Krishna Pattabhi Jois is the founder of the Ashtanga style of yoga and one of the most influential yoga teachers to have brought yoga to the west through the Ashtanga Yoga Research Institute in Mysore, India. I studied there in January 2015.
Jois was born on a full moon in 1915 in Kowshika in southern India. His father was a member of the Brahmin caste and Jois was taught rituals and Sanskrit from the age of 5. When he was 12 he attended a demonstration from Tirumalai Krishnamacharya and became his student the following day. Jois never told his family that he was practicing yoga, but would wake up early, practice, then go to school.
When Jois was 15 he ran away from home to head to Mysore to study Sanskrit. 2 years later, he was reunited with Krishnamacharya in Mysore when the older teacher came to heal the Maharaja of a sickness that no one else could cure. He would accompany Krishnamacharya in demonstrations at the established palace shala and continued to teach the yoga sequence that he learned from Krishnamacharya, the Ashtanga yoga method and continued to study under Krishnamacharya until 1953. He also claimed to be BKS Iyengar’s guru, which Iyengar refuted.
Jois married at 18 and in 1948 moved to Lakshmipuram (a beautiful suburb of Mysore) where they had three children: Saraswathi (who I studied with in Mysore), Manju, and Ramesh. Jois was a professor at the Sanskrit college, but eventually left to teach yoga full-time. In 1964, a Belgian named André Van Lysebeth wrote a text called “j’apprends le Yoga” (I taught myself yoga) and this is what started the spread of yoga to the West. Students from all over the world would come to study with Jois including Richard Freeman, Chuck Miller, David Life, Larry Schutlz, Bryan Kest, Gwyneth Paltrow, and even Sting. Many of these people would bring yoga into the west in their own forms of the Ashtanga yoga practice.
Eventually Jois moved from his 8 person shala in Lakshmipuram to a larger shala in Gokulam, which is where I studied with Saraswathi Jois. He wrote several books and died of natural causes on May 9th, 2009 at age 93.
Jois will forever have a footprint on the world of yoga; indeed many practitioners continue to study with his grandson Sharath Jois and daughter Saraswathi at the Ashtanga Yoga Research Institute in Gokulam.
Many have claimed that Jois was inappropriate with his adjustments, but this could have been a result of major cultural differences between the cultural standards of the US and Jois’ traditional upbringing. However, it is confirmed that Jois injured several students with his adjustments, including one woman who he broke both meniscus’.
The Ashtanga method is well known for its high rate of injury, most likely due to its optimization around the Indian body type, from which there are quite large deviations, especially in the west. One survey put the rate of injury rate at 62% for Ashtanga practitioners, however, Bikram Yoga and Iyengar Yoga have both had serious backlash from the media for causing injury. Iyengar’s students also incurred injuries such as one student who wrote a letter to William J Broad for his book, The Science of Yoga: “One of the saddest and most thoughtful letters came from an elderly man who studied with Iyengar in India for 16 years. His list of personal injuries included torn ligaments, damaged vertebrae, slipped disks, deformed knees and ruptured blood vessels in his brain.” Bikram, in particular, has been known to cause large amounts of injury and the founder himself has two rape charges against him. It is undoubtable that the competitive spirit of yoga in the west contributes to this high rate of injury and lack of respect for the body’s limitations.
Pattabhi Jois helped to spread yoga to the west as one of the pioneers of the exercise. His memory will be forever remembered by the tradition he began and the students whose lives he changed with his spiritual practice of the Ashtanga method and philosophical Hindu and Sanskrit doctrines accompanying the physical yoga that he taught.
Tuesday marked the final day of my practice at the Pattabhi Jois yoga shala (kpjayi) with Saraswathi Jois. I feel extremely lucky to have been able to spend the last couple of months practicing with her and exploring the lineage of Ashtanga yoga.
Learning there was a bit of a unique challenge in my case because I have practiced for five years before I even got to India. There were certain asanas that I hadn’t done regularly and certain asanas that I was very proficient at in the advanced and intermediate series, but didn’t practice because of how late they are in the series. Even the first day was weird. Saraswathi belted out some commands to me, which I tried to enact (her english is not amazing) and we got up to the Maricyasanas. I worked through them for a while then a couple weeks later moved into kurmasana and supta kurmasana and Bhujangasana and was able to work on the finishing sequence since the beginning of practice. Eventually, 25 breaths of headstand are pretty much effortless.
