Who's Got The Power?
A few days into the Asthanga workshop in the year 2000 with Sri K. Pattabhi Jois in the Puck Building in New York, with four hundred or so students curled up into Halasana, I was suddenly groped by the guru. In absolute shock I rolled to sitting and found myself staring across the room at Sharath, Pattabhi Jois' grandson, who stared back looking as horrified as I felt. I heard Pattabhi Jois remonstrating: "Bad Lady!" and the mild laughter of the crowd at the guru's old joke. In disbelief, I crouched on all fours to look into Pattabhi Jois' eyes. He smiled as if he had no idea what had just transpired, and said: "You no come out of pose." I sensed that if I were to respond in public, he would have felt the humiliation he had just made me feel, gotten angry, and sent me packing; I thought I might be banned from the ashtanga world altogether, and held my tongue.
Sri Krishna Pattabhi Jois was born in 1915. He came from a patriarchic culture, a poor, starkly religious family, and a time in which natural bodily functions were considered dirty, sexuality was taboo, physical and sexual abuse of children prolific, and misogyny taken for granted. Self-hating women who loved their children unthinkingly unleashed scorn and frustrations from countless injustices onto their broods, the only ones over whom they had real power, perpetuating the secret legacy of worthlessness that is at the crux of the old-world dominator paradigm.
A few days after the incident, after early morning practice, I got in the customary long line of students who one by one were given audience with their guru. Most people prostrated themselves before his feet, and I thought it was really strange so many Westerners seemed to have such an easy time at it, since it's foreign to our culture. When it was my turn, I asked:
- "Guruji, why you no respect women?"
- "I no understand! I no understand!"
- "In this country it is against the law to touch women on their genitals or their buttocks. It is against the law!"
- "Okay, tomorrow I no touch!"
And that was that. The next morning, we sped through the fastest ever led primary class. Pattabhi Jois was in quite a mood, and didn't adjust anyone. I had told a friend about my private conversation with the guru of the previous day, and we were full of glee. Throughout the practice, the more annoyed Pattabhi Jois sounded, the more we laughed.
Worldly power often is a great shield warding off the sense of worthlessness resulting from humiliations in childhood. It took me many hours of analysis to understand that, though I felt horribly humiliated by Pattabhi Jois, it was even harder that I hadn't mattered at all, as if, just because I was a woman, I could be treated as if I were completely worthless. I had felt it! That's why it was so difficult. The physical trespass was one thing, and our short conversation another, but there was no hope for an apology or chance to get reimbursed for the workshop had I wanted to opt out. I didn't have the courage to ask: the guru's power was absolute in that ballroom, and making such demands would have felt irreverent. I took on the sense of worthlessness. And I think that was the point. All abuse of power is essentially a rejection of feelings that are too painful for the perpetrator. Each insult, each trespass helps him see the fear of these negative qualities outside of himself, once again proves that it is not he who is worthless. Every criminal act is on some level a misguided attempt at reclaiming one's innocence.
Annoyed as Pattabhi Jois was the first day after our conversation, the day after that he slowed the pace somewhat, and the next day he was back to adjusting, now paying attention to men and elderly women, helping some students with particular issues and poses, and I began to see what so many others saw in him: it was obvious that he was a great teacher: he exuded all this love; it was just shining from his eyes. This had been absent in the early days of the workshop, when he had been busy with certain women, obviously focusing on something besides helping them.
As loving as he was, he was also known to inspire fear and it was said he was unpredictable; like a wise man who reads your mind and helps you with life lessons, or like a dangerous parental figure - or both. The atmosphere in the Soho ballroom was extremely intense: hundreds of students expecting greatness from the man who had taken on the part, one who fluidly conformed to the mental image his disciples projected, who absorbed the love and, at times, shined it back at them. If at other times he was mean and humiliated them, students could look for a life lesson (i.e.: The ego has to go!) so as to continue to protect and love the yoga master. Attachment born of fear is blinding.
On the last day of the 2000 workshop, after the last intermediate practice, I got back on line, holding my three-month old daughter in my arms. When Pattabhi Jois saw me, he smiled an ingenious, almost grateful smile. Then he took my baby in his hands and zapped her: his eyes were transparent with light; my baby responded by zapping him back, jubilantly flailing her little arms and legs as if she was going to bound right out that little body of hers and disappear into the realm of pure joy where they both met.
Pattabhi Jois really was unusual in the sense that he didn't stay mad. Anyone else would have tried to make me pay big time, but he was kind of okay with being corrected. I continued to practice ashtanga yoga, though never traveled to Mysore to study with him. I did return to the workshop whenever he came back to New York. At one of these workshops, I noticed Pattabhi Jois focusing in on a woman during prasarita padhottanasana. I stood up and turned towards him, hands on hips, staring. Sharath had planted himself behind the woman's mat, and stood guard, arms crossed. Throughout all four prasarita padhottanasanas, Pattabhi Jois looked like he was dying to touch the woman, but he never did. After the practice I once again got on line. Without a word or gesture, the yoga master taught me how to pranam, Indian style, giving form to surrender. I finally understood what that had been long in the making: that I was very much in need to bow down to something. My ego had to go! I found a measure of humility without fear of humiliation, and brought my hands from his feet to my forehead, three times. Pattabhi Jois said: 'Very good, very good.' It's conceivable that my act of surrender was feeding the damaged ego of Pattabhi Jois, but it wouldn't have mattered: it seemed rather he was vicariously enjoying a pleasure he had once known and lost, and for me it was a relief to bow to the man who had once touched me inappropriately and let go of the anger: it purified me. I got up and, referring to his restraint during the class, said: 'You too, very good!' The sound of Pattabhi Jois' big, hearty laughter filled the room.
When my friend Sarah Willis opened an ashtanga-based studio in Brooklyn in 2007, she asked me to come and teach, and I accepted. I never missed a day, except once: I had been awake during the night, and something told me not to go in the next morning. I texted Sarah, and not knowing why I wasn't coming in said I was sick, and she closed the studio for the day. It was the morning of May 18, 2009, the day Pattabhi Jois died.