K. Patttabhi Jois, the yoga legend who breathed his last in Mysore this afternoon, was above all a warm person at work and outside, never without a smile, and never reluctant to try out his English on his students.
Ratna Rao Shekar, editor of the doctors’ journal Housecalls, met him three years ago to capture the magic he could perform that trained medical doctors often couldn’t.
RATNA RAO SHEKAR writes: When Mysore was still a small town, like the fictional Malgudi through the streets of which its famous creator R.K. Narayan once wandered, the focus was the main Amba Vilas Palace.
Even now, when there is so much traffic that walking the streets is difficult, the palace is still the focal point. During Dasara, the palace is lit up, former maharajas sit regally on erstwhile thrones and elephants go in a grand parade as hundreds watch in awe.
Last Dasara, however, we were oblivious to the celebrations as were the Malaysian girls we were with.
We had come to meet the guru of ashtanga yoga, K. Pattabhi Jois, teacher of such Hollywood celebrities as Gwyneth Paltrow and Madonna.
Since he charged $500 for a month’s classes, the girls had decided to learn from his grandson Sharath Rangaswamy, they confided to us over breakfast at the hotel.
They were already on a vegetarian diet, and when not engaged with yoga practice, headed off in autorickshaws to shop for silks at the local stores. Some of them had been coming here for years, and were full of advice on the best places to eat South Indian food and the shortest route to Jois’s yogashala.
The yogashala, or studio as westerners like to call it, is Jois’s home in Gokulam, which has become the new focus of Mysore.
Here, from 4 a.m., athletic looking men and women sweat it out in what Jois calls ashtanga—the ‘eight-limbed’ yoga—following Patanjali’s strictures that include asanas, breath control and meditation, and what is known as power yoga in New York.
Jois himself dislikes the term power yoga, referring to it as “misuse”.
No one knows why it is so called but I can only imagine the mental and physical powers of these men and women who even in the introductory class can do headstands and back flips, and bend their bodies into pretzel-like shapes at “Guruji’s” command, while he counts sotto voce, “trayodasha inhale; panchadasha exhale”.
When students are unable to stand on their hands instead of their feet, Sharath or his mother Saraswati, Jois’s only daughter, circulate around the room helping them.
At other times, Guruji, who patrols the room like a five-star general, booms to the acolyte who has still not perfected the sirshasana, “Bad man, why legs bending?” or “Bad lady, why forgetting bakasana”?
The form of yoga that Jois teaches has come to be known as ashtanga vinyasa yoga for its flowing postures linked by a breathing routine. The core of ashtanga practice comprises six progressively difficult series of linked postures, each requiring 90 minutes to three hours to complete.
A student is required to display reasonable proficiency in each one before moving on to the next series.
In a class, if the “bad” women or men, as Jois calls them, are unable to perform to a certain standard, they are consigned to the back of the classroom like naughty children where, somewhat crestfallen, they practice the asana on their own!
Classes are mostly held early in the morning, and there are about 20 students in the room, generating enough heat to set the house on fire, even if it is actually supposed to dissolve the tightness of the muscles so that they become flexible enough to undertake the difficult asanas.
There are no classes in Sanskrit or yoga theory and, once the sessions are over, the students are on their own. Sometimes the more serious gather at Jois’s feet in the afternoons, when he talks informally about this and that but mostly about ashtanga yoga.
One of Jois’s favourite remarks is that yoga is 99 per cent practice and one per cent theory.
In his classes, apart from a brief prayer to the guru and Patanjali, there are no theory classes.
According to him, when you have mastered the breath and the postures, enlightenment will come automatically. The wayward ‘monkey mind’ has to be brought under control by vigorous yoga asanas and pranayama.
Jois, who moves around the class in black Calvin Klein shorts (incidentally, designer Donna Karan is a student at Jois’s New York yoga studio), bare-chested bar the sacred thread, talking in his pidgin English, seems an unlikely guru for the bold and beautiful.
But he has fans all over the world, especially in America where his form of yoga has become a substitute for vigorous workouts at the gym. At the gym you just work out without any spiritual enlightenment.
Ashtanga has, besides its ability to detoxify and stimulate the body, the added attraction of dissolving the ego to reveal godhead. So much so that Madonna has her own ashtanga trainer who flies with her wherever she goes, and has a song entitled Ashtangi in which she chants prayers taught at Mysore apart from other ‘spiritual’ mumbo-jumbo.
When he was in Hassan, 11-year-old Jois witnessed a demonstration by guru Tirumalai Krishnamacharya and was star-struck.
Every morning, before school, he would go to Krishnamacharya to learn yoga. Jois had no background in yoga. He belonged to Koushika, a village in the vicinity of Hassan, where his father was an astrologer.
Later, without telling his family, he ran away to Mysore to study Sanskrit and there one day heard of a great yogi who was teaching at the palace yogashala. He discovered that it was none other than his own guru Krishnamacharya!
Jois learnt yoga from Krishnamacharya for a few more years, often participating in demonstrations that the guru held. During one of these, Jois was called upon to perform the kapotasana.
The eager young man bent enthusiastically backward from a kneeling position, arching tightly until he had an ankle grasped in each hand. Krishnamacharya then nonchalantly stepped on the flat, muscled stomach of his student to begin his lecture which went on for half an hour or so; Jois betrayed no trace of movement except for his deep and regular breathing!
On another occasion Krishnamacharya left Jois in the mayurasana for a good half-hour.
Jois was offered a lectureship to teach yoga at Sanskrit College in Mysore which he accepted to support his wife and family. He established the Ashtanga Yoga Research Institute which yoga students view with awe, akin to how Catholics think of the Vatican!
One of Jois’s sons, Manju, is now an ashtanga teacher in the US, while his daughter and her son assist in the classes in Mysore.
Family photograph: Ashtanga yoga guru K.Pattabhi Jois with son Manju (right) and grandson Sharath Rangaswamy, (courtesy Yoga Bods)
Work photographs: courtesy SAIBAL DAS/ Outlook magazine