More allegations more confusion more mudslinging … Teachers revising opinions teachers hiding opinions teachers refusing to have an opinion. After the recent Instagram post by Sharath Jois, there is now no debate as to the guilt of Pattabhi Jois and the many allegations against him of sexually assaulting women under the guise of adjustments. Any who wants to continue to deny these allegations are either stupid or complicit or both.
As an Ashtanga teacher I’ve personally had to have a very long hard look at myself recently and one thing that I do know is that I’ve never needed to have any connection to the practice via anyone other than myself. So the way that manifests when I’m teaching is comparable to the parable of the raft in the Buddhist tradition….
A man traveling along a path came to a great expanse of water. As he stood on the shore, he realized there were dangers and discomforts all about. But the other shore appeared safe and inviting. The man looked for a boat or a bridge and found neither. But with great effort he gathered grass, twigs and branches and tied them all together to make a simple raft. Relying on the raft to keep himself afloat, the man paddled with his hands and feet and reached the safety of the other shore. He could continue his journey on dry land.
Now, what would he do with his makeshift raft? Would he drag it along with him or leave it behind? He would leave it, the Buddha said. Then the Buddha explained that the dharma is like a raft. It is useful for crossing over but not for holding onto, he said.
I hope I don’t have to flesh this out too much for folk to get my drift. So students come to the class and need guidance from me. I’ve been practicing Ashtanga for 20 plus years I wouldn’t say I’m any kind of authority whatsoever but I’ve embraced the practice and feel I’m well placed to pass on what I’ve learned that is specific to the students unique individual needs. I’m there at class as myself (and I’m not representing anyone other than myself or any allegiance to any particular part of the various Ashtanga traditions and its numerous contradictions) I’m helping them by teaching what I know only. The more enthusiastic students will pick up what I’m teaching them more quickly and won’t need me as much, others might need more input from me for a longer period of time. The idea is that I’ve managed to help them get from A to B in the practice – from a place of a beginner to a position that they feel comfortable knowing what they are doing. As in the parable above I’m acting like a raft to the student – they need me for a specific time only – and as just mentioned that specific time is unique for every student in class. Once the student gets to B I’m happy for them to tie me up by the side of the stream (to keep the above analogy going) and get back on whenever they need to. They don’t have to (nor will I let them) put me on any kind of a pedestal for helping them out.
A good western analogy is in the Football (soccer) Coach. So a good coach like Pep Guardiola has the ability to treat each member of the team as an individual e.g some players need a bit of TLC , enthusiastic but gentle vocal encouragement to help support and get the best out of them – other players respond better to loud vocal motivational instructions (eg move yer arse you lazy bugger!) And as an ex-football manager (well ok I managed my son’s under 8 football team to a league and cup double one season and then quit straight after – leave on a high note!) I think this is a good analogy to make – although I’ve never yet met a yoga student who responded well to me shouting at them to get their arses in gear .
Ashtanga Yoga ( i.e. the practice , the teachers and the way it is taught) is currently going through a much needed period of transformation . A very good friend of mine and another Ashanga Yoga teacher Luke Jordan said ‘we are all responsible for ourselves, to do the right thing in each moment’. (Luke wrote an excellent blog on Ashtanga Yoga –please read it here). For all it’s faults I think Social Media can help the community of Ashtanga Yoga by bringing the problems of the practice to light, to find the solutions to move it forward and also to make sure this type of thing never happens again. At the very least it can start the conversation.
I first went to Mysore in January 2000 – the classes were still held in the tiny old 12 students at a time Shala. It was a very intimate experience and perhaps even a little intimidating – especially for myself. I felt somewhat (and still do tbh) like a fish out of water. I had started Ashtanga Yoga maybe 12 months previously to that first trip to help combat an extreme anxiety disorder I had. I wasn’t looking for any kind of spiritual guidance or awakening. I am fortunate that I have four older sisters ( me being the youngest and only boy) and have a very strong matriarchal mindset , and so when all the other students at the Shala would refer to Pattabhi Jois as 1- An Enlightened Being ( whatever that means) and 2 –Guruji , I was highly skeptical. I think my Mancunian upbringing gave me for better or for worse a rather cynical outlook, so I was ( and still to this day) remain suspicious (at best) of anyone calling themselves a Guru. I never really felt any kind of connection and still don’t to this day, to the ‘spiritual aspect of Ashtanga Yoga and the links to the Hindu Religion. I’m happy that some yoga students can make sense of the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali (the original source of the Ashtanga Yoga practice), myself ? I personally feel it’s a rather dense esoteric meditation manual that’s got naff all to do with the physical asana practice. I mean who needs to be told it’s wrong to steal , to not tell the truth etc in the 21st century by an (allegedly) second century text book (Oh cynical me).
I wasn’t aware of any wrong doings by Pattabhi Jois until a few years after my first visit when mutterings had gone around Mysore about his ‘inappropriate adjustments and to be honest he’d stopped teaching by then so I guess it was a case of out of sight out of mind. Then the internet happened albeit on a much smaller scale than it is today and the photo evidence started appearing. He passed away in 2009 and to a certain extent as far as I was aware the above mutterings stopped. I must state also as mentioned above I always felt like a fish out of water when I was in Mysore – I was never in with the in crowd- I was never in the ‘loop’ with the comings and goings of Mysore. I spent most of time hanging out with the kids from Operation-Shanti the charity I am an ambassador for.
The #metoo campaign of the last few years –particular the heart wrenching testimony of Karen Rain brought to light the reality of Pattabhi Jois’s reprehensible behaviour. There have been multiple testimonies since Karen Rain’s initial statement ( there have also been plenty of articles in the Yoga Journal, Elephant Journal, petitions on change.org, students writing open letters, rescinding their authorization and certification),one certified teacher has stopped practicing altogether and closed her Ashtanga studio down for good.
I am not in any position to advise others what they should or shouldn’t do – to stop practicing or to keep practicing. My connection to Ashtanga never was (or is) via anything other than a commitment to my own mental & physical well-being, which there is no doubt at all the practice has helped considerably. All I’m doing when I’m teaching is to just try and be the best teacher I can be for the student on the day – it’s that simple.
For more articulate informed extensive writings on the above please see Guy Donahaye’s blog.
Later …. I read and reread the above several times , trying to find the right words to say. So it’s very imperfect and I apologise for that – I wanted to try and find the right words to show my respect to all those students who have been affected by all of this.