UPDATE SEPTEMBER 2022: In light of some recent teacher training footage of Life Time National Director of Yoga, Jonny Kest, I wanted to update this post. Clearly, the issue of inappropriate touch hasn’t gone away and isn’t limited to Indian men. While there is a historical precedent for rather intrusive hands-on assists by Mr. Kest’s supposed guru, most of Kest’s high-profile contemporaries have updated their priors for a post #metoo world. For the video of the now infamous “diaper change assist” and accompanying article, click HERE.
It should be noted, there is a historical precedent in classical yoga, going back generations for these kind of intrusive assists, as well as slapping and shaming. That said, there are historical precedents for lots of things (think foot binding) that should clearly be left in the archives. Imagine if I, as a female yoga teacher were to give this assist to a man in class without permission?
Pattabhi Jois, Ashtanga, (Kest’s lineage).
The question is, who at LifeTime Fitness thought it was a good idea to bring that kind of misogyny into a Western, mass market, 21st Century yoga program? Mr. Kest is responsible for training legions of yoga teachers who are mostly women–about 800 per year to the tune of almost $2.5 million in revenue for LifeTime according to another New York Times article HERE.
More troubling to me than the assist was Kest’s dismissiveness toward the woman who had the courage (and the only healthy boundaries in the room) to raise the obvious question: shouldn’t permission be asked before attempting such a maneuver?
Kest answers as if “the rules” do not apply to him and that #metoo never happened (you can read his response in the previous link). He exudes a level of confidence that must spring from a big title, a big brand (Spiritual Gangster), and a big brother yoga celebrity (Bryan Kest). As is predictable in these groupthink situations, the questioner finds no allies in the room–just enablers trying to gloss over the apparent discomfort she caused The Guru.
Turns out there is no shortage of people buying in to this version of yoga. Jonny’s Sept ’22 class at LifeTime Fitness in White Bear Lake, MN was booked/overbooked within minutes of its launch online– in spite of the New York Times article and others being out for over 2 years. Does he know he’s coming into a sub-culture springing from Scandinavian stoicism–where some families barely hug? Maybe I shouldn’t be surprised. He’s upfront and his brand says it all: Spiritual Gangster.
Now, onward to #ewjawahar…
I first posted this several years ago still reeling from an unfortunate #metoo incident at a Minneapolis yoga studio. After keeping it up on my blog for several months, I decided to take it down. Why? Primarily out of respect for two local male Iyengar teachers who I greatly admire–both have decades of experience and both have been nothing but respectful and supportive to me in my practice. One does teacher trainings and I continue to recommend him wholeheartedly.
At the time, I didn’t want to hurt their feelings or harm their brand. When criticizing a guru of a certain tradition, it’s almost unavoidable that the followers and teachers of that style feel somehow insulted or attacked. I am grateful to the people who pointed that out to me.
In retrospect, I wish I had made clear at the beginning of that post my intention was not to launch any kind of general attack against Iyengar practitioners or instructors. I don’t think the situation I experienced is unique to Iyengar Yoga or even Indian Yoga. I do think it is common, however, in unchecked male hierarchies across multiple disciplines (religion, business, sports etc.) which are often sustained by some level of complicity (conscious or unconscious) of the women around them. Thanks to the person in the comments section for modeling this complicit behavior; clearly I offended her style/guru so she took me to task on grammar.
My own style of Kripalu Yoga certainly had its “demons” (one in particular, named Amrit Desai) to exorcise in this regard and did so very publicly, painfully and ultimately successfully in the 1990’s. Now, in the post #metoo era, I look back and realize that my self-censoring just plays right into the hands of these yoga bad-boy harrassers, predators and even rapists. With the release of the Netflix documentary, Bikram: Yogi, Guru, Predator, I felt this a timely republish but wanted to do so with the benefit of hindsight and perspective. My comments in red are my present self reflecting on my past self, in hopes of building a better, more aware future self–get it? So, here goes…
I’ve been planning a trip to India for the last year. As yoga has become a full-time vocation for me, I figured it was time to take the plunge and go to The Source. I have had opportunities to travel to India before, mostly when I worked in Tokyo where I was the Branch Manager for a US software company. Why didn’t I do it? Maybe I felt I needed a break from societies where inequality between men and women is so palpable–not the stuff from which dream vacations are made. Should have gone with your gut here. You know how soul-crushing it can be as a competent woman in these kind of environments. Guilty of “orientalism,” or assuming that somehow Asian males have answers and access to “wisdom” that must elude me as a Western woman. Thank you Kristine at Subtle Yoga for that keen analysis!
