thoughts from a yoga subversive on the latest yoga scandal

Ganesh, God of Wisdom, with Vishnu

By now many people know about the latest yoga scandal about Kausthub Desikachar, all the allegations about him regarding sexual, emotional, and spiritual abuse.  I learned about it a week before it hit the yoga blogs, first from the search terms people used to find this blog:  “kausthub desikachar scandal”; “kausthub desikachar sex abuse”; “kausthub desikachar allegations”; “kausthub desikchar rape.”

What the frack!  Something huge is going on!  “Uh, oh,” I thought, “this is going to be bigger than John Friend.” Then I got a Facebook message from a teacher asking me, “have you heard….”  I put 2 and 2 together and then I was sent emails with attachments of the letters that have now been published in various yoga blogs.

As many of you know, I have studied yearly at the Krishnamacharya Yoga Manidram since 2005 and have written many times about my experiences there.  I was shocked (but not surprised) when this news came out.  I have no allegiance to Kausthub whatsoever, he was never my direct teacher.  He was my teacher once for a class on Chapters 3 and 4 of the Sutras during my second trip to KYM in 2006.

The allegations made me physically ill. I will only say that I am privy to information that is not public and that I will not make public.  I will also say that I am appalled that the 2007 letter from a KYM teacher to Desikachar outlining the reasons for her resignation from KYM has been published in yoga blogs.  I don’t know if she knows her letter has been passed around in emails and published in blogs (I have written to her via Facebook as she was one of my teachers 2005-2006), but I am sure no one wants their private letters published without permission.  Maybe she does not mind that her private correspondence was published, but I have to ask the yoga bloggers who made it public: did you ask her permission? Two women yoga bloggers came forward to write about their own experiences with Kausthub but that was their own choice.

As an advocate for trauma survivors, I believe KYM must be open and transparent about all of it.  What made me angrier than Kausthub’s actions was that they were ignored by those in charge, including his father.

Many people asked me whether I wanted to speak or write about what was happening.  People expected me to write about it because of how many times I have studied at KYM, but I decided not to because it was too soon and my feelings were too raw.  My plans to take a group to KYM for private classes have been in the works since March and I seriously reconsidered my group trip.

The first person I asked for advice was my teacher, Srivatsa Ramaswami, whom many of you know I have studied with since 2004.  I also study with Ganesh Mohan, whose father also studied with Krishnamacharya.  They are the two I know who are closest to the lineage — they gave me good advice that I will keep private because it is between teacher-student (as was Saraswati’s 2007 letter to Desikachar.)  Not keeping teacher-student confidences private is one thing that Kausthub is accused of.

After MUCH consideration and literally sleepless nights about this, I decided to continue with my group trip to KYM.  Why?  Because I received advice from J. Brown, whose essays and opinions on modern yoga I deeply respect.  He is familiar with the lineage via Mark Whitwell.  He told me that he thinks the situation is different from Anusara because there is no “spiritual head” of the tradition and it is by Desikachar’s example that there is no brand name (KYM does not call the style “viniyoga” as Gary Kraftsow does.)   This means that no one person can lay claim to it and, therefore, no one person’s bad behavior can diminish the power of the teachings.  In his opinion, he thought that I should carry on as planned and “stay true to your practice and the experience you were hoping to provide the people joining you and it will be good enough. The experience of going to India and studying at the Mandirim is not contingent on one particular teacher.”

“Stay true to your practice.”  I will let that resonate for a while.

I also received advice from one of my favorite teachers at KYM, who is still there and whom I have known since 2005.   She told me that it is always about the teachings and what we learn from it, that the essence is important and nothing else.

Finally, it was hearing the Vedic chant to Patanjali every morning in my training with Ganesh Mohan this past week that helped me decide.   The chant told me what it’s really all about.   The practice.

That, and the fact that the people who have signed up for my trip told me that the allegations against Kausthub did not make any difference to them — they want the teachings and they trusted my judgment and wisdom about the situation.  As soon as the news hit, I sent an email to everyone who had signed up or who was thinking of signing up letting them know how conflicted I was about continuing with my plans.  I asked them to give me a week to make a decision.   One woman told me that she appreciated my honesty and it was because of my  open and honest writing in this blog that attracted her to my trip in the first place.  Only one woman cancelled her plans to go on this trip because of what happened and I respect her decision.  We all have to follow our own hearts and I am at peace with my decision to continue with the trip.

Krishnamacharya’s teachings belong to the yoga world, they do not belong to the institutions or any one person whether it is  Desikachar or his son.  While KHYF is the money-making part of KYM, the two have always been considered separate entities.   Although international students attend classes at KYM, it has more of an “Indian” emphasis and influence, with Indian teachers.  KHYF was always geared to bringing yoga therapy training to the West with Kausthub teaching and overseeing the Western teachers (KHYF did not exist when I first went to KYM.) I rarely saw Kausthub at KYM other than in 2006.

About 6 years ago I considered entering the yoga therapy program (their first training) but decided not because of Kausthub. I thought his responses to my questions were arrogant. He expected me to fly to where he was teaching in the United States for a personal interview even though I had just returned from my second trip to KYM that was within 6 months of the first.  Regarding acceptance into the training, he said a personal interview would take precedence over a telephone interview.  I told him to forget it, that if two trips to KYM within 6 months did not show my allegiance to his grandfather’s teachings I don’t know what would.

