Marking five years since Pattabhi Jois’ passing

It’s been five years — strictly by our Western calendar — since Pattabhi Jois passed away, on May 18, 2009. In honor, here’s a little bit of Eddie Stern’s background on Guruji:

Guruji walked lightly upon this earth for ninety-three years.  He brought upliftment to the world through his tireless dedication to the teaching and practice of Ashtanga Yoga, and through his dedication to his spiritual life as a householder. Not too long ago in India, the teaching of Yoga was not a glamorous profession. The majority of the population eschewed its practice, viewing it in much the same way as it was, until recently, viewed in the West – as a fringe interest of monks, recluses, and spiritual fanatics. But just as Krishnamacharya had done before him, Guruji chose to go against the grain of his times when he dedicated himself to the teaching and practice of Yoga. This may explain why he never told his family about his practice, and why he left for Mysore at fourteen without saying a word to any of them. If he had, they might have protested or attempted to talk him out of it.

It’s well worth reading the whole thing if you haven’t, or even if you have before.

Posted by Steve

The flood of classic Ashtanga videos continues to flow

Clifford Sweattie, of the website Prana Airways, has just posted a set of four videos from 1985.

Here’s the first:

Here’s the description:

Advanced A Ashtanga Yoga practice, Kealakekua, HI with Sri K. Pattabhi Jois
Advanced A Ashtanga Yoga Practice taught by Sri K. Pattabhi Jois with practitioners Clifford Sweatte and Chuck Miller, others to be identified pending their approval Kealakekua Bay, Hawaii October, 1985
in a garage
Advanced A Ashtanga Yoga Series
Kala Bhairavasana
Durvasasana
Vasisthtasana
Vishvamitrasana
Parsva Bakasana
Astavakrasana
Mula Bandha
Uddiyana Bandha
Jalandhara Bandha

The other videos you can get at the Youtube channel.

Here’s a quick bit from Sweattie’s bio:

In 1974, I met David Williams and Nancy Gilgoff in Encinitas, California and began studying Ashtanga Yoga. A small group of us contributed funds for their Indian teacher to travel to the U.S. and in the fall of 1975 Guruji (Sri K. Pattabhi Jois) and his son Manju arrived in San Diego to teach daily classes to our group in Cardiff-by-the Sea, California. In addition to Guruji’s Asana classes, several of us were taught Pranayama and in the evenings we attended his theory classes.

I’m not sure if the run of videos has cajoled others to post theirs; whatever the reason, it’s great to see more videos coming online.

Update, April 26, 2014:

I’m seeing online that people are saying this week Chuck Miller said (at a workshop) that this video happens to be the first time Guruji took him all the way through the Third Series/Advanced A sequence. Apparently he’d only done the first three poses before then; it explains why he comes out of poses early and gets yelled at a lot.

Posted by Steve

Why does drishti work?

I was lucky enough to be introduced to Ashtanga by a teacher, Shayna Liebbe, who really didn’t talk about asana all that much (Shayna was Steve’s first teacher, too). After my first class with her, Shayna handed me some homework: A packet of pages run off on a copier that contained, yes, that ubiquitous diagram of the Primary Series, but also the opening and closing prayers (translated and explained) the “syllabus”—a list of the asana names and translations with benefits—along with a detailed explanation of the tricolon of Ashtanga, what makes it different from all other forms: breath, bandhas, drishti.

The dynamic relationship among these three things was a great mystery for me for a very long time, but these three elements were where Shayna put her students’ attention in her led classes. And that focus led my attention away from the seemingly impossible nature of the poses I was being told to do, off of my surface and on to my inner life. That’s a good way to start.

The precise nature of the Ashtanga breath was difficult to get, of course. I’ve since heard its quality explained dozens of ways (with a closed-mouthed Darth Vader being my favorite). I’ve even practiced in rooms where it’s not taught at all. But Shayna would begin class once a week or so with her students sitting down at the top of their mats, practicing correct breath. Tim Miller does this, as does Maria Zavala. Still, I was asthmatic and confused, and didn’t have the endurance. Synchronizing breath with movement was tough, much less controlling its quality.

