I was a young dancer in my first job (apprenticeship) in a country far away from home.
My boss/choreographer told me that the best place to teach me some important lessons that I failed to understand through formal instruction would be in his bed, during and after sex.
I didn’t let him take me to bed, but I did keep dancing for this connoisseur of dance because the learning opportunity as a whole was dear to me. I considered it an exceptional privilege and worth the madness.
On another training day, we had a barre-class wearing only tank tops so he could make sure that our testicles would rise and fall appropriately with our pelvic floor movements in plie, relevé, dégagé, and so forth (yes, the unease of the moment was thick!). There were many more such moments during the six months I spent with this choreographer before the misalignments out-weighed the learning, and I cut my apprenticeship short.
A few years later in my early 20s, I was teaching dance and choreography at a performing arts institute in Denmark, just trying to make a living. On one occasion, I found myself in the room of one of my students with whom I shared a mutual attraction. But what I thought was a consensual act changed; shortly into it, she shook her head beneath me and stuttered a muffled “no.” I stopped on the spot in a mild state of shock. It didn’t take much to realize that right there, in my inexperience, I misunderstood the relationship between us and abused my power as her teacher. What appeared to me as something we both wanted, was in reality my confusion of our roles. The realization cut through me like an icy knife.
I learned that day by direct experience that the student-teacher relationship is not to be messed with (sexual relations between teachers and students are also illegal in Denmark, my country of birth). I understood poignantly why this type of relationship is sacred, and that the inherent power imbalance in this relationship will always blur the line between attraction and respect, distorting intentions and signals.
I realized that it is us, the teachers, who are responsible for maintaining the sacrosanct terms of the relationship. We are required to act with ethical principle all the time, every time. I have never once engaged in sexual relations with a student of any type since that one haunting encounter years ago. I learned my lesson early through a combination of self-flattery, ignorance, and failure.
I now teach yoga to people, and this division is more important than ever. Dedicated to the Ashtanga Yoga methodology, I teach on the road and serve as director of Miami Life Center, a yoga center founded by my wife and me in 2006. A significant part of the teaching methodology in our lineage relies on physical adjustments: helping a student get in and out of postures provides unparalleled kinesthetic feedback, which is useful for understanding what an asana is about on a deep level in the practitioner’s own body.
Experiencing the internal sensations that accompany a correctly-embodied posture gives the student an internal map to identify and recreate the physical mechanics that constitute these (sometimes very complex) postures. These sensations are the most powerful and useful teachers we have when learning asana, much more so than receiving verbal instruction or visual cues. Without this deeper embodied knowledge, we limit our access to the deep benefits yoga can bring to our bodies and minds—hence the emphasis on adjustments in Ashtanga Yoga.
In working with both beginner and advanced students, the line can be hair-thin between appropriate and inappropriate touch. In the attempt to always respect a student’s mental-emotional boundary of touch, I ask all our teachers at Miami Life Center to keep physical adjustments simple, clear, and light (in “low-voltage zones” as the brilliant David Swenson calls it), and keep their hands on unquestionably non-sexual places on a student’s body. Only when trust is firmly established do we draw upon adjustment techniques that require a more skilled understanding of anatomy, using hand and body positions with lucid precision so the practitioner can learn deep-seated body mechanics without any misunderstanding of intention or boundary.
In the 11 years we have been teaching yoga at Miami Life Center, we continuously commit to honor our students’ healthy boundaries, whether physical, emotional, mental, religious, or sexual in nature. Safety and trust within our community is targeted by conscious use of our four pillars—simplicity, honesty, compassion, and integrity—our stated foundational values.
As an Ashtangi, it shocked me when I recently learned that one Ashtangi friend and colleague experienced touching on her genitals and buttocks by my teacher Sri K. Pattabhi Jois in 2004.
I have read and heard of other women whom have experienced Pattabhi Jois touching their genitals, buttocks, and breasts in the 80s and 90s. Confused and trying to make sense of it all, it seems to me that the experience of Jois’ touching falls into five categories:
1. Jois never touched my private parts.
2. Jois touched many places on my body, inclusive of my private parts. I never felt any touch was inappropriate.
3. Jois touched many places on my body, inclusive of my private parts. It was instrumental in healing my illnesses.
4. Jois touched me on my private parts and it felt inappropriate. It stopped after I made him aware of my disapproval.
5. Jois touched me on my private parts and it felt/still feels traumatizing.
Neither my wife nor I had ever been touched in even a remotely inappropriate manner by our yoga teachers, Sri K. Pattabhi Jois and R. Sharath Jois, and I had never seen it happen in my years with them. So as I hadn’t talked to anyone with this direct experience until recently, I unfortunately had not given fitting attention to this issue in our community.
I regret to admit that I had assumed it had happened for a brief moment of time long before my studentship. I assumed it had been addressed properly, and that the state of appropriate sexual and ethical conduct at the Ashtanga Yoga Research Institute and the Shri K. Pattabhi Jois (KBJ) Ashtanga Yoga Institute that I experienced was evidence to the fact that a definitive change had been successfully made.
