ people. There are no ‘green flag’ people as a category.
Likewise I received a message from someone saying that thank goodness those days are over and that certainly today Pattabhi Jois couldn’t get away with what he did. Whenever we say, ‘It can’t happen here or it can’t happen now,’ we are creating opportunity for abusers. Pre-empting blaming the victim, abuse is always the responsibility of the abuser. Not every person takes advantage of the opportunity to abuse.
One of the best teachers I ever had was a professor in college. He held some cutting edge ideas at the time. When he taught, he encouraged the students to challenge him. He was delighted when a student could prove that something he taught was fallible. I think if a teacher doesn’t create an atmosphere where students can openly, easily and comfortably challenge them, they are not a good teacher.
When I outed myself as a victim/survivor of sexual abuse, it was after 20 years of internal conflict, not wanting that to be my story, my life, wanting that to be something which only happens to other people. Acknowledging that I was victimized and that it is my story and it did happen in my life, was a huge step in real healing.
I want to continue to integrate that story into my life in a healthy way. I also want to continue working to prevent sexual abuse, as well as institutional abuse and to help victims/survivors of such abuses. I don’t know what my next steps are.
I feel the platform of Facebook has served me well, but I want to re-evaluate where and how, to utilize my energy and to talk about what happened to me, in the most beneficial way possible for myself and others. At least for a time, I will mostly only be using Facebook for messaging.
Thank you to everyone who has supported me on Facebook. You have no idea how much you’ve helped me.
A friend told me that they think it would be really valuable if I could find a way to express to what extent my life was messed up by the behavior of Pattabhi Jois, that people have no idea the extent of the damage caused by sexual abuse and assault. (And in my case spiritual abuse too).
I wrote about being free of shame. I recently realized that is only true in that I don’t feel shame or self blame about being abused, about what Pattabhi Jois did to me. However, I still feel shame about how much it hurt me. The empathy of others is helping. I think that’s part of what sharing #MeToo stories is about: We’re saying together we can heal.
When I first posted my #MeToo experience, people were writing, ‘I’m so sorry,’ I didn’t understand. I even kind of asked myself, ‘why do they keep writing that?’ I always tried to tell myself it wasn’t so bad. I was OK. I think I read, “I’m so sorry’ about fifty times before it hit me and I burst into tears. I spent an entire weekend crying and dancing through pain and anger (expressive, contemplative dance being one of my current practices).
I struggled for over a decade with finding meaning and purpose, I’d say that only really started to shift for me in about 2011 when I made some important new friends and started working with children.
Even twenty years later, several times a week I wake up at 3:30 am, the time I used to wake up to practice my first year in Mysore, anxious and hyper-vigilant, that something terrible might happen to me. Needless to say, when that happens, it’s not easy to go back to sleep.
My life has been limited by chronic fatigue and various mysterious health issues. Now I see that the trauma somaticized.
This is where I feel shame. I feel ‘too’ sensitive and weak. I wanted to be strong and resilient. I wanted to be someone who wasn’t bothered by it.
Since my #MeToo post some things have gotten better. I have more energy, vitality and clarity. I experience a different kind of strength and resilience than what I had hoped for, not the strength and resilience that isn’t bothered by anything, but that comes from feeling all the painful feelings.
Since the weekend of crying and dancing, I’ve cried practically everyday. Sometimes it’s from remembering what happened. Sometimes it’s because I feel so touched and so lucky that there are people I’ve never met, who support me and advocate for me and thank me for sharing my story. Thank you!
Let’s keep it going, for all victims of sexual assault: We hope you can tell your story safely. We believe you. We support you. You are not alone.
I loved Ashtanga Yoga as much as anybody. As a college student, I floundered. I found AY shortly after graduating. I felt like the luckiest person in the world. I had found what I wanted to dedicate my life to. In telling my story, I don’t want to get in the way of other people enjoying or benefitting from AY. I don’t see venerating P Jois as a necessary component of practicing AY.
In private messages and conversations people have asked me to elaborate more on my journey through the abuse to what lead me to disclosing in my #MeToo post.
I was dissociating when P Jois was assaulting me. I was innocent, hopeful and trusting that if I ‘surrendered’ into what were then called ‘adjustments’ it represented spiritual fortitude.
