Abhijata Iyengar - IYNAUS 2019

A Pedagogy of Abuse: The Trouble with Abhijata Iyengar’s Address

“Problems cannot be solved with the same mindset that created them.”

~ Albert Einstein

She seems like a genuinely sincere woman and I wish her well in her new leadership role at the helm of the Iyengar yoga lineage.  Her speech at the recent IYNAUS convention in Dallas, Texas, which has been touted as a “Light on #MeToo” moment, was actually a “lite #me too” moment, saying incredibly little about the causative factors that have led to sexual abuse in the Iyengar yoga fold; ostensibly the very reason Abhijata was speaking about the subject of touch in the first place.  Nor did she allude to any practical actions that might be taken to prevent abuse from happening in the future.  Instead, Abhijata digressed into a switchback detour on the importance of touch in Iyengar yoga, giving a veritable dissertation on the significance of “intention” when touching and how it would be a great loss to the method if Iyengar teachers stopped touching their students altogether. While the granddaughter of B.K.S. Iyengar failed to speak about the elephant in the room, (the horrific findings of an independent investigative report revealing decades of sexual molestation by one of the methods senior-most teachers, Manouso Manos, now decertified) what Abhijata Iyengar did say uncovers, at least in part, the unconscious pedagogical assumptions that not only pave the way towards making sexual abuse more likely, but have been instrumental in the worldwide adoption of unsound “adjustment” techniques.

Let’s begin with the subject of intention, something Abhijata hammers home again and again, especially during the closing of her speech, even citing emotive examples of tenderly cleaning her infant daughter.  “Intention” might have been a relevant topic if we were discussing touching a normally non-sexual part of the body such as the knee, and instead of simply indicating a subtle change of direction to align it with the foot, a distinct creep factor sexualized that touch and turned it into an innuendo. Every woman is familiar with the lascivious intention that can turn a seemingly innocent exchange into an invitation for sexual congress.  In the case of Manos and the incontrovertible findings of the report, however, we are talking about touching parts of the body where no Yoga teacher should ever venture.  There is absolutely no reason for any Yoga teacher to insert fingers into anal or vaginal orifices, stroke or rub breasts, or simulate sex by pressing their genitals against a student’s buttocks while she is in a vulnerable forward bend.   The addition or subtraction of “intention” in these instances is completely irrelevant to the effect of the exchange.   There is nothing ambivalent about the kind of touch used in the report, which are clear examples of sexual molestation, assault and digital rape.  The findings of the report demonstrate an unequivocal pattern of premeditated sexual predation, sometimes employed using the juxtaposition of legitimate “adjustments” in one moment with sexual molestation in the next: a tactic that served to confuse victims and therefore made it less likely these transgressions would ever be reported.  To lecture an audience, and by proxy the victims of this abuse about the teacher’s intention, is to further insult the intelligence and undermine the testimony of those sexual survivors. 

Rather than speak directly to the issue, Abhijata spent the entire speech not speaking about what she was purportedly speaking about.  She made vague references, but never explicitly mentions the case of Manos which has rocked the foundations of the Iyengar community. First and foremost, sexual abuse has little to do with intention.  Rather, the case of Manos is the result of decades of institutional nepotism, in which hundreds of students and teachers (but most tellingly those who have hosted him) have stood silently by and allowed a senior teacher to verbally bully, intimidate and sexually assault students with complete impunity.  As many of the victims close to the case have said, to challenge Manos was to risk losing one’s place in that ever-shifting crabs in a basket empire of hierarchical certification.  Victims were not just afraid, many were terrified of coming forward, knowing that to do so would result in being further victimized and ostracized by their community and a closure of doors for career advancement.  When you’ve invested years and in some instances decades in your Iyengar certification, and thousands of dollars in trainings, you think twice about telling someone you’ve just had your breasts groped in a back bend by the guy at the top of heap who holds the keys to the castle.  You are extremely unlikely to speak out when historically, reporting abuse has been met with further victimization by the very institutions that were put in place to protect you, and by members of your own community.  Further, if you were privy to these accounts as it appears many teachers must have been, you are unlikely to directly challenge an abusive teacher or to report what you have witnessed: to do so puts your own career at risk.  This sad situation is unlikely to change through examining personal intention but rather requires a brutally honest examination and review of the institutional structures that foster absolute and unquestionable power. Starting with the Iyengars in India: who failed to even acknowledge the receipt of no less than four letters sent directly to RIMYI by one victim of Mano’s abuse, while simultaneously giving Manos opportunities to have personal meetings with them.  Geeta Iyengar (now deceased), Prashant Iyengar and Abhijata also initially unanimously objected to the independent investigation, declaring in a letter that “IYNAUS should bear in mind that Manouso is a very senior member of our family,” and that IYNAUS “should have gone out of its way to protect its family members.”   To now beseech her audience with reassurances to “not be afraid to come forward” or to “not be afraid to report what you witness”, is a wishful thinking fantasy unlikely to generate trust in a community that has never listened to victims and has attacked  and undermined the character of whistleblowers. 