My daily practice has completely transformed and now I have something to work from. I deviate into variations and stretches that I am craving and work in back bends and some of the intermediate series at the end. Soon, I will start working on the first few poses of the sequence (I’ve been working on Pasasana for over a year, except while in Mysore). And as much as I want to say that I do not care about progression, I do care about deepening my Samadhi and I find that new poses and deepening certain existing postures is a part of that. Supta Kurmasana taught by itself has deepened my practice in many ways, same with the Maricyasanas, so I am grateful for having the opportunity to learn them.
I didn’t get to drop backs or Setu Bandhasana, but that is fine with me. I will work on the intermediate series and the primary series, maybe I will even come back. I enjoyed the alone time and the doing nothing but writing a little, making some music, and making room to practice yoga every morning and meditate during the days. Having experienced the atmosphere of India I can really understand how yoga came about and why it is so powerful for the human body. History I’ve been reading makes a lot more sense now after seeing the environment that Indians live in.
Saraswathi is traditional and you really can’t blame her for that. She teaches the sequence the way it was taught to her and she is a powerful voice for many things, but ultimately you have to regulate your own injuries if the (re)occur. So with the Ashtanga practice in general comes an enormous responsibility to know your own anatomy and to increase your awareness for the functioning of your body. Without a heightened awareness, you can easily injury your knees, shoulders can get used to being hyper-extended in down dog(this happens a lot), and muscles can be easily strained. In doing yoga, you are increasing your sensitivity to your body, especially in a practice as intense as Ashtanga. This allows your to better manage your body, which increases the steadiness of your mind, because your are more aware of the consequences of your actions and of the actions of your environment, which have direct effects upon your body.
So ultimately Saraswathi wakes up early and facilitates the yoga of her students and is very committed and so are her assistants, but the Ashtanga yoga method is usually not suitable for beginners. Especially when you are older, you should have pretty much mastered sun salutations and at least practiced most of the postures. Also knowing and using yin yoga can be a great addition to an Ashtanga yoga, even though it isn’t prescribed by the KPJAYI.
If you want to take a couple of months off, practice a yoga practice that you conform to and focus on those postures for a few months while quieting your mind, the Ashtanga Institute is a great resource and so is Mysore, more specifically Gokulam.
Gokulam is an amazing place, a quiet repose in the midst of a semi-busy city that supposedly is a prototype for southern India. I didn’t get to visit too much else, but Mysore itself is an amazing city, full of animals and wildlife and scooters. The pollution there is bad as well, but I am told that as far as India goes, the pollution in Mysore is minimal. Basically I didn’t have to wear a mask every day and the streets were walkable, though just barely.
The yoga institutes are hidden away from the city in much quieter Gokulam, with plenty of facilities to practice yoga quietly. It was an experience I will remember as having quieted my mind, as well as given me some great experience with yoga’s history.
So if you are looking to come to the source to practice yoga as it has been taught for the last five decades or so, Saraswathi is great. Ensure you know the sequence, at least the beginning and end, when you arrive. You can also take your time to learn, they are very accepting at the shala, but keep in mind that personal attention from the teachers isn’t something you should rely on. But if you need more, Saraswathi is the one to go to simply because she has fewer students and you are learning the method and not a teacher.
My last day of practicing yoga with Saraswathi Jois was on Tuesday, but I am very happy to continue moving. I am very happy with how the trip and Saraswathi have added to my practice, though it definitely evolved much differently than I expected.
Ashtanga can be grueling at time. I think this is one of the reasons that it is so liberating; challenge makes us feel comfortable where we might not have before. I missed one morning practice because I was late (I drank beer…) and practiced myself in my room. This was one of the times when I really started to realize that I am ready to teach and am not just a student anymore. Even my arrival in Saraswathi’s class was a bit weird because my practice is very unique.
A few poses have developed significantly since I arrived; I now have a full lotus pose (always working deeper into my hips with careful attention to my overused knees), the Maricyasanas, Supta Kurmasana and I can jump through with crossed legs now. In some ways, I am very happy to progress, but at the same time I realize how unimportant my physical progress is. After all, my body will one day die and decay and no longer exist. At the same time, its fun to move through new poses, deeper variations, and I will tell you that Kurmasana and Supta Kurmasana have made permanent changes to the way that I practice.
