There has been a lot said and written in the past months about Pattabhi Jois’s inappropriate assists and how to contextualize them in the practice we ashtanguis hold sacred; this has occurred as a legion of powerful and charismatic man are held accountable for crossing the line with so many women and in so many ways.
Recently, I went to practice at a friend’s shala after almost a year of practicing on my own. As she assisted me (very skillfully) in different postures, I realized how unused I have become to receiving adjustments in āsana. After months of solo practice, I found myself resistant to her touch, despite her tact and talent as a teacher. I left the room both curious and dismayed at how this had come to pass.
Almost two years ago, an adjustment unleashed considerable havoc in my body. The resulting injury was the product of a symphonic process of overwork, overteaching, and overpracticing, but what tipped me over the edge was a strong assist. Interestingly, my clinical diagnosis was hypermobility off the sacroiliac joint, which led to intense pain and muscle spasms. The real diagnosis, I came to believe, was being a featherweight: too insecure and flexible in the place where I most needed to be stable. I was simply unable to hold my ground.
The injury kept me up at night for months, obliterated my sense of well-being and led to me question the essential process of what happens in a Mysore room. It helped me to see how overly identified I was as the girl with the great kapotāsana and the easy eka pāda. But it also made me question why and how we give physical adjustments to practitioners at all. What is it that we are actually doing when we lay our hands on someone within the context of a yoga practice? How often are we imposing our ideas on someone else’s body and mind, trying to fit them into some concept of a pose (or of yoga itself)? This sounds obvious, but consider how profound this act of assisting can be, how much we presume to know and how wrong we can be. Is it possible to guide someone in a new direction without squashing them into our mental shape of what theirs should be? Is it possible to let them find their own way, holding up only a lantern along the path? I once saw a celebrated teacher physically slap a student when her feet dragged on the floor as she exited Bhujapidāsana; later, when I asked her if she was ok (assuming she was not), she answered, “That’s why I come here. For that.” Last year, I was in a room with another celebrated teacher who pushed us past our physical limits and shouted at us, interchanging our names with those of the āsanas we were performing. Both of these experiences required an ample quota of vairāgya or detachment — but most importantly from the teacher’s methods, as opposed to the practice itself. I am a big fan of discipline and dhāraṇā, but not martial law.
How did we get here? Since when is this yoga? Is that really how the observer rests in his/her/its true nature? Ahiṁsā, anyone?
Deeply unsure of any of the answers to these questions, I decided to take some time off from teaching Mysore. And I started practicing alone. I retreated into the safety of my private practice room, which involved leaving a lot of people out. Gone was the blissful, prelapsarian time when I could dissolve into the heat of tapas and try anything, everything. In its place, I discovered a whole new experience as a practitioner: limitation, frustration, pain, the knowledge that what I had done before I could do no longer. Or at least for a considerable time. I also discovered what it can be just to practice. Not for recognition or achievement or anything other than the experience of breath and movement. This is not news to anyone who has undergone a major injury, but it was to me.
Since then, my practice has demanded more honesty and sincerity than I ever needed back in the days when the hard poses came easily and I thought (secretly to myself) of most students as lazy. I never gave strong assists, but I certainly imagined that what I felt in my body was a possibility for others, or even, perhaps, what they needed. What I most treasure from this difficult experience is appreciating the difference between hubris and humility; one hurts, the other helps.
After the injury, I stopped “giving” postures to my students because I didn’t see the point of handing out more challenges, when everyone’s plate already seemed so full. I modified my own practice intuitively and felt more at ease, but my comfort had a heretical and solitary flavor. Several teachers tried to “fix” me, which turned out to be worse and more painful than being broken. I didn’t believe that I had the answers to my problems, but I wanted to seek them on my own.
At the height of my pain and fear, I went to the Yoga Workshop for the annual Teacher’s Intensive. I made sure everyone knew the calamitous shape that I was in, and I prayed only to survive each practice. No one gave me anything other than the gentlest adjustments, but I did receive considerable guidance. I became slightly less afraid and my body began to open. Although I believed that I had surrendered long ago to this practice and this lineage, in Boulder I realized that I had never really trusted the practice itself. Just the practice. In four weeks, my body and mind shifted more than I can describe. I received constant help and support in this process, but none of it involved being “put in the pose” or being told what to do. It turned out that I didn’t need fixing because I wasn’t broken.
