For a long time, it seemed that the yoga world was immune to the murkier socio-political issues discussed on the media main stage, presenting itself instead as a safe haven for those who had become jaded with all the bullshit to escape to. But what happens when the very place you are hoping to take refuge presents even more of said BS. #metoo was a powerful movement that changed the entertainment industry and our collective perception of it, but suddenly it became pertinent to the yoga community as well. This is unfortunately not surprising, because history has shown us time and time again that in any situation where power is hoarded by an individual, others have to give theirs away. The concept of the 'Guru' (meaning 'from darkness to light', 'Gu' - dark, 'ru' - light') is fading, which is both good and bad. Good because the so-called light of many of these individuals is rather more murky than they would have us believe, but a shame, because there are those who continue to powerfully transmit the tradition of yoga, but whose efforts to do so are undermined by those who have got lost on their own path to lightness. There have also been movements created, such as 'Broga' which is vinyasa yoga, but for 'bros', which is strange, because vinyasa yoga is already heavily masculine, and the earliest yoga shalas in India were almost exclusively populated by men. Everything has a shadow side, that is part of life, but what happens when we ignore the growing shadows in yoga? This is a sensitive article, and I am going to be diving into personal experience, such as an injury sustained at the hands of someone I put my trust in and looking at the wider problems with power abuse in this industry. As ever, I am very open to your opinions, corrections and shared experiences.
When you hear the word 'Mysore', what comes to mind? Some may never have heard of it in their life, some may know it as a city in southern India, but for others, it conjures up an uneasy association with the #metoo movement. How did this mainstream movement find its way to a remote corner of India? It appears that the power of this online campaign, which caught traction in October 2017, encouraging survivors of sexual abuse and harassment to come forward and share their stories, resonated loud and clear with some of those students who had practiced at the KPJAYI centre in Mysore, under the tutelage of Sri K Patthabi Jois, thought by many as the founder of the modern Ashtanga yoga system as we know it. His adjustments have since been reported to have crossed the line into abusive territory, not just sexually but also in terms of serious pain and injury inflicted on the bodies of his loyal followers. Some have chalked this up to cultural difference, but why then are there numerous reports of him abstaining from said adjustments whenever his wife Amma was around? Whilst I have never practiced under Jois, my earliest memories of this practice that deeply inform and shape the practice I have today conjure up difficult questions.
We talk a lot about Ahimsa in yoga, which means 'non-harm', and this is both to the self and to others. I have a hypermobile body, something often fetishised in yoga; by the internet and by some teachers. Turns out, back in 2010 when I started my Mysore Ashtanga practice, Ahimsa was not even on my radar, nor, it seems, was it on my teacher's. I was bulimic, I hated my body, I was tired of hating the gym so I thought I would try something new. I was tired. Not feeling strong, neither physically or mentally, I didn't even know what hypermobility was at the time, let alone how to contain it in my body, nor did my teacher make me aware. Instead, during Prasarita C (a wide-legged standing forward fold with the hands clasped and arms overhead), my outstretched and hyperextended arms were yanked all the way over to the floor. I heard a pop and immediately felt searing pain in my left shoulder. It is worth noting that this whole time I couldn't actually breathe, through the posture, further adding to its injurious potential. I was helped up by the teacher and told to go to the back of the room to do closing sequence in full, which includes shoulder stand. Thing is, I was so low in myself and lost at the time that I was just looking for some guidance. I believe in autonomy within a yoga practice and you should be able to say no, but this was in the days before consent cards and quite frankly, when my head was being pulled through my legs I didn't actually have the breath to say no, but it should have been readable in my body. This experience did not deter me, I went on to practice for many years with another teacher, who I forged a consensual relationship with and who I made fully aware of my hypermobile body, but it taught me a valuable lesson in the transference of power. How much do you give away as a student, and how much is the teacher supposed to hold? And more importantly, how do I, now looking through a teacher's lens, prevent my students from handing over too much power to me?
As a teacher, I don't adjust, but instead offer assists. To the uninitiated these may sound like the same thing, but if you're a semantics nerd like me, then you'll maybe understand 'adjust' to mean physically altering something in an arbitrary way, whereas 'assist' I think describes guiding something to find its own unique form. Neither is better, they are just different approaches. Sometimes, however, I have found my own experiences with going too deep into a pose have coloured the way I teach. It is my intention to protect my students from injury, but how much is this me projecting my own cautions onto others? Does my need to limit my extensive range of mobility end up limiting my students in freely exploring theirs? Am I doing the same as my first teacher, who maybe had been limited by physical tightness in their own practice, therefore saw my weakly open shoulders as something to indulge in? Sometimes when I call out a pose, some students will dive deeper into it, and sometimes in a way that I don't see as properly aligned, but then what is proper alignment? It can't be one-size-fits-all. I encourage my students to move from feeling, rather than looking at their shape in the mirror (if there is one there), so in reality that is within their power to choose, not mine. I am simply there to guide them towards their own unique feeling.
Teachers, when you find yourself frustrated with a student seemingly ignoring instructions, try to see them instead as a mirror to your own insecurities. Students, respect what your teacher is giving to you, but remember you can say no at any point, and you can explore your own physical expression, whilst maintaining awareness of those in the room with you. The real yoga comes when the potency of the practice is shared and held equally.