Don’t lay this all on KYM.  As I said all during the Anusara debacle, the teachers who knew about John Friend’s shenanigans and said nothing are equally culpable.  The KHYF yoga therapy training program has Western senior teachers like Chase Bossart and Sonia Nelson and Kate Holcombe who work closely with Kausthub.  If they or any other Western teacher had any inkling that something horrible was going on, they should have stepped forward, gone public, disassociated themselves.  We now know that these things have been going on since at least 2007.  Did they really not know any of this?  I saw Sonia Nelson work closely with Desikachar every year I was at KYM.

From all that I know about the situation thus far, I think nothing short of an exorcism can help Kausthub.  Seriously, he needs long-term, intensive help.  It’s not just about the sex but also about power and privilege — and power can be very sexy and attractive to some women, whether it is sexual, political, financial, or spiritual power.  We all know this but may not want to admit it, Every one of us has a shadow side with secrets. And REAL YOGA is about pulling up those demons and dealing with our shadow selves. It hurts like a MFer and it ain’t pretty.

Sometimes we need a radical change and a brand new perspective and the Kausthub situation is giving KYM just that.  I know they have separated themselves from Kausthub.  In an email I received from the Director of Yoga Studies in response to my concerns about bringing my group, she said that KYM “strongly believes in the teachings of Shri Krishnamacharya and Shri Desikachar.” KYM appointed Dr. Latha Satish as the acting managing trustee in place of Kausthub and I know her as a wonderful teacher.

Any situation is never black or white and there are many levels to this, including cultural.   I am absolutely not making excuses for Kausthub’s actions, but one thing I have learned in my 6 trips to India is to not view things in India through a Western lens — and I know that is something very hard to understand if one has not been to India as many times as I have or if one does not live there.   It is something I have discussed privately with people (both Western and Indian) and it is also something I will not write about, but one can begin to get some insight from the book Being Indian

All that being said, I am wise enough to not let Kausthab’s personal failings get in the way of my respect for the Krishnamacharya lineage.  What Kausthub did (and he denies nothing) is a disgrace — but he only disgraced himself and his family, not the tradition.  If anything, this should be another wake-up call to yoga practitioners about putting their teachers on pedestals. Funny how people are so quick to question everything in their lives but their own yoga practice and teachers. And please…I don’t want to hear anything about how a “guru” is a bad thing — click the link and read what Kausthub has to say about the teacher-student relationship (in retrospect, apparently speaking about himself.)

As I heard Kausthub himself say this year, “If the spiritual teachings are valid, yoga will sustain; if yoga is merely a fashion, it will not sustain. The teachings are much larger than any crisis modern yoga is currently experiencing.”

When he said that I thought he was referring to John Friend, but I know now he was predicting his own future.

Every thing is but a flow and will pass.

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19 thoughts on “thoughts from a yoga subversive on the latest yoga scandal

  1. Thanks for the account, Linda. It’s a hard situation for sure. I appreciate your call for accountability to the Western colleagues of Kausthub, in the event that suppressed information. But do you have any perspective on whether family dynamics might also have played a role in having shielded this teacher?

    • yes, I do believe family dynamics played a role. that is part of what I meant by “cultural.” but I emphasize, that’s no excuse!

  2. Well, Kripula went through something similar and they survived and claim to be better for it–it forced them to mature. Stephen Cope writes about it in one of his books. It’s funny, Kausthub Desikachar was supposed to visit my part of the world in December for a workshop. I can’t find that information now though! So I’m guessing he’s not coming.

  3. I’ve been waiting to read about your impressions. I’m glad you took your time in commenting about this matter, and that your comments show care and clarity. I wish you well in your upcoming trip.

  4. “Every one of us has a shadow side with secrets. And REAL YOGA is about pulling up those demons and dealing with our shadow selves. It hurts like a MFer and it ain’t pretty.”

    Now that’s what I call real yoga! Turning toward rather than away from what is difficult – knowing that (in the words of Longchenpa) “to transcend is to know and to see with open eyes.”

    Your fearlessness in writing about this – and in living it – are so inspiring Linda. I can see why Kali is your chosen deity, as your embrace the darkness and find a way through to the light.

  5. “It’s not just about the sex but also about power and privilege — and power can be very sexy and attractive to some women, whether it is sexual, political, financial, or spiritual power”

    This quote made me think of the upcoming “tell-all” book by Monica Lewinsky. She has always had my sympathies. I mean, who could turn down the President of the US? After the whole affair was made public, who was harmed? The woman. The intern. Bill Clinton has moved on with his life, and continues to make a good living. But the woman was vilified and has lived with the allegations ever since.

    In politics, apparently, the one in power will always come out okay (the list is long). In yoga, apparently, the one in power tumbles from grace.

    We have a lot of work to do as a species regarding our views on sex and power, and who deserves them.

  6. As you know, I’m with you. I’ve got your back and I know you’re coming from a place of integrity with your thinking and decisions. :)

  7. Beautifully stated. Truth and transparency are issues we all deal with everywhere, and abuse/power situations are among the most damaging and most hidden. But more and more they are coming to light. I just read the other day there is even a law firm dedicated to bringing light to sex abuse against children by organizations. And we all have to remember exactly what you said, the practice and the teachings remain strong. These situations just show us that pretending to live those teachings is not enough. We must live them into the deepest cores of our beings. Thank you for sharing this.

  8. Linda, in your opinion, is there any way to make those around the leaders, in the community, more accountable in some constructive way? I get the impression this sort of thing happens because there is some form of enabling going on?

    • there absolutely is enabling going on! IMO, that is what made the Anusara thing so deeply ingrained….Friend’s senior teachers admitted they knew what was going on and never said anything. however, in that case, I believe the silence was because of more financial reasons than in this case. Anusara was a trade-marked corporation so those senior teachers had a lot to lose if the whole thing crashed down.

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