Throughout Abhijata’s speech she repeatedly uses the word “family”  and “love” to inculcate a sense of cohesion and solidarity in what has, up until now, been a community solidified through cult dynamics that has served the Iyengars and others in roles of authority very well indeed.  That solidarity has been shaken to the core by the release of this report.  In her critical analysis of Abhijata Iyengar’s address,  yoga scholar Matylda Ciolkosz, unpacks the complex conflation of family and love as quasi-solutions explaining that:

“. . . members of the Iyengar Yoga community are related in various ways.  They may be strangers, colleagues, friends, lovers, spouses, or members of actual families. But as co-practitioners they are no more than that: co-practitioners.  When their actual position is obscured by construing them as members of a family– for example children supervised by a parent instructor– their sovereignty is compromised.  The concept of a parent tending to their children evokes notions of dependence and power– because the children are not yet fully autonomous, the parent has agency over certain domains of their life.  Taking away a practitioner’s autonomy through construing them as a child opens a way towards abuse, even if unintended.” 

She covers this territory with such lucidity I won’t expand on this topic here but encourage you to read the entirety of her essay.

I am myself a strong advocate for the use of ethical touch in Yoga teaching and lead courses on restoring the place of touch as a powerful teaching tool.  I totally agree on Abhijata’s insistence that “bad touch breaks you; healing touch saves you”.  But how are we to interpret this statement when her own grandfather and guru was unable to adhere to this ethical practice?   How are we, or those within the rank and file of the Iyengar community to reconcile  B.K.S. Iyengar’s lifelong habit of stepping on, smacking, kicking, aggressively “adjusting” and verbally shouting at yoga students?  How do we make sense of these behaviors when they are glorified and reinterpreted by senior teachers such as Patricia Walden, who in a recorded interview (Manos by her side), speaks of her fond memories of being repeatedly kicked while in headstand by the master himself?  Or of Manos, in the same interview, waxing nostalgically about witnessing Iyengar forcing a woman with frozen shoulders to bring her arms over her head, while ignoring her shrieks and screams?  I have personally witnessed Iyengar violently slap someone across the face without any provocation whatsoever, and I’ve been physically assaulted by him myself, when, ostensibly, unhappy with the execution of my backbends, he felt it necessary to stamp his foot into my ovaries and abdomen while I lay on the floor, causing me to scream in pain.  Within five minutes of this incident, a student in the room knelt by my side announcing that “what just happened to me was a very loving thing.”  Yes, Abhijata, these are example of the kinds of touch that harm, but until those in roles of leadership such as yourself address these issues head-on, it’s extremely unlikely that homilies about purity of intention will inform the community about the wholesome use of touch in teaching.

Let me be perfectly clear and transparent here: I stopped seeing Iyengar yoga as a valuable reference point for my own practice and teaching over three decades ago.  I honestly don’t care whether it gets kicked to the curbside of history.  What I do care about is how the pedagogy of Iyengar and others like him has created a residue of somatic dominance (thanks Matthew Remski for that handy term), that continues to wreak havoc in the minds, hearts and bodies of students worldwide, many of whom come to me in the hopes of healing that damage.  

Madrid: a female student with a ruptured cervical disc relates to me that a “well-known Iyengar teacher” hung her head and neck in extension then attached a 10-kilo sandbag and left her there for 20 minutes.  She is now in chronic acute pain with limited mobility.  She declines to name the teacher. 

Manchester: a student with a ruptured lumbar disc tells me a teacher pushed down on her back in a  forward fold.  When asked: she will only say “he’s very high up”. 

East Coast U.S.: a student relates having her ribs broken while being hoisted into a backbend.  A senior Iyengar teacher refuses to let her down even as she is screaming to be let go.  When she finally collapses on the floor in spasms he realizes something is terribly wrong.  He sends a messenger to her home the next day to tell her that the reason her ribs broke is because “she is emotionally blocked”. 

These are not isolated incidents but demonstrative of a pervasive pedagogy that has infused yoga culture. Ironically, without meaning to do so, Abhijata gives us a master’s foundation course in this archaic pedagogic model that she herself has been indoctrinated into, and if left unexamined, will continue to wreak harm for those under her leadership.   While I’m sure she has the best of intentions, (again the “intention” word), further harm will be the consequence.  The unconscious assumptions of this model for teaching and the teacher-student relationship include:  

~ A belief that an all-seeing guru or teacher knows best, including how far one’s body can go, how long it can stay, and exactly which practices one should do. The teacher and student relationship becomes as Ciolkosz cautions, not one of shared inquiry between co-practitioners but an infantilized version of the parent-child relationship. This outer-referencing not only leads students to hand over self-sovereignty it begins to erode the capacity for a student to question what is done to them and how these things are done.  Once this process is complete, students lose any capacity for critical thinking, something I’ve witnessed in countless practitioners who tell me “I want to heal from my injuries, as long as I can keep doing the very things that have caused me harm”.  This erosion of healthy boundaries is a perfect environment for unethical transgressions to take place.

