Shri K Pattabhi Jois, affectionately known as ‘Guruji’ by his students, has become one of the most well-known gurus in the West over the last 30 years. He carried the lineage of the Ashtānga Yoga system, and has up until now authorised many teachers all over the world to carry on the tradition. So if you’ve attended an Ashtānga Yoga class, particularly what is called the ‘Mysore’ tradition, you’ve had a brush with Guruji.
This guru was born in India in in 1915 in the state of Karnataka. His father was an astrologer and a priest, and as such Jois studied Hindu texts and rituals from an early age. At some point in his childhood he saw a yoga demonstration by Shri T Krishnamacharya, which inspired him greatly. Krishnamacharya was one of the most well-known yogis of the time, and Jois was lucky enough to be accepted as his student.
The Birth Of ‘Mysore’
After a number of years of study under Krishnamacharya in his early teenage years, he went on to learn Sanskrit at the Sanskrit University of Mysore. Krishnamacharya was teaching there too, so they carried on their relationship. At some point, the Maharaja (or ruler of the area), was treated by Krishnamacharya for an illness. The treatment worked so well that out of gratitude the Maharaja built a yoga shala in the university grounds, where Pattabhi Jois eventually taught. It was during these university yoga demonstrations that Jois met his wife, a yoga practitioner and eventually teacher.
After the Maharaja died, Pattabhi Jois, now a husband and father of five children, opened the Ashtānga Yoga Institute in an extension at the back of his house. Many local residents practiced with him, and there were even doctors who referred patients to him to help treat various ailments.
It wasn’t long until the first foreigners from Europe and the United States started coming to him. Then from the seventies onwards, there was a steady stream of Westerners who came to Mysore to train in the Ashtānga yoga style. He had to extend his yoga shala or move premises a number of times to accommodate all the students streaming in from all over the world. He became more popular, eventually travelling and teaching in other countries, and even opening another institute in Florida.
There are many methods of hatha yoga. Many of these styles are static, in that postures are held for a long period of time. Pattabhi Jois’ is different because it includes a technique called vinyāsa, in which students jump back and forward (the vinyāsa) between postures (āsanas), synchronising movements with their breathing. It is a challenging and intensely physical practice. Jois would only teach the more subtle aspects of such as prānāyāma (breath control) and meditation to advanced students.
Breathing is very important. Without breathing, the spiritual mind and body are not coming. There is a method to breathing. That is vinyāsa.
There are six series of postures in Ashtānga yoga. Depending on your practice, it can take many years to perfect even one or two of the series. The Mysore style of yoga fosters a deep internal focus, and independence in the practice. Practitioners work through the series ideally first thing in the morning, without being led by a teacher. The focus is on the breath, and the idea is to work through the series of postures perfectly synching breath with movement. Teachers are on hand to make adjustments and slowly add postures to the students’ series.
This style of yoga has become one of the most popular styles of yoga in the West, in fact Jois’ fans include Madonna, Willem Dafoe, Gywneth Paltrow, Ralph Fiennes and Sting. It can also be said that Ashtānga yoga is the grand-daddy of styles like Vinyāsa, Vinyāsa Flow, Power Yoga, Shadow Yoga, Dynamic Yoga and Jivamukti Yoga. After a lifetime of teaching, Guruji passed away in 2009 leaving behind a rich legacy of students and teachers to carry on his teachings.
What’s In A Name?
As we have covered in previous articles, the word Ashtānga means ‘eight limbs’. This usually refers to the Eight Limbs of Yoga, the philosophical basis of yoga as written by Patanjali. So it can be easy to be confused between this philosophical tome, and this style of Pattabhi Jois which is called by the same name. Generally, if someone says they are practicing Ashtānga Yoga, they are referring to Pattabhi Jois’s style of yoga, which no doubt draws from Patanjali’s Eight Limbs as a philosophical basis.
The Wisdom of Guruji
Those who were lucky enough to study directly with this great teacher, have an abiding affection for him. Here are some of his most well-known quotes to give you a feel for the wisdom, compassion and sense of humour he employed. Many of them are still quoted in yoga classes today — do you recognise any of them?
- “Yoga is 99% practice and 1% theory.”
- “Whether you do your first downward dog at 14 or 44, it’s not your history but your presence on your mat that counts.”
- “Simply be present with your own shifting energies and with the unpredictability of life as it unfolds.”
- “Yoga is good for man because the physical body improves, the nervous system improves, the mind improves, the intellect improves — so, how can yoga not be good?”
- “When the breath control is correct, mind control is possible.”
“Body is not stiff. Mind is stiff.”
- “The whole purpose of Hatha yoga is to purify and control our senses. It is the ultimate science of helping us discover what lies behind the apparent reality of body and mind.”
- “Yoga is for internal cleansing, not external exercising. Yoga means true self-knowledge.”
- “Discipline means you can take yoga practice. Stamina comes first in the body. Strength comes first in the body. Body means there are three types of body: external body, internal body, spiritual body. Those are the three types of body strength.”
- “Yoga, as a way of life and a philosophy, can be practiced by anyone with inclination to undertake it, for yoga belongs to humanity as a whole. It is not the property of any one group or any one individual, but can be followed by any and all, in any corner of the globe, regardless of class, creed or religion.”
It’s possible to find out more or even arrange to visit the Shri K Pattabhi Jois Asthanga Yoga Institute. He also wrote a book called Yoga Mala, where you can have direct access to his teachings. If all else fails, simply sign up to a Mysore class at your local studio to directly benefit from his life and teachings.