So after taking a class with a local Iyengar teacher whom I admire, it seemed like divine intervention when I saw a flyer at the studio for an upcoming workshop, right here in Minneapolis, led by Jawahar Bangera. Mr. Bangera is a Director on the Board at the Iyengar Institute in Pune, India, as well as a Trustee of the Light on Yoga Research Trust. In short: India was coming to Minneapolis! Good call to sign up for the “sampler platter” before booking a “Passage to India!”
Before registering, I made a call to the Iyengar Yoga Teachers Association of Minnesota (IYAMN) to address a couple of issues on the flyer, which stated: 1) for “intermediate classes, you should have a regular practice of at least 5 years, be able to maintain a 5 minute Sirasana (headstand) / 10 minute Sarvangasana, and be able to push up to Urdva Dhanurasana (wheel)” and, 2) “recommended minimum 2 years study of Iyengar Yoga.”
When I phoned in, I mentioned that I had a whiplash injury and that holding those positions for that duration, was just too risky. The friendly woman spoke to assured me it would not be a problem. I also told her I was a Kripalu teacher, who had had practiced Iyengar yoga for a couple of years. Her response was what I would expect from one classically certified teacher to another–it would be fine. Later, when they postponed the workshop a month without explanation, I suspected they needed headcount, and therefore, were willing to bend the rules.
In the lead-up to the workshop, I exchanged further emails with the woman on the phone. I was so looking forward to meeting her. Unfortunately, I never got the chance. When I checked in to the small studio in Minneapolis, she wasn’t there due to a family emergency. Instead, there was a gentleman behind the desk– professional, but out of his comfort zone, possibly filling in for the woman with whom I’d spoken. When I announced that I was The Kripalu Teacher, he looked surprised, as though no one had briefed him on this. As I was making out the check, I added that I had some neck issues, which he advised me to speak to Mr. Bangera before class.
My next order of business, was to Approach the Guru. Mr. Bangera signaled me to sit down next to him (in such a way reserved for house pets in America) also avoiding all eye contact. I followed his cue and stared straight ahead into space, as if we were two toddlers in “parallel play” uncertain about how to interact. When I briefly explained my neck issues, he asked me if I knew how to do headstand with chairs. I did. I would Have the Guru’s Blessing to use the chairs.
After getting my boatload of props (Iyengar is sometimes called the ‘Furniture Yogi’), I claimed my spot. The woman next to me was nice enough, sharing that the instructor was ” a little hard on a gal in the earlier session.” Another neighbor chimed in, “you feel like you can’t do anything right.” Note that Iyengar teachers are known for being sticklers for alignment. I knew going in it would be a stark contrast to the training I did with Paul Grilley, a.k.a. “The Anatomy Yogi,” who refutes the Iyengar universal alignment ideal based on the premise that, as no two bodies are alike, no two poses should be completely alike–the antithesis to Iyengar. But, yoga is about “dancing between the opposites” with equanimity (nirodha). I thought it would be good for me–like studying accounting for my business degree. I thought it would take me out of my comfort zone. I was right. I learned later that Iyengar himself said only he can truly do “Iyengar” yoga. The extensive use of props is to help non-Iyengar bodies. However, I should have realized that my body was about the exact opposite of the “Iyengar” anatomical structure in every way (6-footer with 36″ inseam and short torso compared to short legs and long torsos. The Iyengar family also has large hip sockets set on the side of the pelvis vs. my small sockets set in a more forward position–no splits for me!). In addition, due to the harshness of Iyengar’s first “guru, ” Krishnamacharya, he tore his hamstrings on more than one occasion which led to a mindblowing level of flexibility.
After a decadent half hour in supported bound ankle, (baddha konasana) listening to Mr. Bangera’s lucid explanation of breath patterns, I was truly relaxed and settled. From there, we transitioned into the poses where I had the greatest trepidation: sirasana and sarvangasana (head and shoulder stands). Unfortunately, they were the featured poses of the evening. I had no idea that most of the class would be devoted to these poses. Should have asked for clarification and bowed out, but thought I could modify and had never experienced such a lack of “permission” to listen to my body in a yoga environment.
I retrieved my chairs and set them up in a corner. Mr. Bangera reminded me to tie the chairs together for stability. I gestured to show I understood, to which he directed, “Don’t shake your head like that, just say ‘yes.'” I flashed back to a time when a Korean man told me in a meeting not to raise my eyebrows, since it made a total of 5 lines in my forehead. I chuckled under my breath, marveling at the Asian male’s sense of entitlement to openly comment on all aspects of a woman’s physicality. Oh well, I was focusing on the task at hand, which was setting up the chairs so I wouldn’t crash headfirst on the floor. I should have bobbed my head side to side as is common in Indian culture and asked him if that was better. Rapid fire comebacks to rude remarks from men were always my bread and butter, but my super power eluded me as my guard was down.
