This site is dedicated to the teaching and research of yoga pioneers Gregor Maehle and Monica Gauci. After over 30 years of yoga practice in the city we decided to take the injunction of many yoga scriptures.
Latest response from Sharath on his Instagram account where he did face anger and criticism relating to his ‘apology’ for his grandfather’s abuse with my observations below. I think his response may have been deleted since then but this is a direct copy from his account with no edits:
“Some people have accused me of taking my Grandfather Hillam Please take back your worlds,whatever I’m today it is because of my 30 years of hard working. I have gone through many difficulties in my life.I have dedicated my entire life to Yoga practice Getting up every day at 2am to do my practice. I didn’t practice yoga to become famous it’s my life it’ll stay for ever until my last breath. I have spoken to my Grandmother about my Grandfather asana adjustments She was the only one who could control him but unfortunately she passed away in 1997 I was only 19 years old when I restarted yoga,Senior students who were 20 years older then me who came year after year to study with him didn’t speak about it ?? Please understand it’s because of my many years of dedication & commitment that has brought glory to Ashtanga Yoga & many people are relishing it .You can criticize me what ever you want…. I have always respected & supported women my students know it & god knows it. That’s the reason why I have more female students because they feel safe studying with me It’s so unfortunate that this world 🌎 is not for good people I’m getting very emotional now 😭…..I’m getting tears in my eyes I’ll stop at this now🙏🙏🙏”
Sharath, I can hear through your words how upset you are and I think it’s a good thing you show it. Under your rule, a lot of us were left out in the cold and suffered. Everybody who didn’t agree with you was made wrong, i.e. we were said to practice wrongly and were morally wrong. Hence the backlash now. Seeing you emotional like that helps me to stay connected and less judgemental. In this spirit I offer a few more observations:
You say that whatever you are today is because of your 30 years of hard working. I want to challenge that. Not just you, but a lot of us have ploughed their whole life into yoga and most of us did not become famous and for many it didn’t even supply a livelihood. Some put in decades and were left broken in body and soul. I’m suggesting that a big part of what you are today is simply because you were born into a “yoga dynasty”.
Think about it, if it wasn’t for you being born as grandson of KPJ where would you be today? When you were crowned Paramguru many of us thought, “what a coincidence that the grandson of KPJ gets to be Paramguru”. If you were simply looking at merit and compare your practice with some of the other luminaries it can be contended that it was you who ended up in that position. I thought Richard’s, Karen’s and Tim’s practice to be better than yours. Sorry.
Please also note, that during the entire contemporary Ashtanga-history a narrative was carefully developed and that was that Ashtanga was a Jois-family venture, Jois-property, a Jois-brand. Many of us teachers were told we weren’t allowed to teach once we had fallen from your grace. Nobody was ever allowed to train teachers unless they were a Jois. Can you explain to me why?
What exactly under God’s wide heaven makes you Jois’s so special that only you can determine when someone is a teacher or not?
Look how you and your grandfather outlawed teacher trainings. Only Jois’s were allowed to certify teachers. Then have a look at what it took to become a teacher under your and your grandfathers rule. The number one determining factor was devotion to a Jois. So, I think the position you are in today is because you cleverly took charge of the narrative that Ashtanga = Jois.
You then again hit out at those senior teachers (I was a junior back then so I’m nicely ducking away under the blow). I remember the seniors well. Back in those days most of us had a lot in common. We had lost our home countries as a spiritual home and we were looking for a new one. We travelled around the world, broke and ended up with all the tropical diseases in the book. Many of us ended up in India, many died, succumbing to drugs or ended up in bizarre cults (hint, hint). India wasn’t the relatively cushy place it is today where you can buy any level of comfort as long as you have the money (but not cushy if you don’t). And we didn’t have any money to start with. For us it was a big journey into the unknown and at no point was the outcome certain. I don’t think many of us knew that you could turn yoga into money until the year 2000 struck (for the record that’s 22 years after I started yoga). Yoga wasn’t taught in our countries, not in our cities and certainly not in our family homes. In those years us oldies had to travel very far, in most cases alone, to places where we knew nobody, to find yoga. For you yoga was taught in the house you grew up in.
I’d like you to put that into perspective when you bag those old guys. They didn’t speak out, true, and I’d like to now know their side of the story and in writing please. But your repeated barb at them reminds me of the fact that they travelled around the world (sometimes overland in those days), found and promoted your grandfather. Without those guys your grandfather would have remained obscure.
With no students in your grandfathers house, what would you have done after your finished your electrical engineering degree? Set up a yoga shop to teach the citizens of Mysore?
No, I think it’s fair to say that you are what you are mainly because of those pioneers who promoted your grandfather. And you just inherited the family business.
One of your main claims to your position today is “Getting up every day at 2am to do my practice”. I want to respond to that because I heard that over and over again aired by your followers as support for your greatness. That not many could have gotten up at 2am.
Sharath, I recently met a retired guy who for 47 years worked nightshift in a huge publishing house. They were printing 10’s of thousands of books, newspapers, catalogues, etc so the printing presses could never stop. So this guy went to work his whole life from around 10pm and finished at 6am. He got paid a pittance and now that he’s retired he can’t sleep. Many of us have to do things like that and it’s no claim to greatness.
Sharath, there are a few 100 Million people in the world in the police forces, defence forces, hospitals, aged care, transportation, etc. who work most of their lives at ungodly hours and get little to no reward. In the 90’s I worked as a night cab driver to earn your grandfathers fees. You don’t get credit for your work times. Nobody does. Welcome to the real world.
Reading through your above message what stands out is the use of “I”, “my”, and “me”.
Here we go, “people have accused me”, “whatever I’m today”, “ my 30 years of hard working”, “I have gone through many difficulties in my life”, ”I have dedicated my entire life” “to do my practice”. “I didn’t practice yoga” “ it’s my life” “ until my last breath”. “I have spoken”, “my Grandmother”, “my Grandfather” “I was only 19 years old”, “when I restarted yoga, “ it’s because of my many years”, “criticize me what ever you want”, “I have always respected “, “my students know”, “why I have more”, “studying with me”, “I’m getting very emotional”, “I’m getting tears”, “in my eyes”, “I’ll stop at this now”.
If I counted right you managed to squeeze in 26 references to yourself into a short paragraph. Astonishing! Sharath, do you know how they call a person that can only talk about themselves and can’t see the other?
They call’em a narcissist.
Sharath, this “apology” was meant to be about the survivors of your grandfathers sexual abuse, wasn’t it?
Or was it about you, after all?
But let’s get to what seems to be the core message of your above statement: “it’s because of my many years of dedication & commitment that has brought glory to Ashtanga Yoga”.
Sharath, so let me get this right, Ashtanga’s glory exists because of “your many years of dedication & commitment”?
