Yoga and #MeToo: Toward A Culture With Zero Tolerance For Sexual Assault

I was sexually assaulted by Pattabhi Jois. I studied in Mysore, India for a total of 2 years between 1994 and 1998. According to the US Department of Justice, sexual assault is any type of sexual contact or behavior that occurs without the explicit consent of the recipient. Pattabhi Jois predominantly sexually assaulted me by humping me in supine postures. I could feel his penis pressing against me. At the time I didn’t feel like I could do or say anything to stop it without risking being shunned by the guru and the community.

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That wasn’t the only way Pattabhi Jois sexually assaulted me. It was the way in which I felt the most helpless and vulnerable. While practicing yoga under those conditions, I didn’t learn to listen to my body. I didn’t deepen embodiment. I learned dissociation and spiritual bypassing. I left Ashtanga Yoga completely in 2001, preceded and followed by several years of confusion and pain. Telling my story now, I am realizing how much Pattabhi Jois robbed me of and I am finally recovering the vitality which was stolen.

I know that the audience for my story is mixed. Some people will fully believe and support me, others won’t. My hope in entering into the #MeToo conversation is to help create a culture with zero tolerance for sexual assault. I write about my experience with Pattabhi Jois. However, I think the mechanisms of this situation are not exclusive to it. Thus, I am writing this for anyone who would like to see a world free of sexual assault.

Besides being a victim of sexual assault, I also witnessed Jois fondle, grope and hump many women. Other women have also made claims about Jois.

How did this happen? How did it go on so long? I think a lot of it was the bystander effect. We think something’s not right, but no one else is speaking up, so maybe it’s OK. In Mysore, if someone did ask about the behavior, it was minimized.

I minimized it internally and in conversation with fellow Ashtanga students. I said, ’It could be worse, he could be having affairs with his students.’ But if we say ‘less severe’ violations aren’t a big deal, we deny the victim the voice of their experience. Plus, we don’t help prevent more severe violations from happening. Many abusers start with ‘less severe’ violations and progress from there.

I said, ‘It doesn’t feel sexual to me.’ I know that assault can sometimes feel sexual to victims. But often it doesn’t. In my case, I was dissociating when he was humping me. I once pushed his hand off my breast and he never tried that again. Other people have tried to soften the facts by saying that when women stopped him from doing something, he didn’t try again. This overlooks the fact that even if he ‘only’ assaulted a woman once, he still assaulted her. Furthermore, many abusers groom or test the waters to see what they can get away with. We said he was being ‘respectful.’ That is not respectful, that is strategic.

The same applies to him stopping at times when he was given an ultimatum. He stopped because he didn’t think he could get away with it, not because he was feeling contrite. There are numerous references in comment threads that the assaults did not end in 2001, but continued into the last years of his life, while some people claim they stopped.

There are a few other things that are being overlooked. Kissing women on the mouth and grabbing their buttocks while hugging them goodbye is sexual assault. This behavior would not be tolerated in other teacher/student situations. Jois could do this because of his power, which he abused.

While I was studying in Mysore, a random man groped me on a bus. I beat him up. My fellow Ashtanga students supported me and understood my rage. However, we were supposed to acquiesce to the fact that Jois behaved in a similar manner daily. Also, most of the time I was in Mysore, Amma, Jois’ wife was still alive. I have not seen anyone mentioning her and how unkind his behavior was toward her.

There are people saying ‘nobody is perfect’ or ‘Jois was only human.’ Yes, people are complex. I am not saying Jois should have been perfect, or that he wasn’t human. I am saying that sexual assault is intolerable, rather than just a ‘human thing.’ ‘Intolerable’ means it outweighs the merit or power of the perpetrator. To create a world with zero tolerance for sexual assault, we can’t make exceptions.

For people who want to be supportive of victims, please be aware of statements by Ashtanga teachers that employ the following strategy: admit ‘something,’ state how that was not their personal experience, minimize claims, justify and reinterpret behavior, ignore clear victim testimony, and glorify Jois and his teaching. This is insensitive to victims. Its purpose is to assuage Ashtanga students and practitioners, and perhaps the authors themselves.

