Yoga Reconsiders the Role of the Guru in the Age of #Me Too |

TBC Staff

[The week of July 14] on Instagram, Sharath Jois, a grandson of Pattabhi Jois, the hugely influential founder of Ashtanga yoga, which has millions of followers worldwide, finally responded to several years’ worth of claims of sexual misconduct against his grandfather, who died in 2009, at the age of ninety-three. Since 2010, more than a dozen former students have come forward to accuse Guruji, as his followers called him, of sexually assaulting them in his yoga studio in Mysore, India, and during workshops while he was on tour in the United States. 

This is only the latest in a string of scandals involving powerful men within the yoga community that date back decades. In 1991, protesters accused Swami Satchidananda, the famous yogi who issued the invocation at Woodstock, of molesting his students, and carried signs outside a hotel where he was staying in Virginia that read “Stop the Abuse.” (Satchidananda denied all claims of misconduct.) In 1994, Amrit Desai, the founder of the Kripalu Centre for Yoga, a well-known yoga-retreat center, was accused of sleeping with his students while purporting to practice celibacy. (Desai eventually admitted to having sexual contact with three women.)

More recently, Bikram Choudhury, the founder of “hot,” or Bikram, yoga, has faced several civil lawsuits for sexual misconduct, including one filed in 2013 by his own lawyer, Minakshi Jafa-Bodden, who said that he not only harassed her but also forced her to cover up allegations of misconduct against other women. (Bikram has denied all allegations.) After Bikram failed to pay Jafa-Bodden a seven-million-dollar judgment issued against him by a California court, in 2017, the judge issued an arrest warrant, and Bikram reportedly fled the country….Not all of the recent scandals have been sexual; some have involved financial impropriety or the physical abuse of students. During his workshops, B. K. S. Iyengar, who died in Pune, India, in 2014, openly slapped and kicked his students while telling them, according to the Times of India, “It’s not you I’m angry with, not you I kick. It’s the knee, the back, the mind that is not listening.”

Jois was born in 1915, in the rural village of Kowshika, in South India, and spent the first thirty-two years of his life living under British colonial rule. One day at school, when he was twelve, he attended a lecture in which a yoga instructor named Sri Krishnamacharya demonstrated several asanas, or poses. Jois ran away from home at fourteen, reunited with Krishnamacharya a few years later, and proceeded to study with him for twenty-five years. He went on to create Ashtanga, a form of yoga that involves a series of rigorous athletic poses that students are encouraged to practice six times a week. Beginning in the seventies, students flocked to Mysore to study with Jois, and, as his following grew, so did his fame and influence. Some students stayed in Mysore for months or even years to perfect their poses. Others came to venerate the teacher, prostrating themselves at his feet….Jubilee Cooke, a fifty-three-year-old former student [says] that she...didn’t realize that his behavior was something that she could report. 

Alex Auder, the forty-eight-year-old founder of Magu Yoga, a studio in Philadelphia, has been one of Jois’s most vocal critics. During the late nineteen-nineties, Auder taught at Jivamukti, in New York City, one of the places where Ashtanga first grew popular in the United States. But, in the past decade, she has become increasingly skeptical of some aspects of the practice….For the past five years, Auder has written about the increasing commodification of yoga, which she calls “neo-spiritualism”—an alliance between yoga and neoliberalism. Such criticism is not taken lightly in the Ashtanga community; according to Auder and others, those who speak out are often ostracized. “Sharath kicked anyone off the list of sanctioned teachers who ever criticized Pattabhi Jois or Ashtanga,” she told me. (Sharath did not respond to requests for comment on this article.)

For Karen Rain, a fifty-one-year-old former student who says that Jois repeatedly assaulted her between 1994 and 1998, at his studio in Mysore, the fear of being ostracized kept her from telling anyone about the abuse. “I knew it would bring me criticism and slander,” she told me. She was certain that her fellow-students would turn on her if she made her allegations public, and, in 2002, she left Ashtanga. “It destroyed my life as I knew it,” she said. “I loved the practice and was hoping to build my life and career around it.” In 2018, she told her story on Medium and included photographs…. Anneke Lucas, a fifty-six-year-old former student, who now works as an advocate for survivors of sexual abuse and is the founder of Liberation Prison Yoga, confronted Jois….and told him that he could go to prison...After she spoke out, she felt that her experience wasn’t taken seriously by other students and teachers, which she found more harmful than the assault. “I was far more hurt by the culture of silence and ignoring the victim and victim-blaming than the abuse itself,” she told me. “If there would’ve been support from the community, and it had been dealt with, it would have gone away.” Cooke has called out the magazine Yoga Journal for favorable articles that it published about Jois in the nineties. “Whether or not they did it consciously, it was grooming,” she said. “Encouraging people to go study with Pattabhi Jois and expect good things from him.”

Jois’s abuses remained hidden for so long in part because of his overwhelming authority as a guru, which may reflect a larger problem within the culture of yoga. In traditional yogic practice, a guru is a mediator—a translator of sorts—through whom a set of teachings is passed down. Devotion to the guru is meant to symbolize devotion to the teachings, not to the man. But in the Western context gurus become rock stars, and students compete to curry favor with them. This gives gurus significant influence over their students, which is sometimes misused. “I had this idea in me that the guru was supposed to be this all-encompassing everything,” Stern said. “I, along with other people, superimposed these mythologies on top of a human being . . . It was a misunderstanding of what the relationship was supposed to be.

(Griswold, "Yoga reconsiders the role of the guru in the age of #me too,” NewYorker Online, 7/23/19)