I’ve been studying Iyengar Yoga since the mid-late 90s and teaching since 2001. I’m not a joiner of clubs and such, and tend to feel most comfortable as an outsider, continually drawn toward peripheries and in-between spaces. Even so, I found the practice of Iyengar Yoga so fascinating and compelling that I have devoted more than two decades of my life to it. Meeting BKS Iyengar, and beginning direct study with Geeta and Prashant Iyengar, in 2005, led me even deeper into the Iyengar Yoga world. It has become my life path, my spiritual path, and my path of livelihood.
And now, along with so many others, I am wrestling with deep heartbreak, dismay, and frustration that Iyengar Yoga has made the news this past month due to allegations of sexual abuse. Even though BKS Iyengar has not--nor anyone else from his family--been accused of sexual misconduct, Guruji’s name cannot help but be sullied.
The USA Iyengar Yoga community is especially reeling from the publicity surrounding a beloved Senior Teacher, Manouso Manos. Some say that Guruji should have banished Manouso during the first round of sex scandals, in the 1980s, in addition to the public reprimands and the insistence that he would only forgive him once. Some blame Guruji for Manouso’s alleged continuation of abuse. Some say Manouso, in his aggressive, bullying behavior, was only mimicking how Guruji himself behaved.
I will not deny that I have witnessed, received, and possibly even been the perpetrator of verbal abuse in an Iyengar Yoga setting. To be honest, I really do not recall being verbally abusive to a student, and I have never been called out on it, but I know that in the heat of the moment, when I am deep in “teaching brain,” especially when students are at a critical moment in an āsana, I sometimes blurt things out without premeditation, the same way a basketball coach will yell things from the sidelines at heated moments in a game.
Teaching by shaming is part of the legacy of Iyengar Yoga. It’s not the only method, but one sees it arise in India, at the Iyengar Institute, and beyond. I recognize it as part of the legacy of colonization, as a symptom of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. As a Korean, with parents who grew up under Japanese occupation, followed by American militarization, shame is practically our family surname. It was in the air we breathed, and in my mother’s breastmilk. I know from shame.
How would colonization even work without the tool of shame? Colonized people were taught to disown their heritage, culture, spirituality, values, and resources. We were taught to emulate and envy the ways of our colonizers. Those of us with family and geographical histories of colonization have internalized shame, and under stress and desperation, it re-emerges.
When Geetaji yells at students, and calls them “stupid,” I can hear my own parents at their most frustrated moments, reprimanding us children harshly in Korean.
But I also see and hear Abhijata, a generation removed from her aunt Geetaji, and two generations removed from her grandfather, Guruji, and their traumatic, colonized pasts. Abhi consistently teaches with persistence and patience, grace and firmness, and has never, as far as I can tell, been abusive to anyone.
I have continued to study with Geetaji at every opportunity. I don’t condone verbal abuse, but I recognize where it’s coming from, and take it upon myself to transform it, as Abhi has, into more affirming practices. As such, we are transforming the wounds of our elders and our teachers. We are healing our ever-unfolding pasts, to open into a more compassionate and loving future.
I don’t emulate all the parenting practices of my mother and father, and their parents. I made a conscious decision not to discipline my children with shame. I can’t promise I always succeeded, but as God is my witness, I did my best. After all, when we fail to break the cycles of abuse that most of us have experienced in some form or another, we also fail to transform and heal the wounds of our elders.
Now, getting back to Iyengar Yoga in America, 2018:
If, as some claim, Manouso Manos is taking Guruji’s lead, and bringing his bullying into Iyengar Yoga in the USA and abroad, while mixing it with sexual predation, inappropriate touch, and sexual abuse, a tragic error is unfolding.
Others claim exactly the opposite, that Manouso is a gifted and brilliant healer and teacher, who has saved their lives, even. They insist they have never been harmed by him in all their years of study.
Can we not respect both these statements as truth? Can we practice openness and suppleness not just of our muscles but of our minds and hearts? Can we acknowledge that, although thousands of students have never been harmed by Manouso, some have? Can I see beyond my own limited point of view, and empathize with another’s? Even if only 1/100 or 1/1000 claim to have been hurt, isn’t that enough to take action to ensure that it will never happen again?
It’s incumbent on us, the progeny of our human and imperfect teachers and mentors, to absorb the lessons given to us, and improve them. The best way to honor Guruji’s brilliance and genius is to bring his legacy up-to-date, #MeToo and all. We must uphold his name and teachings with śauca and svādhāya, by purifying the essence of Iyengar Yoga, and with unrelenting self-study.
Our method is one that embraces pariṇāma, transformation. We trust that we never stay the same, but rather, are ever-evolving. BKS Iyengar, in forgiving Manouso in 1990, asserted this belief in redemption and rehabilitation.
Yet, we cannot permit one another to be harmed. When we stand by in silence, we forfeit the responsibility of healing our inherited wounds. We do our ancestors wrong, shortchanging them of their evolving legacies. We betray each other, break trust, and damage community. At this crisis moment, we have the opportunity to provide space for redemption while holding each other accountable through practices like Transformative Justice.
I will not cover up the sins of my father or mother, or of my teachers. I will make it abundantly clear to my children, grandchildren, and students, that they will not hide mine. Instead, I expect those who follow me to exceed me, glean the best of what I have provided, and take it to the next level. We must do no less for Guruji, by striving to become our most gracious selves, vowing to do no harm, burning up the seeds of inherited saṁskāras, and strongly holding each other accountable.