On Friday, November 2, a gunman shot six people—two fatally—at Hot Yoga Tallahassee. Now, yogis around the world are questioning whether the place they go when events like this happen (read: their yoga studios) are a safe retreat after all.
When a gunman armed with an AR-15 and handguns opened fire at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania last week, yogis everywhere retreated to their safe haven: their yoga studios. Now, after a gunman opened fire in a Tallahassee, Florida yoga studio, shooting six people and killing two, yogis around the world are grieving for the victims and their families—and wondering if their sanctuaries are safe after all.
Here’s What We Know Right Now
Around 5:30 p.m. on Friday, police arrived at Hot Yoga Tallahassee in response to a call about a shooting. When the responding officers arrived, they found suspected gunman Scott Paul Beierle, 40, of Deltona, Florida, dead. Police believe he shot himself after pistol-whipping one, shooting six, and killing two people, who were identified as Nancy Van Vessem, 61, and Maura Binkley, 21.
“As we process the gut-wrenching act of violence that took place this evening in a place of peace in our community, we hold in our hearts everyone who is affected and lift them up in love,” officials tweeted from Tallahassee’s Twitter account. According to the non-profit Gun Violence Archive, which tracks shootings in the United States, the Florida yoga studio shooting marked the 304th mass shooting this year.
Where Do We Go From Here?
With gun violence reaching now reaching the places we view as sacred sanctuaries—church, synagogue, and now the yoga studio—we understand the hurt and fear the yoga community is facing as a whole.
Follow YOGAJOURNAL.COM for updates on the story and advice aimed at helping yogis, teachers and studio owners cope with the aftermath of this yoga studio shooting.
7 Things I Learned About Women from Doing Yoga
One male yogi shares the insights he’s gleaned after 15 years practicing next to mostly women.
I remember the first time I did yoga. I went to a class because a girl invited me, but didn’t bother to notice it was an intermediate vinyasa flow. Within minutes, I was ready to collapse. I was awkward, rigid, and embarrassed as the experienced female practitioners around me moved gracefully through poses.
Fifteen years later, I am still awkward, and in most classes, still find myself surrounded by women. As highlighted in a 2016 Yoga Journal/Yoga Alliance study, the majority of American yoga practitioners are women (72%), even though the number of men practicing yoga has jumped from 4 million in 2012 to 10 million in 2016.
The gender imbalance in yoga was not something I thought about until recently. And when I did ponder it, I recognized how yoga provides a distinct opportunity for a guy to peer inside the world of women. Here are some of the insights my yoga practice has enabled me to see.
Lesson No. 1: Women are stronger than men in their will and determination.
I don’t want to speak for all guys, but it seems to me that when things get difficult, we men often try to muscle our way through. During most classes, I find myself clenching my jaw at some point and trying to use physical strength to escape discomfort. Women, on the other hand, seem to intuitively understand that moving through struggle requires both physical and mental attributes—power, balance, alignment, breathing, and concentration. Even when there is chaos around them (read: me falling out of eagle pose onto the yogini’s mat beside me), women seem to be better able to recognize that there are many ways to cultivate strength—and use it.
Lesson No. 2: Women are more conscious of the space around them and how their bodies move through it.
Yoga perfectly demonstrates how women possess a heightened sense of awareness about themselves and those around them. I’ve watched countless yoginis stretch their limbs (without relying on sight) and come within inches of those next to them in a controlled, thoughtful manner. It’s a skill many men lack (case in point: the all-too-prevalent man-spreading). Not only are women more attuned to their bodies, but they also seem to have an unspoken coordination with others near them, whether it’s moving in sync through a sun salutation or hitting the same tone while chanting a simple Om.
See also 10 Best Women-Only Yoga Retreats Around the World
Lesson No. 3: Women have complex systems of organization.
When I arrive for yoga class, I simply choose a spot that seems good. Women, I’ve noticed, appear to scan the room and use a complicated algorithm to determine their ideal location. I throw my mat down and drop my things next to it. Women, however, seem to consciously “place” their mats and arrange their props and water for well-thought-out accessibility. Off the mat, this concept holds true as well. For example, I always put the garlic press in the wrong drawer or screw up the dry goods categorization in the kitchen organization that my girlfriend created. The lesson I’ve learned is that these systems are not designed for men, so they will never make sense to men.
