#MeToo Rouses a Yoga Community

By Anneke Lucas

The #MeToo movement has inspired many women to come forward, including in the yoga world. One woman, Karen Rain, shared her story of abuse by the founder of the Ashtanga yoga method, Sri K. Pattabhi Jois, in the wake of the viral #MeToo on social media in 2017. Her accounts have been making waves and were followed by others indicating the pervasiveness of the problem. Rain was an advanced practitioner who had spent much time with the guru in India. She writes that he assaulted women in class, in plain view of everyone who cared to look.

I was sexually assaulted by Pattabhi Jois in a workshop in New York in 2001. My first article about the abuse came out in 2010 and was re-published in 2016. There were few reactions, none of which were from the Ashtanga world. Here is the article, edited to reflect what I’ve learned since the #MeToo revelations.

A few days into a workshop in 2001, with 400 or so students curled up into plow pose, I was suddenly groped by Pattabhi Jois. In absolute shock, I rolled to sitting.

Between the moment of the assault and my reaction, I felt the energy of something ancient and dirty as well as his excitement — like a little boy getting away with mischief.

He remonstrated: “Bad lady!” and I heard the mild laughter of the crowd at the guru’s joke.

Sri Krishna Pattabhi Jois was born in 1915. He came from a patriarchal culture, a poor orthodox family at 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 unthinkingly unleashed scorn and frustrations from countless injustices onto their broods, the only people over whom they had power, perpetuating the secret legacy of worthlessness that is at the crux of the dominator paradigm.

Anneke, age 10

I was born in 1963, in Belgium. At the age of six I was trafficked into a pedophile network, which was mentioned in the scandal that rocked Europe in the 1990s after Marc Dutroux was arrested in connection to child murders. The violence I endured was all gender-based. At age 11, I was rescued by an insider and given precise survival instructions, which included moving to New York. Following these instructions enabled me to spend my adult life in the context of healing, a privilege rarely enjoyed by people with a background as violent as mine. Ashtanga yoga was part of that healing.

A few days after being sexually assaulted at the workshop I got in the customary long line of students who were waiting for an audience with their guru after class. When it was my turn, I asked, in his own broken English to better make myself understood:

“Guruji, why you no respect women?”

“I no understand! I no understand!” He cried out, waving his hand assertively like this was not a topic he was willing to broach.

“In this country, it is against the law to touch women on their genitals or their buttocks. It is against the law!” I stressed.

“Okay, tomorrow I no touch!” he sneered.

The next morning, we sped through the fastest-ever led class. Jois scowled and counted quickly, not adjusting anyone, not saying anything to make the crowd laugh. Worldly power is often a shield warding off the sense of worthlessness and shame resulting from humiliations in childhood. Poke that shield and you get childishness.

I experienced plenty of humiliation in childhood, observing men of power — heads of state, businessmen, and aristocrats — sink to the lowest depths, all for a fix of their power addiction. Every rape came with an invisible package of feelings, which the abusers needed to exorcise and put into me. I would feel dirty, guilty, cheap, ashamed, worthless, and so on. Having to finely attune myself to these men for my survival, I got a firsthand look into their psyches, and often saw their own abused child self, which called on me, the victim, in this most twisted way, to relieve them of their suffering. Pattabhi Jois merely added his own projection based on what I assume was his own unresolved childhood trauma.

In the network I had been stabbed in the knees and tortured. Ashtanga yoga proved the perfect physical therapy. Many of its forms replicated postures I was made to take on during abuse, sometimes triggering the freeze mode, in which the body relaxes to survive. In the past, my spirit was often completely dissociated from the body as I observed details in the surroundings I would have never been able to see with the naked eye. I grew up without body consciousness below the ribcage, the ribcage itself permanently extended from holding my breath in fear. With Ashtanga yoga, practiced at my own pace, I found a way to remain present, assuage fears, and heal the body. The fear would come; the physical or emotional pain would come; and I would listen.

Anneke presenting a TEDx Talk titled "From Child Sex Slavery to Victory: My Healing Journey"

In the first two years after taking up Ashtanga yoga, I heard that Pattabhi Jois had an amazing awareness about bodies. My acquaintances, female and male, told me they trusted him to break their body into pieces and put it back together again. I was curious if this revered teacher would have any intuition about the type and depth of healing I received from my practice, or even if he might guess at my trauma. His assault answered my questions.

When an Ashtanga yoga friend was condemning Trump at the Woman’s March, I asked her how Trump’s pussy grabbing was any different from Pattabhi Jois’. She replied:

“I have had only positive experiences with Guruji, and if you had the opposite, I am sorry. I can only speak on what I went through personally, and for me, the Ashtanga practice has always been a source of healing and empowerment.”

She and the many others who continue to insist that the guru was wonderful are showing levels of denial that point straight back to their own underlying unresolved trauma, which often finds a familiar and comfortable repeat in a dysfunctional guru-disciple relationship, in which the painful aspects of the trauma are split off and projected out through interactions such as the one with me — unable to respect me or empathize, unable to acknowledge his wrongdoing, and confusing the man with benefits of the practice.