What about those tens of thousands of students that through the decades trapesed to Mysuru to attend your grandfather’s and now your and your mothers’ classes? What about those dozens of senior teachers who invited your family traveling first class (and all of us traveling economy)? Those senior teachers who taught tirelessly for four decades to spread the word? What about those hundreds, thousands of junior teachers who kept open small studios around the world teaching “your” yoga brand?
It’s because of all these people that you have an army of students showing up at your shala. Without them nobody would even know about you.
And finally what about the 100’s of thousands of students worldwide whose name we don’t even know. They are often single parents, struggling with loans, often in stressful or poorly paid jobs. And still they do their practice.
Often they can’t practice daily and their practice may not be very spectacular. But it is to them that I want to bow down, Sharath. Not to you.
For they are the glory of Ashtanga Yoga!
But this is something you may always struggle to understand. You were born into a family that gave you a spiritual movement/cult as an inheritance (jury is still out which one of the two, granted). But all you can do is worry about that those senior teachers who don’t understand your greatness and fail to bow to you.
Could it be that you exaggerate your own importance because you entered movement as heir-in-waiting at age 19 and from then on never had peers but only a growing number of devotees?
Could that be the reason why your above response lacks emotional maturity? A maturity that’s also prevented you from seeing that in this whole crisis more is at stake than just you and your family. What is at stake is a glorious system of yoga practised by a worldwide community, for which many of us have given their life to make it glorious. Not just you.
Sharath, there is another way: Reach out to the survivors, acknowledge them by name. Say that you are sorry. Don’t try to defend yourself or make yourself look better. Simply “sorry”. Then ask the survivors what they would like to see you do? Ask them what they would need to feel better? They need to see you care. They need to see you render service.
“Growing up I was very close to my grandparents. When I recall learning asana from my grandfather it brings me immense pain that I also witnessed him giving improper adjustments. I did not understand and felt helpless. I am sorry that it caused pain for any of his students. After all these years I still feel the pain from my grandfather’s actions. We must have zero tolerance towards abuse, mishandling, or touching students inappropriately. Teachers should respect students at all times. We all have a responsibility to govern the teachings and protect against wrongs. Many times I have wondered why the senior students who were at the Lakshmipuram shala did not support the other students when they saw these things occur? They have moved on to become famous teachers worldwide. Why did they not act in support of their fellow students, peers, girlfriends, boyfriends, wives, husbands, friends and speak against this? My grandfather was my guru. He taught me everything I know about Asana, and I loved him, but I’m extremely sorry for those students who are going through this trauma. I understand your pain. It is my humble request to all those students harmed to forgive him for his actions. By acknowledging the past wrongs I hope you will be relieved from this terrible burden. It is my sincere hope that we can prevent abuse from ever happening again. Namaskara 🙏🙏🙏”
Firstly, I want to commend Sharath for acknowledging this at all. We have waited for this for such a long time that it felt overdue, unreal and almost unexpected when it finally came. I think this is a huge step forward from the silence we had to listen to for the last 18 months. I do hope that this is not the end but the beginning of a dialogue. In this spirit and keeping in mind that I feel great relief at this first step I want to offer a few observations:
Sharath, you are using the terms “giving improper adjustments”. To call grabbing a student’s breasts or genitals or to dry-hump them “giving improper adjustments” is unhelpful and hurtful to the victims. It is this language that was used for three decades to cover up your grandfathers assaults. Let’s not continue it. You can read up on Guy Donahaye’s Facebook group https://www.facebook.com/AVPJSA/ what language is appropriate and what isn’t. It would be important to say things like “I acknowledge that my grandfather KP Jois sexually assaulted and abused some of his students”.
Another point that is really important when making an apology is that one confesses in what way one has contributed by enabling (i.e. “I saw, stood by and did nothing and I’m really sorry about that”).
Very important is also to state in what way one has benefited from enabling, such as “through not speaking up and confronting KPJ I inherited a vastly profitable family business and immense power”. Again, you would find valuable guidelines in Guy’s FB group https://www.facebook.com/AVPJSA/.
Also, when making an apology it is really important that one does not use it to shoulder off some of the blame to others. While parts of your apology appear heartfelt it then veers off into attacking those Western “Lakshmipuram senior teachers” who became “famous teachers worldwide”. While you are right that the ball is in their court now and we are keenly awaiting their statements, one’s own apology in such a difficult matter is no time to seek fault in the actions of others. They did shut up for probably exactly the same reason than you did and after all you profited most from being silent as you are even more “famous worldwide”.
It also needs to be acknowledged that people did speak out, were ostracized for it, removed from the teachers list, blocked on social media, insulted and verbally brutalized. I was screamed down on several occasions when I aired criticism at your grandfather and many others had similar experiences. We were “removed” from the community. Deleted.
Using your apology to deliver yet another blow to those “world famous Lakshmipuram teachers” (only recently you took them off your teachers directory) makes it appears as if your agenda is to make yourself the sole hegemon of Ashtanga. But this was your agenda ever since you took over from your grandfather, wasn’t it? And your mother, your uncle and those Lakshmipuram teachers continue to be obstacles in your path.
A few sentences further down then you ask the victims to forgive KPJ. That’s a double-edged sword. It’s almost like putting a timeline on the coming-to-terms process, i.e. “I’ve apologized now you should forgive”. You have to give the victims the choice to forgive in their own time or also to not do so. They may do so when they are ready or they may not. But it’s their choice and there can be no coercion or pressure.
Then, are you aware that until this day some of your lieutenants slander and discredit some of the women that spoke out against your grandfather? Those heroic women who spoke out first faced those attempts right from the beginning. But the slander and discrediting are going on until this very day. How would you feel if the leader of the people who are trying to destroy you, after years of ignoring you comes out with a lukewarm apology? An apology in which responsibility is passed on to others and then a few sentences later they ask for forgiveness? Wouldn’t we have to first set things straight and reach out to the victims?
Finally, I’m wondering why now? So many people complained verbally through the decades. Anneke was the first who wrote it in 2010. Then Karen Rain spoke. There were articles in the Yoga Journal, Elephant Journal, petitions on change.org, so many students wrote you open letters, rescinded their authorization and certification, even asked you openly to take them off your directory. The Walrus article, the videos of your grandfathers adjustments taken off the web over and over again, yet they popped back up. Karen Rain’s video that gave us for the first time a visual testimony of the destruction your grandfather had wreaked on a human being. Jubilee Cooke’s excellent article. Then Matthew Remski’s book painstakingly documenting it all. Through all of that you had this amazing Teflon personality. Water on a duck’s back. It all peeled off you.
But then came Magnolia. Three weeks ago, one of your long-term students, certified and assisting in your shala threw everything away. She closed her studio, stopped practising and walked away from your yoga for good. And she wrote that she did it because you didn’t apologize. She had rather no yoga in her life than the yoga of an abuser, your grandfather. Was it that that caused the crack in your armour?