And bandhas—what a mystery. My early teachers talked about them constantly, in the hopes that one day, you’d be humming along, and voila! There they’d be. Oh, the metaphors and comparisons! The colorful language! (I’m thinking most particularly of David Swenson’s, if you know it.) Finding those took a while; keeping them, even longer.

But drishti, I got: I became obsessed with drishti.

If I didn’t know the drishti for a pose, or if Shayna forgot to remind us, I asked, right there in class. “Where’s the drishti?”

It was important to me, because in any given moment, I was usually in a lot of pain. Having a place to look gave me space enough to endure.

The method was simple: Toward the thumbs, the bellybutton, at the toe, down the nose, etc. (I learned the Sanskrit names for the drishti first, before the poses; it was so much more romantic)—or to a place as close to that direction as range of motion would allow. Focus, but not too hard: Don’t strain. Look. But don’t see. Slightly release that tension of the gaze. But stay there, where ever that is, five breaths.

My father, a 30-year veteran of the U.S. Marine Corps (and of three wars), used to call this “the bulkhead stare”: the blank gaze someone got when they looked like they were gazing intently at something (a “bulkhead” is the wall of ship), but were actually focused internally, on a thought. So I had prior training, a name and understanding; it was easy for me, and, to some extent, even necessary to get through the practice.

Guruji, it should be noted, says nothing about drishti in Yoga Mala. Drishti came later, part of the research. But what a revelation.

Drishti is only possible because of the sequence itself, the requirement of memorizing a series of poses. It’s the sequence that makes it possible for both the teacher and the student to become invisible. In all other forms of yoga—even the other sequence-based form, Bikram—the students’ gaze must be on the teacher (or, gasp!, a mirror).  You learn, essentially, by imitating what you see. In Ashtanga, you may never (or rarely) see the teacher do the pose at all (depending on how you learn). (Guruji did not demonstrate.) You must learn the pose from the inside out. It seems to me like this is a very fundamental philosophical difference with all other American yoga classes, one that might reflect a fundamental philosophical difference on what a “gaze” is.

Early occidental philosophy believed in the concept of the “eye beam”—an invisible ray that emanated from the seer, and struck the seen with a palpable force. Sometimes, in the case of the basilisk or the famous Gorgon Medusa, deadly force. But when eye beams of lovers met…well, poetry happened:

Our hands were firmly cemented

With fast balm, which thence did spring;

Our eye-beams twisted, and did thread

Our eyes upon one double string… (John Donne, “The Ecstasy”)

The eye beam was the pathway to the soul and from the soul, a way for the outside to get in and the inside to get out: the senses were tools of measurement and reason the way we verify reality. “Your senses five,” said William Blake (somewhat ironically), “the chief inlets of soul in this age.”

But with drishti, something different happens. Drishti is a way to practice pratyahara—sense withdrawal—and if you think for a second about what you’re doing when you’re being asked to practice drishti. . .Well, be amazed.

It’s almost as if the entire design of Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga is to present you with a never-ending series of difficulties to constantly challenge your ability to inwardly focus, so that the external can disappear, dissolve.

It’s important, it seems to me, to have a sense of dissolving with drishti—also very different from Western ideas of vision, of seeing. For that to occur, the pose has to be challenging—like rock climbing, it will require your full attention. Wander, and you fall. But once you have a certain facility with a pose, you’re in danger of not needing to focus, really. So: next pose.

You are being watched in the Mysore room, you might be thinking. There is a teacher. But even the gaze of the best teachers has a certain softness too it. You know they see you, and you may even—consciously or unconsciously—adjust yourself as they approach (I’ve heard this called by teachers the “magic adjustment,” and I’ve seen it happen). But as soon as that gaze has gone, your own drishti returns and the teacher disappears once again. You’ve probably been surprised by an adjustment, by what seems like a disembodied pair of hands. It’s like magic. And I think it originates in the practitioner’s drishti, in the room.

Let me explain: If you have ever practiced next to someone who is not practicing drishti correctly, it can often interfere with your own, and totally mess up your practice. You become aware of them not looking at themselves: Who just came in, where the teacher is, something out the window, or (worst case) at you. It’s a human thing. They are looking, and like a meerkat, you have to look, too. There might be a lion! Poof. There goes your focus, and your system’s all in an uproar: Where’s the emergency? What are we looking for? Where’s the lion?

