Practice and all is coming
Ashtanga Yoga founder Sri K. Pattabhi Jois (1915-2009) dedicated his life to yoga. Here, longtime students remember the love and wisdom he offered.
K. Pattabhi Jois used to quote from the Bhagavad Gita to us—he used to say bodies come and go, cast off like old cloth, but the soul is never born, nor does it die. However, unlike an old cloth, the relationships we formed with him were intensely loving and personal. Though I need not grieve for his imperishable soul, I will miss the gentleman whose body housed his soul for 93 years and shed its light brilliant and bright through him. I will miss his smile and his childlike curiosity that kept him young well beyond his years. I will miss the way he welcomed us into his home, his life, his yoga. I will miss the absolute intensity of his concentration, his clarity of understanding, and his ability to render complicated truths in a simple manner.
Those are also the things that serve as a guide to how to live my life, for the blessings of a guru are not simply in what he says, but in how he lives. For this, Guruji was a shining example. He loved his wife and family dearly and showered them with the best he could give to them. He adhered to his dharma as a Brahman perfectly, performing his prayers and never leaving off his study, teaching, and charitable works. Yet despite the ritual purity he maintained, he was also able to embrace, without judgment, several generations of Westerners who crowded into his yoga school year after year, who more often than not, myself included, started off with him as hapless quasi hippies.
We were just kids when we came to him, and he saw us go through the physical pain of our bodies adjusting to his demanding practice; he married us and named our children, and laughed with our kids and fed them chocolate. We cried with him when his wife died, and celebrated with him his accomplishments—a new school in Gokulam, the passing of his 90th birthday. He was more than a teacher. He was our guiding light, our shining principle; he was our Guruji.
In March 1972, I was present for an Ashtanga Yoga first series demonstration by Manju Jois at Ananda Ashram in Pondicherry, South India. Norman Allen was also there. Manju's demonstration blew my mind! I had been searching India like a detective looking for the ultimate yoga, and here it was. As my visa was expiring, I would have to find Manju's teacher, his father, the next year.
In October of the next year, Manju's father, Guruji K. Pattabhi Jois, and Manju's younger brother, Ramesh, began teaching me, until I mastered the entire Ashtanga Yoga syllabus a few years later. Guruji certified me with the gift of a circular bronze plaque of dancing Shiva, encouraging me to teach in America with the words, "Put this on your door, and call your school the Ashtanga Yoga Nilayam," adding the name of the city wherever I found myself. Daily, I see that plaque, and I am grateful for the gift of knowledge Guruji gave me.
As it was Guruji and Manju's desire to come to America, in 1975 Nancy Gilgoff and I brought them to Encinitas, California. They stayed in our home and conducted daily Mysore-style classes for two months. On the final night before Guruji was to return to India, we were in the kitchen chatting. Manju was translating.
I asked, "Guruji, you have seen my life, you have met my friends. As a big yogi to a little yogi, do you have any advice for me?"
"Yes," Guruji replied. "Each morning wake up. Do as much yoga as you want. Maybe you'll eat, maybe you'll fast. Maybe you'll sleep indoors, maybe you'll sleep outdoors. The next morning, wake up. Do as much yoga as you want. Maybe you'll eat, maybe you'll fast. Maybe you'll sleep indoors, maybe you'll sleep outdoors. Practice yoga, and all is coming!"
"Thank you, Guruji," I said. "That is just what I wanted to hear. Every other adult has told me to get a haircut and get a job. You are telling me to practice yoga, and all is coming. OK, I am ready!"
I took Guruji at his word. This was all that I needed to hear to give me the freedom to "surrender to yoga." Also, I had heard that Shiva, the first yogi, takes care of his own. I was ready to put Shiva to the test. If I might be fasting and sleeping outdoors, I decided to do it in the best possible setting.
Guruji returned to India. Manju stayed in California and continued teaching. Nancy Gilgoff and I got one-way tickets to Maui, Hawaii. We taught the daily Ashtanga Yoga practice to thousands of people, and they taught people. Decades have passed, and the Ashtanga practice has spread around the world.