Lesson No. 4: Women appreciate men who are vulnerable—and don’t see vulnerability as a sign of weakness.
Yoga encourages openness, which encourages self-reflection. This is scary territory for guys to explore—and women know this. That’s why, as movies like Say Anything have shown us, women appreciate it when men try to push their ego aside and explore what it means to be vulnerable.
Lesson No. 5: Women have the added stress of dealing with long hair.
The other day in class, I counted a dozen different ways that women had their hair tied up. It’s something that most men don’t realize (excluding those sporting man buns, of course). Why am I mentioning this? Well, I think it illustrates the admirable female trait of coming up with creative solutions to annoying problems.
Lesson No. 6: When women listen, they hear more than men.
I love the ah-ha moment in yoga when a cue you’ve heard a thousand times finally makes sense. However, I have noticed—and am jealous of the fact—that women seem to get to this point faster. My yogini counterparts have a remarkable ability to zoom in on what someone is saying, dissect it, look at the parts, and understand what it means (or ask a lot of questions until they do).
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Lesson No. 7: Yoga helps us all move beyond generalizations and see everyone as a unique beings.
Some women may get annoyed when a guy is more flexible than them, whereas others applaud this. Some women want their partners beside them in class, while others want class to be a sanctuary away from their partners. Some women want to be invisible, while others want to be seen. I could go on, but you’re likely getting the drift: Yoga instills awareness—awareness of what we share and of what makes us different, and it allows these things to exist beside one another. If we embrace this, we can enrich how we connect. Because after all, trying to understand others helps us better understand ourselves.
About the Author
Ryan Peacock is a yogi and writer in Denver, Colorado.
Still a Little Hesitant to Go Upside Down? This Home Practice Will Help
Strengthen your core and build upper-body strength so you feel more comfortable in any inversion.
When practiced regularly, inversions build upper-body strength, connect you to your core, and offer a new perspective on your practice. The work you put in to find balance on your hands (or head) can help you meet the challenges you face in your day-to-day life. Like any obstacle, mastering inversions takes quite a bit of focus, courage, and a willingness to try, but the results can be incredibly rewarding.
Going upside down with confidence requires dedication: building strength, learning to use your core for stability, and keeping your legs light and energized so they can balance above your hips.
See also Kino MacGregor’s 4-Step Get-Your-Handstand Plan
The first time I found my balance upside down, I realized the untapped potential of my incredible body. I was hooked. But I also found the journey challenging at times. A moment of clarity came when I realized how under-utilized some of my muscles were. We are so accustomed to relying on the major muscles that help us navigate our pedestrian lives (think quadriceps and biceps) but when asked to call upon the subtle muscles in our hands or low belly, we don’t quite know how to engage them or how to use them to our benefit.
Hopefully this sequence will help you wake up the parts of your body that you will need to call upon when going upside down, in turn, stimulating your mind! Be patient but courageous as you search for your (vertical) potential.
About the Author
Jolie Manza is an international yoga teacher and movement professional in Bali. She’s the founder of YogaKoh, a school specializing in teacher trainings, retreats, and workshops worldwide. Learn more at yogakoh.com.
See also Challenge Pose: Handstand (Adho Mukha Vrksasana)
Sexual Assault in the Ashtanga Yoga Community: A Mea Culpa
A long history of sexual misconduct haunts this popular practice. Here’s how some Ashtangi yogis are moving forward.
For most dedicated Ashtanga yoga practitioners, 2018 has been a painful year of reckoning. We’ve had to excavate the past and face uncomfortable truths about Pattabhi Jois, the now-deceased founder of this much-loved practice and the subject of accusations of historic sexual assault.
I’m ashamed to admit that I knew about the sexual assault soon after I first started a daily Ashtanga practice 17 years ago. While I practiced with Jois several times before his death, I was not a close student of his and never saw the abuse first hand. But I did see videos on the Internet; I did laugh off and dismiss the furtive, dark gossip in Mysore, India, cafes and in practice rooms everywhere from New York to Singapore to London; and I did turn a blind eye.