But I think there is another thing we need to talk about. The parampara. You call yourself parama-guru- the supreme guru. That’s a title that is usually reserved for God, the guru of gurus. In fact, on your Instagram feed to your post one of your students says, “Immense respect to you sharathji🙏 it’s takes a lot to speak up firstly, and when it involves ur idol/ guru all d more painful…..but you are God’s chosen one….may you continue to touch every person’s life with such honesty”. God’s chosen one? Do you agree with that or would you want to correct this projection of your gullible student? Or do you happily go along for the ride? Your grandfather was a master in the maintenance of such projections.
Another response on your Instagram feed states thus “For me, Guruji Sri Krishna Pattabhi Jois remains flawless and the whole world will not change my vision. There is Shiva, Guru and Yoga and nothing else matters!” Deeply worrisome but then it’s a divinely handed down lineage, right. The above statement is internally consistent with that belief.
A parampara implies that one has received a title through a long lineage of teachers. In your case your grandfather. Now I’m asking you, can a spiritual lineage, a parampara be handed down through somebody that performs sexual abuse and assault (not to mention dry-humping and digital rape)?
Think well and don’t hasten. Take your time. Because if you say “yes” then arguably the term parampara means nothing anymore.
If it is “yes”, if there are no moral standards on those who hand down a lineage, we may as well all start our own paramparas. Or we could as well call your parampara “par-hump-ara” or “dry-humpara”. These would be all feasible consequences.
If your answer though is “no”, if there is in fact a moral standard for paramparas then your grandfather does not qualify for handing down a parampara.
In this case you did not receive a parampara!
You should then rescind the title parama guru. A title that you advertise ‘til this day on your Instagram account.
Save your soul, Sharath, and stop this narcissism. This self-aggrandisement! In any case wasn’t it one of those world-famous Lakshmipuram teachers who arranged the bestowing of this Parama title on you?
I think for the benefit of this yoga, this community it is necessary that you step down from this title (which was manufactured anyway). Ashtanga yoga is more and bigger than you, your grandfather, the Jois family. So many people have stopped practising Ashtanga because of your botched handling of this crisis. Do not damage this yoga any further.
This whole abuse was only possible because of this stratification and hierarchical order created by your grandfather and maintained by you. We should all just be sisters and brothers in yoga and no more looking up and down at each other in artificially maintained hierarchies.
Enough damage has been done to unsuspecting young people, who still believe that you are god-like or that your father is beyond reproach whatever he may have done. You can still teach and make Millions. But not continuing to use this title. It is morally bankrupt to do so.
PS About 18 months ago when this story finally broke somebody suggested that Ashtangis should place the photos of the victims of Jois’ abuse on their altars instead of images of the Jois family. At the time I thought this suggestion to be flippant. I don’t really have an altar and I’m no friend of person worship at all. But Anneke, Karen and Jubilee taught me so much more about bravery, courage and honesty than this bogus-parampara ever could. Isn’t that what yoga is truly about?
Here a letter from Guy Donahaye (erstwhile’s editor of Guruji – A Portait Through the Eyes of his Students) from the 18th May 2019. It’s an excellent example of somebody who took part in KP Jois’s unrealistic glorification now taking steps to come clear. Thank you from the bottom of my heart, Guy.
Guy encourages here other Ashtanga teachers to come forth with an apology and to not think about themselves but the victims. As I couln’dt find the letter on Guy’s blog page (https://yogamindmedicine.blogspot.com/) but only on his FB page I’m posting it here because it’s very important in our attempt to bring about a renewal of our Ashtanga culture. At the end you find a link to Guy’s FB group where people can sign in support (as I have done, too). Guy’s actions are very encouraging and in stark contrast to those members of the hierarchy who, after benefiting from and enabling KP Jois for decades now simply drop him from their websites and bios and act as if he didn’t exist.
“Message sent to all Certified Ashtanga Teachers:
My apologies for the group email.
I am sure none of you are unaware of the discussion around Pattabhi Jois behavior.
No doubt, some of you are on the fence regarding whether his actions should be classified as sexually abusive or misguided in some way.
There is huge pain amongst those who have been violated by his actions and there is a huge judgment and pain amongst many of those who practice and teach Ashtanga Yoga as well as folks outside our community.
There has been scant acknowledgement either of the pain suffered or the wrong actions performed by Pattabhi Jois. Whether these actions were deliberate or simply misguided, they definitely fall within the current definition of sexual abuse:
Actions that target the sexual organs, that control and violate individuals but are not necessarily erotic in nature or intention.
As leaders and elders of the community, I believe it is our duty to initiate healing and acknowledgement of the suffering caused to those who have been impacted by his actions.
Making a statement is not about judging Pattabhi Jois, it is about helping those who have been harmed. By setting an example, by acknowledging what happened we can pave the way for others who were not there, or who did not see anything, to add their supportive voices and be of service to those who have suffered pain and trauma.
Euphemisms such as inappropriate touch rather than owning the statement “sexual abuse” as well as statements that imply the subjectivity of the victims experience have the effect of re-traumatization and re-victimization.
Many of you have promoted Pattabhi Jois, have hosted him in your schools and in your homes and a good number of you have seen and heard things that you have not shared publicly. Many of you have also sent students to study in Mysore with the knowledge that students were in danger of being abused.
Beyond making a statement about the nature of his actions, we thus also have a duty to apologize for not saying anything earlier – statements that could have protected many of those who became his victims.
I know it is very difficult to know how or what to say as individuals, but maybe together it will be easier. Some of you have made statements, some of you have been speaking about it for years, some of you think you have done what is right already and some of you feel you don’t really know if what he did constitutes abuse.
BUT – the most important thing is to help those who have been harmed. Regardless of our personal view regarding what happened, we can contribute towards real healing. Surely that is the most important thing. Not to engage because of a desire to protect our reputations or because we think we have already done what is right is damaging to others – to engage and make a statement will facilitate healing.
Eddie and I met yesterday and decided to request that our publisher withdraw the book of interviews from publication as a recognition of the wrong message it sends.
I hope you can find it in your hearts to join this initiative and be willing to co-sign a statement that can be published on the internet.
The statement can be simple:
“We acknowledge that Pattabhi Jois sexually abused many of his students.” “We apologize to the victims for not saying anything publicly sooner.”
I have created a facebook page that can be signed by anyone:
Additional statements could be appended. Today is the 10th anniversary of Pattabhi Jois’s death. It would be an auspicious day to make a statement where there could otherwise be a move to further eulogize him.
I’m a lifelong Ashtanga practitioner. Well strictly speaking I’m practising for around 30 years but I consider it lifelong because I think if there was something that would have made me stop I would have likely found it by now. As a lifelong Ashtanga practitioner I can’t hide that I found Remski’s book a difficult read. I knew most of the things he wrote about but it’s different to read over 300 pages a systematic presentation of everything that’s wrong with the system you love. Although coming out of reading the book with a long face I nevertheless think it’s the moral duty of every Ashtanga teacher to read it so we can start the work on renewing our culture. I also think that all those who are not teachers but have made this their main practice should read this book so that they can engage their teachers in a dialogue about what needs to change.
