The Sexual Misconduct of Pattabhi Jois: My Thoughts, Accountability, and 5 Changes to Pledge my Support for the Victims

It is right that the #metoo campaign has galvanized a shift in our culture towards greater awareness and intolerance of abuse. The PJ sexual misconduct revelations have alarmed me and I am grateful that the victims are able to speak out and finally be heard. I feel ashamed to have been part of a community where this happened, and to have not been fully aware of it.

It is offensive and damaging that Sharath Jois has not made a public statement. I believe that reparation can only be made through the public acknowledgement of the truth, the hearing of that truth, and the implementation of change. Those at the top (including Senior teachers and those who run Mysore programmes, and many have) should be publicly acknowledging and believing the victims’ stories, and the truth accepted and made accessible, therefore sending a reparative message to all women who wish to practice. In the community there should be a move towards a more professional structure with official channels of feedback, complaints, communication, accountability and transparency. There should be a realistic Code of Conduct (a relinquishment of acquiescence to unrealistic teaching restrictions) and a professional attitude toward qualifications (to abolish the arbitrary practice of striking people off the list). I believe that the assimilation of training responsibilities into the wider teaching community (in a centrally organised way) would help to diminish the culture of hierarchies, power, and idealisation that exists in the current Mysore phenomenon.

In the absence of Sharath Jois taking responsibility, perhaps (as I think Donna Fahri has suggested) we should boycott Mysore, and challenge the cult like tradition of Guru worship and Mysore pilgrimage, and separate yoga teaching as a profession from spiritual seeking. Certified, Authorized and non-Mysore qualified Ashtanga teachers could take responsibility for the further dissemination of Ashtanga yoga as a profession. The spiritual aspect is more nuanced and for the individual student to explore within themselves. As Karen Rain has suggested, it is available to us to “re-invent Ashtanga yoga without Pattabhi Jois”. Yoga is just yoga and I think it can and should be interpreted as each individual teacher wishes, and separated from this man.

As an Authorized teacher I take this situation very seriously and deeply respect those who have withdrawn their Authorizations. I am still thinking about this. In the meantime, I have listed five changes below that I have made in light of all of this coming out.

  1. I have taken all pictures of Pattabhi Jois down from my studio altar, website and social media and will no longer use his image in relation to my teaching.

  2. I have stopped using the term ‘Guruji’. I will now refer to my one time teacher as Pattabhi Jois. Elevating someone to Guru status creates a culture of idealisation and unquestioning acquiescence and deference. This contributed to the power this man had and abused, as well as the culture of silence around it.

  3. In my Mysore classes I have drastically reduced my use of physical adjustments. I now ask whether students want to be assisted by me before commencing. In my led classes I now limit my approach to corrections and verbal guidance only.

  4. I will share the stories of the victims and those teachers in the community who have made statements, and direct anyone who enquires to their blogs and testimonies.

  5. I apologise to the victims for being part of a culture that enabled this to happen, having studied with Pattabhi Jois in Mysore annually from 2003 until his death in 2009. I am accountable by:

A) Not being aware of the extent of the abuse. I had heard jokes about historical finger up the bottom mula bandha adjustments, but nothing else or current – only one friend during a Mysore trip, saying she was uncomfortable with certain adjustments made by Pattabhi Jois day after day. When I questioned what she meant she said ‘it’s just too intense’ – now I still don’t know what she meant by that, but I regret not thinking about it and the rumours in a serious way. I think this suggests a culture of covering up, and a wish to turn a blind eye towards something that if seen and challenged could threaten my position within a cult like community where there is the fear that speaking out against the Guru would mean being ousted from the community and possible loss of livelihood.

B) Venerating the teacher and therefore contributing to his position of power, where boundaries could be transgressed.

C) By encouraging my own students to go to Mysore.

D) By desiring the qualification and therefore being part of a culture that grants Authorization like an arbitrary anointment from the ‘Guru’, rather than an achievement of clear cut goals and pedagogical achievements.

Thank you to those who have contributed to the conversation and there are no doubt countless other accounts and comments that I have not read, and to those who have been brave enough to speak out. 

