It’s been a tough year for Ashtanga.
2017 ended with the realization that Pattabhi Jois abused his position of power and sexually assaulted numerous female students over many years. Naturally, this has a ripple effect throughout the community leaving numerous students doubting the lineage.
What makes matters worse is a lack of acknowledgement from senior teachers and Sharath Jois at KPJAYI itself. This lack of acknowledgement is damaging to the victims themselves, but also detrimental to the global Ashtanga community. I realize I cannot possibly have all the pieces of the puzzle to know what might inhibit any one person from speaking - I was not there, so who am I to say? I’ll hold back judgment and continue to respect the senior teachers for paving the way for the new generation of yogis.
There have been other smaller incidents as well — one of which being Sharath Jois’s removal of several senior teachers from the official list of those approved by the KPJAYI to teach. Personally, Tim getting sick shook the yoga mat beneath me. I’m not going to address these incidents further in this blog. Instead, I want to suggest some ways we, as a community, might be able to move forward in a way that helps us avoid similar abuses in the future. Ultimately I believe there is much to be optimistic about in regards to Ashtanga and much to be gained from continuing to practice.
I know a lot of people who are questioning the practice of Ashtanga yoga. I believe its good to be asking these questions — it means we are thinking critically and not just accepting everything we hear to be true.
My hope for Ashtanga is that in the future no student is ever hurt by an adjustment. I hope that in the future there won’t be teachers who abuse their positions of authority but instead teachers who empower and support their students.
My first suggestion is for teachers. Find trusted colleagues to help encourage honesty. Teachers need friends, outside of their students, who can provide feedback. In a healthy community there are people with authority equal to the teacher — someone who will tell you if you are doing something stupid. Sometimes we all need an honest outside perspective to set us straight. Maybe a colleague who notices when boundaries are getting blurred, when socializing becomes inappropriate, that you shouldn’t be left in the Mysore room alone with a student after hours. We don’t always see things clearly for ourselves. Get perspective from someone you trust.
I’d extend the same advice to senior students. Naturally it wouldn’t be fair to ask this of new students, but for students who have been practicing for 7 years or more the same could apply. Regardless of the discipline, eliciting feedback from peers is important to personal growth, maintaining perspective and preserving integrity.
My second suggestion is to build communities where open communication is encouraged. Communication is critical to fostering relationships and building trust. Students must feel comfortable talking to their teacher about their practice in order to build a solid foundation to grow from.
Communication during practice is important. The responsibility is on the teacher to make sure a student wants to be adjusted — waiting for a student to tell you not to adjust them is risky because not everyone will be comfortable speaking up. Students should be encouraged to participate in their practice in this way, because it is their practice. If a student feels uncomfortable the adjustment is inappropriate, end of discussion.
I ask students who I am not familiar with if they want to be adjusted before touching them. I try go in softly, and ask how the pressure is and if they want more, before it is too late. I make suggestions to students instead of imposing a dogmatic approach to their practice. As teachers we have to trust what the student is telling us. Part of the skill of a teacher is to bear witness to the experience the student is having. Viewing the student-teacher relationship as collaborative empowers the student to take ownership of their practice in a way that prevents both injury and abuse.
I suggest that Mysore communities have regular conferences. There are many benefits to conferences, perhaps most importantly it gives the community a chance to address any issues that could be happening in the Mysore room or the Ashtanga community at large. It presents an opportunity to teach as well as to open lines of communication. As soon as I learned about the assault accusations against Pattabhi Jois I held a conference with my community inviting open discussion about the role of adjustments in our community. My goal was to acknowledge what happened in Mysore and to affirm my commitment as a teacher to building a community that all feel safe and comfortable with.
There was a time when yoga practitioners thought they were less prone to abuse, corruption and chauvinism than the rest of society. Obviously, recent scandals in the yoga world show that’s not true (and probably never was). As usual, the main problem is people abusing authority. As such, students should research any yoga studio or Mysore program before getting involved.
Start with a Google search and check out Yelp reviews. Look for credible stories of abuses of power. Look at the program’s website, consider the diversity of the community. Consider gender diversity, as well as diversity of body types, ages and practice level.
Visit the studio. Do the students seem empowered and independent? Will any of the students share their experience? See if the teacher will chat with you. I always reply to emails from new students and invite them to come in and introduce themselves before committing to practice. That’s one reason why we offer a 2 week new student special at Flow, giving both the student and the teacher a test run to see if the relationship is promising.
I hope that moving forward we as teachers focus on teaching students how to practice for themselves.
Ashtanga Yoga will continue through all the committed practitioners around the world. Currently we have an opportunity to evolve how this practice is taught. We can teach in a way that student and teacher are on more equal ground. No student should be hurt by an adjustment in practice. It’s time to teach to the student in front of you - to meet that person where they are on any given day. If Ashtanga is to evolve being able to see the student is far more important than a posture or series.
It’s up to us, the current generations of Ashtanga practioners to reinvigorate the model so that it provides the capacity for students to make their way down their spiritual path.
We are all in this together. We all should strive to stay firmly rooted in our ethical underpinnings and give feedback to our teachers and guides on our spiritual paths. If someone isn’t receptive to your voice, then maybe they are just weeding themselves out of your journey. Trust the process of asking questions.
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