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An unprecedented portrait of a great yoga teacher and how teachings and traditions are transmitted and passed on
It is a rare and remarkable soul who becomes legendary during the course of his life by virtue of great service to others. Sri K. Pattabhi Jois was such a soul, and through his teaching of yoga, he transformed the lives of countless people. The school in Mysore that he founded and ran for more than sixty years trained students who, through the knowledge they received ...
An unprecedented portrait of a great yoga teacher and how teachings and traditions are transmitted and passed on
It is a rare and remarkable soul who becomes legendary during the course of his life by virtue of great service to others. Sri K. Pattabhi Jois was such a soul, and through his teaching of yoga, he transformed the lives of countless people. The school in Mysore that he founded and ran for more than sixty years trained students who, through the knowledge they received and their devotion, have helped to spread the daily practice of traditional Ashtanga yoga to tens of thousands around the world.
Guruji paints a unique portrait of a unique man, revealed through the accounts of his students. Among the thirty men and women interviewed here are Indian students from Jois’s early teaching days, intrepid Americans and Europeans who traveled to Mysore to learn yoga in the 1970s, and important family
members who studied as well as lived with Jois and continue to practice and teach abroad or run the Ashtanga Yoga Institute today. Many of the contributors (as well as the authors) are influential teachers who convey their experience of Jois every day to students in many different parts of the globe.
Anyone interested in the living tradition of yoga will find Guruji richly rewarding.
Manju Jois is Guruji’s eldest child. He started practicing yoga with his father at the age of seven and began assisting him when he was thirteen. His demonstration in 1972 at the Ananda Ashram in Pondicherry was witnessed by David Williams and Norman Allen and fueled their desire to meet and study with Guruji, which led to the international spreading of ashtanga yoga. Manju travels and teaches all over the world and eventually settled in Southern California.
How old were you when you started to practice?
Oh, let’s see, I was seven years old. It was just like a game for me, just to watch and then you try to do it because it’s fun. It was not done seriously, he was not making me do things. We just went voluntarily and started playing with the postures, that’s all.
When did Guruji start teaching you formally?
Formally when I was twelve years old. Then we had to practice every day—in the morning and evening. He started teaching me and my sister individually, giving us a private lesson. That’s how it all started.
You started with private lessons?
Then you joined his regular classes?
No, we were always private, never with any of the other students because he wanted to make us into good teachers, he wanted to make sure we were going to learn right.
He was training you to be a teacher?
When did you start learning to be a teacher?
I was just twelve or thirteen years old when I was starting to jump on people’s backs and stuff like that. That’s how I started. And he never stopped me from doing that and he was always guiding me what to do … where to push, when to push. He started training me when I was very young. So that was really helpful for me because it was so natural, the way I learned it.
Was he teaching at the Sanskrit College?
Yes, at the Maharaja Sanskrit College. He was conducting the classes for the Sanskrit students and others to take. And that’s where I used to do yoga, and that’s where I used to help all these people who were coming there.
Was the school at the Jaganmohan Palace already closed at that time?
Was Krishnamacharya around in those days?
I met Krishnamacharya when I was seven or eight years old. He came to Mysore to give a demonstration with his son, and that’s the first time I met him.
Do you remember seeing your father practicing yoga?
Could you describe what it was like seeing your father practicing?
Well, for us it was fun to see my father doing yoga, putting himself in all these postures. It was really amazing. He used to pick a posture some-times and he would like to stay in that posture for a long time. That’s how he used to practice. And that’s how he started teaching us. There’s no need to do millions of postures, just try to master one at a time. Then you can go to the next one. I really enjoyed watching my father doing yoga. Sometimes we all used to do it together, too: me and my sister and my father.
That’s interesting. He teaches lots of postures to people, but to you he was advising the way he was practicing.
Well, yeah. He liked to master the thing, you see. So he was always telling us: “Master that, master that.” Then you can go to the next one. But we are like little kids, we want to learn more, you know what I mean? “Oh, can I do this? If I can do this one, can I skip this one? Or can I go to that one?” Sometimes he let us do that, but at the same time he always had an eye on us to go back to finish that one. That’s what he did.
So basically you started teaching with your dad when you were twelve or thirteen years old. How long did that continue before you left India?
I left India in 1975. But before that, I traveled to a lot of places. I would take my friend and we would go to universities in different parts of India and give demonstrations and talks on yoga. It was very fun, actually.
When did Guruji open the school in Lakshmipuram?
Mmm, that was about … a long time ago, maybe ’61, ’62. I don’t know.
He was teaching in both places at the same time?
Yeah, he was teaching at the Sanskrit College at the time. Then he was about to retire and wanted to have his own place. So he started to build that small yoga studio there.
How many students did Guruji have in that studio?
We had, like, fifty students.