I’ve seen several statements like that. I’d like to note that Greg Nardi apologized to me for defending Pattabhi Jois. Sarai Harvey Smith, Monica Gauci, Gregor Maehle, Eunice Laurel, Andy Gill, Paul RP Gold and Jessica Blanchard have written very respectful statements. *This list is occasionally updated.*

For those people who witnessed sexual assaults and are silent, what you are saying is ‘this doesn’t really matter to me.’ If you think it is too late to say something, it’s not. People continue to talk about the Holocaust and the slavery of African Americans in the US to help prevent similar things from happening again and to work towards justice. Silence, or not talking about abuse, will never help prevent it. Even if the perpetrator is dead, speaking openly about the abuse and being respectful of victims will affect culture.

As restorative justice, I hope that Ashtanga Yoga reinvents itself. This is not impossible. Kripalu Yoga did it after the scandal with Amrit Desai. Reinvention would include ceasing all public display of feel good images and public discourse lauding other aspects of Jois. I don’t hear people publicly celebrating all the achievements and merits of Harvey Weinstein right now. And if there were a ‘Harvey Weinstein School of Film Production,’ probably the name would be changed.

For too many decades the celebration of Jois has been public, while his unconscionable behavior was kept private and hushed and images of it were even removed/blocked from the internet. Someone was going to do a piece about my story in 2012, but was threatened with a law suit.

I do trust that there are people who practice Ashtanga Yoga who both want to know the truth and don’t want to hide it. I’m heartened by a comment that Tina Myntz Zymaraki made when sharing one of my testimonies on Facebook:

‘Perhaps the ashtanga community might begin to acknowledge and hopefully heal our shared wound.’

This issue is no longer a secret within the Ashtanga community. The global yoga community is looking on and waiting to see how the Ashtanga community handles it. There are some more ideas I’ve heard, that I also agree with. These include creating a code of conduct for instructors and incorporating consent and transparency into teacher training. The KPJAYI could make a formal statement that acknowledges the wrongfulness of Jois’ behavior and expresses an unequivocal apology to any student who was harmed by him. And all teachers of the lineage could follow suit.

Here is my own statement of responsibility: I was intensely involved in Ashtanga Yoga for several years. During that time I did my share of glorifying Pattabhi Jois and recommending studying in Mysore. If anyone went there on account of me and was hurt in any way, I am so sorry. I also offer my sincerest apologies to anyone I hurt with my adjustments while teaching. I know of at least six people and there are probably more. I was not very skillful or attuned. I wish I could go back and do things differently.

Because I can’t go back, I am speaking out now, to be a part of a movement toward a safer, more transparent and more just future.

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Actionable Steps Toward Restorative Justice

In a communication with Ashtanga Yoga South London, Andy Gill brought up a very good point that I’ve been aware of in my own healing, but haven’t expressed in my posts. I was a victim of not only sexual abuse by Pattabhi Jois, but also spiritual abuse. This made it even more confusing and complicated.

Again, I am writing for people who believe me, not those who don’t. In regards to acknowledgements and apologies, it’s not about explaining oneself or what one did or didn’t experience or see, except in the case of witness testimony.

A wonderful example of an acknowledgement also comes from Ashtanga Yoga South London:

“I would urge any Ashtanga Yoga practitioner to read Karen Rain’s heartbreaking account of the sexual abuse she received at the hands of Sri K Pattabhi Jois.
I believe Karen’s account and I think we all need to look hard and review how we view the man many of us, me included, have come to venerate and respect as ‘Guruji’. I will no longer be using this term when I refer to Pattabhi Jois.”

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I appreciate that he is not describing what he venerated and respected about Jois nor trying to explain Jois’ behavior. To share those things publicly, with me or other victims is repeating part of the original trauma. Those things would be best done in private with other non victims.

I also love the Ashtanga Yoga South London statement because it names a clear actionable step being taken in response to the claims against Jois.

