By Kajal Basu
One intrepid yoga master salvaged what he claims to be the oldest, generic and exceptionally energetic form of yoga called ashtanga vinyasa yoga. And Mysore-based Pattabhi Jois is aggrieved about the fact that he has taken the the West by storm yet remains a nonentity in his motherland
Indian city of Mysore is a chaotic temple town gripped in the financial fever of turning into a Sotheby’s for the soul, a halfway auction house between tried-and-tested Indian tradition and postmodern methods of flogging this tradition to the West and to the 21st century.
At 81, yoga master KJ. Pattabhi Jois—known as Guruji and widely acknowledged as one of Mysore’s prize treasurers—spends a fair portion of his day allotting time to this and that— ‘this’, he confesses, being the temptation to slip into a state of well deserved rest; and ‘that’ being the excited reconstruction of the day in the early 30’s when he and his mentor, the late Sri Tirumalai Krishnamacharya, salvaged ashtanga vinyasa yoga (eight limited yoga) codified anywhere between 500 and 1,500 AD, from an archival tomb in Calcutta University. Today, Krishnamachary’s mantle has gone to his son, T.K.V. Desikachar, based in Chennai, India.
Jois and Desikachar are peers, but it is Jois who chose to carry on with ashtanga vinyasa yoga where Krishnamacharya had left off. And Jois has taken insurance against ashtanga yoga going extinct; he has groomed his grandson, Sharath, who at 23 is the youngest adept, but in his demeanor, older by far. It took Jois years to fine comb the crumbly palm leaves of the Yoga Korunta and its hundreds of sutras describing in nitpicking detail yogic postures and ways of transiting smoothly from one to another.
Jois started formally teaching ashtanga yoga in 1937, but to casual Indians whose lack of discipline, he says invariably got the better of their will to improve themselves. And that’s still happen, he says in a verbal shorthand that is his calling card. Used in conjunction with an unselfconscious body language, it returns him and his wards to the days of the gurukul, the ancient Indian system of education, and to the heydays of the inscrutable, taciturn patriarch.
Jois had to wait a half-century before aerobics conquered gyms in the West. Fame arrived belatedly after body and soul fitness freaks found that ashtanga yoga wasn’t so alien and esoteric after all; it was hyperkinetic and gave them both the familiar rhythmic workout of the dance floor and some sense of spiritual well-being that went way beyond endorphins. More than any other form, ashtanga vinyasa yoga is about power—both in the crude physical sense and the subtle flexing of the mind but Jois detests the world and its suggestion of what he calls, in convoluted Kannada, a South Indian language, ‘ethical corruption’. The only time I saw his brow darken was when I asked him why the West insists on calling ashtanga vinyasa yoga ‘power yoga’.
He blames the misnomer on some American ‘student ladies’ of his who have set up yoga pathshalas (schools) of their own and did ‘power yoga advertise’ and ‘book writing’, meaning Beryl Bender Birch, author of Power Yoga. ‘Some people call it also ‘mini yoga’ but it is nonsense.’
Jois gets angry sometimes at the ‘evil, bad use’, by those who purport to teach power yoga and brandish his name for validating what he mutters is ‘half learning’. After a spate of advertisement disclaimers in newspapers and magazines in the US, paid for by more straitlaced students, ‘an article in Yoga Journal came out’ and brought him some peace after what he feels is betrayal by some disciples. It’s been done before—the ‘pupil killed the master syndrome’ beloved of psychoanalysts, or like, says Jois: ‘The puppet killed the puppeteer.’
Disturbing. The point is that you can’t but marvel at the appropriateness of the puppet-puppeteer simile and how adroitly it bites back at the casehardened world of teacher and taught: the first thing that will catch you between the eyes when you enter Jois classroom (apart from the acrid stink of sweat squirting out by the gallon) is the sight of contorted human bodies—most barely recognizable as such in a physical regimen where elbow and bum, nape and calf, nose and heel are in the kind of proximity that God couldn’t have intended in his most perverse moments.
And the room throbs with heat. One of the primary principles of ashtanga yoga is tapas, or heat, the more scorching the better, and southern India’s tropical climate makes it perspiration paradise. Among temperature’s many functions: detoxifying the body through the sweat pores as a natural lubricant that makes it easier for the body to slither from one contortion to another much on the lines of lock proof freestyle wrestlers. ‘And’, says Jois, ‘water and fire both have cleaning property.’
