We all need to belong. For yoga practitioners, the community we choose based on our preferred yoga style, studio, and teacher, informs our friendships. When someone is molested, sexually harassed, or touched inappropriately by a leading figure of their yoga community, the consequences of a confrontation, legal or otherwise, can be devastating.
Just like survivors of childhood sexual abuse often lose their families, and may be disinherited, adult victims of sexual improprieties in the yoga community stand to lose their chosen family. They may suffer financial loss if their teaching style is trademarked. It always takes courage to speak up about abuse, because the loss is real, and healing the wounds is slow, difficult, and often lonely.
A few days into the Ashthanga workshop with Sri K. Pattabhi Jois in the Puck Building, with four hundred or so students curled up into halasana, I was suddenly groped by the guru.
In absolute shock, I rolled to sitting and found found myself staring across the room at Sharath, Jois’s grandson, who stared back looking just as horrified as I felt.
Pattabhi Jois remonstrated: “Bad lady!” and I heard the mild laughter of the crowd at the guru’s old joke. In disbelief, I crouched to find his eyes. He smiled as if he had no idea what had transpired, and said:
“You no come out of pose.”
I sensed that if I were to respond in public, he would have experienced the humiliation he'd just made me feel. He would be angry, send me off. I thought I might be banned from my community that had come to feel like home. I was confused, felt helpless, and held my tongue.
Sri Krishna Pattabhi Jois was born in 1915. He came from a patriarchical culture, a poor orthodox family at a time in which natural bodily functions were considered dirty. Sexuality was taboo, physical and sexual abuse of children prolific, and misogyny taken for granted. Self-hating women unthinkingly unleashed scorn and frustrations from countless injustices onto their broods, the only ones over whom they had power, perpetuating the secret legacy of worthlessness that is at the crux of the dominator paradigm. Not much has changed.
I was born in 1963, in Belgium. At the age of six I was sold into a pedophile network, mentioned in the aftermath of the pedophile scandal that rocked Europe in 1996, when Marc Dutroux was arrested in connection to child murders. The rapes and violence I endured were all gender-based. In 1974, at age eleven, I was rescued from the network by an insider and given precise survival instructions, which included moving to New York. Following these instructions enabled me to spend my adult life in the context of healing, a privilege rarely enjoyed for people with a background as extreme as mine. Ashtanga yoga was part of that healing, and I came to see the journey of healing in the context of the
A few days after the incident, after early morning practice, I got in the customary long line of students who were given audience with their guru. When it was my turn, I asked, in his own broken English to better make myself understood:
“Guruji, why you no respect women?”
“I no understand! I no understand!” He cried out.
“In this country, it is against the law to touch women on their genitals or their buttocks. It is against the law!” I stressed.
“Okay, tomorrow I no touch!” he sneered.
And that was that.
The next morning, we sped through the fastest ever led primary class. Jois was in quite a bad mood and didn’t adjust anyone. I had told a friend about my private conversation with the teacher the previous day and we were full of glee. Throughout the practice, the more annoyed Jois sounded, the more we laughed.
Worldly power is often a shield warding off the sense of worthlessness and shame resulting from humiliations in childhood. Poke that shield and you get childishness.
I experienced plenty of humiliation in childhood, observing men of power—heads of state, businessmen, and aristocrats—sink to the lowest depths, all for a fix of their power addiction. Every rape came with an invisible package of feelings, which the abusers needed to exorcise and put into me. I would feel dirty, guilty, cheap, ashamed, worthless, and so on. Having to finely attune myself to these men for my survival, I got a firsthand look into their psyches, often had visions of their own abused child self, which called on me, the victim, in this most twisted way, to relieve them of their suffering.
Part of my trauma consisted of being physically injured. I had been stabbed in the backs of my knees and tortured. Ashtanga yoga proved the perfect physical therapy. The practice replicates various physical forms in which I was placed, or made to take on during the rapes. Other poses trigger a variety of mental states I entered during the abuse. In the past, my body would go into freeze mode, relaxing to survive. My spirit was often completely dissociated from the body, and I observed details in the surroundings I would have never been able to see with the naked eye. I grew up without body consciousness below the ribcage, the ribcage itself permanently extended from holding my breath, in fear. With Ashtanga yoga, practiced Mysore style at my own pace, I found a way to remain present, to assuage fears, and heal the body. Lucas, six years old.