As I went to kick up to headstand, each shoulder supported by a chair, head dangling down in the middle, it was a trifle awkward, due to an inconveniently placed heat radiator. Mr. Bangera approached and said, “I thought you said you knew how to do this; the chairs are too far apart.” I dismounted and came down. I had positioned the chairs where I knew they would be most comfortable on my rather bony shoulders (no one would refer to the Iyengar body type as “boney” by the way) Mr. Bangera repositioned them closer, but as I kicked up, I could feel them impinging on my neck. It was a long 10 minutes. Should have just come down, packed up and left. This is the point in the horror movie where the audience sees the monster creeping out and shouts “run,” but the victim remains oblivious.
Next up: shoulder stand. I scrounged up a couple of blankets to support my shoulders and protect my neck. Blankets were in scarce supply, so I rolled my mat over the top for extra cush. As I made my way up, my neck protested after being triggered by the chairs in headstand. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Mr. Bangera’s stealthy feet move closer and braced myself. “No wonder you have a bad neck, you need another blanket” he diagnosed. “No, the reason I have a bad neck is because the driver in the car behind me wasn’t paying attention,” I thought. This I should have said aloud. Why was this the day I checked my snark at the door? Why was I so tolerant? I think because I felt like I needed to be good “guest.” This wasn’t my true tribe or style, so I drew down deep from the reserves of living years in a foreign culture and tried not to take it personally. However, there was no need for me to do that: this is America where women can call an asshole an asshole. I had plenty of supporting evidence from my mat mates to justify it. Should have gone for it and left. IF we don’t lash out at this behavior in the moment, there is no “cost” to men behaving badly.
I had never used such a high stack of blankets in the pose before, and felt like the “Princess and the Pea.” The result of the extra height was it pushed my pelvis so far forward that I actually had more pressure on my neck, not less. I then struggled to find what was a new fulcrum for me in the pose, feeling that, at any moment, my 6’ frame could wipe out half the participants if it toppled into a backward summersault. I wondered if the poor souls around me knew of our collective peril. I took stock of the situation: was I going to risk an injury to myself and others to appease this surly guru? No. “Self-care” and safety over egos–students’ and teachers’. I came down early and could feel the collective scorn.
As class was drawing to a close, we gathered around Mr. Bangera for an insightful explanation of savasana (corpse pose) as well as a talk on the yamas and niyamas–what some might call the 10 Commandments of Yoga. He said, following the yamas and niyamas are what “qualify” you to do the hatha postures, and that without them, it’s only exercise. Finally– something that was right up my alley: I had been reading the Yoga Sutras over the past year and was hungry for more insight.
Mr. Bangera started in with some valid points about ahimsa (non-violence) in the context of our modern culture. My Kripalu teachers had a saying, “ahimsa begins at home,” in your own body. Your yoga practice shouldn’t be harmful or compromising to your own body, thus, you always practice self-care in class. I should have listened with far more skepticism, since his knack for shaming his students was completely contrary to his little talk. I hereby submit for your consideration a new hashtag idea: #OKguru.
Mr. Bangera also spoke of aparigraha (non-hoarding, non-clinging). He had used the word earlier, in its literal sense when reprimanding one of the younger women for using too many props. I thought of this principle more metaphorically, as in the case of clinging dogmatically to a certain guru, or yoga style. #OKguru.
Toward the end of his explanation, Mr. Bangera translated an inaudible Sanskrit word (possibly bramacharya or tapas ) as “self-control.” Here in Minnesota, we might tend to go overboard on this one, so important things go unexpressed, only to fester. I will give Mr. Bangera credit: he held nothing back, including his disdain for the Minnesotan tendency to say “yah” instead of “yes.” This, from a man with a thick accent himself. #OKguru
After a transformative yoga nidra, I felt peaceful. I was also relieved that the rest of my sessions in the workshop would not be with Iyengar teachers, but in the “general” section with students only. I had only taken the “intermediate” level session as a courtesy provided to me by the mysteriously nice woman on the phone, as a “make-up” opportunity, since I had to miss one of the “general” sessions to teach my class.
There I was, in the midst of 30 or so silent women, all packing up their gear, standing in line to put away props, when it happened: The Final Straw, The Crossing of the Line which I couldn’t let “roll off my back” (or backside, for that matter). It came with a SLAP! — on the left side of my left buttock, to be precise–followed by the breeze of Mr. Bangera leaving the room, followed by a quip, “You are NOT an Iyengar teacher.” Slap. Breeze. Quip.