Apart from the obvious things what I got out of the book was
An understanding how group psychology enabled Jois’ abuses and silenced his victims. His actions could have never taken place without a whole culture supporting and enabling him. This culture is still in place and exaggerates the role of teachers and downplays the importance of sensations felt by students when they are adjusted.
An understanding how loaded language hypnotized followers into the belief that what Jois did was right. Remski skilfully analyses language presented in Guruji- A Portrait Through the Eyes of his Students to show how senior teachers through their use of language effectively pre-groomed students and forwarded them to the abuser.
A better systematic understanding of the weird Ashtanga-belief that simply doing your asana practice would lead to yoga’s goal. I have extensively written about that before and shown that this belief is not consistent with yogic philosophy (in which asana is only used to prepare for sitting higher-limbs practice). Remski has improved my understanding of how these weird Ashtanga-beliefs lead to over-practising and via that to many injuries.
An introduction to the writings of various psychologists on high-demand groups (cults) and the mechanics of hierarchy.
The workbook at the conclusion of Remski’s book offers tools to examine and questions ones own beliefs (both for practitioners and teachers) and contains suggestions for safe practice and how we can avoid aggrandising teachers which leads to trouble for both them and their students
What I did not find in the book was sensationalism and enmity towards Ashtanga. Remski honestly states at the outset that he is a double cult-survivor and was himself injured in an adjustment. He therefore questions his own impartiality and alerts himself to possible perceptual biases and commits himself to overcome them.
Ultimately it is a book that Remski has written as part of his own healing. We can use his work to heal our culture and make our magnificent Ashtanga-method here to stay.
But first we need to face the truth. And that is not only the truth of what happened but also the truth of how this was possible. And most of those in power in our culture keep denying or at least say Jois is dead and therefore the problem is gone. It is this very attitude that prevents the implementation of vital and urgently necessary changes. This is our chance now! Read the book! Start the dialogue with those around you and become the change.
Recently I have been alerted to the first high-profile case of a certified Ashtanga teacher and assistant to Sharath Jois, who upon reflecting on the ongoing refusal of the Jois family to issue an apology to the victims of Jois’ sexual abuse, closed her school and stopped practising Ashtanga altogether. The reasoning was that Ashtanga was Jois’ creation and therefore tainted by his abuse.
I read the new story that KP Jois created Ashtanga for the first time in the middle of the 2000’s decade. At the time Eddie Stern’s Namarupa magazine republished a press release of a notable South Indian monastery. A Mr. K. Pattabhi Jois had paid his respect to the abbot of the monastery and that Jois was the inventor of a method of “spiritual gymnastics”. This new narrative, that Jois invented Ashtanga, may date back beyond that strange snippet of info but since I had left Jois’ shala for good in 1999, I did not become aware of it earlier. I talked to Ashtanga practitioners in Goa in the 1980’s and started practising in January 1990 but the story in those days was always the same: this yoga was taught in Mysuru by a guy called Pattabhi Jois, who got it from a guy called Krishnamacharya who lived in Madras who got it from an ancient manuscript called Yoga Korunta. Let’s see how far back we can trace that story.
In Nov 1995 KP Jois wrote a letter in reply to Yoga Journal’s Jan/Feb 95 cover story “Power Yoga – the New Ashtanga Wave”. His letter includes “The title ‘Power Yoga’ itself degrades the depth, purpose and method of the yoga system that I received from my guru, Sri. T. Krishnamacharya.” He continues, “It is unfortunate that students who have not yet matured in their own practice have changed the method and have cut out the essence of an ancient lineage to accommodate their own limitations” and finishes with “The Ashtanga yoga system should never be confused with ‘power yoga’ or any whimsical creation which goes against the tradition of the many types of yoga shastras (scriptures).”
We have to remember that this was about 5 years before Jois became world-famous and celebrities started to practise his yoga. I take from this letter that a) he received this yoga from T. Krishnamacharya, b) he believed it to be part of an ancient lineage and based on shastra (scripture). We may doubt this part of the story today but in 1995 this was certainly what Jois believed. There is no hint here that he made up Ashtanga.
About a month after KP Jois wrote this letter I finally managed to get to Mysuru and started studying with him. In December 1995 I interview him closely about the origin of this teaching. He looked me straight in the eye and repeated “Krishnamacharya, Yoga Korunta, ancient lineage, etc, etc.” I asked him whether he had seen the Korunta or had any other sources. He replied that only Krishnamacharya had seen it and that the sole source for his yoga was his guru Krishnamacharya.
We find a similar emphasis on Krishnamacharya in Jois’ book Yoga Mala published in the Kannada language in the 1960’s and in English in 2002. Jois dedicated Yoga Mala to his “esteemed Guru [ ] Sri Tirumalai Krishnamacharya”.
In a 2009 foreword to Yoga Mala Jois’ grandson R. Sharath holds that KPJ “spent decades under the tutelage of Krishnamacharya, poring over yoga texts and, more important, practicing every facet of yoga with the intent of profoundly understanding its philosophical implications”. He also links the content of Yoga Mala to Krishnamacharya’s teaching, “The unique aspect of Krishnamacharya’s teaching was vinyasa karma, the systematic method of linking breath and movement, and Yoga Mala covers this topic in depth. That definitely sounds as if Jois did not invent his yoga.
In a foreword to the same publication written by Eddie Stern, Stern writes that Jois attended a demonstration by Krishnamacharya at the tender age of 12. This was to be the beginning of a twenty-five-year period of study with the great yogi Sri T. Krishnamacharya. One is to wonder, if Jois made up Ashtanga what exactly did he learn in those 25 years as there was nothing outside Ashtanga that he actually taught and passed on.
Stern elaborates on Jois’ belief that Krishnamacharya was the only man he ever met who had full knowledge of the true methods of yoga. This again sounds more like Jois actually received this system from Krishnamacharya than him having made it up himself.
Studying with Jois in the 90’s, I became increasingly frustrated by the fact that Jois limited his teaching to asana. He seemed to have taught pranayama in earlier years but the rising number of students and having to adjust for many hours per day seemed to leave him simply too tired to teach higher limbs. Fair enough. For this reason, from 1996 onwards I took extensive lessons with BNS Iyengar of Mysuru first in the higher limbs and in later years in asana as well. Studying with BNS (as he was usually called to differentiate him from BKS Iyengar of Pune, with whom I had studied earlier) presented an interesting case. He was Krishnamacharya’s last student in the Mysuru era and continued in the shala for a few years after Jois had taken over K’s teaching position.