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5 Tips for Better Ashtanga Jump Throughs // Jump Backs

  1. Foundation

    Start to think about jump throughs/backs as an arm balance: hands, arms, shoulder girdle. Your hands support your body weight. Spread your fingers wide, press down through your knuckles, and keep your arms strong, which should all help to engage the shoulder girdle. You must learn to balance while shoulders are forwards of the wrists.

  2. Core

    Turn on your core! This is linked to creating length in your arms (students often complain to me that their arms are too short to jump through): from downward dog, go into Cat pose (Marjariasana) in preparation for jumping through: curve your spine, lift abdominals towards the ceiling (enabling scapula protraction). Keeping that shape and lift, take the knees off the ground and jump through.

  3. Legs

    Legs need to work. Draw your knees and feet as close to your body as you can, (which will mean curving into a tight ball shape). In preparation for jumping back, make this shape with the feet off the ground and hands forwards of the hips/shoulders forwards of the wrists, before lifting up. For jumping through, go into this shape as soon as you jump.

  4. Gaze

    Gaze helps keep your body in the right place. When jumping through and back, keep your head up (chin lifted) and gaze forwards to the front of your mat, even when lifting the knees off in the Marjariasana preparation. This creates a counterbalance and will stop you falling forwards.

  5. Persistence

    Once you get the technique, it’s just a matter of persevering and persisting with it every time you jump through. Little by little, your jump throughs/backs will start to feel more fluid and less challenging.

5 Reasons to Attend a Yoga Workshop

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You may have seen posters for yoga workshops at your local studio, or heard your teacher mention them at the end of class. Why are workshops on offer, and what is their purpose? If you go to regular classes, why would you need to invest in a 2 or 3 hour workshop? What would you gain?

When I first got into ashtanga yoga in a big way, I was so excited about it, I spent a few years going to as many workshops with senior teachers as I could. One weekend in 2002 or 2003, John Scott was teaching a weekend of workshops, and I signed up to all of them. I soon realised that you were not meant to go to all of them, that they were all full on practises, and by the end of it, I was so exhausted! But, it was worth it – I learnt some invaluable things that are still with me. I learnt how to do the ashtanga jump through with straight legs at a John Scott workshop. Not instantly, but it taught me the technique and alignment, which I took away and practised, until shortly afterwards, I got it.

1) Alignment & Technique

Alignment and technique are often skipped over in classes, simply because the focus is on the flow. In ashtanga for example, the meditative quality that’s achieved by flowing through the postures (vinyasa) combined with breathing (ujjayi) and gaze points (dristi) is prioritised. Some teachers do mention alignment but there is usually not enough time to get down to details.

In a workshop setting, alignment of postures and directionality (actions) are explored in detail, as well as techniques of how to do postures you might be finding difficult. We look at what muscles should be working in each pose, how to engage them, and what should be relaxed, in order to reach that well known yogic dichotomy: the balance between strength (sthira) and ease (sukham). Sometimes muscles become dormant and cause others to compensate, which can lead to injury. Learning what should be working when is an invaluable addition to your practise and effects wellbeing, as leads to integration (one of the meanings of the word yoga!) and integration feels great physically, mentally, and energetically.

2) Neuroplasticity

Neuroplasticity is the scientific study of pattern formation and pattern change, and when students notice how good it feels to do a pose in an integrated way, compared to a non-integrated way, and start practising like this, it enables a gradual (this cannot be done instantly) rewiring of the brain, as new neural pathways are established. Meaning, it is possible to make positive changes in ourselves, and even facilitate healing. During workshops I often have students say to me “wow, it feels completely different doing it that way!” which I am always delighted about.

3) Questions

Workshops are a fantastic forum to voice your questions! I encourage questions because I love how they open up a dialogue, and highlight the areas you are curious about. I have the chance to demonstrate and discuss the topics in detail and with student interaction I can gauge whether the class has grasped what I’m teaching. Questions are a great way to get involved, clarify and integrate what you’re learning.