A discussion of transcendence vs dissociation might be appropriate here, but I’m not well versed enough to do that.
I can say that my dissociation, my focusing on surrendering my body during the assaults was accompanied by what are now painful and embarrassing memories of joking about it. I remember joking with other students about how the guru ‘liked it from behind.’ I remember laughing with a friend after seeing Pattabhi Jois playing with a woman’s nipples, the woman I mentioned in a previous post who subsequently died of uterine cancer before her 46th birthday.*
My laughter and joking arose from discomfort. Eventually the discomfort became too much for me and I left Ashtanga. At the time I focused more on what I witnessed, than what P Jois did to me. The trauma I experienced somaticized. Amongst other things, I suffered from chronic fatigue and multiple chemical and food sensitivities. It took many really difficult, painful years and creating a completely distinct life for myself to look at and address the grief, not only of being sexually assaulted but of having the thing I loved the most in the world, Ashtanga Yoga, ruined for me, because that is where the assaults happened.
As a survivor of sexual assault I know very well, we don’t get what we want in life, but I’m not going to let that stop me from voicing my thoughts and wishes. For Ashtanga teachers and practitioners who want to denounce sexual assault and help build a safer world, you can start in your own backyard by doing the following: stop publicly venerating a sex offender, stop referring to him as ‘Guruji’ or using the title ‘Sri,’ stop displaying honorific or normalizing photos of him in shalas and on the internet, stop profiting from association with his name and stop using the euphemisms ‘assists’ and ‘adjustments’ for sexual assault. Lastly, re-invent Ashtanga Yoga without Pattabhi Jois.
My #MeToo post was inspired by the movement. Having been sexually assaulted by a famous person, I felt impelled to speak up. Even if the AY community for the most part ignores it, I hope that it joins the innumerable other #MeToo stories and that together we echo into every corner of the world and help defeat rape culture and sexual abuse/assault.
*An earlier version of this post said the woman died of breast cancer. I have since found out that it was uterine cancer.
I want to share Theodora Wildcroft’s comment to the person who inspired my last post because I think it’s important.
First I’d like to add that my critic wrote on a comment thread, ‘I would politely ask for more information on all sides. Did Pattabhi at any time conspire for instance in a calculating way to manipulate situations in order to get students on there own with him so that he could exploit them sexually ? Or was all this happening in plain sight in front of other people in large classes and with people videoing him ? What is the psychology of a sexual predator ? I don’t know. Did anyone see him get aroused i.e. get a hard on during a class ?’
Thank you for including the question about the psychology of a sexual predator. I would like to add that besides Theo’s suggestions, learning about sexual abuse might also be helpful for many people. Here’s a little info: sexual abuse is about power, not sex.
I don’t understand how it would make it better if he didn’t get sexual pleasure from what he was doing. Pressing his genitals against women’s genitals, fondling women’s genitals and breasts and kissing us on the lips and massaging our buttocks when saying good bye, if physical/sexual pleasure is not part of the motivation, it’s not any less disturbing, perhaps more so. I have a friend who was sexually assaulted by a man who couldn’t get an erection. I won’t go into the details of that particular event, but she said and I agree, it made that experience even more horrifying.
The fact that P Jois could sexually assault in plain sight, just shows how much power he had over people who wanted to study with him. If he couldn’t have gotten away with it in plain sight, but only in private, that would indicate less power. Whether he did anything in private or not, he was a sex offender. He sexually and spiritually abused students, people who came to him for spiritual healing and learning. I’m not saying he is not worthy of any warm feelings, like compassion. I’m saying he is not worthy of veneration.