See also I Took My Baby to Mysore, India, for a Month: Here’s What It Was Really Like
“This is a Long Overdue Mea Culpa”
This is a long overdue mea culpa, and perhaps one shared by others like me—average, everyday Ashtanga practitioners who chose to brush off the assault accusations either because we didn’t believe it, or because the practice felt (and still feels) deeply transformative. Ashtanga yoga has served as a bedrock for my life, and for many years that was more important than the abuse itself, which, well, felt very distant. After all, it happened so many years ago, and to women I didn’t know.
Those women, such as Karen Rain and Anneke Lukas, deserve an apology. First and foremost, that apology should come from the K Pattabhi Jois Ashtanga Yoga Research Institute (KPJAYI).
(Sharath Jois, the director of KPJAYI and grandson of Pattabhi Jois, has not publicly acknowledged or spoken about the abuse, and did not return requests for an interview for this story.)
A few teachers, though arguably not enough, have come forward to apologize to Jois’ victims, acknowledging their culpability in the abuse, whether that was because they ignored it like I did, or sent their students to practice with Jois knowing full well the risks.
“As a student who knew of these inappropriate adjustments, I should have behaved differently, and I apologize (that I didn’t),” said Paul Gold, an Ashtanga teacher in Toronto. “I rationalized [Jois’] behavior. I downplayed students’ negative reactions and chose to focus on the reactions of women and men for who these adjustments weren’t offensive or weren’t given. I wanted to study with Jois and chose to focus on the good rather than let the bad create a situation where I would have to make hard choices or take a stand.”
See also The 10 Rules of Hands-On Adjustments for Yoga Teachers
Karen Rain, who studied with Jois for a total of 24 months from 1994 to 1998 in Mysore, has become the most prominent and vocal victim of what she said was repeated sexual assault at the hands of Jois.
“I considered the way he handled women unethical,” Rain says, adding that back then, students would discuss the way Jois touched his female students but only behind closed doors and never to Jois himself. “At the time I was only able to be consciously aware of and discuss the sexual abuse of other women. I was not fully accepting of having been personally sexually abused by him. I had disassociated during the sexual assaults. When there is disassociation there is also dis-integration of memory and cohesive understanding.”
As for myself—a long-time Ashtanga student, KPJAYI authorized teacher, and the yoga manager at a collection of London yoga studios—I’m ashamed to admit I turned a blind eye for so long, and wish to apologize to the victims that it took me years to come forward, to stand up and rail against their abuse, and to stop ritualizing Jois. There is much to make up for.
In order to do that, we must examine the very root of the problem: the dynamic of the student-teacher relationship itself. The hierarchical nature of this relationship creates a clear power imbalance where, in this case, Jois’ students did not feel in a position to question his decisions and actions no matter how unethical his behavior. His victims returned year after year because they dismissed and rationalized the abuse as something else; their capacity to understand what was happening to them was impaired by their disassociation. Jois was able to abuse his students because the guru-sisya model, which lacks checks or balances, allowed it.
“As long as the guru dynamic remains, it is an opportunity for future abusers to build upon and take advantage of the same dynamic,” says Greg Nardi, an Ashtanga teacher in Miami, Fla.. “Systems that consolidate power and remove accountability structures for harmful actions only encourage the darker sides of human behavior, and they do not empower anyone. It has taken me some time to recognize that by participating in the guru system, I have been both accountable for supporting and oppressed by this dynamic that has caused harm to Pattabhi Jois’ victims.”
See also Let It All Go: 7 Poses to Release Trauma in the Body
Last month, Nardi turned in his Level 2 authorization to KPJAYI, a courageous move given that he was one of Pattabhi and Sharath Jois’ most influential teachers. Nardi has joined London-based teacher Scott Johnson and Cornwall studio owner Emma Rowse to form Amayu, an educational organization where authority is completely decentralized in an attempt to create a very different power dynamic that is a marked departure from the traditional model, where one person (the teacher or guru) is in control of what is taught and how it is taught.
Every teacher who becomes part of the Amayu cooperative must take trauma sensitivity training, and anyone who practices in an Amayu-registered studio must agree to a code of ethics where the rights and dignity of all students are respected and backed by a transparent grievance procedure.
“In order to ensure that Ashtanga yoga fulfills its potential as a healing system it must be stripped of harmful power dynamics,” says Johnson. “We actively promote a culture that fosters equality, empowerment, mindful living, compassion, and speaking up for those who are disadvantaged, disenfranchised and disempowered.”
