“Ashtanga Yoga is 1% theory and 99% practice”.
In the popular context, yoga has essentially come to be associated with complex contortions of the body, its weight loss benefits and the elegant gymnastics. There are as many styles of yoga , as are the aspirants. However, there are some names who will forever be credited with reviving the lost ancient Indian philosophy of yoga, and introducing it to the modern world as a relevant health fitness disciple. Notable amongst these is Sri Krishna Pattabhi Jois, often called one of the founding Fathers of Modern Yoga. Pattabhi Jois, was one of the early students of the prolific yogi T Krishnamacharya, who presented knowledge of asana, pranayama and various aspects of ancient Indian and yogic philosophy learnt from his guru as the Ashtanga style of yoga.
Pattabhi Jois’s early life was paved with much struggle. He was born into a Brahman family in the small hamlet of Kowshika, near Mysore, Karnataka. He was introduced to yoga at the early age of 12, when he happened to attend a yoga demonstration near his village. He was so enamoured and inspired by the show that the very next day he approached the impressive yogi to teach him. This yogi was the prolific T Krishnamacharya, who reluctantly agreed. Under his strict and demanding tutelage Pattabhi Jois secretly began practising yoga unbeknown to his family. He was much ambitious and eager to imbibe the knowledge of yoga and was often ridiculed by his family for his interests. Legend has it that, at the age of 14, Jois ran away from home with just two rupees in his pocket and came to Mysore to study Sanskrit.
His early years at Mysore were difficult and impoverished. He was without friends or family, and did not even have enough money for food. For the next three years, Jois dutifully attended classes and continued practising yoga on his own, often giving yoga demonstrations in the university to earn his food privileges at the university mess. In 1932, he was reunited with his guru, Sri Krishnamacharya who was giving a demonstration in the city. There on, the two recommenced their relationship which continued over the next 25 years.
Patronage of Maharaja of Mysore
Much of Pattabhi Jois’s early work can be credited to the patronage of the Maharaja of Mysore. The Maharaja, who was very ill at the time (supposedly suffering from Diabetes), found great relief through Krishnamachrya’s yoga . As a token of gratitude, the Maharaja established a Yog-shala (school) on the palace grounds where they started teaching yoga to the locals. They were also commissioned to go around the country to perform yoga demonstrations, to study texts and research other yoga schools and styles. The Maharaja was much fond of the young boy, who eventually became his yoga teacher. The Maharaja also commissioned the Yoga department at the University, where Pattabhi Jois formally joined as a yoga teacher and went on to serve served as Director until his retirement in 1973.
Jois taught a vinyasa based style of yoga following his guru’s teaching style. The origins of this style are up to much debate and conjecture. The ancient scripture that describes this style, the Yoga Kurunta, is supposedly long lost. He called his style the Ashtanga style, deriving the name from the term Ashta-anga (8-limbs) of yoga.
Ashtanga school of Yoga
The Ashtanga Yoga Research Institute was established by Jois 1948 in his tiny two-room house in Mysore. It was established with a view towards experimenting with the curative aspects of yoga. Over years, with much practice, personal observation and experiments, he fine tuned and refined some of the sequences of postures given to him by Krishnamacharya. He grouped them into a clearer, systematic development of sequences, called vinyasas– sequential movements in and out of asanas synchronised with breaths. His aim was to present a sequence of asanas to facilitate a greater opening in the body, thus, paving the way for a more spiritual experience.
How Ashtanga became popular
Pattabhi Jois’s Ashtanga style slowly extended throughout the country as he travelled extensively, first with his guru and later with his wife Savitramma. He met yogis , scholars, philosophers, engaging in philosophical and scientific debates, discussing research on yoga. He also collaborated extensively with other yogis like Swami Sivananda, the Shankaracharya of Kanchipuram, Swami Kulyananda and Swami Gitananda, often recommending students to each other.
He gained a lot of goodwill and renown in India. However, his international acclaim came much later, in the early 1970s. Ashtanga yoga and its master were first introduced to the western world in the English translation of the book Pranayama, written by one of his Belgian students Andre van Lysbeth. This style was easy to follow and adopt as a self-practice and soon gained immense popularity amongst the fitness conscious western world. Thus began a new chapter in the history of Ashtanga yoga. Pattabhi Jois was invited to Sao Paolo, Brazil for a demonstration, followed by a trip to California. Many teaching trips to France, Switzerland, Finland, Norway, England and Australia followed. The world had now woken up to the energetic and vigorous style of Ashtanga Yoga and modern yoga as we know it had finally arrived.
Controversies and criticisms
Many people have criticised the Ashtanga style as a calisthenic exercise and its dance-like approach, However, Pattabhi Jois’s firmly stood by the philosophy behind his unique and particular method of yoga. His clear message to his students was “ Practice, practice and all is coming!”. He firmly believed that a proper asana practice is of utmost importance. Our body and mind operate according to fixed patterns of their own, and the easiest way to break this pattern is to have a consistent practice that will free up layers of tension from within and facilitate an increased level of inner clarity, health and freedom.
Over the years there have been questions about Pattabhi Jois’s adhereance to certain yogic principles. Many critics have accused him of being too controlling and demanding of his students, yanking them into uncomfortable modifications and postures, shouting at and berating the students. However, ardent followers have defended this behaviour by saying that western culture does not have the same understanding of the traditional Indian guru-shishya relationship. There have also been accusations of sexual misconduct, accusing him of inappropriately touching and groping women during classes, making more adjustments to female students than male. There has also been much criticism of the cultist Ashtanga system where-in Pattabhi Jois suffered from a self-aggrandising complex. Adjustments by Jois have been characterised as “overwhelming, producing fear and extreme discomfort in students as they are pushed beyond their physical and psychological comfort zones in often-difficult, even dangerous asana.” If anything these debates have humanise to the larger than life personality of Jois, and allow people to look at the man and his teachings more objectively.
Legacy of Pattabhi Jois
Pattabhi Jois passed away in 2009 at the age of 93, in Mysore, leaving the institute in the capable hands of his daughter Saraswati and grandson Sharath.
Today, there are thousands of teachers across the world teaching the Ashtanga style. There are many more, who have been influenced by the style and the teachins of this school. Most of the modern yoga styles, from Power yoga, to Shiv Rea yoga, Strala, Anusara yoga, Viniyoga, Total Yoga to name a few have been, in some form or the other been inspired by the Ashtanga style.
The legacy of Pattabhi Jois is thus, forever en-grained in our hearts, A man whose unwavering faith and devotion to the practice enabled him to actualise, through his own life, the conduct of a household yogi. Irrespective of the criticism, the fact remains that Pattabhi Jois’s life work will go down in the annals of yoga as the groundwork that helped the world to see and accept yoga as a relevant science in the twentieth century.