Yoga studios are vulnerable places. Even under ideal circumstances, most yoga involves gamely contorting to the best of one’s ability, soft underbelly literally exposed, waiting for a teacher to walk by and confirm one has arranged one’s limbs in an effective and pleasing manner. And according to a depressingly predictable New York Times report, it would seem that for decades, male yogis have been preying on that vulnerability to assault women.
Krishna Pattabhi Jois was the guru who popularized Ashtanga yoga, an incredibly physically demanding version favored by Madonna and Gwyneth Paltrow. He died in 2009 at 93 but is still revered as a god in the yoga world. Jois also left behind a legacy of alleged sexual assault that many in his cult-like following tried not to question while he was alive. His adjustments—which are corrections made to the body to perfect yoga poses, often by touch—sound horrific. Jois allegedly ground his genitals against students, treated the coccyx bone like a “lever” to pull students’ bodies, and even inserted his fingers into students’ vaginas through their yoga pants and underwear. Others in his classes saw him “grabbing [students’] asses and kissing them.”
While he was alive many of the women Jois allegedly assaulted tried to convince themselves it was just part of the teaching, given Jois’s status as one of the world’s greatest gurus:
“I tried to frame it that he was just adjusting me and that I was supposed to surrender to the asana” — a word that comes from Sanskrit and refers to yoga poses and movements — “and that there was some reason he was doing it that maybe I didn’t understand yet, that if I kept doing it, it would make sense someday, maybe,” Ms. Rain said.
And though Jois is dead, the legacy of terrible behavior by men who feel entitled to women’s bodies is alive and well in the yoga world. The report also describes a workshop with descendant of Jois and celebrity guru in his own right Johnny Kest, who has nicknamed one of his adjustments the “diaper change”:
“It has some intimacy to it,” Mr. Kest said, after having selected a volunteer who said she experienced lower-back discomfort when lying on the floor. This adjustment, he said, is intended to alleviate that. With the student on the floor, he put his knees under her lower back. Her bottom then rested on Mr. Kest’s lap.
“Then you’re going to take her feet, open her legs up and straddle them around you,” he said, as he did just that with the student’s legs. He recommended rubbing the student’s forearms, leaning forward and pressing on the shoulders, placing hands on the belly or the pelvis. “A lot of times, I’ll even rock a little bit just to relax.”
In the workshop, the author says that students pushed back on Kest’s touching, which he does not seek verbal consent for. When one student asked why he did not ask permission before performing an adjustment as intimate as “diaper change,” Kest suggested she publicly pose the question to the group. When the student, also a yoga instructor, replied that she uses adjustment consent cards with Xs and Os at her studio, Kest replied, “I’ve found over the years that X and O stuff really doesn’t work.” He also shut down subsequent consent suggestions from other students.
The woman who questioned his practices in front of the Times reporter said she felt she was alone in her complaint, only to have other students come forward to say they were too uncomfortable in the presence of such a well-respected teacher to speak up:
“No one else said, ‘I also agree that that was a weird adjustment,’” she said, “but after class I had about six or seven people come to me and say, ‘Oh my God, I’m so glad you said something. That was so weird. I would never do that in class.’ And I think that speaks to his saying, ‘No one’s objecting, no one’s complaining.’ They’re not enjoying that. They’re just not feeling like it’s an environment where they have a voice to speak.”
When the New York Times reached out to Kest for comment about students’ perceptions of his adjustments, Kest complained the first-hand account of his behavior was “unfair:”
In an email sent this week to editors at The New York Times, Mr. Kest said the scrutiny is unfair and expressed concern that this article was a tactic intended to damage his business. “This is despite the fact that our approach aligns with countless other yoga boutiques nationally and beyond,” he wrote.
Life Time Inc., the athletic and fitness center chain that acquired the rights to Kest’s technique, says they will now provide students will consent cards following the reporter’s experience in Kest’s class. A representative for Kest alluded to, but did not quite confirm that Kest will now be seeking consent before making adjustments. “He is immediately embedding it into his personal instruction,” the rep said.