By Kino MacGregor
A guru is a person whose very presence imparts truth and awakening in the disciple. When I traveled to Mysore for the first time at the age of twenty-two, I asked Sri K. Pattabhi Jois where I could find the elusive state of inner peace that all yoga practice seeks to instill. Known as Guruji to his students, he said, “You take it practice many years, then Shantih 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.
Sri K. Pattabhi Jois taught Ashtanga yoga for more than 65 years before passing on May 18, 2009. The depth and power of Guruji himself inspired his students to have faith in themselves and in Ashtanga yoga. The miracle of Jois’s life and legacy far exceeds his physical presence and is perhaps the very definition of the word guru. The strength of Jois’s very being made the difference in his teaching, and his spirit will live in yoga forever. Speaking in his endearingly broken English, Guruji communicated a transcendental knowledge of yoga despite his lack of full linguistic fluency. It is not what he said, but the space that he held that carried forth the ineffable and made realization possible in every student lucky enough to practice under his guidance. While Guruji may have left this Earth, he lives in the pulse of every Ashtanga yoga student and teacher around the world.
Each day of Jois’s life was marked by a relentless devotion to the Ashtanga yoga lineage which he carried with absolute integrity. A humble man born in a small village called Kowshika in southern India on guru purnima day (the first full moon of July in 1915, designated as a national holiday in India to honor all gurus), his life embodied the tradition of the sacred teacher-student relationship. First, Jois became a devoted student after discovering yoga at the age of 12 when he saw the man who would become his teacher, Krishnamacharya, give a yoga demonstration at his school. Studying daily for two years, he devoted himself to yoga at an early age and ultimately moved to Mysore to continue his education in yoga and Sanskrit studies. There he flourished as a scholar and yoga teacher. It was only after Jois taught the Maharaja of Mysore, Krishna Rajendra Wodeyar, that the Yoga Department of the Sanskrit College of Mysore was establised on March 1, 1937 with the approval and blessing of Krishnamacharya. After 37 years of professorship, Jois earned the title of Vidwan (professor emeritus of Sanskrit Studies).
Though he was a Sanskrit scholar, Jois remained true to his teachings in yoga and regarded practical, direct experience as the highest form of learning. He said numerous times that yoga is “99% practice, 1% theory.” Throughout his years as a professor, Guruji also taught yoga in a small room on the first floor of his modest house in Mysore and encouraged every student to find the personal experience of truth that yoga practice offers. More often than not, the group was small and less than enthusiastic. Thankfully, Guruji persisted for nearly 30 years before passionate interest developed. He never doubted the method of Ashtanga yoga, nor his ability to teach. Instead, he persisted against all odds and guarded the sacred jewel of the yoga tradition with reverence. If not for his steadfast belief in the validity of Ashtanga yoga throughout the years in which he lacked worldly success, yoga as we know it would not exist. Only in the early 1970s, when his son, Manju Jois, traveled southern India to give Ashtanga yoga demonstrations, did the first American students travel to Mysore and invite Jois to travel, teach and tour. Subsequently, both Guruji and his son made their first tour outside of India and arrived in California in 1975 carrying the mantle of Ashtanga yoga. Manju stayed to teach and still resides in California, making time to travel the world sharing his good-humored presence. Since that serendipitous tour, Ashtanga yoga has spread like wildfire around the globe, growing geometrically each year.
Always joyful to see a new student, Guruji carried the torch of Ashtanga yoga while it grew over the last 34 years from a few disinterested students to a flowering, international community of dedicated, passionate practitioners. He lived to see the full fruition of his life’s work as Ashtanga yoga spread to more than 30 different countries, transformed thousands (if not millions) of yoga practitioners, and sprouted studios all over the world.
Ashtanga yoga is now one of the most powerful, popular and proven methods of yoga. This dynamic flowing series of postures traces its lineage to an ancient sage named Vamana Rishi in the Yoga Korunta. Combining breath and movement in vinyasa, Ashtanga yoga purifies the body through the stimulation of internal heat (agni). In the tristana method specifically taught by Jois, Ashtanga practitioners concentrate their minds by focusing on three things: breath (ujjayi pranayama), posture (asana) and gaze (dristhi). In more than 65 years of diligent, soulful teaching, Guruji maintained the Ashtanga yoga method in its pure form. To experience firsthand the transformative power of yoga, authorized and certified Ashtanga yoga teachers regularly study at the K. Pattabhi Jois Ashtanga Yoga Institute in Mysore, India. This type of study exemplifies the ancient tradition of guru parampara (an unbroken succession of direct teacher-to-student transmission).
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 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. The practice comprises six series of postures, yet most practitioners spend their entire lives working on the first or Primary Series of Ashtanga yoga because its levels of strength and flexibility are already quite challenging. However, the Primary Series is a complete practice that burns through accumulated toxins within the body. Without regular cleansing, the body collects toxins from the environment, food and even emotional states that, if left unattended, can sometimes lead to disease and discomfort later in life. Health and comfort can return to the body with regular, disciplined yoga practice. While Ashtanga yoga is no magic pill to cure all ailments, Jois’s long, healthy life is a testament to the true power of Ashtanga yoga. Yoga is as strong as you make it and takes you as deeply as you are willing to go.
We have the practice of Ashtanga yoga today because of Sri K. Pattabhi Jois’s unwavering dedication to sharing his wisdom to every student who was willing to work at this daily discipline. There is no greater way to 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.”