On Authorization, Lineage, and Where We Go From Here

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Burn it all down, break the wheel, activate all the potential slayers.

Whatever cultural metaphor floats your boat.

There is so much vrtti in the Ashtanga world lately. We collectively found out in 2016 (though some knew much longer, and some are just learning or coming to terms with it now) that K Pattabhi Jois, the man who developed Ashtanga Yoga from the ancient texts into what it is today, the man who is either your teacher, or your teacher's teacher, or your teacher's teacher's teacher, if you practice Ashtanga, was a perpetrator of long-term and widespread sexual abuse.

I don't blame those who want to walk away from the practice. I don't blame those who don't already practice Ashtanga and are saying, hey, no thanks. (Maybe hear me out first.)

Hi, I'm Ellie. I'm introducing myself here because I'm a Nobody in the Ashtanga world and not super interested in changing that-- but frankly, a lot of Somebodies have been mucking it up online and I wanted to put my perspective out there just in case it's valuable to any little-s-somebodies. I'm an authorized teacher, given Sharath's blessing in 2014 after which I taught five years of a Mysore program in Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA. Nice to meet you.

I'd like to talk about my authorization. In 2014, I had been practicing for nine or ten years. I was on my third trip to Mysore, and had been living in Minneapolis for a few years, where there was no authorized teacher (and perhaps more importantly, no one at the time who wanted to teach a five or a six day/week program). But due to the efforts of some wonderful long-term practitioners and teachers, there was indeed a community of Ashtangis who were hungry for a daily morning Mysore program. And I wanted to teach it. I had at the time seven years of experience teaching drop in classes, and I felt energized and ready. So I asked my teacher at the time what she thought. Absolutely not until you're authorized, she said. The institutional backing that one gets from authorization is essential for being a good Mysore teacher. I trusted her. I still trust her, though both of us see things a little differently now.

So. How does one go about getting authorized?

The collective myth is that when you are ready, and this often happens on the second or third trip to Mysore, Sharath knows it. He will one day call out your name from across the room and say "Ellie! Authorization! You come today!" Literally every story I had heard about someone getting authorized was akin to this. I have since learned that, although this does of course happen, it's not always the story. And I knew that wasn't how my story would go. I simply don't have the kind of practice that people notice across the room. I don't mean that to sound self-deprecating. I was told this summer that I have a bit of an invisibility shield on when I practice. I'll take it. But back to Sharath-- the stories I had heard of this across-the-room-blessing had really all been for folks who had uh-maaazing physical practices AND/OR the folks who had developed real relationships with Sharath as their teacher. Three trips in, I respected him very much as a teacher, I liked what he had to say in conference, but I didn't feel a strong connection with him.

I knew I would have to ask for my authorization. So I made an appointment to talk to him. I went in, shaking, and very awkwardly told him that I lived in Minnesota, where there weren't any authorized teachers and there were students who wanted to learn. I said I wanted to do it the right way. Could I have his blessing to teach? He asked me how many times I had been to Mysore. Three, I said, and happily added "And I plan to keep coming back!" He thought for a moment, then walked out of his office, yelled "Usha!" (she's the one who does many or all of the administrative duties for the shala), and then "Authorization--" and this part he emphasized-- "Level ONE!" I thanked him, went to Usha, filled out some paperwork, paid the shala a big bucketful of rupees and a week later I got a laminated sheet with a sexual abuser's picture on it (this was 2014, though, so I didn't know the truth) and the rest is history.

I want to pause for a moment and acknowledge how messed up this is. It is! It would be easy to project onto Sharath omniscience and wisdom and say that he knew I was ready but was waiting for me to ask. He made me jump through hoops because that is what Gurus do.  But no! I mean I'm not 100% sure he knew my name at the time. I’m fairly sure he didn’t know what my pedagogical approach would be. And lest you, dear reader, think that I have an ax to grind with Sharath, I really don't. I think he is kind. I think he is human. I think he is a good teacher, somewhat bad at social media and perhaps not always the best judge of character, but I think his heart is in the right place.

Why am I sharing this, and why now?

I don't put a whole lot of personal stuff out there on the internet. And I try not to get TOO caught up in the things I read online. But lately I am seeing so much polarization in our little (global) Ashtanga world -- either you love Sharathji as your guru or you think he is a sold-out egomaniac who needs to apologize BETTER but you still won't accept it even if he does. Or my personal fave, you love Sharath as your guru UNTIL he apologizes and now he's just an American businessman etc etc etc. There have to be people out there who take a more nuanced approach, no?

How about this: our teachers are human. Being human doesn't excuse what KPJ did, not by a long shot. But possibly, remembering that our teachers are human can help us hold them accountable (i.e. less shouting on the internet and more in-person conversations about how denying abuse is not cool, or sleeping with your students is not cool, etc). And really, if you're not able to make an appointment/call them on the phone/email them/skype with them then maybe you don't have the teacher/student relationship that you're actually looking for.

For those in the back: IF YOU CAN'T HAVE A CONVERSATION WITH YOUR TEACHER, THEY ARE NOT YOUR TEACHER.

Oops, there I go yelling on the internet.

Some of my colleagues have renounced their authorizations in the midst of all of this. I'm keeping mine. Part of my reasoning (and this is not at all to sit in judgement of others’ decisions, as this is a murky, difficult situation) has to do with how I feel about having gone through the proper channels; not so much institutional backing, but cultural backing. I am not interested in appropriating and whitewashing the Indian science of yoga, and for me, asking for a blessing from the Indian lineage-holder in order to teach the method in the traditional way was the path I needed to take. I'm not ashamed of it. 

But also, I would like for us, Ashtangis, to understand that Authorization and Certification mean something, but they do not mean everything. They are not the be-all and end-all of what makes a good Ashtanga teacher. They’re a step along the journey for some, but they’re certainly not a guarantee that a teacher is qualified, or kind, or experienced, or wise, or safe. Renouncing my authorization would give it too much power. Ultimately it’s just a piece of paper that tells you that a person was privileged enough to be able to make multiple trips to India to practice and nap for months at a time.

This is perhaps a conversation for another day: if the process is flawed (and it IS), do we (as I suggested earlier) burn it all down, break the wheel and destroy the authorization process entirely? Can we break the wheel and still understand and teach that this system is inherently Indian? As a white woman from Minnesota, I have to keep asking these questions even if I can't yet answer them.

As for the method itself, it WORKS. After practicing daily for fourteen years, I can say it benefits my life in countless ways. I'm not giving it up just because one of the links in the chain was an abuser. But we (all of us, the students, including students who are also teachers) have to keep our eyes open. Take your teacher off a pedestal. Hold them accountable to a high standard. Hold yourself to a high standard. Just because the practice makes you feel powerful (it does! this can be a pitfall!) does not mean you need to use that power to control other people.

Use your practice for good, not evil, and use the insight you gain from this practice to call UP (not call out, but call up) those around you.

Thank you for listening.