Guruji gave me two gifts—knowledge and freedom. With those gifts, I have continued my daily practice without interruption for almost 40 years now and, indeed, "all is coming." Thank you, Guruji.
K. Pattabhi Jois came to the United States in 1987 for an extended tour of almost five months, and he traveled from Helena, Montana, to San Francisco to Boulder, to Santa Cruz, Santa Barbara, Encinitas, and Maui. I drove cross-country from New York in my 1980 Honda Civic station wagon to follow the tour and spend those five months in daily practice with the man who had taught my Ashtanga teacher, Norman Allen, the first Westerner to be accepted as a student by Pattabhi Jois in the early '70s.
Accompanying me on the arduous trek across the U.S. were my two Siberian huskies, my husband, Thom, $200 in cash, plus food staples, cooking equipment, sleeping equipment, two bicycles, yoga mats, dog food, and, since there wasn't much money to spend, everything I thought I might need for the next five months to be able to survive. A good friend, Clifford Sweatte, a student of David Williams and one of the first American practitioners of the Ashtanga method (going back to the mid-'70s), had told us we had to come West to study with Guruji, as his students called him, and since we didn't have a lot of money, Clifford offered to pay all our tuition fees. So here we were, on the West Coast, ready to begin the "1987 You Do Tour," as we came to christen the circuit (after Jois's propensity to tell his students, "You do!" when directing them in class).
Jois spent a month of the tour teaching at the White Lotus Center in Santa Barbara. People came and went, even then, arriving from various parts of the world—Hawaii, New York, Colorado, Australia. David Swenson, Tim Miller, Richard Freeman, Chuck Miller, all were dropping in or traveling along on the tour. Generally, anywhere between 20 and 25 people were in every class. It was a simple, joyful time. Nobody had much money, as I recall. We all spent our off time swimming or riding our bikes and then soaking in hot tubs or getting massages from our friends.
One of Sri Jois's favorite pastimes, other than taking the time to put everyone in class in some of the more advanced postures of the various Ashtanga series, was watching Bruce Lee movies. Late in the afternoon, after the second practice of the day was over, we would often all traipse over to the house were he was staying and watch Enter the Dragon or Fist of Fury and drink coffee prepared by his wife, Amma. One afternoon the people who were supposed to come and pick up Guruji and chauffeur him home didn't show up. I was there with the old Honda and offered to give him and Amma a ride, but there were a whole bunch of other people who needed a ride too, plus my husband, and, oh yeah, Jesse and Gramfy, the dogs, were there as well.
Well, needless to say, we all piled into the car—dogs in back, me driving, Guruji in the front passenger seat, and everyone else crammed in between. I think there must have been at least 10 beings in that car. I'm quite sure that David Swenson was in on that adventure! I was horrified at first, offering to make a few trips, but Guruji insisted we could all fit. Once we got the doors closed and lumbered off, Guruji looked back over his shoulder at the load of people, stuff, and animals jammed into an indescribably small space and quipped, "Oh, just like India." We all about died laughing.
Beryl Bender Birch
K. Pattabhi Jois, Guruji, was one of those rare souls that are larger than life and electric in their presence. He had an incredible ability to bring joy to anyone near him and make that person feel an immediate tangible personal connection. It really did not matter if one met him for only a moment or knew him for decades. He made a lasting impression. There are no words truly befitting the impact Guruji had on those that knew him directly or those that knew him only through his teachings. The vacuum left in this world by the departure of such a magnanimous soul cannot be measured. Only a few rare entities that appear on this earth have such an impact. Guruji was such a soul. I liken his presence to a great and magnificent tree growing in a forest. When this tree falls, it leaves a large void where it once stood. That feeling of emptiness is the most evident result of its falling. Then as we look closer we see that the father tree has opened the canopy above to provide light for the young saplings to grow toward. The grand old tree also leaves behind fertile earth upon which the new young trees are able to set deep roots. In this way the energy of the great and powerful tree provides sustenance and strength to generations of trees to follow. Yes, it will take a forest to replace the void left by K. Pattabhi Jois, yet maybe that was the plan all along! That is the benevolence of those that walk the path before us. They prepare the way so that we may more easily journey down the path. Thank you, Guruji, for the deep, rich, and fertile teachings that you have left behind. Your physical presence will be missed at every moment while simultaneously the glory of your time spent with us will be celebrated and relished as we partake of the fruits of your presence and teachings! Happy Journeys, Dear Guruji!
