It is Safe to Criticize Patthabi Jois

by Angela

My first job as a teacher is to establish, and hold, safe space. 

I am practiced in fostering the boundaries, rapport and accountability that enable a sense of bodily safety to emerge. However, I have not realized until today that a safety skillset is needed in our community now in a different way. 

We as a community of ashtanga practitioners need to feel safe to think rationally. We need to feel safe to question. We need to feel safe in our sense that our individual practices are our own, and cannot be destroyed by the critical thinking process.

For the last two years, I’ve felt empowered by my students to speak openly and non-defensively about the terrible harm Patthabi Jois did to some women in his care. Here’s why I do it. First, the trust we have built together is sacred to me. I have given it my life. I’m not going to give power to a ghost to stand between us. I have a responsibility to my students to model mental and intellectual confidence and safety. 

We all know that my work is to hold safe space for the body and the meditating mind. But I have learned that part of my job now is also to hold space for hard-thinking, hard-questioning minds. Good. I did not spend the past twenty years working on becoming a person who might perhaps become worthy of students’ trust just to compromise that by silencing them for the reputation of someone I never knew. Preventing my students from criticizing Patthabi Jois would be a dishonor to yoga, to our lineage, and indeed to all that was good and pure and brilliant in the man whose sins we have to acknowledge. My sense of devotion is the reason that, on the ground in my inter-personal relationships, I have been holding the hard question-space safe and open.

To those beyond our local context, I want to share that around here we have been learning that it is safe to think difficult thoughts. It is safe to ask difficult questions.

Here is what I am learning when it comes to holding space for people who are ready to enlarge their reality to include the testimony of Patthabi Jois’s victims. Such has been a major part of my daily life for the past two years.

  1. It is safe to be have been wrong. It is safe to change your mind.
  2. There is nothing to defend. 
  3. My practice and relationships are not at stake in this difficult time. 
  4. I do not have to sell my soul to keep the practice and relationships that give meaning to my life. 
  5. On the contrary, silence may indeed cost us our souls. If we regard truth as a threat, we must acknowledge we have lost the way. We must look inside and self-correct.
  6. It’s just true: love is more powerful than fear.

Over the last two years, I have learned that each of the following fears may be enough to prevent a person from turning the mind to this difficult topic. When these fears are examined and understood rationally, then a person often feels safe enough to step into the healing vibes that accompany a loving and non-defensive recognition that Patthabi Jois touched some women in traumatizing ways – and that a shared culture of silence around him kept this truth hidden until 2017.

Perceived risks:

  1. If I question Patthabi Jois, my teacher won’t have the tools to deal with that. Maybe my teacher will stop trusting me. We could lose our relationship.

Across the world there is this waiting game, teachers not wanting to offend students, students not wanting to offend teachers. Someone’s got to take the initiative here, and this CAN be savvy students who do the educating of the teachers. If you’re under 30 and conversant in the language of critique in a way those who came of age in more authoritarian, pro-capitalist times might not be, you have special skills to offer. My sense is basically everyone thinks Patthabi Jois and his enablers screwed up; but not everyone feels safe introducing this truth into relationships they hold sacred. Maybe the next brave move is yours, if you are (ironically) less afraid of this topic than your teacher? 

If you introduce this topic and hit a wall with your teacher, I ask you: do you want to be studying with someone who silences you, or whose mind is still not able to expand to include believing the women?  Yoga is flexible stability. If the mind has become especially rigid because of an identification with certain beliefs or emotions, to the exclusion of rational dialogue, that’s an indication we need to self-correct.

  • I will feel guilty and shameful looking at this.

Totally understandable. That is the weight of previous generations’ inability to own their stuff. It might feel heavy. Such are the feelings I’ve personally worked through with compassionate professional help, and might still be stuck in otherwise. Here is the thing. If you weren’t part of the culture of knowing silence around Patthabi Jois, you’re probably taking responsibility for stuff that isn’t yours. This is what care-givers do. It just means you’re the best of the best, and one of the people this world really needs now. Yet, taking responsibility for the issues of our elders deprives them of the chance to do their own work. It’s not actually compassionate.

What many of us, myself included, factually have to take responsibility for is believing a cultural narrative about the guru’s grace. For beliving our elders when they said that Patthabi Jois’s touch was only ever healing, and his presence was magical. For letting the older students quietly undermine the victims’ credibility. These are real things I did. I didn’t use my brain, when my brain was overwhelmed. I was wrong.

The rest is out of my hands. It’s probably even more out of your hands than mine. It’s not helpful to be defensive about any of it.

  •  If I deligitimate Patthabi Jois, I will in turn delegitimate my teacher who I love and trust. 

Ok. If your teacher is using a relationship with someone you don’t know as their reason for authority over you, that’s not cool. It’s authoritarian. The rational basis for a teacher’s credibility would be stuff like carefully built inter-personal rapport, gradually earned inter-personal trust, and the fact that the practice as they teach it truly works for you. 

In such a dynamic, when the practice is really yours and your relationship with your teacher is grounded in the reality of your excellent shared experience together, then opening up space for looking at Patthabi Jois’s issues can build even more trust. Because neither of you has to defend that.