What kind of reputation did Guruji have among his students?
They respected him a lot. We used to get people with sickness in the body like asthma and diabetes and all sorts of problems. And those are the ones who used to come to yoga because they tried everything and finally the doctors used to send these people to my father to do yoga. That’s the kind of group we had, people with problems.
So doctors would send their patients to Guruji after they could not cure them?
In those days they did not have modern medicine. And the doctor would say, “Look, the best thing for you to do is yoga.” Because we used get a lot of doctors, too, at the time. And they don’t want to believe it, but they want to believe it—that is the kind of attitude they had.
Anyhow, when they started seeing the results with these people, who were getting healthier and healthier, then they would send patients to my father. “The best thing to do is just go to Pattabhi Jois, and do yoga, and then he would cure this.” We got a lot of good results from doing that, yeah.
So he had a reputation for that.
Yeah, the Indian students who used to come, most of them were sick. All kinds of problems. That’s why they started studying yoga. But we want to get a good yogic exercise. They used to come for the therapy. That’s how it started.
Did Guruji adapt the practice at all for the therapy for the different students?
Yes, yes he did. He did mostly for the diabetic students. He’d make them sit in janu shirshasana A, B, C for a long time; baddha konasana, all the upavishta konasanas work here mostly [points to abdomen], you know. So that’s how he started.
How did he figure that out?
If you read the Hatha Yoga Pradipika it will explain which posture helps in what kind of disease. That’s why you had to study not only yoga asanas, you got to study the books, too. It’s like a medical book.
Can you describe a specific instance of a cure? Guruji once told me that he cured elephantiasis.
And leprosy. We did have a student who just started leprosy in his ears. At that time there was not medication for that. He came from Tamil Nadu. His father brought him because he was the only son he had.
So my father started teaching yoga to this guy who was a leper. Then some of his students left because they didn’t want to be there, because “Oh my God!” You know, they don’t want to be in the same place.
They told my father, “If this guy is doing yoga here, we’re not coming.” And my father said, “Okay, that’s fine. This is important for me.”
So he started working with the guy. And then slowly the guy started to heal. His ears start getting better. Then after that, he decided to go back to his hometown and start practicing every day.
If you can cure leprosy, you can cure anything. So then people started getting attracted to cure through yoga.
What do you think was your father’s main interest in teaching yoga?
I think mostly he concentrated on healing. Healing is much more important for him. Once you start healing yourself, his philosophy is that yoga would take you automatically to the meditative state, you see.
If you are not well inside, you can’t do anything—no meditation, no nothing. So that’s how it will draw you into the spiritual path.
See, that’s why he says the yoga asanas are important—you just do. Don’t talk about the philosophy—99 percent practice and 1 percent philosophy, that’s what he taught. You just keep doing it, keep doing it, keep doing it, then slowly it will start opening up inside of you, then you are able to see it. So that’s why he likes to concentrate on that aspect—the healing process.
Does the student take responsibility for their healing process, or does Guruji make any kind of diagnosis of the student?
Ah, well, a lot of people will say, “Oh, Guruji has the answer for every-thing!” My father sees that, that’s why he gives them work: “All right, do it! Do it! You’ll find out.” That’s what he does: he diagnoses, but he doesn’t say, “Okay, you have this problem …” He figures out how to cure it.
I’ve noticed that he has a different attitude to different students. Do you think that’s one of his techniques?
I think so, yeah. He studies the students. He doesn’t like impatient students. A lot of people go to my father and say, “Okay, I’ll be here for two months.” And they expect they are going to learn a lot of stuff in two months. And then, when my father says, “No, no, you’ve got to stay here more, you got to come here more often and continue this” and people get impatient, he cannot stand that. That’s why he gets mean.
Because for him to learn this practice, he put in a lot of energy and time, and he’s been punished by his guru. His guru did not teach him very easily, he tried to see how much patience he had to learn this.
He would say things like, “Come at eight o’clock or twelve o’clock to my home to do yoga.” They had to be there exactly at twelve o’clock at his guru’s place. If they were late, then he would make them stand in the sun for an hour and see, you know, what happens. So my father went through all those things. Then when he sees these impatient students, then he would say, “Hey!” [Laughter]
What is your impression about where the asanas come from? Did Krishnamacharya make it up? Did Rama Mohan Brahmachari teach it to Krishnamacharya?
You mean the asanas?
The specific asana sequence.
Well, actually, it’s all taken from books. If you take the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, it teaches a few postures. Then Yoga Korunta it teaches, and Shiva Samhita. All these books, you see, have it. So what they did was pick all the postures and then they sat down and kind of researched how to put it in a sequence. That’s how they created the whole thing.
When you say “they,” who do you mean?