Guruji is perhaps most recognized in the West as a master of the physical science of yogasana. In India, though, he received many noteworthy awards and honors that recognized his vast academic and experiential knowledge, as a double vidwan (PhD) in Samskrta and Advaita Vedanta. I remember when he was asked questions such as, "Why Shoulderstand before Headstand?" Obviously irritated, he replied, "Hey! Didn't you read my book Yoga Mala?!" But, when asked about the more subtle aspects of the process of yoga, Guruji became very engaged. Replying, he would chant sutras, slokas, and shastras as reference, and then translate them with a sparkling gleam in his eyes.
In the afternoons his wife, Amma, would sit on the front stairs combing her long hair while he read the astrological periodical in his receiving room. Guruji's door was always open, and he was always available to answer any questions I had. We would try to sift through the language barrier, and when it was apparent that I did not fully comprehend, he would lean forward, narrowing his eyes, concerned, saying, "You not understanding," and then patiently re-elucidate his point. He was always most generous with his attention and raised us carefully in the tradition prescribed to him by his teacher, Krishnamacharya.
Guruji had an amazing capacity to peel back the layers of your being and, in his exacting way, pierce you to the core. Once, he suddenly burst out laughing, saying, " There is a pose to break everyone!" And break us through, he did: our ambition, our puffed-up pride, our laziness and complacency, rending our hearts open. Although his teachings to us Westerners were mostly based on asana, Guruji recognized the limitations of the physical body and encouraged us to look deeper, saying, "Yoga is an internal practice. The rest is just a circus." I imagine this is why he termed his methodology Ashtanga Yoga, so that we might more deeply explore the internal experience of yogic awareness.
Guruji was more than just a yoga teacher; he was respected as an acharya, "one who walks the talk." Always available on a personal level, he constantly encouraged us, saying, "practice,practice, and all is coming." He genuinely shared his laughter and tears, his passion, his time, and ultimately his life.
After Guruji's death, Mysore appeared to be much the same on the surface: the perfect blend of grime and nectar; the stench of cow dung and pollution mixed with fragrant incense; the haunting sounds of the flower and coconut wallahs' endless mantras as they peddled their wares; the cacophony of traffic flooding the streets. But somehow, the heartbeat of Mysore was gone for me. And yet, still, the deep echo of his being continues to resound in the presence of his surviving family and students, perpetuating the teachings he devoted himself to so utterly and completely, welling up in the bittersweet tears and joyful recollections treasured in our hearts, where he affected our lives most deeply. Guruji, you have touched so many, both seen and unseen, known and unknown, and even the countless that are yet to come. The loss of you is indeed a sweet, sweet pain. And so I wish to you, Guruji, in your own words, a "Happy Journey!" and take as my mantra your advice, "Don't waste your life!" Your legacy lives on.
Going to Mysore to celebrate the life of Pattabhi Jois was so unlike any other time there. The shalawas not open for classes but instead held only his chair, his photograph, and beautiful garlands of flowers. Waves of emotion came over me as I knelt there and took in all that this wonderful man had taught me. It was uplifting to share with so many other students, from all around the world, all the experiences he had given us. I felt both love and sadness to see his beautiful family—Saraswathi, Manju, Sharath, Shruthi, Sharmila—who had always been so dedicated to him.
Our Guruji, with his bright smile and glowing face, will be missed by so many of us. When we were blessed to be in his presence, he always took us to another level. I know I speak for many when I say that my time with him was among the best days of my life.