That a student’s presence in the room automatically implies consent.  When Abhijata uses the analogy of a person drowning and the absurdity of “asking her permission” to save her life, she muddies the waters.  The lives of yoga students are rarely at jeopardy because of a wonky Triangle Pose, or the inability to do a backbend: it is not necessary to save them through physical touch.  Most can be adequately assisted through verbal instruction. Touch should only be offered with the permission of the student, keeping in mind there is no persistence to consent: one should always have the right to change one’s mind and ask for touch to be discontinued, for any reason, at any time.  I now use consent cards in my intensives because although I always ask permission to touch, as do my teaching assistants, some students do not feel the agency to say no when in a large group.  

~  A completely unscientific assumption that a teacher can read the internal proprioceptive and interoceptive messages of another person’s body and therefore “adjust” that body according to these assumptions. No one, no matter how gifted, experienced or knowledgeable is hooked up to the proprioceptive mechanism of another person’s body. That is a massive kinesthetic hallucination of an equally massive ego.  In a series of still photographs shown with the intention of demonstrating BKS’s mastery of touch,  Abhijata shows her grandfather variously pushing down on her thoracic spine while in a Paschimottanasana (a seated forward bend with straight legs), jamming his foot into her sacrum in a hanging back bend off the ropes, and placing her feet on top of her head in Vrischikasana. 

There will be many acolytes of the method who will cling to a belief that Iyengar’s genius gave him a unique ability to administer such maneuvers safely.  Yet, I’ve encountered many students in my own intensives who have had lumbar discs ruptured from a teacher pressing or standing on their backs in a forward fold, and as many who have had their hamstrings torn off the bone through this same “adjustment”.  It’s biomechanically unsound. Period.  No matter who does it.   I know of at least one student, a medical doctor,  who went to Pune with a shoulder injury seeking help from Iyengar only to have his shoulder forcefully wrenched and further damaged: administered by a person without medical training to either diagnose the cause of the problem or the right to prescribe a “medical” solution.  We’ll never know how many students may have been injured at the hands of Iyengar by such forceful and unnecessary strategies.  Further, there’s a reason why a human body may not be able to place the feet on the back of the head: that body has reached its end-range threshold. To intervene by exerting pressure from the outside is a tactic fraught with peril, no matter what the purity of the “intention”.  

BKS Iyengar adjusting

Undoubtedly there are many people who have benefited from working with Iyengar and his teachers.  These are the stories widely told that serve to inflate the man into a miracle worker.  But we’ll never know how many students may have been injured at the hands of Iyengar or his teachers.  Their stories, like the stories of those sexually assaulted, have been effectively silenced. Yet I believe physical injuries, while disturbing, represent the more superficial damage.  The deeper damage is the loss of access to one’s own perception and a distrust of one’s own insight.  This leaves people without an internal navigational system that they can trust and therefore leaves them particularly vulnerable to outside influence. 

 That it is the teacher’s duty to “make the student” do something.  Repeatedly, Abhijata speaks of how her guru made her do this or made her do that.  This is the substrate for a weakening of personal agency and sets the stage for increasing reliance and dependence on the external reference of the teacher, dismantling assertion of autonomy, the ability to respectfully challenge or question . . . . . or the ability to express immediate objection at being touched inappropriately.  In more enlightened contemporary yoga circles a teacher simply creates a context for a student to explore and to change if and when they wish to do so.  Students who are free to explore and come to their own conclusions develop into highly creative and self-resourceful people– just the kind of person you don’t want in a rigidly hierarchical yoga organization.   People who trust their own perceptions rarely put up with shit from anyone, least of all teachers in whom they have invested their trust.  Such a pedagogy has a built-in safety mechanism that reduces the chances of unbridled power and of behaviors such as sexual molestation going unchecked.

Ms. Iyengar rounds up her speech by saying “Your actions, your reactions, your words, your teaching, your responses, your thoughts, your touch.  No rule can enforce this.  No ethical guidelines can do this for our system or any system.  No letter from RIMYI, Pune, can guarantee this.  It has to be the decision of each one of us here and everywhere else.  It has to be that purity in every single time of touching or helping a person” (28:00).

And this is where she is resoundingly wrong.  Sexual assault, sexual molestation and rape are criminal offenses and there are laws that enforce these actions as crimes.  When women feel supported by their peers and community they can and do report sexual crime, and increasingly offenders are being brought to justice.  Imagine if just one of the women in the independent report had felt safe enough to go to the police at the time of her abuse and press a charge that may have resulted in a criminal conviction?  Most of the cases in the report have already passed the statute of limits.  Yoga Alliance has been in the process of a widespread standards initiative review, to strengthen their Code of Conduct, Scope of Practice guidelines and curricular requirements.  They know they haven’t done a great job in the past: they are trying to do a better job in the future.  The Iyengar organization must also do a thorough review of their own Code of Conduct, which unfortunately is unlikely to be well informed if it is drafted by the same enablers that stood by for decades while abuse continued unchecked.  The Iyengars and IYNAUS would be wise to seek counsel from outside their ranks, and a good place to start is the victims themselves who have keen insight into what needs to change and how to change it.   There are many individuals in our community such as Ann West, Karen Rain and Jubilee Cooke who are offering intelligent victim-centered solutions.  It’s time to stop talking, Abhijata, and time to start listening.