Karl Jurgens, a writer who returned to Hanover in Germany five years ago after a yearlong on-off, love-hate discipleship with Jois, says that ashtanga yoga is a ‘sort of speeded up tai chi chuan designed by a chiropractor.’ He was being ironic. Practitioners with a bit more reverence call it yogaerobics, and there is no doubt that it is as potent a method of kinesitherapy (therapy through movement) as a dervish dancer or a frenetic arati.
It was in a movement of humor and humility that Jois himself coined the system’s slogan. ‘Ashtanga yoga is 99 per cent practice and one per cent theory’ That one per cent theory designed to hardsell the therapeutic efficacy of continuous mobility, adapted ashtanga vinyasa yoga to the breakneck mayhem of the fin de siecle-years which celebrate motion for its own sake and which link growth to velocity. You can, if you want to be turn to the times, call ashtanga yoga a victim of the West’s postmodern retro craze, where a demand for novelty in the marketplace as well as in spiritual disciplines marries content and form into a seeming oxymoron, ‘contemporary tradition’.
Contemporary is what I am, tradition is what Jois is, and the interface between the two of us is pretty basic, his willingness to hold the wisdom of the past up to light and my willingness to take off my goggles.
It works. And how. Mention ‘contemporary tradition’ to Jois and he breaks the ice with a grin: ‘Yes, this I teach.’
There are a few ways to come upon K. Pattabhi Jois; the most direct is through his address in an unpretentious middle class locality in Mysore, India—three tiny steps literally punching out of the curb of a dusty road, double through a tiny doorway into a tiny room and lower your seat tentatively on doll’s house furniture built on a scale of 1:4 of the world outside and guaranteed to have your keens flapping about your ears.
But make no mistake: you are walking into a minefield. The first chance he gets, Pattabhi Jois will bluntly tell you that to learn the basics of ashtanga vinyasa yoga, you need nerves of steel. Don’t even idly think of what kind of nerve it takes to be adept at it.
The discomfiting once-over that Jois gives you before accepting or rejecting you is thorough, even if his criteria aren’t quite as transparent as you think teaching one of the dialects of soulspeak ought to be. One of the perks of guruhood is the carte blanche to holy ruthlessness: Jois makes no concessions even for those who plead that they have come to him halfway round the world in search of sublimation.
Watching one of his legendary classes from the sidelines could make a nervous wreck out of you. It’s a small room, too small to comfortably contain 12 white aspirants to yogihood, all with suspect structural flexibility and innocent of the tribulations in the months ahead. Each of Guruji’s student is in a different, impossible pose, some that would give Salvador Dali a run for his money. Guruji—teacher and invigilator rolled into one—walks irascibly around these sculptures of living flesh, admonishing, nagging, nudging them into ‘correct poses’. If he didn’t smile so often and with such innocence, you would call him a tinpot god, with a holy disregard for the limitations of the human anatomy. The range of reactions to Jois’ third degree adjusting of poses ranges from the Wimp’s Wince to Woebegone Resignation to Masochistic Bliss.
Sheer physical strength and the capacity to endure protracted punishment distinguishes ashtanga yoga from its more lenient cousins—which is why, says Jois, only a handful of people—among the hundreds of thousands who are doing yoga at any given moment—go from student to practitioner and practitioner to teacher. One after a quarter hour of observing closely do you begin to acknowledge evidence that a state of grace among Jois’ students is almost always in direct proportion to the degree of contortion.
All yoga, says Jois, is ashtanga yoga. And ashtanga yoga is all yoga. That confessed, the only thing that distinguishes ashtanga vinyasa yoga from the generic yoga is its insistence on asanas first keeping the moral dos and don’ts yama and niyama—on temporary hold. Once the asanas are perfected, the internal spring-cleaning process begins and everything follows, including the support system of the asanas, pranayama or breathing practice.