Senior Ashtanga teachers have made little headway in responding to the avalanche of #MeToo stories about their guru. Most remain stoically silent. The Ashtanga Yoga Institute, currently run by Pattabhi Jois’ grandson, Sharath Jois, has failed to issue a statement.

Tim Feldmann, director of a major Ashtanga studio in Miami, Florida, wrote these tone-deaf reflections in an article viewed more than 43,000 times at the time of this publication: “The question that springs to mind is why Jois touched these women’s lady parts during yoga class. Was he healing or molesting? Your guess is as good as mine, and there are many opinions circulating at present.”

However, there have been positive developments. In response to the revelations about Pattabhi Jois’ behavior, and to Karen Rain's call for reform in the Ashtanga Yoga community, some Ashtanga teachers authorized by the Jois family have initiated restorative actions. As Jois’ Wikipedia page details, these actions “include removing Jois' picture from practice rooms, no longer using the honorific ‘Guruji’ to refer to Jois, fostering the practice of affirmative consent in relation to hands-on adjustments, and committing to sharing the testimony of victims.”

With a guru leaving a legacy of misogynistic abuse, adult disciples take on the roles of innocent (abused) children, blind to the dark side of their guru, staying in fear-based love. Many others have publicly blamed the victims and stated their guru was helping, not hurting. My childhood experience of sex trafficking has been publicly used by critics as fodder, supposedly proving my confusion, in that I would find abuse where there is none. Others justify or excuse the guru, lovingly referring to his "flaws" or "humanness.” Of those who do apologize to victims, many make a point to state in the same paragraph how loving the guru was to them. There often seems to be little appetite for summoning the courage to confront the truth of the man.

Anneke photo taken by Francesca Magnani

Love requires courage. Any person with power will be tempted to allow their weaknesses to flourish, exactly because followers are so ready to excuse them. A guru, living or dead, needs disciples who love him enough to be honest. Those who were too weak to confront Pattabhi Jois during his lifetime have a chance to come clean. Granted, to unpack attachment to an authority figure whom you loved for decades is never an easy thing. To publicly acknowledge the harm they caused and the harm you caused as a result of your attachment, requires humility and respect for the victims. To do these difficult things for the sake of truth and your own healing is to take yoga beyond the mat and live it.

All abuse of power is essentially a rejection of feelings too painful for the perpetrator. Denial is emotionally similar: a rejection of feelings that are too uncomfortable or painful. Whether it’s a murder, an insult, a sexual assault, or blaming the victim — all these are deflection tactics to avoid confronting core issues, keeping at bay powerlessness and feelings of shame, worthlessness, humiliation, etc. These are the very feelings that were once taken on during one’s own emotional, physical, or sexual abuse. Honesty brings one beyond these fears and leads to healing grief over the original loss or betrayal, which alone can return a person to their original state of innocence.

Every harmful act is a misguided attempt at reclaiming one’s innocence. In the role of victim, the adult hopes for a different outcome, even though they attract people and circumstances that lead to self-harm. In the role of the sibling, the passive bystander keeps quiet so as not to get in trouble with the sick authority figure. They may go into shock and dissociate, disbelieving what they see or minimizing it, and in their silence and inaction perpetuate harm. In the role of the abusive power figure, momentary relief and a sense of freedom are experienced, but because it is without conscious awareness, the same relief has to be sought repeatedly, as in an addiction, harming multiple victims.

Power offers the illusion of freedom, even as it imprisons its slaves, surrounding their vulnerable, hurt self with the thick walls of an armed fortress. Empowerment brings that part to light, safely, by acceptance and nurturance. Power hides that part, perversely showing the world aggression instead of strength, control over others instead of self-control, and dehumanization instead of respect.

Without healing, trauma remains in the body, and focus remains outward, on the body or, in this context, on yoga postures. Ashtanga is the most physically extreme form of yoga. When I was practicing in the studio, everyone’s attention was on mastering the next posture, on moving forward to the more advanced series. The more advanced the postures, the more respected the practitioner.

Healing brings a person into the truth and feelings that are repressed during trauma. The mental and emotional integration that follows the resolution of grief over past abuse expands consciousness and increases awareness of the self — and, as a reflection, awareness of the outer world. Emotional healing is the spiritual work required for yoga in the West to reflect the ancient science in its fullness: a true path towards personal enlightenment.

Pattabhi Jois did not practice the yoga he taught by the time I met him. He charged hefty prices for people to study with him and wore ostentatious gold jewelry. Annoyed as he was after our conversation back in 2001, on the next day he slowed the pace, and the day after that he was back to adjusting, this time paying attention to men and older women, helping some students with particular issues and poses.

On the last day of the workshop I got back in line, with my three-month old daughter. When Jois saw me, he smiled an ingenious, almost grateful smile. He stretched his arms forward to take my baby. Holding her out in front of him so their eyes were level, he zapped her — his eyes transparent with light — and my baby zapped him back, jubilantly flailing her little arms and legs as if she was going to bound right out of her little body into the realm of pure joy where their spirits were meeting.