When teaching me BNS usually took recourse to his original notebooks from his classes with Krishnamacharya from the 1940’s (before Krishnamacharya was booted out of the teaching position and left for Madras). BNS was adamant that the system as he taught it was unchanged from Krishnamacharya days. BNS taught sequences that were almost identical (especially in their Primary and Intermediate iterations) to the ones shown in David Swenson’s video “The Original Advanced A and B Series”. The same sequences are also contained in Norbert Sjoman’s book The Yoga Tradition of the Mysore Palace.
We can then surmise that the system underwent little evolution from the mid/late 1940’s (when it was taught by Krishnamacharya in this form) to the late 1970’s (when it was still taught by KPJ in this form). During that time the system was somehow in its doldrums. It was popular under the tutelage of the Maharaja (Krishnamacharya’s sponsor had to abdicate in 1948, which saw K sacked) and became again increasingly popular with Westerners when taught by KPJ. KPJ reformed the system in the early 1980’s. This reform hardly touched the Primary series and brought only modest changes to the Intermediate Series. The first half of the Advanced A series remained largely untouched but the second half was shortened and reorganized. The Advanced B series became shortened and reorganized and a new Advanced C (5th) series was introduced.
But what are the sources of this yoga prior to the mid/late 1940’s. For this we have to go to Krishnamacharya’s own series of text books. From 1934 onwards K published a 5-volume series of books first in Kannada (language of the state of Karnataka) and later in Tamil. The publication was initially financed by the Maharaj of Mysuru, Krishnaraja Wodeyar. The series included Yoga Makaranda, Yoga Makaranda Vol 2, Yogasanasagalu, Yoga Rahasya and Yoga Valli. Of those Yoga Valli (K’s commentary to the Yoga Sutra based on Ramanuja’s teaching) to my knowledge remains unpublished in English to this day). Yoga Rahasya was published in English by Desikachar’s foundation KYM. PDF’s of the earlier three books (that deal with asana) can be downloaded from Anthony Hall’s Ashtanga resource page https://grimmly2007.blogspot.com/. You can find here excellent resources on Krishnamacharya’s various phases of creative work including what he taught after his Mysuru period. I want to commend Anthony Hall on maintaining this excellent undogmatic page and for keeping these resources available.
It is impossible in this short article to look into all pre-Jois sources but I will cover two, first Krishnamacharya’s Yogasanagalu and then his first book Yoga Makaranda. In Yogaasanagalu (published 1941) we find the following list for asanas of the Primary Series: (asanas in italic with my comments interspersed)
The first standing postures of today’s series
The following three postures are today part of Surya Namaskara and all vinyasas.
Next we have the first two sitting postures in today’s Primary
Followed by returning back to standing and performing the remaining of todays standing postures in only slightly changed order, but all posture are here.
Followed by the sitting asanas in slightly varied order compared to today.
Baddhapadmasana with yogamudra
Navasana a, b
Followed by part of today’s inversion sequence
And back to sitting to perform the missing sitting asanas.
The only major postures missing are Shirshasana (which is part of the cool down postures today) and Urdhva Dhanurasana (which was included by Jois only in his reform of the early 80’s). We can thus conclusively say that the Primary Series was written down in 1941 in its complete form but slightly reorganised by K during that decade.
Let’s look now at Yogasanagalu’s Middle Series, called Intermediate by Jois:
Dhanurasana – 2 sides
Dhanurasana – 3 Ekapada
With slight alterations this section tallies with Jois’ beginning of Intermediate
Today these postures come after the leg-behind-head sequence
Again with slight changes tallies with today’s second part of the backbend sequence of Intermediate
This may be a typo as it makes little sense to have in inversion in this position
If we simply shift Kapotasana to the end of the backbend sequence and Nakrasana and Mayursasana to after the leg-behind-head sequence we would have something very closely resembling todays Intermediate
This is identical with today’s leg-behind-head sequence
Backbending was in this position until the 1970’s and was shifted by Jois after that time
These postures are today part of Advanced B, although they seem an aberration there
Even today this posture is at the end of Intermediate
Summarizing we can say that clearly “Middle” is an early stage of “Intermediate” and considering that 80 years passed, very little evolution has taken place.
Let’s look next at “Proficient”, which later evolved into the “Original Advanced A and B Series” and from there into Jois’ Advanced A, B and C.
Ekapada Baka, a,b
Ekapada vipareeta danda
Bakasana (hatha yoga)
It is again apparent how close this sequence is to the “Original A and B series” shown in David Swenson’s video of that name. The main difference is that the postures are not listed in two separate series.
Summarizing, from looking at these three levels of practise that Yogasanagalu represents and the early form of today’s Ashtanga Yoga surprisingly little change has taken place between then and now. I should mention that Yogasanagalu contains vinyasa counts for every single posture which are largely identical to today’s vinyasa counts. Krishnamacharya even lists for each posture in which vinyasa count you are in the state of the asana, a wording that Jois repeats in his 1960 Yoga Mala.
Let’s go all the way back now to Krishnamacharya’s first book, Yoga Makaranda, which appeared in its Kannada Edition in 1934. Again, here we find an early form of the Primary Series, with the order of postures slightly changed but the vinyasas count identical. It appears that the precise vinyasa count was much more important to Krishnamacharya than the actual order of the postures. Let’s look for example at Pashimottanasana: Krishnamacharya states that this posture has 16 vinyasas and that the 9th vinyasas is it’s state (sthiti). Exactly the same is stated by Jois in his 1960’s Yoga Mala: 16 vinyasas and the 9th is its state (i.e. then we are holding the posture). You could go posture by posture and would find that you could trace almost 100% of Jois’ yoga back to Krishnamacharya’s books.
It is also ridiculous to state that Krishnamacharya did not teach Surya Namaskara. He may not have called it that way but if you look at the vinyasa count of for example Pashimottanasana and simply delete the jump through, the state of the asana and the jump back, you are left with today’s Surya Namaskara A. Surya Namaskara is woven into every one of Krishnamacharya’s sitting postures.
Yoga Makaranda also stands out by the fact that the order of Ardha Baddha Padma Pashimottanasana, Triang Mukha Ekapada Pashimottanasana and Janushirshasana A and B are exactly the same as it is today. Interestingly enough Krishnamacharya had changed this slightly in Yogasanagalu only to revert it back in the late 1940’s when teaching Jois and BNS Iyengar. It may just be that he changed the sequence pending on which student he taught. Also, in Yoga Makaranda we already find Shirshasana preceded by Sarvangasana, again a feature defining today’s Ashtanga Yoga.
If we look at Yoga Makaranda and Yogasanagalu as a unit we certainly find that it was important to Krishnamacharya lots of postures were practised and that they were practised with a surprisingly rigid vinyasa count. He seemed to have experimented with shifting postures around but not individual postures but rather groups of them.