In modern yoga, there is too much emphasis placed on the sequencing of postures rather than focusing on cueing people deeper into postures. Even Ashtanga yoga can be too focused on the sequences (getting it done, rather than enjoying it) instead of the feeling of the breath moving through your body. This, in my opinion, is why yoga was invented; to increase your sensitivity to the life-force energy of breath so that you can better regulate the fluctuations of your mind. The first time I went into Supta Kurmasana, I felt like I had just placed in a prison cell full of water with barely any air to breath. It was a dark, lonely, and crushing place; if you have ever seen someone do the stretch, you can probably imagine why, but I think this first one was particularly crushing, therefore liberating for me. I won’t forget what I gleaned from those eight breaths or so in the posture; it all passes, it all changes, no matter how shitty it might be. It will change. No matter how good it can be, it will change. Just be cool and go with the flow.
I am now in Kathmandu and am so happy to have experienced India in the way that I did. Saraswathi was amazingly accommodating, very genial, and a little flexible to my unique yoga practice. I will miss practicing with her and in the shala with all of the other incredible Ashtanga yogis that wake up at the break of dawn to feel their breath coming and going.
I am thinner, lighter, and happier than when I came. Things are good, even though I was sick for a little while with food poisoning. I guess we can call the trip a success! I am very excited to come back and continue teaching and looking forward to teaching when I get back.
What is Ashtanga Yoga?
Ashtanga yoga sequences are a tradition expounded by Pattabhi Jois and is currently taught by teachers in different forms across the world. It is most likely that these sequences were originally created by Krishnamacharya for Pattabhi Jois, using knowledge he obtained from his guru, Brahmachari for short, who lived in a cave with his family in isolation. Krishnamacharya created the sequence for Pattabhi Jois who claimed that the yoga koruntha (which explained the yoga system) was written on a palm leaf that was eaten by ants. This tradition was passed orally from Krishnamacharya to Jois and Iyengar, and Jois used it to create the Ashtanga system. The existence of the document is questioned and although Jois claims to be Iyengar’s appointed guru, Iyengar claims no such relationship. The modern lineage of yoga is an incredibly interesting a complex series of relationships and history.
Here is the known lineage of the originators of Ashtanga Yoga:
- Ramamohana Brahmachari (the guru’s guru.)
Students of Pattabhi Jois include Bryan Kest, Iyengar, Larry Schultz, Richard Freeman, and Chuck Miller. BKS Iyengar was a student, but they were in disagreement whether Pattabhi was his appointed guru. Both were called Guruji.
The Ashtanga yoga lineage has expounded yoga into the west, but its traditional original can be questioned. Many of the exercises seem extremely gymnastic to be so ancient and many people discuss where the influence of the postures and sequence really come from. However, one thing is certain; Surya namaskar
is an incredible movement pattern that is excellent for your body’s health if properly aligned. There are also transitions in the ashtanga series that create incredible concentration and focus, but it is certainly true that no series is perfect for every skeleton. Ashtanga yoga, while exemplary, is no exception to that rule.
Balancing the intense yang posture of Ashtanga with Yin postures that counterbalance the spinal twists and shoulder openers of the primary series is completely necessary to progress properly in the primary series. This requires responsibility over your own body. The combination is powerful and relatively unexplored, but there is no reason to spent only 5 breaths in each pose and to continue to practice the exact same way, without variation. I think that the pattern of 5 breaths for many movements is great, but some poses can be held for much longer and indeed have expanded benefits from being held.
Yoga is not a religion. There are no rules. Attempts at trying to organize it are a joke. It is a system for learning about the self and the limitations and delusions of consciousness. Rules in regard to yoga are silly, because at its best it needs to be completely personalized. Therefore its leaders are simply the people with the most experience in the field through their own practice and assisting the practices of others. This is why it takes so long to become a true guru.
I think it is important to realize that yoga has been passed father to son in many generations before a system like Krishnamacharyas was expounded and spread to the West. He even spent many years in poverty teaching before befriending the Maharaja and gaining the raja’s patronage for his yoga shala. It’s popularity was in decline up until this point, but Krishnamacharya would make demonstrations on his days off work, and would eventually travel with his students to demonstrate asana, then send students to become teachers in other cities. Jois and Iyengar were two of these students and both learned different lessons from Krishnamacharya because they studied with him at different times in his life.
To think you have to practice with a certain guru is silly. To think you “have” to practice Ashtanga is silly. The energy of India is great, but the primary series is the same no matter where you do it. Ashtanga yoga should absolutely be supplemented with other activities. The tradition of Pattabhi Jois is continued by his daughter, Saraswathi Jois and his grandson, Sharath Jois, both studied under his guideance in the same sequence as all other practitioners. Both
are currently teaching in Gokulam, Mysore (links to when I went). It is interesting to know where styles of yoga come from, so you may want to continue by reading Krishnamacharya’s, Pattabhi Jois’, and Iyengar’s books about yoga. Iyegnar’s book is particularly interesting, though Krishnamacharya are much more detailed in interesting ways and somewhat cryptic and mysterious. Krishnamacharya’s guru, Ramamohana Brahmachari and Krishnamacharya are the only ones that we can credit with the creation of modern yoga, though it many poses from the Hatha Yoga Pradipika are much older, such as shoulder stand/sarvangasana, headstand/sirsasana, sun salutations, spinal twists, and lotus poses They all make for very fun and interesting reads, I’m sure. Many are available online, I’ve found a bunch by searching in Wikipedia.