Ashtanga means, simply, eight limed, nothing more than a variation on the eightfold system of practice designed by Patanjali in the 2nd century AD. The limbs include moral strictures, exercises, breath control and meditation. Jois’ ashtanga vinyasa yoga is riding a peak: in essence, it is another extreme sport which taxes the muscles, reduces pain and discomfort to a tertiary function in the dynamics of the human anatomy. And one skeptic said, turns you into an adrenaline and endorphins addict. Its one departure from classical yoga is that the wildly conflicting asanas in ashtanga yoga are linked by bridges of breath, pranayama between postures. The qualifier vinyasa was added by enthusiasts of ashtanga yoga dreaming of breaking away to adulthood and autonomy.
Krishnamachary’s successors—Pattabhi Jois, T.K.V. Desikachar, B.K.S. Iyengar and Indra Devi claim that ashtanga yoga is the original hatha yoga, the quasi-divinematrix of all yoga systems in use today. The core practice includes six increasingly demanding series of postures, with duration of between an hour and half and three hours. Only a small set of practitioners are proficient in all six. As with most martial arts, students tend to liberate themselves from the confines of pitiless discipline by series three and head for the comforts of home.
A goodly part of the fascination surrounding the ashtanga vinyasa yoga is the enigma of its genesis. The Yoga Korunta has never been translated into English and no yogi has ever seen a copy even in Sanskrit (some wandering extracts have been printed but no one knows their bona fides). Fortunately, like pop Buddhist tracts such as those of Lobsang Rampa or Carlos Castaneda’s profundities on the prairie they are internally coherent and show no trickery.
In fact, each series is like a targeted medication, forcing open specific aspects of body and mind. The first series, yoga chikitsa (therapeutic yoga), a preparatory, repair mechanism, realigns and detoxifies the physique and pumps up strength minus the steroids. The ostensible paradox is that this strength is used in its nonuse, it comes into play during the four advanced series called sthira bhaga (divine stillness). The buffer zone between the two series is nadi shodhana, which tones up the nervous system and gets rid of information gridlock that can bring the seven chakras to a standstill.
All this is pretty daunting stuff; you could be excused for thinking that the ultimate goal of ashtanga yoga is gymnastic proficiency, not samadhi or a state of bliss beyond words. Jois says that samadhi will happen when it has to, and all we can do is cover the potholes on the road through practice, practice, practice and be practical, practical, practical.
However, Jois doesn’t guarantee bliss—that, he implies, is a matter of individual predisposition and is between the student, God and nobody else—but if he is pushed, he does hold out the promise of a lifestyle makeover through one of the simplest, cleanest and most unambiguous verbs created in recent memory: ‘truthing’.
Truthing is the remorseless application of truth in everything you do, in the process of flowering into a better sentient being—among other onerous things. It is not a possession of ashtanga vinyasa yoga, but it certainly levels the road to transcendence, it is the moral camber of the road to wherever it is you want to go.
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Pattabhi Jois suggests that you should begin with the gentle surya namaskar before adding more postures to your regimen. One day add paschimotanasana before adding more postures to your regimen. One day add paschimotanasana (head-to-knee pose, supine, hands grasping toes) on the next, include padahastasana (hands to feet pose, standing up, legs, apart, spine curved like a sliver of a crescent moon) the day after, include trikonasana (triangle pose, erect, legs spread, spine bent sideways, palm on foot). With expertise comes confidence. Gradually, slot in postures from the primary series. If all goes well you don’t tear a tendon, hinges don’t lock and so on the third week might be generous enough to allow you to begin practicing sitting postures.A few words of caution: don’t gallop, you could end up unseated and kissing the turf. The slower the learning process, the more the chances of imbibing permanently. Fortunately, this is easy to do, in one of Pattabhi Jois’ favorite harangues in fractured English, ‘…You have time enough to practice, practice, practice’. It is far better than learning with the help of daylight from the often warped and dusty windowpanes of libraries, far better than gasping in the rarefied musty, preservative atmosphere of books and pictures.
Be dogmatic about only one thing never practice without a teacher—or you run the risk of tempting disaster. If you decide you want to be virtually wed to yoga, to practice yoga with fealty and without letting your romantic resolve weaken then consider scaling all mountains, swimming all seas. Flying around the world in the insecure company of migratory birds with suspect loyalty. And at the beginning, middle and end of it all—find a guru. Find a guru who is not a charlatan, a guru unafraid of your years long head-banging frustration and almost psychotic impatience. Find a guru fast.