Power Trip

‘Yoga Guru Pattabhi Jois Sexually Assaulted Me for Years’

It took me 20 years to reclaim my agency and overturn the shame

[Content warning: This post contains photographs of sexual assault, published with consent from the victim.]

WWhen the stories about Brett Kavanaugh emerged, there were photos of him everywhere. I wondered how this impacted the women who came forward. Would seeing all those photos — not to mention live televised testimony — cause distress and remind them of the torment they have described? Or would it be reassuring to see photographs of him alongside articles written and read by millions of people who believe and support them?

Photos of the man who sexually assaulted me are ubiquitous. While he is not currently part of the national conversation, his image can be found in yoga studios and on altars all over the world. These photos are placed in reverence and adoration — despite what I and many other people know about him.

For a total of two years during the mid-1990s, I studied yoga in Mysore, India, with Pattabhi Jois, the founder of an athletic and intense yoga practice he called Ashtanga. It is arguably one of the most influential and popular styles of yoga in the world. During that time, Pattabhi Jois assaulted me, along with many other women in his classes, on an almost-daily basis.

At the time, the idea that the guru of this system could be abusing me seemed impossible.

I wanted to believe he was transferring a healing energy to me by touching me that way.

Practicing Ashtanga yoga gave me a sense of purpose and meaning. I was part of an elite group of certified teachers and advanced practitioners. It was my career and my passion. I felt healthy, fit, and capable. I had a sense of fulfillment; I had found where I belonged.

I also couldn’t bear the idea of being a victim. The very word carries with it a stigma I had internalized to mean flawed, weak, or pitiable. In order not to feel or be seen as those things, I deceived myself. I believed that Pattabhi Jois was not sexually abusing me. At times I even tried to glorify the sexual assaults. I wanted to believe what some people claimed, and still do, that Pattabhi Jois was transferring a healing energy to me by touching me that way. Rather than feeling pitiable, that thinking would allow me to feel lucky, like I was being blessed.

This may sound like consent on my part, but the power differential, and my fear of the repercussions if I protested — losing my friends, my career, and my sense of belonging — made consent impossible. I was powerless. Here was a yoga master, a heavy man, lying on top of me, humping me, while I was in compromising postures. I acquiesced. I endured. I tried to tune it out.

I did not consent.

I now choose to use the word victim, because for me, it speaks to my innocence in a situation of injustice.

TThere are complaints against Pattabhi Jois, both in Mysore and while he was on international tours, that span three decades. Women have described being kissed, groped, dry humped, and digitally raped by Jois.

For me, the most frequent and dehumanizing form of assault was when he placed his penis against my genitals and moved his pelvis rhythmically, while I held my body still in various yoga poses — something you can see in this photograph.

In the photo of me in a backbend, he is not even using his hands. His pelvic region, his genitals are the only thing making contact with my body, my pelvic region, my genitals.

Despite the obvious truth these photos tell, there are countless practitioners who would deny that they depict sexual assault. I know. I used to be a part of that group. The sexual assaults were chalked up as part of Pattabhi Jois’ hands-on method of teaching. Besides, the photos show people practicing on all sides of me, my friends were nearby, and one was even taking photos. It couldn’t possibly be assault with this many people around — could it?

I want the photos to be a call for everyone to examine whether they are dismissing or overlooking sexual abuse.

My younger self had normalized his behavior. Like many people in abusive situations, it took me quite a while to leave. I continued studying with Pattabhi Jois in Mysore for two years while he assaulted me. Often, we don’t realize how bad things are until after we get out. It took me years to clearly understand — to clearly see — what happened.

I am now taking a more radical step of reclamation by sharing the images that have haunted me for more than 20 years.

II left Mysore in 1998, thinking Pattabhi Jois was unethical and wasn’t fit to be a yoga teacher, let alone a venerated one. However, the realization and understanding of the severity of his abuses of power didn’t come instantaneously. At first, I minimized what he did to me. It took years for me to say the words: Pattabhi Jois sexually assaulted me.

In Ashtanga yoga, being stoic is revered, and continuing to practice regardless of pain or discomfort is considered commendable. In addition, women are often appreciated for enduring hardship, thus I’d been conditioned not to complain and to downplay my suffering. I knew intuitively the community would dismiss any disclosure on my part and that I would encounter criticism, stigma, and disdain. Rather than speak up, I chose to disappear.

I intentionally arranged my life to avoid seeing his photos and being retraumatized by the image of his prestige and power. I removed myself from my community and friends and reformed my career and my dreams. I stopped teaching and practicing yoga. I even changed my last name.

It was many years before I could say the words: Pattabhi Jois sexually assaulted me.

When I see him in glorified or even cheerful photos, I reexperience the trauma response. I freeze, and I struggle to interpret the signals my body is sending me. I can’t tell what’s safe and what isn’t. My mind shuts down — something that is encouraged in Ashtanga yoga, where you’re aiming to surrender your body and mind to the practice. And surrendering to Pattabhi Jois — or “Guruji,” an honorific reserved for beloved teachers — was highly valued. One’s level of devotion was directly proportional to one’s merit within the Ashtanga community.

It took 20 years to find the courage to write about it, and that’s thanks to the many brave victims of sexual violence who shared their stories before I did. The pervasive shaming and blaming of victims, in ways both harsh and subtle, make it nearly impossible to avoid further harm from speaking up. I’m sharing my story because I want to be a part of building a world that is safer and more welcoming for victims to recognize and report abuse when it happens, where we will be believed and protected.

I consented to publishing these images in part because they are evidence of Pattabhi Jois abusing me, but also because he should be remembered this way: He was not just the smiling guru on the yoga altar. He was also a man who violated women in full view of other people. I want the photos to be a call for everyone to examine whether they are dismissing or overlooking sexual abuse in any way.

Karen Rain is a tutor, writer, queer feminist, activist and nature lover.

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