Interesting is in both books Krishnamacharya’s emphasis on Pranayama and chakras but it’s something that I can’t delve into here. Krishnamacharya lists the Yoga Korunta as one of the sources of his yoga in Yogasanagalu. The Yoga Korunta has meanwhile been traced back to Kapala Kurantaka, an ancient teacher mentioned already in the Hatha Yoga Pradipika. The text apparently has around 100 asanas mentioned. I have heard that Kaivalyadhama in Lonavla has a single copy but they are not prepared to publish critical editions unless they have at least three separate manuscripts of a particular text.
I want to briefly touch on the belief of some Western scholars that Krishnamacharya was influenced by Western sources such as calisthenics and gymnastics. The belief smacks to me of neo-colonialism, i.e. if it’s that good the Indians couldn’t have done it by themselves. If you read Krishnamacharya’s book you are met with a staunch patriotism, nationalism and definitely an anti-western sentiment. That might be hard to understand for modern readers but Krishnamacharya was a culture-bearer of a culture that was for 300 years clobbered by foreign invaders and colonialists. He was so profoundly anti-Western that later in his life when he had an accident he chose to remain crippled (which probably reduced his lifespan) rather than to be treated by Western medicine. Bear in mind that Krishnamacharya also refused to teach Westerners with the only exception of Indra Devi. He had to accept her as she was a member of a diplomatic family and had connections to his sponsor, the Maharaja of Mysuru. In Yogasanagalu Krishnamacharya writes for example that Indians should turn back to their own culture and values and that it should be avoided that Westerners teach yoga to Indians. With all that in mind it is inconclusive that Krishnamacharya would have accepted Westerner’s exercise sources into his yoga system.
On a similar note we find that Krishnamacharya repeats over and over again that yoga cannot be learned from books but must be learned from a teacher. It is thus inconclusive that Krishnamacharya didn’t have a teacher himself but learned everything from books. He insisted that his teacher was Ramamohan Brahmachary. Seeing that he constantly insists on the importance to learn from a teacher we must assume that his teacher played an important role in his life and that this person is no mere fiction. Please note that the name of Ramamohan Brahmachary was independently confirmed by KPJ, BNS Iyengar and TKV Desikachar. In his biography Krishnamacharya The Purnacharya, Krishnamacharya states that he learned the postures ‘with their many vinyasas’ from Ramamohan Brahmachary. Unless we then assume that Krishnamacharya downright lied (which I don’t) we must then come to the conclusion that he learned an either basic or quite evolved form of the system from his teacher.
Krishnamacharya’s system was very well formed even in its earliest Yoga Makaranda iteration (1934). Krishnamacharya wouldn’t have invented the system there and then but would have either received it from his teacher or worked on it for quite some time until it was worthy of being published by the royal press of Mysuru. We find this confirmed in Eddie Stern’s introduction to Jois’ Yoga Mala. We read that Jois saw Krishnamacharya first when attending on of his lecture-demonstrations in Hassan/Karnataka in 1927, at a time when KP Jois was only 12 years old. He was amazed by to see Krishnamacharya ‘jumping from pose to pose’. We have to remember that Jois referred to all movements between asanas as “jumping”. KP Jois did not only call the movements between the standing postures “jumping” but also the vinyasas between sitting postures “jump through” and “jump back”. When I practiced with BKS Iyengar in Pune in 1993, Iyengar always critically referred to the whole Ashtanga Vinyasa system as “The Jumps”. We must infer then that what Jois saw Krishnamacharya perform in 1927 was actually vinyasa yoga. Interestingly this is even before Krishnamacharya’s Mysuru Palace time.
It is conclusive therefore to believe that some early form of the system already existed in the 1920’s at a time when KP Jois was still in his childhood. KP Jois can then not have invented Ashtanga Yoga or what is today colloquially referred to by this name.
If that then is the case why was the story changed at all? Let’s remember briefly that during the 1990’s the story handed down was still that KP Jois did get the whole of this yoga from T. Krishnamacharya.
Possible reasons for the change in narrative are
The early 2000’s saw the rapid rise to fame and wealth of Bikram Choudhury. Bikram claimed to be the first yoga-billionaire and he did so by claiming to have invented a sequence, trademarking, creating a global franchise and suing those who infringed on his trademark. That maybe way off the mark for some but then Sonia Jones (wife of investment billionaire Paul Tudor Jones) said that KP Jois asked her, ‘Will you open schools for me all over the world?’ (Vanity Fair April 2012) At this point Jois definitely had a franchise in mind.
Even without taking a material motivation into consideration, claiming ownership may have simply been linked to keeping non-authorized people from teaching Ashtanga, whatever the reasoning for that may have been. For example, after Monica and I in 2006 – 2007 were taken off the Jois-family’s teachers list it took only days for some of our students to be approached that they should leave us because we were not listed by the “founders and owners” of Ashtanga anymore. For such a claim the narrative needed to be changed and even if the sole reason was to make the Mysuru institute seem to be the only one able to train and authorize teachers.
Part of the motivation may have also been to simply protect Ashtanga from being watered down and its essence being diluted.
I mention this last point because at some point we need to come back to an objective evaluation of KP Jois’ life and work. I remind myself that without him it would not have been likely that so many of us would have ever bumped into Ashtanga. For all of his obvious problems that can finally, in the wake of MeToo, be openly discussed (I was yelled down on several occasion when raising the issues earlier), he was the torchbearer of Ashtanga from the 1960’s through to the 90’s. The problem is that he was unreasonably deified by his students which reflected more their emotional need for a spiritual daddy than reality. Now the pendulum is swinging into the opposite direction with a similar unreasonable velocity. Like all of us KP Jois was a frail, complex human (possibly with a few more issues than some). He ended up in a position where a powerful and precious system of transformation was handed down through him. During that time, it possibly also lost some of its spiritual essence by limiting it to “spiritual gymnastics” and replacing Krishnamacharya’s emphasis on the higher limbs with adoration of the Jois family. Let’s not lose the entire system over what happened to Jois.
When we look at Krishnamacharya’s original system then a complex and even athletic asana system was ultimately practised in service of developing one’s pranayama practice and leading from there to chakra meditation and on to samadhi. In recent decades all this has been replaced with devotion to a guru. The problem with that is that eventually we will see the guru as only all too human and then we may lose dedication to the whole system.
Krishnamacharya refused to be drawn into that trap. He said, “Don’t call me guru. I’m a student of yoga like you. Maybe I’ve studied a bit longer than you but a student nevertheless.” I think it’s this attitude that we need to cultivate as teachers. And we need to encourage students to not be devoted and dedicated to us but to the system.
Maybe. And maybe not. It depends on a lot of different things: the shape of your hip joint, the orientation of the joint socket; the torsional angle of your thigh bone; the laxity of your ligaments; the postural tension in your low back and the flexibility of your connective tissue and muscles (myofascial) as well as a potential combination of these!