Modern Ashtanga Yoga’s Primary Shala –
The K Pattabhi Jois Ashtanga Research Institute in Mysore, India http://kpjayi.org/
I do love it when someone tells me what to do. It such a great opportunity to show them how powerless they really are over you. Or to show respect by asking no questions and simply acting.
In India there are no rules. I was told that a bus driver can keep his job, even if he kills 11 people a year. If he kills 12, he gets fired. This is what happens when 1.25 billion people live together in a country. India is the second most polluted place I have ever been after Beijing, and let me tell you, the effects of climate change are all too apparent here.
I can’t believe that there are still people who think that cars don’t do anything to the atmosphere. My first question would be, ‘where have you been?’
It’s unfortunate that only about 30% of Americans have their passport. Most of the people I know have barely left the country, maybe to Mexico or Canada, which really share very similar lifestyles to the states. This leads to a very narrow, narcissistic, and selfish mindset; that America is right and everywhere else is wrong, or just doesn’t know better. You see it constantly in the news and in nearly every medium that you consume in the states.
The truth is, American might be leading humanity to its end. America consumes 25% of the world’s produced resources, with only 5% of the population. One America consumes as much as 128 Indians. More than 50% of American farmland is used to produce beef. There are more malls than high schools. If everyone in the world consumed as much as an American, we would need four full planets to sustain the human race.
The real problem is that the developing countries in the world see American lifestyles and want them. India, China, all of the Asian countries want the royal consumer lifestyle, where they can do anything with the flick of a plastic card. It’s easy to see why, to the untrained eye, convenience looks like happiness. But rest assured that it is not.
Life should be a struggle. Easy lives breed stagnation, fat-ness, lack of creativity, blockages, laziness, depression and inactivity. And I don’t blame a single American for their lifestyle because how could anyone know better? Challenge breeds strength, scars, and failure, these are the things that make us powerful, that give us perspective and teach us about our limits, our shortcomings, but also our strengths and gifts.
You see it in a zoo, where the animals are not fully focused, not fully present. The same thing is happening in the human race, we are caging ourselves for mass production and there is no reason for it. Humans of all ethnicities are creating system all over the world that are completely unsustainable. And America has led them there.
Honestly, if it wasn’t America, it would have been China. It’s silly to blame anyone or a single group, because it has been a progression. The only thing we can do now is try to rebuilt our societies in a way that creates abundance for the planet and therefore, ourselves.
Going vegan or vegetarian is not the answer. It is completely possible to eat meat in a sustainable way that actually benefits the environment. Same with fishing, or culturing cheeses, milking cows, or keeping a chicken coup. And in reality, eating vegetarian can be extremely resource intensive.
Ok, rant over, story time.
I arrived in Mysore via a taxi that I paid too much for. I don’t regret it, because it was 3 in the morning and I would have had to wait until 9am for a bus. So right off the bat, I was skeptical about people trying to take advantage of the me as a foreigner.
So the first night, I got into a rickshaw and the driver pointed me in the direction of ayurvedic oil. I didn’t realize he would be taking me to his friend’s shop and trying to sell me weed at the same time. Suffice to say that it was an interesting night. All Indian’s try to make plans for the next day, but rarely do they follow through. They are just so present to the moment that they really are somewhat incapable of planning long-term.
This makes for a very interesting culture for me to interact with, because I prefer to be a bit uncomfortable. I try to avoid taking the easy way. This baffles most Indians and while I walk, I am constantly harassed or called or honked at by drivers that are looking for customers. Being detached gives me a power of their consumer mindsets.
Every time I want to challenge myself, I just head over to the city, walk in, and try to get lost. When I am good and lost, and I mean, I have no idea about some of the places I have been, I find some food. This has been great to far, I have eaten food that I will always cherish, and always avoid in the future. Finding my way home without paying too much is always the challenge.