4) Attention

Yoga classes can be busy, and it’s not always possible for the teacher to adjust or correct everyone, or to see everything that everyone is doing. In a workshop, you get more attention. Your questions are taken up, and any bad habits can be ironed out, because there is more time and space for adjustments, demonstrations, and to think and talk about what you might be doing and what needs to change.

5) Experience

The experience of a yoga workshop is fun, enlightening (lots of ‘aaahhh!’ moments) social and uplifting. You are in a room with the teacher you love, and a bunch of students who are as crazy about yoga as you are. The experience of working and learning together is really inspiring, and you will leave with lots of new things to work on and think about. From the teachers perspective, we get to know you and your practice better, have some fun, and feel proud of you when we see your practices deepen and improve.

‘Jumping Back, Jumping Through: The Ashtanga Vinyasa’ workshop with Sarai Harvey-Smith is at Triyoga Chelsea on Friday, 29 August 2015, 19.30 – 21.30 for info and booking, click here

An imperfect pose

My yoga practise is far from perfect. I still stick my bum out too much in Pincha Mayurasana, and have been working on getting it in for years! And I can’t come up from Karandavasana. In truth, very few women in the world can. In the past I have been able to touch my knees down and lift up again straight away, but these days I’m not so focussed on achieving perfection. And that’s what I love about yoga, it’s constantly a work in progress, each day different, and I see it as a microcosm of life – things aren’t perfect. That’s why we call practise ‘practise’, and what keeps it interesting. I loved practising here in Turkey at my retreat at Huzur Vadisi.

Moon Days: Debunked

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I am a devoted yogi- and I love science.  It is very satisfying to read about neuroscience confirming yoga’s effects on the nervous system, evidence based scientific proof of the benefits of yoga for depression, anxiety, chronic stress.  Things we have known as practitioners and expounded in the ancient Hindu scriptures.  But I think it’s equally important to question why we do the things we do, not believe everything we are told, and to make informed, intelligent decisions that are one’s own.  Some things in yoga I do because I enjoy love them, like chanting, taking rest on moon days, following a structured method and tradition – but being honest about why one does these things is key.

Melanie Cooper has written a very good article about the myths about taking moon days as rest days from ashtanga yoga practice here.  She weighs up the ashtanga folklore against the scientific facts.  It turns out that the waning and waxing of the moon does not affect the water in our bodies, or our psyche.  There’s no evidence of increased crimes, psychiatric admissions, or even menstruation patterns, on full or new moons.  She doesn’t know why they exist but she observes them because she likes being in touch with nature, and enjoys the ritual.

I believe the reason moon days exist, is because Guruji was Hindu, and a Brahmin.  Many Hindu festivals take place on new or full moon days, which involve all sorts of time consuming rituals, like fasting, observing silence or obstaining from sleep, or family rituals.  See an explanation of all the moon day festivals here.  Guruji didn’t teach on moon days because he observed these festivals, and partook in longer pujas (Hindu rituals) on these days.  Simple as that.  (Guruji would often cancel practice on other festival days too, which meant we all got a day off and an excuse to eat pizza, Indian festival sweets and stay up later than 9pm).  Western teachers honoured this tradition in their shalas back home, and I guess the myths emerged from people wanting more of an explanation as to the days off.  I love the excuse not to practice on a moon day, it’s a treat to have a rest, and it keeps me in tune with the cycles of nature.  But when my schedule is hectic and I perhaps miss a day of practice here and there, I make it up on other days, sometimes those days are moon days.  I’ve no compunction about this, and I must say I’ve never noticed much of a difference in my practice whether it’s a moon day or not.

Entering into Headstand – 4 Variations

Here are four entries into headstand, for beginners to advanced level.  Follow the same principles of the posture, which I outlined in my blog Headstand with Blocks, to set the foundation of the pose up.