Oftentimes the problem isn’t so much putting our leg behind our head that causes problems but what drives students to push themselves beyond healthy limits. This self-coercion is often fuelled by the myth that if you are a very good yogi, i.e. one who practises daily with devotion and a pure heart and mind, then you should or eventually will be able to not only do leg-behind-head postures (LBH ) but any and all other postures. This is simply not true. This myth has been purported by those who have the genetics to be able to do almost any posture and is continued by those who believe it and don’t yet know better. The purpose of this blog is to debunk that myth in the context of LBH postures with education, which hopefully will lead to an understanding that inspires greater acceptance, respect, care and love for the hips we have, LBH suitable or not!
HIERARCHY OF LIVING TISSUES
Amongst the living tissues of our locomotion system there is a hierarchy that determines whether we can or cannot do certain postures and with how much ease or challenge. Bones are at the top of this hierarchy! Females are skeletally mature at ~18 years and males at ~21 years. Once ‘set in bone’ the shape and orientation of our bones and joints will not change. And here-in lies some important predictors of whether or not we ever will be able to place our leg behind our head, and with how much ease and/or risk of injury.
Most of us are familiar with the structure of the hip joint as a simple ball-shaped head and a cup-shaped socket. This construction allows for movement in all directions, i.e. circumduction. The inside of the acetabulum is lined with cartilage, called the labrum. The labrum increases the articular surface or the joint, which greatly increases its volume. It helps to create a seal maintaining the pressure of the synovial fluid within the joint capsule. This protective layer of cartilage also resists vertical and lateral translation of the femoral head. It is stressed by excessive translation, compressive loads and extreme ranges of motion.
The deep socket (acetabulum) of the hip joint provides structural stability for this multi-axial, mobile joint. However, there is a lot of variation between individuals in this as in many of our other joints. Let’s start with the extreme of a hip joint where the acetabulum is too shallow to adequately cover the femoral head and thereby stabilise the joint (hip/acetabula dysplasia). Hip dysplasia occurs to varying degrees, the most severe being when the joint experiences repeated dislocations. Unfortunately, the position of LBH postures with the leg in extreme flexion, abduction and external rotation, stresses the more vulnerable anterior portion of the labrum. This coupled with the inherent instability of hip dysplasia can eventually lead to tears in the labrum. The excessive, repeated translation that already happens in hip dysplasia predisposes the joint to premature osteoarthritis due to the increase in wear, tear and the body’s attempt to repair it. Even mild forms of hip dysplasia will in the short-term make leg-behind-head (LBH) postures more easily accessible but are counter-indicated and unsustainable in the long-term.
The acetabulum of the hip socket/acetabulum normally faces out to the side and somewhat forward. However, this orientation can vary, and is another important factor that affects our natural ability to perform LBH postures. If the acetabulum faces more towards the front of the pelvis (acetabular anteversion), a larger movement is required to get your leg behind your head. Conversely, if the hip socket is more to the back of the pelvis (acetabular retroversion) one does not need as much lengthening of other tissues to get their leg in position. Ante- or retroversion of the acetabulum can only be accurately distinguished with imaging.
On a bony level, another influencing factor is called femoral version or torsion. This is the angle between the neck and the shaft or distal condyle of the femur. In this case the femur also can be anteverted or retroverted. As with retroversion of the acetabulum, retroversion of the femur makes for greater external rotation at the hip joint. These are those yogis with ‘naturally open hips’, whose feet fall into extreme outward rotation when they lie face-up and who walk with their feet in a turned out position. As normal toe-out is between 5 and 12 degrees you will not walk with straight feet unless you have femoral anteversion. In this case the hip joint is internally rotated and in extreme cases the toes will turn in. An anteversion angle of greater than 15 degrees stresses the anterior labrum and ligaments of the hip joint. These people have a limited amount of external rotation in their hip joints, which is one of the main movements needed to access LBH postures.
It is possible to measure the degree of femoral version by lying prone with the knee bent to 90 degrees. Anchor the greater trochanter (the bony protrusion on the side of the hip) and then turn the foot outwards (which is internal rotation of the femur at the hip joint) to measure anteversion. You can measure this angle relative to the vertical position with an goniometer app on your smart phone. The opposite direction measures femoral retroversion.
BONY VARIATIONS: Femoral Neck Length
Additionally in our bony anatomy, a longer and more concave femoral neck allows a greater range of motion and more freedom of motion at the hip joint, whereas a shorter and less concave neck will limit the ability to externally rotate the leg into LBH postures.
The next structure that limits our flexibility is our ligaments. Ligaments connect one bone to another at the joint and come into play at the end range of joint motion. Ideally, ligaments are strong with minimal elastic properties as they are our passive stabilisation system. There are three ligaments surrounding the hip joint and one deep within the joint. The iliofemoral ligament resists lateral rotation of the hip and the deep ligamentum teres secures the center of the femoral head to the labrum of the acetabulum and is also tensioned with external rotation. Conditions that compromise stability at the hip joint, for example, hip dysplasia will put extra stress on these ligaments and can lead to ligament and/or labral tears.
A concern within the yoga population are those with hereditary disorders of connective tissue (HDCT). These individuals are hypermobile which makes yoga attractive because they are very good at it! Even mild forms of HDCTs like Joint Hypermobility Syndrome (JHS) (see my blog about this), where there is generalised ligamentous laxity, means that proprioception is impaired and the risk of injury is increased. In these yogis strength and resistance work is more what is needed rather than extreme ranges of motion that further destabilise their joints.
With its extreme hip flexion, external rotation and abduction it is necessary to have sufficient length in the hip extensor, deep lateral rotator and adductor myofascia of the hip joint. Beyond hip anatomy, the myofascial of the low back also plays an important role in LBH postures. Those with a hyper-lordosis and shortened low-back paraspinal muscles are in a passive lumbar extension posture. This myofascial tension makes it more challenging to adopt the flexed lumbar position necessary for LBH postures. Hyperactivity of the superficial spinal muscles is often compensation for a lack of strength and stability in the deeper stabilising muscles of the low back. Forcing LBH postures without addressing the lengthening and stabilisation needed in the low back can lead to excessive load on the intervertebral discs and increase the risk of disc injury.
Physical proportions are another contributing factor, e.g. those with a wide trunk and/or short arms as well as the proportions of a long trunk and short legs are further challenged. And then there are other influences like Ayurvedic dosha types where a vata constitution makes joints more susceptible to injury when performing extreme ranges of motion while those with more kapha have greater resilience in their joints.
UPRIGHT LBH POSTURES
The most challenging and physically demanding of the LBH postures are those where the spine is held upright. LBH with its extreme range of motion demands total relaxation at the hip joint. The weight of the leg behind the neck or atop of the shoulders is increased with every degree of extra tension / lack of flexibility in the hip joint. To support this weight and remain upright requires great strength and resilience in the trunk and neck. In this position the intervertebral discs are loaded in flexion, which is their most vulnerable position. Without adequate deep paraspinal muscle strength providing stability the discs are unprotected and vulnerable to disruption.