Charting a New, More Ethical Path Forward
We can and in some cases already do interpret this system of yoga differently across the world; for too long we’ve been held hostage to the notion that it can only be taught and practiced one way. Five Surya Namaskars A’s, three B’s, standing postures, seated postures, backbends, closing sequence. No props. No new postures before you can bind, catch or balance. Hands-on assists is a given—not an option.
I still practice this way, and it works well for me. But now, I recognize that it doesn’t work as well for others.
At triyoga, where I work in London, we recently introduced the use of consent cards that students can use in any one of our 750 classes a week, which includes five robust Mysore programs.
These cards are placed in prime positions as students enter the studio and can be placed on their mat in silent communication to their teacher that they do not wish to be touched that day. Of course, it is our preference that students speak to their teacher; but if they don’t feel they can do that, these cards offer another option.
We’ve introduced these cards in an effort to bring more trauma-informed instruction in our studios. To be transparent, I knew very little about trauma when senior Ashtanga teacher Mary Taylor wrote a #metoo-inspired blog one year ago, essentially breaking open the abuse conversation amongst the global Ashtanga community. I’ve had to educate myself about how traumatic experiences from the past can play out in the present moment and sometimes in a yoga class, especially when touched without explicit permission.
See also 10 Prominent Yoga Teachers Share Their #MeToo Stories
My journey from total ignorance to something that has a bit more light is one I’m grateful for, and which I deeply hope will help future students. Many of us in the Ashtanga community have been fiercely criticized for getting it wrong when responding to Jois’ assault of women. And we did get it wrong. We were wholly unprepared for how to speak about it, and we used language that minimized what Jois did. (For example, we called it “inappropriate adjustments” rather than “sexual assault.”)
Unfortunately, this backlash has resulted in a paralysis to say anything at all, especially for those who found themselves struggling to hold both the abuse Jois committed with the transformative experiences they experienced when studying with their former teacher.
I don’t think that’s helpful for anyone. We have to be able to talk about this openly and without fear of retribution, indignation or humiliation. And I believe we can do that while still holding space for the victims.
“By and large we have processed this badly in the Ashtanga community,” says Ty Landrum, an Ashtanga teacher in Boulder, Colo., who runs The Yoga Workshop. “By not talking about [the sexual misconduct] we are repressing it and pushing it below the surface. Our yogic process has to be about our willingness to confront our shadows, and in some sense, make peace with them.”
For me, the shadow of Pattabhji Jois looms large. I’m still trying to figure out what role he plays in my practice and my love for it. As the creator of one of the world’s most practiced systems of yoga, he’s an undeniably important figure. We can’t whitewash him out of the picture, and I don’t think we should. Because to remove Jois from history would mean we deny the existence of his victims.
See also #TimesUp: Ending Sexual Abuse in the Yoga Community
Where, then, does he belong? Surely not in a place of reverence as was the custom in many shalas around the world. At triyoga earlier this year, we pulled copies of Jois’ “Yoga Mala” and “Guruji: A Portrait of Sri K. Pattabhi Jois Through the Eyes of his Students” from our shops’ bookshelves. It felt wrong to reap economic benefits from books that glorifed a perpetrator of sexual assault.
Out of respect for anyone who has suffered sexual assault, many teachers have also taken down Jois’ images that hung on walls in practice rooms or sat on altars alongside statues of deities like Ganesha or Saraswati. “Pattabhi Jois’ photos came down from our walls immediately,” says Jean Byrne, the co-owner of The Yoga Space in Perth, Australia. For her, the abuse represented the very opposite of ahimsa, the very first yama that teaches the avoidance of violence toward others. “The photos were getting in the way of my practice and were triggering for many of our students.”
The fissures will no doubt continue to widen for as long as it takes the Ashtanga community to work through our conflicted feelings toward Jois—and, even more importantly, for as long as it takes for all of us in the Ashtanga community to apologize to his victims.
About the Author
Genny Willkinson Priest is a yoga teacher and yoga manager at triyoga, Europe’s biggest group of yoga studios. She has donated the income paid for this article to The Havens, a London organization aimed at helping those who have been raped or sexually assaulted. Learn more at gennyyoga.com.
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