  • If I ask the wrong questions in public, my friends will reject me

Your friends are smart though. If you’ve got something more than a shallow, internet-based mutual appreciation society. 

So your friends, who very likely also have brains, are probably thinking the exact same thing you are. What about choosing to be THEIR safe space, so that they are free to ask the hard questions in your company? That might take making the first move. Saying what’s on your mind.

  • If I open up about this, somehow I might get framed as a perpetrator or a victim. Someone will come at me and say my work isn’t woke enough. Or they will accuse me of having my own “stuff” that is coming out as identification with the vulnerable. I don’t want to be put in those roles!

Understood. This right here feels like the crux we are in. Discerning people see the drama triangle (victim-savior-perpetrator storylines) in action all over public life the last couple years. You may sense that the domination of this narrative structure is insane. 

But most of us don’t know exactly how not to get sucked in to the triangle. For me, there have been three key resources in this regard. 

First is therapy. That’s a professional requirement for someone sustaining a large number of very real student-teacher relationships; you deserve a teacher with an intimate accountability system in which they systematically get called on their unconscious biases, and have space to process their emotions about their work. So that their work with you can be psychically clean. Yoga teachers are professionals. The teaching space isn’t there to be a dumping ground for our process; and our duty as service providers for our students is not an adequate vehicle to carry us through our own ongoing transformations. A lot of therapy is being forced to notice the patterns in habitual framing of experience. Having an unbiased professional hold space for you every week means getting to surface latent drama frameworks in safe space, defuse them, and analyze them rationally. This unflinching self-interrogation is badass. It cleans up the yoga like a dream. I suggest it, especially if you think you don’t have anything to work on.

Second, the brilliant work of Sarah Schulman. In Conflict is not Abuse she writes (p. 17) “[A]t many levels of human interaction there is the opportunity to conflate discomfort with threat, to mistake internal anxiety for exterior danger, and in turn to escalate rather than resolve…. [T]his dynamic, whether between two individuals, between groups of people, between governments and civilians, or between nations is a fundamental opportunity for either tragedy or peace. Conscious awareness of these political and emotional mechanisms gives us all a chance to face ourselves, to achieve recognition and understanding in order to avoid escalation towards unnecessary pain.”  In other words: this is some serious drama triangle transcendence, written with excellence at the cutting edge of queer theory. Read it in full for a fast ticket to a certain kind of liberation.

Third, there is a heart-key that has been shared with me by a student who spent much of her life with Thich Nhat Hanh. This is his teaching on emptiness, which he binds to infinite compassion in a concept he calls Interbeing. Some of us have read Charles Eisenstein’s good work on this topic, but the seedbed of it is extreme spiritual work in a warzone – a level of enlightenment and compassion I cannot comprehend. Systematically listening to Thick Nhat Hanh’s teachings on this topic, internalizing what I can of this perspective into my cells: this too has begun to deprogram my own fear-based conditioning towards blame, savior behavior, and playing the victim. 

When we can escape that triangle, it gives us the freedom to compassionately accept and learn from those who truly have been victimized. They are not a problem. None of this is. It’s just the learning process much of the world is in at this time.

Here’s the situation on the ground, in my daily work teaching yoga.

I am wary that the most patronizing, patriarchial thing I can do is give a dead man power to destroy my faith in yoga. Patthabi Jois is one among many in the lineage of ashtanga yoga teachers. Nobody owns this yoga, and nobody can pretend to have a final energetic imprint on a method that is in some ways ancient, and simultaneously one of the most cutting-edge methods on this planet. The practice is what we make it, each day with our bodies AND with our thinking.

Will it be rigid, a belief-system, a set of loyalties and horrid obligations? Or will it be art and science, openness and vulnerability, creativity and freedom?

Please hear this. Ashtanga was a guru culture for roughly 50 years. The architects of that culture were American men; just as those doubling down on guru worship now are westerners on the internet. Before this blip, T. Krishnamacharya disavowed the guru title. His own son, a contemporary of Patthabi Jois, did the same. The Indian tradition itself gives us the model for reforming the power dynamic responsible for abuse and silencing. Watch: as we integrate the lessons of power gone wrong on the battlefield of specific women’s bodies, the teachers whose hearts have broken over this will depedestalize themselves again and again. That’s how you’ll know who has gone through the fire and been changed by it: they will show up as vulnerable post-authoritarians.

The guru phase of this particular method came; it gave its gifts and it left its wounds; and soon again the guru phase will go away. This is how we deactivate habitual abuse of women within our cultural DNA – through nondefensive acknowledgement of the past. Through a sacrifice of the mental and emotional conditions that led to the harm. A specific legacy of abuse and silencing is there, like other past wounds are there. This is being human: our history includes harms done. Making that conscious is the healing move.

If you study Patanjali and see the Sutras as a real source of help for the practice, then you know, the purpose of yoga is to cultivate discernment. In relationships, in our minds, in the world. In a sense, if we’re serious about the yoga, we don’t have an out here. We have some obligation to face fears around this topic, to use discernment to support suppressed truth. And to speak from the place of having completed this hard part of the journey with our hearts more open than they were before.