There is an easy way out of paying too much for a rickshaw. You make the driver use the meter. It’s funny that when they say it’s broken, I just walk away. Then they yell after me for a bit and I laugh to myself. I say that this is the easy way out because its much more fun to bargain with them, to push them, see how much they push back. To see where they are willing to go and then to leave when it’s not far enough. It’s almost like putting people into poses and seeing how long they can breathe before waiting for you to say something. or putting someone into chaturanga then making a nice long joke while telling them to hold it. Just testing the limits to see if we can expand upon them, growing comfort zones, getting comfortable with discomfort.
So I have become friends with 4 rickshaw drivers now, just because I enjoy their company and I am pretty sure they enjoy mine, especially because they are getting paid. I’ve found the best rooftop restaurant this way, 80 rupee ($1.30) for mushroom masala, 20 rupee for water. I don’t drink, so I don’t spend much more than a few dollars when I eat. If I do, I am eating like a fat-ass.
The latest man was very interesting, through him I met a woman from Paris that has been living in India for years, she had some great things to say about the culture and I got to speak with her in French for a couple of hours while enjoying the view. She talked about how the pollution gets really bad in March, so I am probably going to write more about the air quality, deforestation, and sustainability then. I am saving up a big photo bank for it.
I have to be constantly aware here, of myself and my surroundings. If not, its easy to get hit by a car. Buses have no mercy here and for some ridiculous reason they have the right of way in the streets. Its a jungle of people out here, and its easy to make a wrong move, though I have only seen one accident so far and it was right in front of me.
My focus on my breathe has been constant lately. I breath through my nose because of the pollution, I learned in Beijing that the nose has a better air filtration system than the mouth because you can catch large particles in your nose hairs. So my meditation is becoming more and more constant, ceaseless, unwavering. And each person that I’ve met has taught me a lesson, every single one.
People stare at me because I’m white and American with long hair and I probably walk differently or whatever. I like to break the ice and smile, say ‘how are you’, ‘watsup man’, ‘Namaskar’, ‘hello’, or whatever. I think its important to be friendly, this world is too impersonal, too disconnected. Walking around and saying hi makes me feel connected to the people I meet, because in reality we are sharing a journey. Comparing ourselves only disrespects our unique individuality. Its like looking at other people’s Facebook and being jealous, or asking yourself why you haven’t done the things that person has done. It’s so irrelevant, your complexity cannot be contained by a mere web application, let alone one so focused on materialism, advertising, and appearances.
Indian people are the same as Americans. So are the French. So are Chinese. In each place, there is a spectrum of diversity and experience and if you are open, you will always find people who resonate with you in different ways. We see ourselves as different because of our ego, our need to feel valuable, necessary to the world and therefore worthy of survival. But in reality, I am the same as the rickshaw drivers. You can bet that I would be taking advantage of every American I met if I was living here to feed my children. Or justify it in whatever way possible.
This is why rules don’t apply to humans. We can justify anything, Malcolm Gladwell in Blink said that prisoners will always justify their actions and it always makes complete sense to them. We will break the rules as fast as we make them, when it suits us. And no one can blame us for this, we are animals after all.
So my point in this article is that we are all the same. And we need to start to see this, because we are starving, over-worked, and toiling for no reason. What is the purpose behind all of this progress if we have to leave the Earth, the most precious planet we know of? It is time to start thinking about things globally, and apply them locally. I think this was the original idea of state and local law organization that America’s founding fathers setup, which has now deteriorated into an oligarchy. I don’t believe in any of that illuminati bullshit, but I do believe that very few are in control of the economy.
So let’s get into trouble. Fuck the rules, they are made for sheep and cows and zoo animals. If you want to be a lamb or a caged tiger, fine, go ahead and wait for your turn, sit in your square car, cubicle, or boring job and believe the nonsense you are fed. But if you choose, you can be free! Ride the line, do things that are illegal, expand what you think you know. Learn the system so that you can break it. Talk to strangers, smile at people who stare and whose brows darken as you walk by. Make them uncomfortable, ask the hard questions, don’t take maybe as an answer, make them tell you no.
Maybe we can find something that is worthy of respecting along the way.
I have honestly been waiting to post these pictures for a couple days, my internet connection is slow and I might have to do something about it. But for now, I’m splitting this into 2 parts, so check back for the full zoo story and some cool pictures of some experiences with the animals. I love animals, so zoos are always a bit difficult to visit, but these animals were happy and I saw lots of babies which means that the animals are at least able to spend time with their families.
Mysore zoo is the best in India, so enjoy!
Check back for a story about the elephant family, communication with a chimp, a monkey that was entranced by my vibram shoes, and a few big cats that I won’t be forgetting any time soon.