But when drishti is plugged in, and the whole room is invisible, that’s when Ashtanga happens. Nothing stands out, nothing is thought, and there is peace.

Drishti works because it presents us with the opportunity to overcome what we see, and see everything. I see “nothing at all,” wrote Shakespeare, “yet all that is I see.”

Posted by Bobbie

Yoga and Therapy: The importance of what you do off the mat

If you haven’t done so, I invite, encourage and, yes, insist you read the transcript of a talk that Guruji gave in 1977, which Eddie Stern posted this weekend.

I think it is really an invaluable glimpse into Guruji’s thinking 35 or so years ago, not long after he had encountered the first wave of Westerners.

Bobbie offered a few quick thoughts on it already, and I suspect she’ll offer up some more. It deserves it.

After reading through it several times, there are three things I want to highlight.

  1. As Bobbie touched on, I was struck by how remarkably Tim Miller has maintained the focus and intention of yoga practice and teaching as he learned it from Guruji. This talk tracks pretty closely to when Tim first met Guruji. Tim still speaks of yoga as therapy in the way Guruji does; that Ashtanga is a system of health and well-being is fundamental to how I’ve learned the practice from Tim. My knowledge of other senior teachers who encountered Guruji at roughly the same time — David Williams, Nancy Gilgoff, Annie Pace, among others — suggests they, too, heard this message and have been spreading it since. The talk Eddie posted is wonderful, but it wasn’t surprising. I have heard it, both nearly verbatim and more generally, throughout my Ashtanga practice. That strikes me as  a great testament to Guruji’s skills as a teacher; to the great presence and impact he had on people; and to the high quality of the senior teachers.
  2. Given the past year-plus focus on whether yoga (and especially Ashtanga) is religious, thanks to the Encinitas lawsuit, this talk resounds as an argument against the inherent yoga = religion perspective. I think we all are familiar with the Guruji quote that yoga is for “seeing God in all things.” There’s none of that in his yoga and therapy talk; it presents yoga as a health practice, akin to other medical treatments. It presages all the studies and research now happening that are trying to discover yoga’s efficacy on any number of health issues. There also may be more to investigate here, given Guruji’s statements elsewhere. (Maybe those statements depend on the audience.)
  3. Of course, though, Ashtanga isn’t just a health practice, a choice from a menu that might include running, swimming, Pilates, etc. Guruji makes that very clear as he presents a pretty holistic approach to healthy living.

This last point is what I want to explore further. And I want to look in particular at his conclusion:

In conclusion, one practicing yoga with correct knowledge thereof knows no fear of diseases and sickness. But one gets hardly any benefit out of it, if at the same time he fails to have any regulation over food, habits, speech etc. Therefore, it is my experience, which agrees with the opinion of those well versed in the shastras, that the yoga practitioner practicing with regulation of food, habits, speech and contact will find himself freed from all kinds of ailments, physical and mental.

Read another way, that says: Practicing just asana, alone, isn’t going to get you healthy. Asana is an important part, no doubt, but not all you need.

We’ve all heard, I suspect, some version of the Richard Freeman take on these things: Yoga ruins your life. It does so by altering — theoretically for the better — your approach to life. You take better care of yourself; you eat better; you might make your body work less hard by limiting any number of stresses, from physical to mental impurities. Tim Miller talks about the “garbage in, garbage out” phenomena. He’s talking about junk food and mental junk food (TV, movies, etc.). It is true of your interactions with people and with your bad habits.

This is the difference between the yoga-will-get-me-tight-abs people and those who end up down the yoga rabbit hole.

At about the point I fell down that rabbit hole — moving to the six-day-a-week Ashtanga practice, improving my already pretty healthy diet, taking more care of what I put in my body and mind — my doctor was not liking my blood pressure and cholesterol levels. She said, more or less, that we’d give it one more year — knowing about the yoga and the diet change (to mostly raw and no wheat) — and then talk about whether I would need to take some drug to address the problems.

Believe me, a lot of my friends and colleagues at work are on some sort of blood pressure or cholesterol medicine. And I did not want to join them.

When the next year rolled around, the report back was great. Blood pressure down a lot. Cholesterol within proper range. Trimmer, less body fat, etc.