Similarly, Jean Byrne stated that she has removed photos of Jois from her studio, out of respect for all victims of sexual assault.

I have requested that feel good and devotional photos of Jois not be displayed publicly, because they bolster his merit and normalize and show tolerance for sexual assault.

While I don’t enjoy seeing images of Jois and his abusive adjustments, I endorse their public display. They represent a truth that has been hidden and protected for decades and they challenge his good reputation.

Note: if someone doesn’t want me to read something, include a saintly portrait of Jois smiling. It’s triggering for me to see the smiling face of a man who sexually and spiritually abused me.

I imagine it is also triggering or gaslighting for other victims, who have for decades been told that the person who abused their bodies and souls was a spiritual master.

I don’t hold anyone else accountable for what Pattabhi Jois did to me. I just want the silence, tolerance for sexual assault and status quo to end. These were some of the factors that enabled him. If they don’t end, easy opportunities for other abusers remain.

When ‘I Believe You’ Is Not Enough

A few Ashtanga teachers have reached out to me, to support me, to tell me they believe me and they witnessed, firsthand, Pattabhi Jois sexually assault other women. They asked me to keep it confidential, so I won’t give any names.

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I want to say this: Imagine you had been sexually assaulted. Someone tells you they witnessed the perpetrator sexually assaulting somebody else but they don’t want to speak up about it. Does that sound like support? In what situation would it be OK to tell a victim of a crime, ‘I believe you, I saw the perpetrator committing that crime against someone else but I don’t want to say anything?’ When is it OK not to speak up about witnessing wrong doing?

Some say they are waiting for a more senior teacher to make a statement first. I have no idea how to interpret that as a positive thing. If, as a witness you’re unwilling to make a public statement, please don’t reach out to me. It just hurts. Maybe it shouldn’t hurt more than the people who don’t believe me, but it’s easier for me to ignore the disbelievers.

Ashtanga Cooperative

I’d like to thank Dimi Currey for her thoughtful commentary on the podcast interview with Richard Freeman. The final lines of which are:

‘So, maybe we should know the faces and names of these women who were hurt by p jois, but carried on the lineage? Because, it is in part due to their suffering that we have ashtanga today. Maybe instead of his picture in studios, on alters, etc. maybe it is their pictures that belong there.’

That’s an interesting idea, but I don’t want to be a martyr. What Pattabhi Jois did to me was sick. It continued because I didn’t have the clarity, skills and wholeness then, that I do now. I would rather be appreciated for what I’m doing and saying now, than for what I didn’t do or say then.

There’s another idea someone shared with me:

‘For moving things forward:

For years we’ve been able to check if an Ashtanga teacher is authorised.
So why not have a list of teachers who strongly condemn Pattabhi Jois’s behaviour.
For me, that would be a list worth publishing rather than the current authorisation list.’

They also suggest making this a cooperative, the membership and code of conduct being democratically directed.

I’ve heard some buzz about Ashtanga Yoga teacher lists lately, maybe this is an idea whose time has come.

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A Step Forward

A few days ago, Paul Gold wrote a comment under my blog: Yoga and #MeToo: Toward A Culture with Zero Tolerance For Sexual Assault on the Decolonizing Yoga website.

Paul first posted a comment that contained a couple of triggers for me. There was a sentence that celebrated the merit of and Paul’s personal experience with Pattabhi Jois. He also referred to Jois as ‘Guruji’ throughout the comment. I sent him a message explaining why those things bother me and requesting that he change them. He did without hesitation. Thank you Paul Gold for being receptive and respectful.

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I also want to acknowledge Andy Gill who shared one of my posts with the following comment:

“I have heard some discussion about the idea of an alternative list of Ashtanga teachers …. those willing to condemn the actions of Pattabhi Jois. Karen Rain picks it up in this piece.
As Yoga teachers and practitioners I believe we have a responsibility to be really clear in what we stand for and against. It saddens me that many Ashtanga teachers seem unable to stand against the Sexual misconduct of Pattabhi Jois ….. is this such a difficult moral dilemma?
The victims of this abuse have shown such extraordinary courage to speak up and share their stories. They deserve our support ….. the courage to speak out is such a small thing in comparison
It makes me wonder whether people are more worried about their Yoga businesses than standing up for what they believe in.
So yes perhaps a “white list’ is perhaps a step forward.”

