What did Pattabhi Jois have that PVN did not?

Journalism, it is said in jest, is basically about letting readers who did not know that a certain somebody was alive that a certain somebody is dead. Even by that morbid yardstick, it can be said that our celebrity-obsessed, hit-and-run media does a pretty bad job of saluting the good and the great who pass into the ages.

The ashtanga yoga legend K. Pattabhi Jois passed away in Mysore on 18 May 2009 at the age of 94.

Yet all he got from the Star of Mysore was a couple of paragraphs and six from the newspaper of record, The Hindu. None of the others fared any better: The Times of India with an “edition” in Mysore and Bangalore ran an AFP screed; Deccan Herald had all of 247 words. Rediff.com had a slideshow.

Possibly because of his long association with the West, possibly because of the Hollywood actors and singers who were disciples, Pattabhi Jois got a fair deal from the foreign papers. The New York Times ran a full obituary as indeed did The Daily Telegraph, London, and there were six paragraphs in The Guardian.

Now, The Economist, whose obituary page is a must-read, has run a obit on Jois, which we publish here in full sans permission, to underline the point that if you do not where you come from, you will never know where to go. Then again, The Economist, despite being a mouthpiece of capitalism, did not run the obituary of P.V. Narasimha Rao.


One sure sign that yoga has entered the mainstream of Western society, or at least the urbane bits of it, is that its practitioners have splintered into separate and sometimes competitive tribes. In spas, resorts and studios from Byron Bay, Australia to Big Sur, California, and wherever else one might expect Priuses on the roads and organic kale on the tables, the question is less likely to be “Do you do yoga?” than simply “Ashtanga or Iyengar?”

If the answer is Ashtanga, that has everything to do with Pattabhi Jois—“Guruji”, as his disciples called him. The word Ashtanga, “eight limbs”, originally meant the eight stages yogis must traverse to reach enlightenment, only one of which, asana or “postures”, is the sort of thing Westerners associate with yoga. But used in Mr Jois’s way, which is how most Westerners understand it now, Ashtanga meant stretching, balancing and swinging to the relentless rhythm set by a little, smiling, potbellied man in an undershirt and Calvin Klein shorts, crying “Ekam, inhale! dve, exhale! trini, inhale! catavari, exhale!”, until every member of the class was breathing like Darth Vader and running with rivers of sweat.

This was just how Mr Jois liked it. The intense internal heat generated by his sort of yoga was meant to purify and cleanse the body. For him, yoga was “99% practice and 1% theory”, as he liked to say in his squeaky, mischievous voice. Though he was the son of a Brahmin priest, and knew the teachings, anyone asking him for deeper philosophy would get a smirk in reply, or a scrap of his famously broken English. Why, for instance, did he insist that one must enter the Lotus position right leg first? “Practice and all is coming,” Mr Jois would say, and leave it at that.

He disdained the fastidious and perfectionist alignment of postures that some of his rivals practised in chilly yoga studios. He scorned Iyengar, the careful and medicinal branch of the art which, like his, arrived in the West in the 1960s, in which middle-aged ladies spent an eternity studying how to spread their toes properly while standing, before building complex poses with straps, blocks and chairs. His Ashtangis were younger and fitter, more likely to have Om tattoos and rippling shoulder muscles, and to start their exercises with a chant of “Guruji!” to a portrait of him pinned up on the wall.

His yoga poses came in sets and sequences that never varied. Do the same sets again and again, Mr Jois believed, and the body would, over time, supply its own grace. The poses did not change when he taught his daughter’s son, whom he was grooming to carry on the tradition after losing one son to death and growing distant from another. Nor did they vary for new, pale, stiff arrivals from the West at his school in Mysore, in India; nor for the Hollywood celebrities, from Madonna to Sting and Gwyneth Paltrow, who made the pilgrimage to catch Guruji on one of his world tours.

What changed was only how many of the six sequences—in theory, one for each day of the yoga week—the student was able and allowed to do. Each set had a theme, and they got harder and harder. The first, with many forward bends, was cleansing and calming; the second, with lots of back bends, was stimulating, and so on. The later ones were otherworldly in their contortions. It was said that only a handful of people could do all six.

Mr Jois first saw these yoga postures performed in one connected sequence in the 1920s, when he was 12. He was watching a demonstration by Tirumalai Krishnamacharya, a charismatic guru who would teach all the principal yogis who later brought yoga to the West. Electrified, he became Krishnamacharya’s student the next day. His teacher made him start at daybreak, with sun salutations towards the east until he was sweaty and hot. Then followed postures, shoulderstands, headstands, deep breathing in the Lotus position and meditative rest. Strong, flexible and easily bored, the boy had found a discipline that challenged him.

After running away from his village with two rupees in his pocket, Mr Jois eventually managed to study at Mysore and then began to pass on what he had learnt. At first he taught in obscurity, in one small room with a grubby carpet, and only other Brahmin men. But from the late 1960s onwards, as the perfume of joss sticks drifted over Western civilisation, yoga caught on there too. A hippie fan brought him to California for a visit in 1975, and his fame spread.

Among his followers, Mr Jois inspired a cultish devotion. But his students were not unaware of their teacher’s contradictions. What had happened, for example, to the yogic principle of ahimsa, non-violence? A good number of Mr Jois’s students seemed constantly to be limping around with injured knees or backs because they had received his “adjustments”, yanking them into Lotus, the splits or a backbend. And what about the yogic principle of brahmacharya, sexual continence? Women followers, it was said, received altogether different adjustments from the men. Most mysteriously, why had Mr Jois himself apparently stopped practising his sort of yoga decades ago? Was that another instance of the wisdom of the East?

Courtesy: The Economist, London

Also read: Yoga guru Pattabhi Jois is dead. RIP.

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