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 United States. Their allegations include that he rubbed his genitals against their pelvises while they were in extreme backbends, lying on top of them. At the same time, they were prostrate on the floor, and i. They insertedngers 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 Shri K. Pattabhi Jois Ashtanga Yoga Institute director and the param guru (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, 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.”
Jois was born in 1915, in the rural village of Kowshika, in South India and spent the first thirty-two years of his life living under British colonial rule. One day at school, when he was twelve, he attended a lecture in which a yoga instructor named Sri Krishnamacharya demonstrated several asanas, or poses. Jois ran away from home at fourteen, reunited with Krishnamacharya a few years later, and proceeded to study with him for twenty-five years. He created Ashtanga, a form of yoga that involves a series of rigorous athletic poses that students are encouraged to practice six times a week. Beginning in the seventies, students flocked to Mysore to study with Jois, and, as his following grew, so did his fame and influence. Some students stayed in Mysore for months or even years to perfect their poses. Others came to venerate the teacher, prostrating themselves at his feet. Female students later complained that he sometimes kissed them on the mouth without their consent and patted their buttocks when they hugged him or bowed before him. Jubilee Cooke, a fifty-three-year-old former student who says that Jois groped her during yoga sessions, didn’t realize that his behavior was something that she could report. “I didn’t know it was called sexual assault until I heard political pundits talking about what Trump had done on the ‘Access Hollywood’ tapes,” she told me.
Alex Auder, the forty-eight-year-old founder of Magu Yoga, a studio in Philadelphia, has been one of Jois’s most vocal critics. During the late nineteen-nineties, Auder taught at Jivamukti in New York City, where Ashtanga first grew popular in the United States. But, in the past decade, she has become increasingly skeptical of some aspects of the practice. Initially, her criticisms focussed on the poses themselves, which she believes Jois designed with little regard for how women would enact them. “The physical practice is totally off base—it’s patriarchal,” she told me. “For many women’s bodies, it simply doesn’t work.” (To illustrate this point, she recently posted a picture on Instagram of Sharath Jois assisting a pregnant woman to “drop back” from a standing position into a backbend, which struck Auder as ill-advised.) For the past five years, Auder has written about the increasing commodification of yoga, called “neo-spiritualism”—an alliance between yoga and neoliberalism. Such criticism is not taken lightly in the Ashtanga community; according to Auder and others, those who speak out are often ostracized. “Sharath kicked anyone off the list of sanctioned teachers who ever criticized Pattabhi Jois or Ashtanga,” she told me. (Sharath did not respond to requests for comment on this article.)
For Karen Rain, a fifty-one-year-old former student who says that Jois repeatedly assaulted her between 1994 and 1998 at his studio in Mysore, the fear of being ostracized kept her from telling anyone about the abuse. “I knew it would bring me criticism and slander,” she told me. She was certain that her fellow students would turn on her if she made her allegations public, and, in 2002, she left Ashtanga. “It destroyed my life as I knew it,” she said. “I loved the practice and was hoping to build my life and career around it.” In 2018, she told her story on Medium and included photographs showing Jois pressing his crotch to hers while lifting her leg above her head. “Since the images are still photographs, you don’t really see that he’s humping me,” she told me.
Anneke Lucas, a fifty-six-year-old former student, who now works as an advocate for survivors of sexual abuse and is the founder of Liberation Prison Yoga, confronted Jois the moment he groped her crotch, during a class in Manhattan in 2001, and told him that he could go to prison for touching her like that. After she spoke out, she felt that her experience wasn’t taken seriously by other students and teachers, which she found more harmful than the assault. “I was far more hurt by the culture of silence and ignoring the victim and victim-blaming than the abuse itself,” she told me. “If there would’ve been support from the community, and it had been dealt with, it would have gone away.” Cooke has called out the magazine Yoga Journal for favorable articles published about Jois in the nineties. “Whether or not they did it consciously, it was grooming,” she said. “Encouraging people to go study with Pattabhi Jois and expect good things from him.”
Last year, Auder became Facebook friends with Rain, Lucas, and Cooke, and the four began discussing what they saw as Ashtanga’s toxic sexual culture. At first, Auder wasn’t sure how to process the severity of the women’s claims. “I’m a product of the seventies,” she told me, “and I don’t mind a pat on the ass.” But as the number of accusers grew over the last year, she came to see that what others called “inappropriate adjustment” was really a pattern of sexual abuse and that the powerful following that had grown up around Jois had helped to keep his accusers silent. After that, on Instagram, she called for an official response from Ashtanga leaders.
Instead of putting the controversy to rest, the statement that Sharath issued last week has kicked off a flurry of angry responses from people who argue that it comes too late and that it reads like an attempt to end the controversy rather than a genuine effort to set things right. Critics accused Sharath of shirking blame for himself or his family and instead accusing other students of failing to protect their fellow practitioners. “Why did they not act in support of their fellow students, peers, girlfriends, boyfriends, wives, husbands, friends and speak against this?” he asks. He followed this up with another statement, in which he grew more defensive. “You can criticize me whatever you want,” he wrote on Instagram, punctuating his post with crying-face emojis. “I have always respected & supported women. My students know it & god knows it.” The post has since been deleted.