Krishnamacharya in his Yoga Makaranda. That is the way my father teaches. When B. K. S. Iyengar took it, he just picked here and there. This is more like therapy. But everybody has their own ideas of what to do. Strict ashtanga yoga is how my father teaches: vinyasas, breathing—that’s the real ashtanga yoga.
But this was created, you think, by Krishnamacharya? Did he put the sequences together?
I think so, yes, yes.
It’s interesting that this lineage of ashtanga yoga comes through a series of householder teachers. We usually think of a yogi as someone sitting in a cave, renouncing the world. At least that’s the Western impression.
Well, actually, that’s a very good question, because in India it is like you’re learning music or something like that. The family knows the music and they become the teachers. So for us, it is just like that. We do not have to be like a guru or go hide in a cave or something like that. It’s just one of those professions we learn.
The priest teaches how to chant to their children, then their children become the next priests. And then every day they chant in their home, everybody learns that just by hearing it. The wife can chant. She doesn’t have to sit and read a book or anything because every day she hears the same thing and naturally the kids will learn it in the same way—they know how to teach and how to do it.
Guruji says he only has one guru. But there’s also another lineage of gurus through Shankaracharya, the family guru.
Can you explain a little bit the difference between those two, how Shankaracharya belongs to the family lineage and how Krishnamacharya is his yoga guru?
There’s no relation between Krishnamacharya and Shankaracharya. Shankaracharya is the guru for the Smarta Brahmin. Krishnamacharya’s guru was Ramanujacharya. You see he’s an Iyengar. That’s a different, what do you call it? A sect. Shankaracharya is the guru for Smarta Brahmins, as we are called. We follow the Shankaracharya philosophy.
So Krishnamacharya is Guruji’s yoga guru, for asanas and so on, but not so much for philosophy?
I think Krishnamacharya follows the philosophy of Shankaracharya. You see, Ramanujacharya [Krishnamacharya’s lineage guru] is a religious leader. There are three categories: Ramanujacharya, Shankaracharya, Madhvacharya. There are three gurus.
Shankaracharya represents Advaita, that’s what we study. And Ramanujacharya is Vaishnava, that’s a different study, that’s what they follow. And Madhvacharya preaches Madhva sampradaya, it’s called. They have different categories, different ways to teach, because Ramanujacharya and Madhvacharya, they don’t talk about yoga or anything—it’s more spiritual. Only Shankaracharya is more into yoga. See that’s how we started. It came from Kerala.
How does Guruji communicate the spiritual aspect of the practice to Western people?
Well, actually he just does not put in a spiritual aspect when he teaches the Western students because he knows this is very new for them. Philosophy is too confusing. So he slowly wants them to practice their yoga.
Slowly, you know … because, actually, Hinduism is very, very hard to understand. You got to go deeper and deeper, deeper and deeper. It’s an old religion. It consists of yoga and philosophy and all sorts of spiritual things. A lot of things I did not know until my mom passed away. Then, when I had to do all those rituals, I said, “Oh my God, so many things to learn here.” There’s no ending.
So Westerners, we had to take them very easy. That’s what my father does. Just do yoga, don’t talk. Don’t ask any questions about spiritual things and this and that. No, you’re here, you’re doing karma yoga now, that’s what you are doing. Just start working on that! That’s how he teaches.
He regards it as karma yoga?
Karma is action, you know that’s the actual meaning. Karma is action, so you’re acting when you’re practicing yoga—hatha yoga, raja yoga, ashtanga yoga. But actually yoga is one. It has all these different names.
You are doing what I call karma yoga—you’re working on your karmas. That’s why you feel pain. And you’re going through it slowly—that means you’re slowly burning your karma up. So once you come out of that you feel great. Then you can concentrate on other things, and the next step.
Why do you think Guruji is not teaching much pranayama anymore?
Well, Guruji wants people to learn yoga first, asanas, master that. I think he used to teach pranayama only to people who had problems like asthma or something like that. Even in the Hatha Yoga Pradipika it says you should not do all the kriyas and pranayamas if it is not necessary. These are things you only do when it is really necessary. You have a health problem or something, then you do that.
If you have a problem with your breathing, you do the neti kriya. When you have an intestinal problem, you do the dhauti kriya but you don’t practice that every day. If you are doing fine, no problem. If you start doing that without reason, you are going to get sick from it.
The first thing is to keep up with the asana, that’s what my father says. Just keep doing the asanas, postures, master them. It takes a whole lifetime to do that.
He used to say that there was no limited life span in old times because the rishis controlled the whole situation. When they decided to leave [the body] then they used to leave and that’s it. But that’s the whole thing, you see. When you start having control over yourself, then the next step you go to is pranayama. Your body’s under control, your breathing’s under control. So when you start controlling, you are going to be in the driver’s seat!
How are the other angas [limbs] of ashtanga yoga included in the practice we know?