I regretfully realize that I have been too fast to dismiss the rumors and the photographs of my teacher. I have allowed myself the bliss of ignorance while some of you, my fellow practitioners, have been processing painful experiences at his hands, and that hurt, disillusionment, and trauma have taken root in you. It is evident that you should not have experienced what you did, and I should not have been so busy with my own experience as to not be present with yours. I regret that I have not been your friend, your ear, and your shoulder over these years.
An apology seems insufficiently light, yet I apologize to you for my absorption in my own process and my obliviousness to your pain.
The question that springs to mind is why Jois touched these women’s lady parts during yoga class.
Was he healing or molesting? Your guess is as good as mine, and there are many opinions circulating at present. I know one thing: if Jois had touched the Mysore police commissioner’s wife in this way, he would have been run out of town the same afternoon. So why did he touch some of his Western students this way? Having been his student doesn’t offer me any valid insights to his motive—I am as confused as everyone—and honestly, motive doesn’t really matter in this case, anyway.
At the same time, it is no exaggeration to say that the learning I did with this man reshaped my entire life along with my perception on living. Gratitude and love for him runs deep in my veins. In my current processing of this information, I find myself making a divide between the man and his method—a man who taught me his (and his guru’s) system of yoga. I find myself in contemplation of the man and his actions these days. Taking the liberty to let hands wander on a student is unacceptable and potentially criminal in any educational setting, but even more so in the modality of yoga where surrender and trust are professed as the main means to progress.
Jois’ trespassing speaks for itself; it cannot be justified. Still, I cannot get around the incredible substance of the Ashtanga Yoga system. Here in the middle of my processing, I know one thing: just as I didn’t reject dance due to misalignments by my choreographer 30 years ago, I cannot find reason to discard Ashtanga Yoga by the inauspicious actions of my late teacher. Furthermore, there is no ambiguity of sexual boundaries under the current principled captainship of Sharath at the KPJ institute—none!
So, as I practice and teach Jois’ Mysore style just as he taught me to, I must ask if this is an acceptable path to choose. Is it okay for me to sit with two opposing feelings simultaneously? Can I denounce Jois’ actions while feeling indebted, grateful, and full of love for him? The news recently spoke of a mother who’s drug-addicted son had committed murder while on a bender. She felt guilty for the victim and her family on behalf of her son. She felt guilty for reasons only a mother can know. And yet she still loved her son. This is of course an extreme case far from the nature of Jois’ inappropriate touching, but it personally helps me shed some light on the inner workings between my mind and my heart.
Let me finish where I started, as there seems to be a common thread contained within these revelations.
I have stopped counting #metoo posts. The number of stories are seemingly infinite, and the degrees of misconduct too vast. Friends I have known for years now have given voice to story after story of sexual misconduct that range from inappropriate comments to full-blown rape by strangers, friends, boyfriends, bosses, co-workers, yoga teachers, taxi drivers—you name it. The disrespect, disregard, and violence that my female friends have learned to consider acceptable collateral damage at the hands of us men (in most cases, the perpetrator of this violence was male) is overwhelming and eye-opening to me. It is also terrifying.
There can be no doubt—we men have a socially conditioned problem. The mindset with which we conduct ourselves toward women on a pretty general basis is obviously not okay. We need a system tune-up. And somehow, it seems, society as a whole has been both deaf and mute on the subject until now. It’s an imbedded attitude that needs adjustment.
Most of us men have at one time or another carved ourselves negatively into the life of a woman by careless or inappropriate sexual conduct. I know I have. It is an uncomfortable acknowledgment. I regret to say that such conduct is not just the work of people like Harvey Weinstein and Donald Trump, but by most of us. We men are going to have to come to terms with that. Despite the campaign’s messy bits, the #metoo movement has brought to surface sufficient proof that we dwell in a broken culture that targets women everywhere.
I thank you women for stirring the pot, for standing up despite our disregard, ridicule, and violence. We (men) need to self-adjust, because #timesup—and, as Oprah Winfrey tells us, “A new day is on the horizon.” We men are gonna have to acknowledge it’s now time to listen and take ownership of ourselves and our collective behavior to take us forward to a better day in stride with the powerful women of the world.
Fellow men, let’s do everyone a favor and begin to assume less and ask more. Listen more mindfully. Seek to understand, not respond. Act with more empathy and less self-interest. Facilitate this conversation amongst us about how we can do better. Keep each other accountable for the “nudge-nudge” lewd remarks, the locker-room talk, and the “bro” conduct when it gets a little too “fun” or too wild. Hold each other to a standard of respect in both tongue and deed. Commit to creating a sphere where both men and women can co-exist with minimal disrespect, maximum safety, and zero assault.
The alternative is quite simply insufferable.
P.S. My wife, Kino, has recently jotted down a series of solid recommendations for the yoga community at the end of her article. I recommend you give it a read.
Author: Tim Feldmann
Image: Author’s own
Editor: Callie Rushton
Copy Editor: Catherine Monkman