He has left me with so many great memories. He always made us, his students, feel so acknowledged, whether he was scolding us or calling out our name in an endearing way. His dedication to teaching and preserving the lineage of Ashtanga Yoga was always present. I can vividly hear him say things like, "Without yoga, what use?" or "With yoga all is possible." His words of wisdom, simple yet profound.
He created a family of unique individuals with the common thread of our love for him and our love for the practice. The most important thing he would want of his students is to continue topractice yoga and to preserve the system to which he had dedicated his life, that ofAshtanga Yoga.
When I traveled to Mysore for the first time at the age of 22 to meet Sri K. Pattabhi Jois, I was in search of the elusive state of inner peace that all yoga practice seeks to instill. I visited the oldshala in Laxmipuran, Mysore, and practiced in a small group of 12 students every morning. I had the great opportunity to meet with Guruji every day in what was called "conference." At conference in the old shala (every day except Saturday), Guruji would sit in the foyer of this old building that was once his only home and take questions from all the students who dared to ask. Anyone could go and ask questions and literally speak with Guruji directly. His accessibility left a lasting impression on me, as he was never too tired to see a new student or answer a question. I don't know of any other yoga master or master of any discipline who is so open to the public as Guruji was all those years.
So one afternoon I asked him, with shaky voice, "Guruji, where will I find the inner peace they say comes from the yoga practice? Where does it come from anyway?"
He said, "You take it practice many years, then shanti is coming, no problem," and my heart opened to the grace of his teaching. It is my great fortune to consider this amazing man my teacher, and I attribute the depth of my personal practice and teaching to the light that Guruji's fire ignited within me.
The most important and lasting impact of this early interaction on my life was the depth and quality of Guruji's presence when he answered me. While I was young and naive, my question was earnest, and I really did want to find an inner peace. In my experience with Guruji, the ability to speak directly to a person or student exactly where they were was a gift of powerful insight. He spoke and answered you on the level of your being rather than on the level of your question or intellect. He somehow tuned in to where you were and spoke directly to you at the deepest level of consciousness. Guruji was never a man of great loquaciousness in the English language, but he always gave an answer imbued with a connection beyond the sometimes superficial nature of mind. A simple answer straight from the heart spoke to a long-sleeping place inside of myself and bypassed any resistant thinking processes. I didn't realize it at the time, but this moment transformed my very being, and it is one that I would draw upon repeatedly in my own teaching.
Six trips to Mysore later, nearly 10 years after the beginning of my journey into Ashtanga Yoga, I found myself in the front of a large room 10 times the size of the old shala, with nearly 300 people vying for a position near Guruji's feet. At the time I had just commenced learning the Fourth Series of Ashtanga Yoga and received my certification to teach. I had another question. With humility, reverence, and respect in my voice, I asked my teacher another question: "Guruji, on my first trip to Mysore, I asked you how I could find inner peace. Your answer gave me inspiration and faith to practice all these years. Now I am teaching this yoga as you have taught me. What can I say to new students to give them that same gift you gave to me?"
Guruji leaned down his knee to catch my gaze and make direct eye contact. Then he paused, caught my gaze again, smiled, and said, in his whimsical broken English, "You tell them same."
Again it was something indescribable that touched me deeply, something beyond the words. Perhaps it is in the silence before words are spoken that the energetic exchange happens. Two worlds unite and a presence is shared that is beyond the words themselves. There was nothing about Guruji that was grandiloquent. He was a man with few English words, a wide-open heart, years of dedication to a yoga practice larger than any one person. He was a man with great strength, wisdom, and temper.
A simple method: posture, breathing, and gaze. One teacher, one style of yoga, many, many years of practice. Then shanti is coming, no problem. Guruji used to say, "Ashtanga Yoga is for all people: old people, young people, fat people, skinny people—only not lazy people." That is because Ashtanga Yoga is challenging. It asks tightness to bend, softness to be strong—and it pushes the limits of the mind and the body beyond popular medical notions of safety, possibility, and comfort. In doing so, practitioners literally expand their consciousness.