Stunned, I managed to echo back, “I’m a Kripalu Teacher.” For comic relief, I smiled, “Ah, there’s that Asian Patriarchy I miss,” to the gentleman whom had checked me in. I was hoping a witness of The Slap might say something in my defense, since I was discombobulated. Maybe, like me, they were all practicing self-control and resisting the temptation to overreact but in doing so, ironically, could muster little reaction at all. I guess we all failed to act appropriately myself included. This was a case for “rational” anger if there ever was one, and I should have let him have it and in not doing so, I deprived the “guru” of an opportunity to learn a valuable lesson.
Finally, the man who checked me in said, “You know, this is a workshop for Iyengar teachers.” I explained that I had spoken to a woman on the phone (Who was she? Did she exist?) that I had studied Iyengar as well as other styles like Sivananda, in addition to Kripalu. “This isn’t Sivanananda” he said with authority. He then waved over a woman whose name was on the flyer. For a moment, I thought, finally, the mystery woman was coming to my rescue to clear up the whole misunderstanding.
Turned out she was not the mystery woman, but she was poised to debate the wording in the flyer and construct her argument as to why I wasn’t welcome. I nipped that one in the bud, with a firm, “I am not here to argue with you.” After a dramatic pause and a long inhalation to collect my thoughts, I suggested, “Why don’t you just refund my money for this and I’ll vanish, be on my way…” I also added that, after studying many styles of yoga around the world, this was a “reception I’d never forget.” This WOMAN was perhaps the most complicit. Instead of debating me, she should have been “handling” and helping this dinosaur navigate his foreign surroundings so the studio wouldn’t end up with a lawsuit. I used to do it all the time when clueless foreigners would visit Japan. Instead of going into “damage control” she doubled down.
As my voice started to crack, I implored the man who checked me in, “Do something because I really want to leave now.” As I turned to find my coat, he calmly went over to the desk and handed me the check I had written 2 naive hours earlier. Best move of the day–redemption!
This is almost the end of my cautionary tale. Am I sorry I went? No. It saved me from wasting my money, time, and resources studying yoga from teachers like Mr. Bangera, who, while masters of classical yoga, have rendered themselves obsolete. To be fair, I gained some valuable insight on the breath, supported bound ankle pose and how not to place chairs in headstand if you want to have a headache the next day. It also reinforced how vulnerable students with injuries and limitations feel in a class when those around them seem to be doing poses adeptly; and, of course, the power of shame. I take pride in making all students with all bodies comfortable. I have had one incident where someone said they felt uncomfortable in a 20+ year career. I hope I addressed it properly (I still have that student) and it made me realize how precious and vulnerable each and every student is!
Finally, I realized, that as a female teacher of yoga, maybe I’ve been grasping, striving for too much “authenticity.” Some of the worst experiences of my yoga career have been in classical environments tainted by male chauvinism and guru worship. Is this “cultural baggage” from a country notorious for its ill treatment of women worth schlepping into 21st Century America? #hellno!
I, for one, will not volunteer to carry that baggage, and, I have crossed “yoga in India” off my bucket list. I encourage yoginis (female yogis) everywhere to practice less self-control when belittled, shamed and harassed by men who don’t play by modern rules. If you follow yoga news, you know these problems are not limited to men of Indian ethnicity, but unfortunately have been imported by opportunistic Western male “gurus” across a variety of styles and schools. John Friend, Bikram Choudhury, Amrit Desai, Krishnacharya, the list goes on…
Many schools of “imported” classical Indian yoga, including Kripalu, have been disappointed by their gurus and are forced to ask, can the heart of the practice be maintained while extracting out the unhealthy cultural baggage? I am optimistic, as there are many Iyengar teachers doing this successfully, both male and female, all over the Twin Cities. I am sure if you attend their classes, you will feel welcomed and encouraged. They need to ask themselves however, as a community, if those at the upper echelons of leadership in India are helping or hindering their reputation and their future in the West. With the recent passing of Mr. Iyengar, tperhaps there is more room to update and improve the practice as well as the culture. I look forward to watching the evolution of the style!
Hopefully, this vignette illustrates the “one bad apple” effect. One bad apple, one toxic personality in a leadership role puts everyone on edge. I have to wonder if the people I encountered that day “weren’t themselves,” just like I wasn’t my normally feisty self. If they have any recollection, I am sure they are cringing too. Perhaps we all learned something. I would highly recommend that Mr. Bangera stick to “home games’ and not travel westward where some of our laws and standards could land him and the Association in hot water. If he does, he should have a handler with him at all times, keeping an eye out for irate husbands. For those of you who choose to study in India, just know what you’re signing up for; as for me, no thanks!
There is such a thing as too authentic.