Many practitioners practice LBH postures for decades and never have a problem. Never the less, the bottom line is that not everyone is born to put their leg behind their head. The ability to put your leg behind your head requires more than only practice, purity and devotion. It also requires stable hips that are not adversely shaped to prevent you getting there. The tension in myofascia is able to be overcome, but the shape of your bones will not change. What is then important is that you do not force your body beyond its natural limitations and destabilise your joints. I have seen many students continually crank themselves into LBH postures, presumably aiming for the perfect yoga body. As important, is to not allow teachers to apply forceful LBH adjustments to have you meet their yoga ideology.
Many attribute psychological, energetic and/or spiritual benefits to LBH postures. This may be the case. However, if the cost is that you damage your body to achieve this, you cannot call it yoga. Then it is self-coercion, ambition and self-abuse, making yoga yet another consumer object on our already long list of obstacles toward the goal of yoga: to experience ourselves as a part of the divine consciousness of life that resides within this, our sacred body.
I’m on Erin’s Geraghty’s Thriving after Addiction podcast in two episodes.
In the first part we talk about body/ mind split versus embodied spirituality and how I developed my anatomical approach to asana. The need to become empty of ambition and replace it with an attitude of pure/ divine love. Yoga as an act of self-love. Why the change of our behaviour towards others in yoga is more important than how great our postures look. You will the first episodes by going to
I have received frequent inquiries from practitioners who find it difficult to continue their practice in the light of the abuse revelations and also the continued denial or non-addressing by many teachers. This article is about how we can deal with these issues, re-frame what happened and ultimately reclaim our practice.
If the abuse revelations can teach us anything then it would be that projecting godliness, perfection or spiritual powers on anybody is neither good for the projector nor the one on whom they are projected. Most of my spiritual teachers have fallen into the trap that they let the adoration of their followers go to their head. Facing that I went through a fair bit of disappointment and resentment and I often asked myself, “how could they”? But I realize now that this was and is easy for me to say because I could learn from their negative role model. I equate being adored by my students with downfall as I saw my teachers fall. The lesson here clearly is if you project superhuman qualities onto a human, their human frailty will soon stand-out much clearer for all to see. I have therefore learned to pre-empt such projection by telling in the right moment stupid jokes about myself. It seems to always work. The great lesson that we have learned then as teachers is to not let your students idolize, lionize or deify you. It may have a sweet beginning but always a bitter end. Better stay off that pedestal and remind students of your weaknesses.
The other thing that we have learned is that projecting unrealistic expectations and qualities on our teachers is not good for the students either. We try to live our yoga dreams through our teachers because we think it’s too hard to reach them ourselves. By talking us into that they are an embodiment of everything we’d like to reach we believe that some of their greatness is reflected on us without us actually doing anything for it, it just rubs off on us. You simply join a movement and by proxy you attain part of the greatness of the respective teacher. But that never works. We are kidding ourselves!
The abuse revelations not only in Ashtanga but in so many other current movements show us that we can’t wait for other people to fulfill or even represent our yoga dreams. We have to rely on ourselves. And if we are not used to that it can look like a hard thing to do. I am again reminded having a conversation with a friend over 20 years ago about the fact that our teacher at the time was possibly not the person we made him out to be. She said to me, “It sounds too difficult to rely on myself in spiritual matters. I just want to find a person that I can totally devote myself to and they sort out all my problems in return”. Now in hindsight it sounds totally laughable but it’s exactly this attitude that enabled the abuse. If there had not been a large network of people who needed to devote themselves and needed to adore KP Jois he could not have done what he did and could not have become who he became.
While it is important to name and call out the abuser, after all that is done we need to look at the support structure that we, the Ashtanga movement provided and of course in this regard Ashtanga is not different from any other spiritual movement. This need to adore, this need to devote to a leader and this need to project capabilities away from ourselves onto others is nothing new and even the fight against it, the call to take ones power back is nothing new either. Take for example Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essay Self-Reliance, written by the great American Transcendentalist in 1841. While the ideas expressed in Self-Reliance may not have been invented by Emerson, he became the first conduit through which they expressed themselves eloquently. Prior to Emerson, when you felt something was wrong or your needs were not met you mainly complaint to or about the government, the church or any other authority you believed to be powerful. Emerson said, don’t wait, don’t complain but do it yourself and do it now.
While some may call this yet another example of neo-conservativism or neoliberalism, it is apparent that Emerson’s call co-created in the United States of the 19th century a culture that believed that the only person that stopped you from becoming who you could become was you. Look what a change this self-responsibility made possible? I do think it is such a call for self-reliance is again needed in today’s spiritual culture. Self-reliance also helps with developing non-conformity, another idea that Emerson developed. Truth is something, so Emerson, that you find while reflecting on your own self ideally alone in nature and not by conforming to group pressure around you. Groups and communities are only too easily lead by demagogues and charlatans over the next cliff.
If teachers do not meet your ethical standards you may consider practising alone. Teachers can only continue to ignore the abuse issues because students keep supporting them and thus enable the enablers of abuse. Teachers are really just giants with clay feet. If students withdraw from them, their feet and thus the whole tower of deception will crumble and come down. Don’t say, “uh my teacher just won’t change, just won’t apologize”. You will find out that if you change, your teacher will change, too. They will have to change if they start losing students. Try it out. It works like magic!
At this point it is easy to simply drop out, thinking that if the teacher is corrupt the method must be corrupt. But what if there is nobody that could lead you in this quest? What if you have to lead yourself and find your own way in the dark? What if this yoga needs your contribution and your support?
It is this attitude of self-reliance that we need to find within us. When we start yoga we often do it for community reasons, to find a community of like-minded. We may also look for some messiah-type leader to lead us out of the darkness. But all of these things are actually forms of external stimuli. The true meaning of the term pratyahara is independence from external stimuli.
Pratyahara means that practice-wise we stand on our own feet. We do not practice because of the amazing teacher. We do not practice because of the support we get from the outside, from the community around us (although we may take that as nice boons if it works out but shouldn’t compromise when it doesn’t). We practice because deep inside we actually want to. Because the practice (in its many forms, not just asana) brings us back to that place within us where we are whole. So practising yoga is nothing but a return to our origin, a return to our own heart, or the self, in Emerson’s words.
This whole affair really shows us that we have to separate the teaching from the teacher. Practice independently of whether the so-called authorities are flawed or not. Practice because of yourself, because of your freedom (miraculously then you will find that this freedom will also give you the freedom to act selflessly). Notice that in the book Guruji- A Portrait, the yoga took a complete backseat and it was made out to be all about the teacher. As the saying goes, “Only from total devotion to the guru does Jnana flow. Signed by the guru”.
I want to encourage you to take the opposite attitude. It’s the system of practices that brings you freedom and the teacher is (ideally) totally irrelevant. A good teacher is merely a catalyst that steps back more and more as the student becomes established in the practices and discourages the student to place any importance on the personage of the teacher. The teacher is only there to aid the student in reclaiming the practice as their own.