We have the practice of Ashtanga Yoga today because of Sri K. Pattabhi Jois's unwavering dedication to sharing his wisdom with every student willing to put in the hard work of daily discipline. There is no greater way we can honor Guruji's life than to get on our mats and practice every day. He gave us the gift of Ashtanga Yoga, and now it is our responsibility to venerate his memory with our own commitment to yoga. If there is one thing I know for sure, it is that Guruji wants us all to take "practice, practice, practice. ... Then all is coming."
On my first trip to Mysore in 1991, as I was practicing one day, Guruji apparently thought I was going too slowly. He got exasperated with me and said in an agitated voice, "Why you go so slowly?! You, you Iyengar student!" Well, I had never really studied any Iyengar Yoga at that point, and the comment felt like an attack. I was simply enjoying my practice and never felt the need to rush. So I jumped up, grabbed my mat, and ran upstairs to the finishing room where I proceeded to go into Paschimottanasana and started sobbing! I was saying, "He's so mean to me! I'm not an Iyengar student! I don't like this," and crying and crying. After several minutes of my carrying on and people trying to console me, Eddie came upstairs and told me that Guruji wanted to see me. I of course continued crying and was so worked up that it took me another 5 or 10 minutes to calm down enough and change my clothes and slowly make my way downstairs. Guruji was waiting for me at the bottom of the stairs, and I walked down, and he got very close to me and stared into my eyes and asked me, "Nicki, why you crying?"
I said that I thought he had been to mean to me and that I wasn't a slow student. He looked at me very closely and then he said, "Nicki, you crying, I'm crying. You smiling, I'm smiling."
I was so moved by that that I started crying again! But more tears of joy than sadness or rejection. Then he took me into the yoga room there in Laxmipuram and sat me on the floor in the corner right next to his stool. He sat down on the stool and put his hand on my head and we sat like that for I really don't know how long. It was the sweetest feeling to receive that shakti [energy] from him. For the next three months that we were there in Mysore, every day after my practice I would go down and sit on the floor next to his stool and he would lay his hand on my head. I will never forget that as long as I live.
Peace and namaste, Nicki Doane
For willing students, K. Pattabhi Jois, or Guruji, had the uncanny ability to pop the bubble of ego, putting them right back into a beginner's mind. He would often change what we thought were inviolate sequences of poses or how they were to be formed. He was delighted to contradict himself from one day to the next if it helped us to understand and to let go of our rigidity and obsession with formulas.
(One day he convinced me, chronically afflicted with much conceit about my knowledge, that I could drop back to hold my knees cold, without any warm-up, preceding poses, or vinyasa. I knew it had to be impossible by any calculation, but he briefly convinced me that none of these, the body, the pose, the sequence, or the formula, were what I thought them to be. He put me in the pose without a second thought.)
He was always a surprise, a jolly trickster, cutting away our self-conceit. Perhaps the sweetest moment for his students was when he would admonish them with "bad lady" or "bad man" (occasionally he would use "good lady" or good man"). These affectionate names always saved us from being jaded experts and put us back to the state of being enthusiastic beginners.
We learned the sad news of the death of Pattabhi Jois yesterday and so today we set up a humble altar to him during class with a large striking photograph of his ebullient face as the centerpiece. There were fresh flowers decorating his image, and Surya led a small aarthi, blessing his image by encircling the altar with the offering of a handheld fire while we chanted the Kaurpurgaurammantra. It is astonishing to remark on the extent to which his teachings have proliferated around the world, and here in Europe, Ashtanga vinyasa is popular. Certainly the vinyasa wave that swept through the U.S. could not have happened without the influence of Pattabhi Jois's teaching.
His death falls midstream in this week's training program, and on our syllabus today are the teachings on impermanence. So the timing for our small puja to Guruji was fitting, and we reflected on how potent it is to witness directly the passing of a life. I remember Guruji referring to the "birthing and deathing" of all things, and I have always treasured that phrase, for in his broken English he suggested that birth and death are not static but involve ongoing transformation.