Everything is included in ashtanga. My father always used to say, “Don’t say I’m doing meditation.” It is not apart from your practice, the whole practice is the meditation. With your breathing, with your practice, you become one with yourself. That’s “union.” Yoga is called uniting, you know.
You go through the cycle, you start getting hotter and hotter and then you start sweating, you’re feeling really good, then you totally become one with it. That’s the whole thing. You can’t just say, “This part I did, this part I did, this part I did.” So that’s why it’s 99 percent asana and 1 percent theory. That’s the whole thing.
Can you tell us how you met David Williams?
Long time ago, I was traveling all around India and I went through Madras. This guru who used to have an ashram in Pondicherry called Gitananda, he’s a very good friend of my father and used to come visit my father in Mysore. He always wanted me to give a demonstration, he enjoyed my doing that.
So he asked me to come to his ashram and stay there as long as I wanted. When we were on the road, my friend and I decided, “Oh, maybe we should visit Gitananda.” So we went to Pondicherry.
Then immediately he wanted me to stay and told me, “You can stay as long as you want, all you have to do is just give a demonstration in the morning like a led class.” I would do the yoga and people would follow it. I said, “No problem,” because I practice my yoga in the morning anyway, so instead of doing it in my room, I can go and do outside.
That day he announced, “Yogi Pattabhi Jois’s son is here and he’s going to teach you, he’s going to show you ashtanga yoga.” All these people were there who came to study yoga and philosophy. Gitananda said, “Okay, Manju is going to do this, so you can all follow.”
Then I said, “Before I teach you anything, I would like to give a little demonstration, then you will know what you’re going to do.” So I start giving a little demonstration and all these people in the audience were really impressed because that’s why they came to India, to study this kind of thing, but they did not know where to go. Gitananda gives a lot of philosophy but no asanas.
After my demonstration, this guy with long hair came to me and introduced himself. His name was David Williams, he’s from the States, and he asked me, “By the way, where did you learn this? It’s what I’m looking for. I want to learn this.” And I said, “Well, I learned it from my father.” “Oh, where does your father live?” “He lives in Mysore.” And then he said, “Oh, I gotta go there to see your father.”
Same day he left and I gave him the address. He went to Mysore to see my father. Then he started studying with my father.
Could you talk about your mother’s influence on your father?
Oh yeah, my mother totally used to be the backbone of my father. She supported him in every way, whatever he did. That’s how she was. She actually chose my father. My mother, she fell in love when she was watching him doing yoga at the Sanskrit College when she was a kid. She used to come there every day. They used to do yoga and then she was in love with him and that’s how they got together.
Then she went and told her father that she already found a husband for herself. Her father started laughing and he said, “Who is that?” She said, “Oh, this guy I know. He does all these yoga postures.” So then my grandfather told her, “Well, why don’t you just bring him to be introduced to us.” Then she asked my father to come to her home so he can meet my grandparents.
So he goes there, and she introduced them. My grandfather looked at him and said, “Oh yeah, he can take care of my daughter, no problem. He’s pretty strong.” [Laughter]
So that’s how they started. Then they got married. She put up with everything with my father. He’s not a very easy guy to deal with, but she was there for him all the time. She supported him every which way possible and played a main role in my father’s life. We dearly miss her.
Did he teach her ashtanga yoga?
Yes. They both used to do yoga together. She used to give demonstrations at Krishnamacharya’s place at Jaganmohan Palace and she was very good, very good.
Excerpted from Guruji by Guy Donahaye and Eddie Stern.
Copyright © 2010 by Guy Donahaye and Eddie Stern.
Published in 2010 by North Point Press.
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.
Preface Eddie Stern xi
Preface Guy Donahaye xvii
Manju Jois 5
The Seventies: How Ashtanga Came to the West 15
David Williams 17
Nancy Gilgoff 24
Brad Ramsey 41
Tim Miller 64
David Swenson 84
Ricky Heiman 107
Saraswathi Rangaswamy 115
Mysore Residents 125
N. V. Anantha Ramaiah 117
T. S. Krishnamurthi 132
Norman Allen 138
S. L. Bhyrappa 148
Mark and Joanne Darby 157
R. Sharath Jois 183
Practice, Practice: Ashtanga Spreads 195
Chuck Miller 197
Graeme Northfield 210
Heather Proud 232
Brigitte Deroses 242
Tomas Zorzo 251
Richard Freeman 172
Dena Kingsberg 282
Peter Greve 300
Annie Pace 314
Sharmila Mahesh 329
A Global Community 337
Joseph Dunham 339
John Scott 348
Lino Miele 360
Peter Sanson 371
Rolf Naujokat 381
Nick Evans 397
Posted October 9, 2010
No text was provided for this review.
Posted August 18, 2010
No text was provided for this review.