I’m late to the table for this discussion, for a couple reasons. One, because I’m not on social media. And two, I made a conscious decision long ago to focus on developing my own teaching rather than looking around to see what everyone else was doing. But, by not keeping up with the Jones, sometimes I also come late to relevant conversations. If you also haven’t been following this news, then the very short version is this: Several female students came forward to report sexually abusive contact by Pattabhi Jois, the patriarch of Ashtanga vinyasa yoga, during hands-on adjustments while they were practicing in Mysore. I would rather not step on the words of those who have been more directly impacted. I would prefer to let them speak for themselves. You can follow the thread from Mary Taylor’s post here and here.
After I learned of the abuses by Pattabhi Jois reported by several female students, I took some time to think and feel through what that meant to me. Everyone will have their own suite of feelings to process based on their own context, their relationship with Mysore in general, their relationship with Pattabhi Jois in particular, and their relationship with the Ashtanga practice itself.
What is our Ashtanga story?
What has been on my mind now is what we as an Ashtanga community will tell in our story going forward. As human beings we are myth-makers. It is our nature to frame ideas in the construct of story. In the disassembling of the myth of Guruji (Pattabhi Jois), the Ashtanga community has been forced to see some part of our story as empty. We are left to look around to see what is left if the story is not solid. Angela Jamison wrote a beautiful and thought-provoking post that got me thinking more about the idea of our Ashtanga story. On the one hand I feel sad and disappointed at the loss of our myth. On the other hand, by disassembling the myth from the top down, the whole hierarchy, in this case, patriarchy, crumbles. What we are left with is the practice itself. The practice that survives will be one that is fluid, evolving, and not dependent on a patriarchal myth to hold it up. In letting go of the patriarchal myth in which the practice was held, we have a chance to re-oxygenate it and critically evaluate it on its own merit. The practice itself has a structure too, but it is a dispassionate one. The practice is a neutral tool; it’s not out to lose or gain from anyone’s use of it.
We all have a shadow
As a teacher, learning of the abuses of power by Pattabhi Jois was hard to hear. Students have asked, why do you think he did those things? I really have no idea. We all have a shadow. As I never met Pattabhi Jois, I have no idea what he was like as a person or what the roots of his behaviors were. But, as a teacher it still serves to remind me of the importance of having checks on my own shadow. In amongst the conversations about how we move forward as an Ashtanga community, I’ve felt a sadness at crumbling of the Ashtanga origin myth, and I’ve also seen in that mirror aspects of my own failings as a teacher, all my own moments where I didn’t get it right. Always, my job as a teacher is to hold the space and then to get out of the way. I hold the map. I point out the road signs, but the student must be driving, always. The structure is in the practice itself. The Ashtanga practice doesn’t need patriarchy to create the structure.
Although many teachers have taken down their images of Pattabhi Jois, I have had one up still. I will forever be grateful for the Ashtanga practice as it most certainly changed my life. Pattabhi Jois was part of passing that practice on for a time. What I’m looking for now is new life for the practice from the ashes of an old myth. It is time to move that energy with intention and bring the phoenix up from the ashes. My intention in the new year is to replace the old photo of Pattabhi Jois with a shelf that will hold items of meaning to our community at the front of the room. Some time ago, a student sent us a beautiful stone that will grace our new space. We’ll add her stone to the shelf and I invite anyone who would like to, to bring something that holds meaning to you to place at the front of the studio.