Anneke speaking about the Belgian network of high-profile pedophiles in an interview on CUNY-NY

It was the first time in my life that I was able to make a positive connection with someone who had touched me inappropriately. I had spoken up many times before, even in the pedophile network, where it could have easily cost my life. It was a matter of the soul for me, in that if I had remained silent I would have died inside — and that was worse than losing the body. Had I remained silent, I would have become like the abusers.

Jois was not a hardened criminal like the world leaders I met as a child, but he did cause a lot of harm — to himself, to women, and to all those who looked to him as an example. Apparently, he never experienced the discomfort that precedes accountability and never mended his ways. But he was open enough to accept my correction, and that is rare.

Though I still have a home Ashtanga practice to this day, I never traveled to Mysore to study at the Ashtanga Yoga Institute. I did return to a few more workshops with Pattabhi Jois in New York. At one of these, I noticed him zero in on a woman during a standing forward bend. I stood up and turned towards him, arms crossed, staring. His grandson Sharath had planted himself behind the woman’s mat, standing guard as well. Through 20 long counts, Jois' hands moved in closer, then farther, then closer to her backside. He looked like he was dying to touch her, yet he never did.

After practice, I once again got in line and was greeted by a humorous flicker of recognition. Wordlessly, he conveyed that he wanted me to greet him Indian style. The idea of bowing to a man who had groped me some years back, who had never apologized and presently wanted me to surrender at his feet, created a unique conundrum. I did not want to be humiliated again. The power balance between us was still uneven. It was easy to see why he wanted people to bow down to him. The easy choice would be not to bow.

As long as the threat of humiliation lingers, there is no room for humility. Surrendering to another person is dangerous, but surrender to what is, can relax the ego and allow humility. I had not been heard, seen, or understood about what had happened between this man and myself. All I’d had was my healthy pride, gained from overcoming many obstacles on the long road to recovery — the spiritual journey.

The choice to do something or not was entirely mine. I chose to let go. I let go of him, of what he had done, of all knowledge and reserve, got on my knees, and brought my hands from his feet to my forehead, three times.

I experienced a cleansing. Innocence and purity were mine. Surrender created a sweet release and openness. I felt attuned to the young boy this man had been, a boy in pain, and found understanding and forgiveness for the man.

I became aware of Jois' nasal voice with his strong Indian accent: “Very good. Very good.”

Remembering his restraint towards the female student during forward bends, I smiled, pointed at him, and replied:

"You too, very good!"

An explosion of his laughter filled the room.

Some years later I was teaching Ashtanga yoga. I never missed a day of teaching, except once: I had been awake during the night and something told me not to go in the next morning, so the studio was closed for the day.

It was the morning of May 18, 2009. The day Jois died.

Anneke Lucas is a public speaker, author, and advocate for survivors of sex trafficking. She is the founder and Executive Director of the nonprofit organization, Liberation Prison Yoga, bringing yoga and empowerment programs to prisons, training yoga instructors to work with traumatized populations, and educating the general public about trauma.

In 2013, she started two groups at the Rikers Island jail for female survivors of sex-trafficking. She herself survived some of the worst atrocities known to humankind before reaching the age of 12. Sold as a young child into a murderous pedophile network by her family, she was dramatically rescued after five-and-a-half years of abuse and torture.

Her background, the obstacles she overcame, and the insights she received into the nature of the human psyche on her 30-year journey to mental and physical health, form the basis of the Unconditional Model, a way to effectively share any healing modality, which she developed for Liberation Prison Yoga.

Anneke graduated from the MFA Screenwriting program at American Film Institute in 1993, published a novel in Belgium in 1997 on the subject of sexual abuse, and has written many articles about yoga and sexual trauma. She is currently working on a book about healing for survivors of trauma.

Click here to watch (and read the transcript) of Anneke’s May 6, 2018 video interview in Catalyst, “Anneke Lucas on Restoring the Female Principle Through Healing From Personal and Global Trauma.”

Click here to read Anneke’s April 2017 article in Catalyst, “Finding Forgiveness in Healing From Trauma.”

Click here to read a New York Times article featuring Anneka.

Click here to read the March 21, 2017, NBC News article on Anneke, “Human Trafficking in Hotels: New York Lawmaker Teams Up With Advocate.”

Click here to watch Anneke’s TEDx Talk, “From Child Sex Slavery to Victory - My Healing Journey”

Click here to watch Anneke’s 6-minute video and accompanying essay on GlobalCitizen.org titled “My Name Is Anneke Lucas and I Was a Sex Slave to Europe's Elite at Age 6.” Click here to watch Anneke's companion 5-minute video, "Anneke Lucas Talks About Her Mom, Society And Emotional Maturity."

Click here to read Anneke’s January 2017 interview in the U.K.'s Daily Mail.

Click here to watch a 24-minute documentary called “The World & I” about Anneke’s past and her prison work.

Click here to sign Anneke's petition to help victims of sex trafficking.

Click here to email Anneke.

Catalyst is produced by The Shift Network to feature inspiring stories and provide information to help shift consciousness and take practical action. To receive Catalyst twice a month, sign up here.

This article appears in: 2018 Catalyst, Issue 14: #MeToo