I never imagined Pattabhi Jois and Donald Trump could be put in the same sentence. They have never come up in my head together. Until a few nights ago. The image of the two of them side by side, on a pulpit, one pot-bellied, his bare chest adorned with mala beads (job uniform), the other also pot-bellied but thankfully covered in the oddly-fitting dark suit and strangely-long red tie. Smug. Sanctimonious. Grandiose. “Gurus” in their own ways.
What a year it has been! I remember reading -possibly dreaming- that science has proved regular exposure to pain stimuli increases our tolerance for pain. This may explain the fact that the ongoing torrent of scandals has almost numbed our shock response mechanism. Kind of. Because nothing could have prepared me for the recent revelations about Pattabhi Jois. The disappointment was similar to the one I felt when I was 8 years old and I found out that my elementary school teachers did not sleep at school and in fact had a home, a bed, and a bathroom that they actually used like me.
Unknowingly, global upheavals have affected my nervous system. I have been having lots of restless nights lately. I have also noticed some hesitation about stepping onto my yoga mat. And lately, if I am facilitating a yoga practice, I have caught myself holding back, choosing to distance myself from some of the teachings that have adorned my own chest for the last couple of years.
My first experience with yoga asana practice was back in 2008 when I joined a Bikram yoga class. It was exactly what I needed at the time, a challenging, sweaty, predictable sequence of 26 poses and two breathing exercises founded by the celebrity yogi Bikram Choudhury. By 2010, Bikram Choudhury’s name and image -also bare-chested in a skimpy Speedo bottom- decorated the walls of hundreds of Bikram yoga studios across the world. He became “guru” to many. (Quincy Jones had a special dedication to him on the album Thriller). Eventually, scandals rocked his world and he was unmasked for the smug, sanctimonious, grandiose sexual assaulter he was. Like most other “cult gurus,” he believed and behaved like an awakened god, demeaning and denouncing every other “spiritual bullshit” out there but his own. (Sound familiar?)
I am not sure why Bikram’s fall from grace did not put me off yoga. It could be because he was not “mainstream” and his teachings not “pillars” of yoga study. I think my moment of reckoning came after reading Karen Rain’s account of the abuse she endured studying under Pattabhi Jois.
She was one of Jois’s most accomplished students for eight years, even featured in his famous Primary Series video along with 5 other students. Her revelations also included her eye witness account of Jois sexually abusing other women.
“… he was supposedly a Yoga master. He abused his power. His adjustments were egotistical and cruel. Sexual abuse and assault are cruel! The master of ‘Ashtanga Yoga’ did not cultivate the yamas. His behaviour, and the negligence of any of his students who minimized, rationalized or justified it in the past (myself included) or continues to do so now, demonstrates significant flaws in Jois’ system, as well as the deep hypocrisy that the yog world can harbour.” — Karen Rain
Turns out the father of Ashtanga Yoga is egotistical, cruel, abusive, and a criminal. Ashtanga is translated into the 8 limbs, the eight-fold path leading to our “liberation” as first made public by Patanjali and then popularized by the Pattabhi Jois’ School of Ashtanga Yoga. The first of these folds are the yamas, the vows, disciplines, and practices concerned with how we interact with the outside world. Consider this to be the kindergarten of the path of yoga so to speak. The “guru” could not honour those, but his Ganda Bherundasana was flawless.
It is not over. The “cult gurus” continue to fall from grace. Bentinho Massaro, known as the Tech Bro Guru, has also recently been exposed by Be Scofield. Rachel Brathen has published #metoo Yoga Stories that speak of abuse, misogyny, and harassment in the yoga community. All deeply disturbing and thought provoking. I don’t believe it’s a male thing only. Abuse is sadly almost synonymous with power and greed. However, misogyny rules and the majority of those in positions of power are men, stuck in their lower chakras. (Stories of abuse and greed have come out about the “Hugging Saint” Mata Amritanandamayi)
It has been difficult for me to find solid ground lately. It is easy to hear scandals plague Donald Trump because my life for the past two years has not been inspired by his teachings, but it has by the “guru”, the pulpit, and the sermon. So I find myself clinging onto authenticity. Our human mechanism is wired to detect falsehood. Red ties, mala beads, and speedos cannot mask the wolf forever. (Not that I have anything against wolves, as long as they keep their own wolf clothing.) Eventually, the fur will show. Chronic injury-inducing contortions concocted by a man who could not move beyond the first limb of yoga flaunted by designer-clad celebrities claiming to be masters/teachers/experts and nuclear war-causing tweets fired in the dead of night by the best/biggest/brightest are definitive signs of poorly concealed fur.
It takes courage to acknowledge our vulnerability and recognize the shadow that is an integral part of our human existence. No room for grandiosity in a healthy, balanced human. This goes hand in hand with humility, truth-telling, and authentic living. That is my yoga.
Time magazine named the “Silence Breakers” as the persons who most influenced the events of 2017 -apparently a close race with another “breaker” with a red tie on the opposite end of the spectrum. I don’t believe they have only influenced the events of this year. I think their influence is going to be over decades. And so far-reaching that it will dispel the darkness that has plagued the globe for centuries. And those “Silence Breakers” are gurus. Because the light they have cast has taken us back home to ourselves -back to where we have started, where the one and only true guru resides.