What strikes me most about the approach of Paul Gold and Andy Gilll is that it has broken away from the status quo response of Ashtanga teachers in general, which has been to manage claims of sexual assault so as not to damage the reputation of Pattabhi Jois or Ashtanga Yoga. Paul Gold and Andy Gill are responding to the claims as facts to be addressed and served, not managed. They are willing to put their interests aside, the comfort of community and the merit and profit that go along with it, to take a clear stand against sexual assault.

I would also like to thank Jean Byrne and Rob Schutze for the same reasons.

AY teachers have been and are making the choice, whether conscious or not, what is more important to them: to protect the status quo of Ashtanga Yoga and the reputation of Pattabhi Jois or to take a stand against sexual assault.

 

Response To Statements By Ashtanga Teachers

Today, December 18, 2017, I read statements by Hamish Hendry and Greg Nardi about Pattabhi Jois and sexual assault.

In Mary Taylor’s statement you could hear her conflict. I hear no conflict in what Hendry wrote or even an acknowledgement of wrongdoing. He acknowledges that he can understand why some women wouldn’t be comfortable with Jois’ adjustments but goes on to minimize their significance and even advises against having opinions.

Nardi’s statement is more heartfelt than that of Hendry. He writes well about not defending Jois. Unfortunately, he does defend him. Please note, since writing this Greg Nardi has apologized for defending P Jois.

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Both statements use the same strategy. I predict there will be a stream of statements employing this strategy: admit ‘something;’ state how that was not their personal experience; minimize claims; justify and reinterpret behavior; glorify Jois and his teaching. This is exactly what happened in Mysore and how the behavior was enabled. This is what I refer to as the culture of denial and cryptic justifications. These statements are not written for victims, but to assuage Ashtanga students and practitioners.

When I was first approached about doing an interview, I was reluctant. I said it wouldn’t change anything. People were going to believe whatever they wanted. Then I thought maybe it would be helpful for people beginning yoga or someone who was questioning like I did. Likewise, when I wrote my #MeToo post, it was for the people who would believe me, not the ones who wouldn’t.

What I write now is for victims of sexual assault anywhere. Often we want to minimize and reinterpret what happened, because we wish that it wasn’t so bad. It doesn’t help when it seems this is how the world at large reacts. There are wonderful allies in the world. I wish that all victims could access them. I wish that someday victims everywhere can say, ‘This happened to me. It was horrible. It was wrong. I didn’t deserve it,’ and they will be met with, ‘I believe you’ and with restorative justice.

Injury Rumors

I’ve heard various rumors about my suffering a sudden physical injury caused by Pattabhi Jois. They aren’t true. My right pubic bone probably moved out of place while I was practicing OUTSIDE of Mysore in 1997. There was a big pop and I had pain in my right buttocks for a few days afterwards. Chronic pain began for me about 6 months later in my lumbar spine, SI joint and left hip.

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About 1 1/2 years later a chiropractic type doctor noted that my right pubic bone was out of place. He put it back in. That made no difference to the chronic pain, something I spent the next six years trying to manage. At the time I thought it might be related to my pubic bone having been displaced. I asked many chiropractors and body workers to check it for me. They all said it was still in place.

Toward the end of 2004, I met a body worker/exercise therapist who told me the pain was because my lower back and hip joints were hyper mobile. He gave me some exercises to stabilize them. Because of my constitution and my body’s history, he warned me against any exercises to increase flexibility, which I still avoid today. Happily, I haven’t had chronic pain for over a decade.

I left Ashtanga without fanfare. Maybe up until now people have been guessing why and many would prefer to think it was a sudden injury, rather than the truth. I take responsibility for the chronic pain I experienced. I wanted and knowingly chose a practice in which I would push my body to it’s limits. I never wanted to be sexually and spiritually abused.