The fear would come; the physical or emotional pain would come,
and I would listen.
I never had a yoga teacher who intuited what I was dealing with, especially Jois. The assists and suggestions I received in the few weeks during the New York workshops created no "aha" moments, or deeper understanding. I'm aware that many did receive this from Jois, and I respect it, though I remain skeptical. When we blindly trust an authority figure, we give away credit for what we do right, and accept blame for what they do wrong.
Trauma is described as helplessness in the face of an overwhelming, life-threatening event. The groping happened so abruptly that my fear was very short lived. But knowing there was no hope for an apology, no place for my anger in the ashtanga community, no support to take the issue before a court, left me feeling helpless.
I never loved Jois. I’d just met the man and was never confused about his intention. Others, who are drawn into a situation with a teacher and sustain sexual harassment or rape over sometimes prolonged periods, when such a person eventually finds the courage to take action, they are further victimized as the community turns a blind eye to the guru, and is scapegoated (assigned labels that belong with the perpetrator: greedy, angry, unstable, etc.)
Lucas in 2009. Scars on right leg are from childhood injuries.
The dehumanization I'd experienced during the groping, and the community's passivity afterwards, affected my sense of self-worth. I was back in the prison of my childhood situation, believing that somehow, I must deserve it.
And I think that was the point. All abuse of power is essentially a rejection of feelings too painful for the perpetrator. Each insult, each trespass helps him see the fear of these negative qualities outside of himself, once again proving that he is not the worthless one.
Attachment to status is based on fear.
Status serves as a fighting machine around a vulnerable, hurt part of the self. Empowermet brings that part to light, safely, by acceptance and nurturance. Power hides that part, perversely showing the world aggression instead of strength, control over others instead of self-control, and dehumanization instead of respect.
Every criminal act is a misguided attempt at reclaiming one’s innocence.
In the role of victim, the adult hopes for a different outcome, even though she attracts people and circumstances that lead to the same outcome. In the role of the abusive power figure, she finds momentary relief, and a sense of freedom, but, because it is without awareness, the same relief has to be sought repeatedly, as in an addiction.
If sexual abuse is the core trauma, love may be hopelessly confused with fear-based protection of authority figures and lack of boundaries. Possibly every member of the original abuser's gender, all women, or all men, may trigger the trauma story. I speak from personal experience. It took me many years to acknowlegde and overcome my hatred of men, hiding behind an automatic survival tactic to placate, particularly, by finding just the way to boost a man's ego, much as I had in the pedophile network.
Without conscious awareness, trauma remains in the body, and focus remains outward, on the body or on postures. Outward focus is also easily expressed through over-intellectualization to cover up an underdeveloped or stifled emotional intelligence.
With a guru leaving a legacy of mysogyny, adult disciples take on the roles of innocent (abused) children, blind to the dark side of their guru, staying in fear-based love, justifying or excusing what is lovingly referred to as his "flaws" or "humanness" instead of having the courage to confront the guru. I should mention that I did hear of senior Ashtanga teachers who stood up to Jois about his groping problem, who supposedly did lose his affection and are said to have been banned from the shala in Mysore.
The atmosphere in the SoHo ballroom was intense: hundreds expecting greatness from the man who had taken on the part, who fluidly conformed to the mental image his disciples projected, who absorbed the love and, at times, shined it back at them.
If a student projects fear onto a wise teacher, they will receive exactly what they need on her journey of personal growth. If the teacher is attached to power, the students may be met with mockery and humiliation. But they can always look for a life lesson—such as one about humility—preserve their reverence for their yoga master, and maybe go and mock their own students.
Love requires courage. Any person with power will be tempted to allow their weaknesses to flourish, exactly because followers are so ready to excuse them. A guru needs disciples who love him enough to be honest.
Love reaches beyond instinctual reaction, beyond unconscious revenge, beyond identification with victimhood, beyond cool externals, to empowerment and kindness for those who expect none.