Here is the comment by Theodora Wildcroft:
Karen is not the only one. She’s not even the first one. But for some reason hers is the first story to gain widespread traction in the Ashtanga community. The non-Ashtanga yoga communities across the world can hear your pain. But you don’t get to lay this at her feet. It is not her telling her story that has broken your heart. It is Jois’ actions, which are, in fact, entirely consistent with the actions of many other well-known yoga teachers. This doesn’t mean all yoga is invalid. It does mean that there are many yoga teachers and institutions who have been through this before you. You could be reaching out to and learning from Kripalu, from ex-Satyananda teachers, from ex-Bikram teachers, and many others. Furthermore, there are charities and thinktanks and advocates for survivors of institutionalised abuse that have freely available advice for finding well-trodden paths for the safety, healing, and grieving of all concerned. If the Ashtanga community is not following them, and not reaching out for help, it is perhaps because you have, as a lineage community, believed yourselves to be separate, and somehow above the very possibility of such a scandal. You believed perhaps that Ashtanga had something those other yoga institutions – indeed all religious institutions – did not. If so, perhaps contemplating and discussing why it is that this has been such a shock with each other might be more productive than telling Karen how she should react to finally, finally being believed. What she needs, what all survivors need, is (among other things) being heard, being believed, and some attempt at restorative justice. History shows us that some yoga institutions have been very good at this, and others very bad. It remains to be seen how Ashtanga will do, but signs so far, are, to be honest, very mixed. We can help you be on the right side of history. Because when you tell us this hurts you, I think you’re forgetting how much more it might hurt to be a person who was abusively touched, rather than the person who has to hear about it.
I recently received a very critical comment saying my writing about my experience with Pattabhi Jois is myopic and violent, that I have no ability to see past my own experience, that my story has broken hearts and shattered people’s perceptions of their trusted teacher and guru. The comment is copied at the bottom of this reflection.
First, there is more than just my story and there has been for decades. Also, it does make me sad that the good people in AY are hurting from my story and that the most complicit don’t really care, except for how to control it. One AY teacher cried over the phone when hearing my story. A friend of mine, when I told her how that made me sad, said, ‘that teacher who is crying is healing.’
If the response from the AY community was, ‘It breaks my heart that someone I venerated and trusted sexually assaulted and spiritually abused you. I need time to digest this,’ that would be great. There are a couple of teachers who I am in communication with who have told me that, more or less. Unfortunately, the majority AY response, that I am aware of, is to say they believe me but then pick apart my story or criticize me. And if someone picks my story apart or criticizes me, yes, I sometimes respond.
Thus my further response to this person’s comment is as follows:
I want to say this is classic victim blaming. If P Jois had never sexually assaulted me, other people wouldn’t be hurt by my story. Criticism should be directed toward P Jois for his behavior, not at me for enduring it, having my life derailed by it and then talking about it. It doesn’t make any sense for me or any other victim of P Jois to coddle and hold the pain for the entire community.
The author wrote that people want to figure out if his actions were sexual, what his motivations were. Sexual abuse is about power, not sex. Devotees seem to project onto P Jois whatever suits them at the moment: from genius/avatar to a person with the emotional maturity and common sense of a toddler, as if he didn’t know that what he was doing was wrong. Best case scenario, he didn’t realize what he was doing was hurting people, and not just the direct victims. There were always witnesses grappling with it. Not realizing that means he was not attuned, not a healer and not someone worthy of being venerated. And that is best case scenario.
There’s also the argument that his touch was healing. There was a woman practicing in Mysore for years, who, when I was there, I witnessed being sexually assaulted more than I was. I recently found out that she died of uterine cancer before she turned 46. I know that correlation doesn’t necessarily mean causation. However, P Jois was definitely not healing her when he was fondling her.* This story breaks my heart. To the author of the comment: How about you? Are you angry at me for writing that? I cried when I heard she died. Why should I be the only one who cries for her?
Comment: What you have written Karen is in my opinion myopic, in that you show no ability to see beyond your personal experience. Your illustrations describe your point of view, but ignore the reason that other experiences matter in this case. Many of us, whilst not intending to discredit or invalidate your experience are confused and seeking questions about who KPJ was. Was his action intended as sexual, as assault. What were his motivations. You have a clear answer. Your experience leaves you in no doubt. Others are not so clear as their experience was different. Have some tolerance and patience with others. Your statement has broken hearts and shattered people’s perception of their trusted teacher and Guru. That could also be seen as a violent act. I met KPJ but he was never my Guru. The reason people are sharing experiences is surely obvious and natural. To be expected. For you to be reacting to this is in my opinion harsh. Space is needed for people to digest. The ball is set in motion.
*An earlier version of this post said the woman died of breast cancer. I have since found out that it was uterine cancer.