I recall having studied with Pattabhi in Mysore for six months on my first trip to India in 1989 (and returned again to study in '95). Surya also studied and practiced in Mysore, prior to the two of us meeting. So we both have the Ashtanga vinyasa practice as a common source for our teaching and practice. I learned the Primary and Intermediate series with Pattabhi Jois in 1989. This was before Sharath (his grandson, who will lead the tradition from this point forward) was assisting in the classroom. There were just 12 of us in the room (including Derek and Radha, John Scott, Lino Miele, Dina Kinsburg), and what I recall most was how nimble Pattabhi was given his 75 years at that time. He was like a veritable lion the way he moved about the room—lifting people up and dropping them back, holding people in poses, and climbing down to the floor next to or on top of his students. I particularly recall the weight of his girth on my back in Baddha Konasana! The abundance of core strength he demonstrated, down to the very marrow of his bones, was astonishing.
His passing is indeed a considerable loss to the yoga world, for not only did he have mastery of the yoga asanas and have the shakti to transmit this extremely formidable and rigorous practice to all those who walked into his shala, but he was also a master of the language underlying the yogic teachings.
He had moved to Mysore to study with T. Krishnamacharya from a small village in rural South India and attended Mysore University, studying Sanskrit. From his guru Krishnamacharya and through his studies he memorized the Sanskrit slokas from the Upanishads and bhakti sutras and the Bhagavad Gita. On the occasions when Pattabhi Jois would lecture on the philosophy of yoga, and students would have the opportunity to ask him questions (which he abhorred because his mastery of English was always left wanting), he would quote verses from the ancient sources, reeling off lengthy verses in Sanskrit.
He was not only a master of hatha yoga but also a scholar and a bhaktin (I remember how before the first class started at 5 a.m., he could be heard in the front of the home performing offerings to his household deities). Pattabhi Jois had mastered the yoga teachings by a strict discipline of study and through a yoga sadhana that included in-depth memorization of traditional text—harking back to the days when yogic teachings were limited to oral transmission. This ability to memorize scripture is now a dying art. With Pattabhi Jois's passing not only do we lose a great hatha yoga master, we lose a solid link in the chain of direct transmission of scripture learned by heart.
Two hands together, Tias Little
We asked Guruji what he felt were the most important requirements for a good yoga teacher, and he said, "Complete knowledge of the yoga method and patience with the students."
We then asked him what were the requirements for the students, and he said, "Some knowledge of Sanskrit, a vegetarian diet, and instruction in the yoga method from a qualified teacher."
Being committed ethical vegetarians, we asked him if he thought that following a vegetarian diet was really necessary for a yoga practitioner, and he told us that the most important part of the yoga practice was a vegetarian diet and that without following a vegetarian diet, yoga was not possible: "Meat eating makes you stiff, and you will not be able to breathe correctly."
During class Pattabhi Jois counted every breath. He teased with the breath count, mocked with the breath, and reprimanded with the breath length. Part of the power of this teacher was his ability to make each person in the room feel as if he was there for him or her alone, giving each one their next breath, and then taking it away, and then starting again. And he was there for each one of them, weaving everyone's breath into a melody. The sophistication of his teaching was astounding in its seeming simplicity. He looked into your soul and taught to your highest potential. He would urge us, "Just one more breath." And with those words we would launch ourselves into the next breath. The work was subtle and psychological. The asana practice became mere structure for the real work, which was transformation. He breathed life into our yoga practice, and we breathed out one collective sigh of relief. We finally found someone who knew the truth.
Once when we asked Guruji if he was enlightened, he first blushed and then looked into our eyes and said, "I'm just a simple man." Yoga is simple—realizing the Oneness of Being is the reduction of many to one, a Grand Simplification. Simple means single pointed and focused. Simple means the ability to conduct the force of enlightenment. Simple means the ability to see past outer differences to underlying causes.
Sometimes simply breathing in and breathing out can be the hardest thing to do, but when it is difficult, we will always hear him saying, "Just one more ... just one more."
Sharon Gannon and David Life