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I have practiced yoga for almost half of my life now – and over the past six years I have been an instructor, accumulating over 500 hours of training and teaching in studios and gyms, church halls and community centers all over London. When you’re the bookish type, years of teaching and learning mean accumulating books, from universal bestsellers to little flyers and press reviews. The shelf grows with your knowledge, and you build a cheerful little library of progress.
My first yoga classes were gentle and calming, an introduction to momentary peace that immediately hooked me. I know a lot of other teachers and students who tell similar stories: we are doing this because it worked when we first tried it. We felt calmer, stronger, more sure of ourselves. When I trained as a teacher in London, I learned to teach a style of vinyasa flow, based on the Ashtanga Vinyasa teachings of K. Pattabhi Jois.
Although he passed away in 2009, Jois remains a mainstay of the yoga industry, worth some $ 88 billion worldwide each year. His book Yoga Mala is on my shelf. His contemporary BKS Iyengar was named as one of the 100 most influential people in the world by TIME in 2004; he wrote Light on Yoga, such a ubiquitous book you’ll find on almost every teacher’s shelf.
I have other books too, like Jivamukti Yoga by David Life and Sharon Gannon, which I spoke about a few years ago. Or Yoga Nidra by Satyananda Saraswati, founder of the Bihar School of Yoga. I have a copy of The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali with commentary by Satchidananda Saraswati, the most famous for Woodstock opening: “I am delighted to see all of America’s youth gathered here in the name of the fine arts of music!” ”
Yes, I have plenty of books from various gurus and masters. Besides being heavy, you might ask yourself, what’s the problem? The problem is, everyone I have mentioned so far has been accused of outrageous levels of abuse and criminality – some have acknowledged and apologized, and some still go unnoticed even now. Charges of rape, physical and sexual assault, financial exploitation, coercive control, humiliating and degrading treatment, and extreme emotional and mental abuse have been pouring into the yoga community for decades. Until recently, no one was listening.
The next few paragraphs will be dark read, but there is a darkness in yoga that just isn’t talked about enough.
Although he looked like a good old guru when he spoke in Woodstock, Satchidananda Saraswati was charged with sexual assault in 1991, and a group protested with placards outside his hotel room with signs saying ‘STOP THE ABUS’.
that of Elliott Goldberg The path of modern yoga notes that BKS Iyengar was known among his students as “Beat, Kick, Slap,” a bastardization of nominative determinism that highlighted his long-term physical abuse against students.
Jois, creator of the Ashtanga yoga series-based practice phenomenon, was introduced as a prolific sex offender by Matthew Remski in Practice and All is Coming: Abus, Cult Dynamics and Healing in Yoga and Beyond. In 2018, one of his victims noted that she was assaulted three times a day by Jois while training with him, and continued to do some quick calculations, claiming that Jois “probably committed over 30,000 sexual assaults” during his teaching years.
There are videos of Jois and Iyengar committing crime after crime against their own students; it’s on YouTube even now. I have seen Jois push against his students as he “adjusts” them. I stared at my screen as Iyengar yells and slaps the students who aren’t performing well enough for him – while an audience watches, impassive.
Jivamukti Yoga was founded by David Life and Sharon Gannon, both students of Pattabhi Jois. In 2016, it turned out to be the hotbed of sectarian-type abuse and humiliation. Lawsuit against senior teacher for sexual harassment settled for an undisclosed sum; in his book, Remski detailed the use of nondisclosure agreements and negotiation tools like tuition reimbursement to keep students silent about the culture of Jivamukti training, which featured prospective teachers crawling on his hands and knees to kiss Life and Gannon’s feet.
I have a copy of Richard Miller IRest Program for Curing PTSD – and his Yoga Nidra. Miller’s work, like Satyandanda’s Yoga Nidra, has been fundamental to the development of yoga nidra as a whole – yet Satyananda has been charged with violent sexual assault and indecent assault on a child and Miller resigned from iRest in 2021, accused of sexual harassment – that his organization attempted to circumvent with an NDA.
While I was fortunate enough to avoid the wholesale horror of Bikram Choudhury, he is also an author, with several books available for sale even after the Netflix documentary which publicized his crimes – sexual, physical, financial and emotional – to a wider audience.
My practice is still derived from everything I have read. In fact, my entire training is underpinned by Pattabhi Jois’ legacy, which makes me uncomfortable to say the least. At the same time, throwing everything in the trash will not be a widely adopted response either. Teachers have invested years and thousands of dollars to develop something that can be shared, and when it’s shared well, with informed consent and a community at its heart, it’s wonderful.
So what to do at this crossroads in the road? It is impossible to remove creators from their creations and it is clear even now that the yoga industry has a long way to go in creating real safety for practitioners, casual or dedicated. Throwing away books seems like a sin to me, but using them is no longer an option either. What do we do with the carefully cultivated asana practice taught by Jois? Should we never try yoga nidra again? If the millions of copies of Light on yoga to be mulched?
About a year after I started teaching, I found my own way of doing things. Jois may have created sequences, but I don’t have to follow them; no one does. It is up to us, as teachers and practitioners, to find new ways forward, supporting each other in a practice where ethics must simply come first.
To practice yoga in my class is to participate in a democracy. If my students don’t feel like doing something I teach, that’s fine with me. I no longer offer physical adjustments; my students know their bodies better than I do. Sometimes if I’ve had a student for years and they ask for adjustments, we talk about a method that works for both of us. The yoga mat is a shared space and, unfortunately, a shared risk.
Over the years, I have become nervous about my approach. Shouldn’t I adhere to what I’ve been taught? What if the students don’t like the way I do things? And then I remember: it’s a democracy and they don’t have to hang around if it’s not for them. And I don’t have to teach like the predators wanted.
I haven’t thrown away the books I mentioned here, although I haven’t opened any for many months. Perhaps subconsciously, I take them as a caveat: It’s all too easy to get carried away by the promises of a largely unregulated wellness industry.
Instead, I added it to my shelves. Uma Dinsmore-Tuli’s Yoni Shakti defines a set of ethics intended to ensure the safety of practitioners, and Theodora Wildcroft has published her academic research in Post-lineage yoga, a review of what yoga can be like when we practice solidarity on and off the mat.
I look forward to an honest yoga publication future that is based on good principles and open to dialogue and development. The most recent work cited here is by white authors, and I hope as time goes by and more people come forward to discuss the issues in the yoga industry, we will also see a wider range of voices in our yoga books.
Coffee table books with cute poses are adorable – but I want to read the must-have books that will blow up the roof. My yoga books are no longer about poses, meditation, and breathing. The shelf needs a new purpose: autonomy, ethics, solidarity. The textbooks of those who behaved badly will stick around and get dusty, a reminder that what is presented to us must be understood if we are to move forward in good faith.