Power is a terrible trap, because from the vantage point of someone in power, whether it is a guru, a famous yoga teacher, a star, or a hedge-fund manager, it is almost impossible to discern true kindness from flattery and fear-based protection. It's easy to be kind to one whom people respect and admire, but just how kind are we to everyone else? It requires mindfulness tools, introspection, and a living practice of ahimsa to be kind to all, and not act from revenge.
Annoyed as Jois was the first day after our conversation, on the next day he slowed the pace, and the day after that he was back to adjusting, this time paying attention to men and older women, helping some students with particular issues and poses. He exuded joy.
On the last day of the workshop, after the last primary practice, I got back in line, with my three-month old daughter. When Jois saw me, he smiled an ingenious, almost grateful smile. He stretched his arms forward to take my baby. Holding her out in front of him so their eyes were level, he zapped her—his eyes transparent with light—and my baby zapped him back, jubilantly flailing her little arms and legs as if she was going to bound right out of her little body into the realm of pure joy where their spirits were meeting.
It was the first time in my life that I was able to make a positive connection with someone who had touched me inappropriately. I had spoken up many times before, even when I was brought to the pedophile network. At age six, after a night of soul-slaying humiliations, I felt that I had to do something, or my spirit would be dead and I would never again be whole. I stood up, and addressing the guests at the orgy, I stated:
“You can't do this to me! I'm going to make sure you all get punished for this!”
Afterwards, I was quietly led away and calmly, but graphically, threatened with my life. From the get-go, inside the pedophile network, I was considered problematic. The worse the crime, the harder it is to come back from. It's very difficult to live with the knowledge that you've harmed someone.
Jois was not a hardened criminal like the men I’d met as a child, but he did cause harm—to himself, to women, and all those who looked to him as an example. He never experienced the discomfort preceding accountability and never mended his ways. But he was open enough to accept my correction and that is very rare. Most men would remain petulant or become aggressive or dismissive.
Though I continued to practice Ashtanga, I never traveled to Mysore to study with Jois. I did return to the workshop whenever he came back to New York. At one of these workshops, I noticed him zero in on a woman during prasarita padhottanasana. I stood up and turned towards him, arms crossed, staring. Sharath had planted himself
behind the woman’s mat, standing guard as well. Through four long prasarita padhottanasanas, Jois's hands moved in closer, then farther, then closer to her backside. He looked like he was dying to touch her and he never did.
After practice, I once again got on line and was greeted by a humorous flicker of recognition. Without a word or gesture, he conveyed that he wanted me to pranam, Indian style.
The idea of bowing to a man who had groped me some years back, who had never apologized and presently wanted me to surrender at his feet, created a unique conundrum. I did not want to be humiliated again. The power balance between us was still uneven. It was easy to see why he wanted people to bow down to him. It was easy not to bow.
As long as the threat of humiliation lingers, there is no room for humility. Surrendering to another person is dangerous, but surrender to what is, can relax the ego and allow humility. I had never been heard, seen, or understood about what had happened between this man and myself. All I’d had was my healthy pride, gained from overcoming many obstacles on the long road to recovery—the spiritual journey.
The choice to do something or not was entirely mine. I chose to let go and found forgiveness. I let go of him, of what he had done, of all knowledge and reserve, got on my knees, and brought my hands from his feet to my forehead, three times.
I experienced a cleansing. Innocence and purity were mine, physically and psychically. Surrender created a sweet release and openness. I felt attuned to the young boy this man had been, a boy in pain, and found understanding for the man.
I became aware of Jois's nasal voice with his strong Indian accent: “Very good. Very good.”
Remembering his restraint towards the female student during prasarita padhottanasana, I smiled, pointed at him, and replied:
"You too, very good!"
An explosion of his laughter filled the room.
When a friend of mine opened a yoga studio in Brooklyn some years later, she asked me to teach the Mysore class. I never missed a day of teaching, except once: I had been awake during the night and something told me not to go in the next morning. I texted my friend and, because I felt strongly about not teaching, but didn’t know why, I said I was sick, and she closed the studio for the day.
It was the morning of May 18, 2009. The day Jois died.