During the middle of this miraculous experience, my neighbor in Boulder came home drunk one night and discovered that he didn’t have his keys. He knocked on my door and asked if he could jump from my balcony to his. This was a distance of at least ten feet, three stories high, and he was so drunk that he slurred every sentence. It also involved letting an inebriated stranger into my apartment at night. I explained that I didn’t want him to fall to his death and that I was sorry. He stood outside my door for twenty minutes haranguing me and then went away. I took a serious breath of relief, only to hear him return moments later with a grocery cart (from who knows where) which he started ramming against his own door in a Cro-Magnon effort to knock it down. Because of the proximity and flimsy construction of the two apartments, it was like being under siege. I texted my husband in Argentina (pointlessly) and told him what was happening, and then I sat as motionless as a frightened rabbit. While I cowered in the apartment, an experience from college took over my body. During my Freshman year, I was in my room getting dressed when the JV soccer coach wandered in, closed the door and demanded that I give him a hug. He had been partying all night with his players, before waking up and finding me. He was still just drunk enough that I was able to get him out of the room without anything else happening, but I’ll never forget when he shut the door behind him and filled the room with his body. I was still pulling up the straps of my overalls as he mumbled, “Come on, just one little hug.” I can’t remember how I got him out of the room, but I do remember how my body shook when he was gone.
This summer, while my neighbor in Boulder tried to break down his door, I felt every drop of hālahāla that this saṁskāra poured into my bloodstream. I also felt the blame I cast on the teacher who assisted me and the painful awareness that I had been unable to advocate for my own well-being. Shame and anger, anger and shame.
These experiences are so vivid and yet so multi-layered. Their accompanying emotions are primal and messy. Even now, I have a hard time separating them out, just as the #Me too movement blends a vast spectrum of abuse into a common catharsis. But the drunk soccer coach, the drunken neighbor and the overzealous adjustment share the common thread of force. All three of these experiences merge into what happens when one body overpowers another. This is not and never will be yoga.
Just last week, as my wonderful friend did her best to help me find some more space and comfort in my practice, I tried to let her in, but I realized that I’m still not ready. This may seem neurotic or overly dramatic, but the truth is that I never again want to be “put in the pose” or pushed beyond my limit. I have swung too far in the other direction, but I am hoping to swing back towards the center in my own time. In my personal practice, I am constantly working towards what Mary Taylor calls the “edge,” that place of exploration and uncertainty which lies at the outskirts of our possibilities; but the edge keeps us on the grounded side of the abyss. It requires bravery, not foolhardiness. It is a place best visited, I believe, on one’s own. I know that this is an unpopular and unusual approach to our practice, but I no longer accept the notion that cajoling people’s bodies into any particular shape is beneficial. There are so many ways to guide students, with and without our hands. There are so many ways to experience the rigor of āsana, breath and concentration.
I never met Pattabhi Jois in person. What I know about this controversy is what I have read. Clearly it is never ok to confuse assistance in āsana with indulging our sexual desire, and many other people have made this clear. What I want to address is that maybe it’s time that we eight-limbed yogins reconsider the art of the adjustment — and not just within the realm of sexual abuse. Why are we using our hands and bodies as teachers? How much are we empowering our students and how much are we creating dependency or reinforcing a power dynamic that serves no one? What are we really trying to accomplish?
If we don’t surrender to the heavy in the room, we are unlikely to deepen our practice, but if we surrender everything (including our best judgement or our intuition) than we are likely to give up far too much.
Last weekend I taught an āsana class for the first time in six months and remembered what a joyful experience it can be, how students open up so quickly, how we are all yearning for guidance. It’s a privilege to stand in that spot of trust amidst such vulnerability. It’s a risk we all take, teachers and students alike.
I hope that we can engage in this ongoing conversation in order to be a little more honest and a little less sure of what we have assumed to be true. Along the way, we might even overcome what our great teacher Patañjali calls, “the play of opposites.” This involves refusing to demonize anyone involved in the dialogue.
There’s that pesky mantra at the end of our practice that reminds us that we are practicing for others and not just for ourselves. Let’s remember what those words mean. As partners, parents, children, professionals, teachers. Let’s invite hope for others and hope for ourselves. Let’s breathe with sound and practice with meaning.
Lokāsamastā sukhino bhavantu