1) Entering with Knees Bent: find your balance with one knee to chest, gently push your weight off the other leg, till then both knees slowly come to chest. From here, lift your knees towards ceiling, and move feet over your head towards the floor behind you.  Lastly lift your feet up into the final posture. Come down the same way

2) Entering One Leg at a Time: Lift one leg up, keeping it very straight and strong. Keep lifting this leg towards the ceiling. Gently push off your foot on the floor, make little movements until you find your balance with both feet off, and at this point slowly raise the second foot up to meet your first foot.

3) Entering Lifting Both Legs Together: walk your feet in as close as you can, keep lifting your hips as high as possible. Push down through your wrists, lift your shoulders away from ears, and fix your shoulder blades.  Lift both legs up.  For flexible students, be careful not to arch your back, especially the lumbar.  Keep the back of your body extended. Come down continuing to lift hips and shoulders up.

4) Jumping into Tripod Headstand: Mukta Hasta Sirsasana A is a headstand from Ashtanga’s Second Series, and takes some courage to jump into.  Enter from downward facing dog, keep your hips and shoulders lifting, jump lightly and engage your core. Remember, your core is your back muscles (latissimus dorsi, serratus, etc – which you can engage with your shoulder blades), as well as your abdominals.  Come down the same way, till it’s time to lift your head off – then let your arms take over and your feet land into chaturanga.

 

Headstand with Blocks

Salamba Sirsasana.  Salamba = supported, sirsa = head, asana = pose

Lots of my students ask me for help in headstand, and I don’t always have time to help everyone individually in my busy classes at Triyoga.  So here are some tips:

Headstand is a balance, if you feel you are holding on for dear life, chances are you are arched and having to grip/clench hard to stay up. It is less effort once balanced, remember you are looking for Sthira Suckham in each pose.  This is why the wall is useful in the beginning – it can teach you how it feels to balance, with your body aligned.  Headstand should be learnt once you have been practicing consistently for 6-12 months, and have learnt how to support your body with your armpit chest/shoulder blades and legs.  First things to focus on when learning are:

1) wrists must be upright. Inner and outer wrists equally upright. Hands cupped- not collapsed out, and not joined at palms

2) elbows shoulder width

3) shoulders must lift strongly away from ears, the back of your body must lift and lengthen up, lift hips up (don’t collapse the lumbar)

4) abdomen must be soft and long, with arms, shoulders, legs and hip muscles doing the work: arms rolling out and pressing down, the rest lifting up strongly

Using the blocks behind your thoracic spine stops you from pushing your back forward and compressing your neck – and teaches you to lift up:

Getting in:

Put your knuckles against the wall (as close as possible), place crown of your head just inside your hands. Place your knees inside your elbows so your back has to curve and lift.  From here, lift your knees off the ground and hips up. Walk your feet in, lifting hips.  Get a friend to put the blocks between your shoulder blades and the wall.  Then lift one leg as high as you can, and swing the other up to the wall.

Work in the pose:

Slide your heels up the wall, activate your legs by keeping kneecaps firm/quads lifting, lift your buttocks towards your heels and engage the muscles of the gluteal crease. Move tailbone into your body.  Press buttocks forwards, inner thighs back.  If this is hard to implement, put your buttocks against the wall and slide them up the wall, before taking them off and balancing with just heels on wall.  Keep your body symmetrical in the pose.

Once you’ve learnt to balance upright comfortably, with knuckles against the wall and rest of body off the wall, you can move away from the wall. This progression with take different amounts of time for different students.

Benefits:

Headstand ensures fresh blood flow to the cells of the brain, pituitary gland (metabolism, growth, thyroid, pain relief hormones, and water balance via kidneys) and pineal gland (which produces melatonin, a hormone regulating sleep and connected to nervous system functioning). Increased blood flow to these glands rejuvenates, nourishes, and stimulates. People who practice headstand regularly experience increased vitality, immune functioning, capacity to think, and ability to relax and sleep soundly.

Caution:

Headstand should be practised with the guidance of an experienced teacher.

Do not practise headstand during menstruation, if you have neck or back problems, a heart condition, or if you suffer from high or low blood pressure. If you experience discomfort or pressure in your eyes, neck, or ears, come down. Don’t attempt during pregnant, unless you are an experienced practitioner.