Saraswathi Jois

k pattabhi jois

Krishna Pattabhi Jois

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.

 

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Practicing Ashtanga with Saraswathi Jois

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.

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Day 48 of Ashtanga Practice (Last Day)

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.

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