But this didn’t happen just because I was practicing asana. It was because I was practicing Ashtanga Yoga, in the sense Guruji suggests it in his talk:

This is also called “Astanga Yoga” which has eight fold factors: yama: restraints; niyama: observances; asana: posture;  pranayama: breathing practice; pratyahara: sense control;  dharana concentration;  dhyana: meditation;  Samadhi: contemplation.

OK, maybe I wasn’t as great on the internal quartet, but I was at least aware of them, cognizant of their importance, attempting to find some small leaf of all eight limbs. I’m still not that great. But I am trying to practice “with regulation of food, habits, speech and contact,” and as Guruji said, that is essential to health and well-being. You won’t be healthy otherwise, no matter how long you spend on the mat.

Posted by Steve

Important new document from Guruji: Yoga and Therapy

Eddie Stern has posted a transcript of a very important lecture given by Sri K. Pattabhi Jois on the mind/body connection, providing us with invaluable insight into Guruji’s thinking about the role of yoga in well-being. Here’s Eddie’s description of the context (from his Facebook page):

In 1977, Guruji was invited to give a presentation at a Yoga Conference that was organized by Swami Vishnu Devananda in Bangalore. The papers were all collected and published in a book called “Yoga and Science”, and the title of his presentation was “Yoga and Therapy”. I had looked for the book for many years, but to no avail. Then this past fall, almost miraculously, the son of Leslie Kaminoff – who I knew from my pre-yoga days – found the book in India, and Leslie gave it to me.

It’s a wonderful read. Particularly enjoyable if, like me, you have Guruji’s voice in your ear as you follow along. All my understanding of Guruji comes from Tim Miller, and my eyes welled up with tears at how directly he has passed along to me his teacher’s understanding of yoga as a therapy for the mind as well as for the body. This is a must-read.

Posted with gratitude by Bobbie

A version of the modern history of Vinyasa Yoga that credits Tim Miller

This one sort of jumps in right as Pattabhi Jois heads to Encinitas, but then backs off to when David Williams, Nancy Gilgoff and Norman Allen (you’ll see in the comments — from someone famous in her own right — that the wrong name for Norman gets corrected) were in South India. It’s a year old, but not too many views.

But it kind of gives Tim Miller the credit:

The hybrid that is lineage, gurus and Ashtanga

As the folks at Yoga Workshop continue rolling out the studio’s revamped website, they’ve posted on Facebook a page on the Ashtanga lineage. It is right here, and obviously it is worth a read. The part that strikes me the most is:

Like all lineages, that at the Yoga Workshop is a hybrid of yoga methodologies and philosophies which converge clearly in the teachings of the early Upanisads and blossom later in the practices of Hatha Yoga and Tantra. The teaching at the Yoga Workshop is in the lineage of Ashtanga Vinyasa yoga.

There is a handful of topics among Ashtanga practitioners that can engender some heated conversations: lineage is one. I would suspect that there are some for whom the word “hybrid” is repelling. What is hybrid vs. parampara, exactly?

We all, though, are a hybrid, in a sense, our own unique mix of experiences, learning, mistakes, triumphs, losses. (The very fact that unique applies to everyone and everything makes it a word that’s use renders it near meaningless.) And so I think that writing, “Like all lineages” there captures something fundamental that we all, in our own fundamentalism about teachers, lineages, this studio vs. that studio, may have the tendency to forget.

Teachers are supposed to remind us of things we know but have forgotten, right?

Before Yoga Workshop had posted this, I was reading through Eddie Stern’s own write-up of Guruji. A little confluence of thinking out there in the greater aether? Probably not, but if you haven’t checked it out, go here. A tiny bit, a familiar story:

And at one point, Krishnamacharya delivered a lecture while he had Guruji remain in Mayurasana on the other side of the room for half an hour. It was in this way that Guruji believes he became strong and disciplined in his practice, and learned that through correct breathing, mind control, and faith, the benefits and deeper stages of Yoga come automatically. Faith especially for Guruji has long meant that the words of his teacher and those of the Yoga texts are unquestionably true, and are all one needs to follow to attain success in Yoga.

There’s a good sense through Eddie’s writing of the hybrid that was Guruji.

Posted by Steve