Yoga Reconsiders the Role of the Guru in the Age of #MeToo

Source: The New Yorker

Last week 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. Their allegations include that he rubbed his genitals against their pelvises while they were in extreme backbends, lay on top of them while they were prostrate on the floor, and inserted his fingers into their vaginas—an action that fellow-students excused as an adjustment to their mula bandhas, the body’s lowest chakra, which lies between the genitals and the anus. After his grandfather’s death, Sharath became the director of the Shri K. Pattabhi Jois Ashtanga Yoga Institute, and the paramguru (or “guru’s guru”) of Ashtanga. “It brings me immense pain that I also witness him giving improper adjustments,” Sharath wrote in the post. “I am sorry it caused pain for any of his students. After all these years I still feel pain from my grandfather’s actions.”

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. In 2012, John Friend, the founder of Anusara yoga, admitted to sleeping with several students. He was also accused of running a Wiccan coven called Blazing Solar Flames, where members often went naked. (In a public statement, Friend denied any involvement in “a sex coven.”) Friend withdrew for a time from public life but has since launched another form of yoga, called Sridaiva. 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.”

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