Ātman: Essence; Soul
In June of 2019, I launched the Ātman Project: a photographic study and exhibition of the soul of the Ashtanga yoga.
My intention was to capture the process of the practice over the product of poses as a finished end. I wanted people to see, but moreover feel the raw, real, grit of the Ashtanga experience and offering; the physical and emotional wrestling into the dark recesses of the body, heart, and mind.
One may ask what the need is for a photographic exhibition of Ashtanga or any yoga practice. After all, we are inundated 24 hours a day with images of perfect poses from perfect bodies supporting the advertisement that yoga is a multi-billion-dollar industry. We seem to have forgotten that yoga is intended to be a skin-to-soul trajectory. Meaning: we are called to pull back the layers of our being physically, mentally, and emotionally. Meaning: the pose in and of itself has little to do with this journey.
Rather, it is what we discover; what we relinquish in order to experience the wondrous alchemy of healing and being.
I realized that we are entering a new era of our practice. I wanted to dismantle and demystify the labels and stereotypes that hang like a dark cloud over our lineage. As strict, disciplined, and athletic as Ashtanga has proven itself to be, there are also new methods and insights that teachers are embracing. The mission of Ātman is to prove that Ashtanga can be a practice for every-body.
Therefore, Ātman seeks to represent the unseen diversity of our practice by celebrating all ages, genders, and ethnicities; all levels of experience and ability from students to teachers and shala communities. Bring your illnesses, your injuries. Bring your trials and triumphs. Your stories. Your testimonies. Let us inspire the world with what we are experiencing. It is through this sharing that we reveal the pulse…the essence…the soul of our process steeped in all its anguish and reverie.
So, I embarked on a tour to visit shalas and Ashtanga practitioners across the country in the summer of 2019.
The truth is, I almost cancelled this project as soon as it launched. In July of 2019, Sharath Jois, lineage holder of the Ashtanga method, issued a statement after years of long-held silence in response to the #MeToo campaign allegations of sexual misconduct and abuse. Jois acknowledged and confirmed the abuses perpetrated upon students by his grandfather, the late K. Pattabhi Jois.
The statement issued elicited strong responses from all parties. For some, there was a sense of closure or healing. But for many, the statement came too little, too late and offered little solution to the crisis of abuse we are facing. Others are calling to abolish Ashtanga entirely—casting away the whole practice and methodology. Truly, this has been a grim and challenging time. As a community, we are hurting. I thought:
Who wants to hear of the beauty of this practice…who even believes in the “soul” of Ashtanga given the issues we are facing?
I will never forget an intimate discussion I had with Mary Taylor Freeman while in Boulder, Colorado at a training. She assured me that now is the time, and it is more important than ever before to explore what this practice really means. We need to stand united in the issues we are facing. We cannot hide. We cannot deny. We cannot run away. But we can be the voice and instrument of change we seek. We can lead from the front to bring healing within our communities. We can utilize Ātman as a platform for testimony. All experiences—good, bad, and in-between. Ātman is a call for complete transparency; the freedom to express and address our concerns earnestly.
Reinvigorated by this sense of purpose and the bigger picture of Ātman, I kept going. The summer tour took us to Ashtanga shalas and practitioners across the country covering 29 states, capturing over 5,000 images of our practice’s rich and diverse experience and testimony.
Yoga: To Join; Unity
The diversity of our experience and testimony is meant to open the conversation for where Ashtanga is going and how we want it to be. Because yoga means unity. Not just the union of body/mind/heart sought through practicing. Rather, the unity between you and me—that we are bound together in this fabric of humanity. That together and collectively we are stronger than we are as individuals separately.
Together, we are addressing the painful issues we face today in regards to the #MeToo campaign. We are dismantling the power imbalance of the student/teacher paradigm. We are fostering a new culture of consent, ethics, and accountability. We vow to be the instruments of healing and change. We recognize that this practice, at its best, is medicinal; a therapeutic remedy. But it is only as sacred as we ourselves uphold with integrity. We must practice ahimsa (non-violence) and satya (truth) yoked with compassion, curiosity, and responsibility toward the culture we are creating.
We must be the change we wish to see. Only then, can there be healing.
While this is an unbelievably painful time in our lineage history, we have a rare opportunity to redefine what this practice really intends and means. We are committed to upholding the thread of our practice which remains wholesome and true while eradicating that which does not support the dignity of all beings who find refuge in these teachings.
Great beauty arises from the ash of our suffering. We are made stronger through our understanding. As individuals, we may not have been part of the problem, but we can be part of the solution by not contributing through acts of silencing, distancing, or minimizing the issues we are facing. Impactful change and healing can only occur when we are willing to roll up our sleeves and do the hard work, which can only be addressed collectively within our communities.
2019 marked an incredible year of Ātman research and study to continue and expand internationally in 2020. The completion of the project will commence with a photographic exhibition touring shalas across the country. This traveling gallery will include a symposium of speakers sharing experience, insight, and testimony as a continuation of our ongoing commitment toward creating safe and informed practices in our community.
It has always been of utmost importance to me that anything I create contributes to the betterment of humanity. Ten percent of all proceeds from the ĀtmanProject will be donated to the Joyful Heart Foundation in an effort to advocate, aid, and empower survivors of domestic and sexual violence while educating communities.
I understand that these efforts and offerings do not rewrite history. Some may even feel that I have no right to initiate this conversation because it did not directly affect me. In truth, these issues affect everybody. It is our duty to be good Samaritans in the cause of the practices we are endorsing.
May we strive to be the change we wish to see. Together we are stronger than we are divided or separately.
This is yoga. This is unity.
“What yoga demands is precisely what must be demanded by any authentic path of spiritual realization, that is, to surrender everything to the calling of unconditional love, and to meet the world, with all of its incessant cruelty, meanness, and injustice, with unrelenting forgiveness, kindness, and selfless generosity.” ~ Ty Landrum