Remembering Guruji (1915 - 2009)
It’s been 10 years since Sri K. Pattabhi Jois passed away on the 18th May 2009. I would hazard a guess that for the past 18 months any long term Ashtanga practitioner has had a tumultuous time. A series of allegations of mis-conduct have arisen during this period in which the late Pattabhi Jois (largely responsible for the Ashtanga practice we connect with today) has been accused of abusive adjustments and behaviour. This has created great unrest in the ashtanga community, as we all individually and collectively try to navigate a way forward. This week has been particularly reflective for me as previously I would have marked this anniversary of his passing both personally and with my community of students as a celebration of his life’s work and gift of Ashtanga. To the current day practitioner perhaps what motivates you to the mat is very different, but for me Pattabhi Jois or Guruji as he was affectionately known was a strong influencer.
I began a daily practice of Ashtanga yoga 15 years ago in 2004. I started in a traditional manner learning directly from students of Guruji, Radha and Pierre on a holiday to Yoga Plus in Crete. I had booked a ‘yoga holiday’ wishing to enjoy some time away whilst learning more about yoga and having access to great vegetarian food (after becoming vegetarian a few years prior). I really had no idea about Ashtanga and at that point had been taking a few classes in Hatha and Iyengar at my gym and in the local church. The first few days I joined the beginners led class, learnt about the breathing and the method and the basics of the standing sequence. Each morning before class began I would try to catch a glimpse of what was happening in the ‘mysore room’ next door. I was completely captivated, and desperate to de-camp to this tiny sweat box which seemed to move with breath. With the aid of a study sheet and a book I made a strong effort to imprint a little of the sequence into my memory. I was allowed to switch classes and spent the rest of my few weeks learning up to the Marichyasana’s, sweating profusely, receiving adjustments and gentle encouragement on the way. I remember hearing a favourite story of Guruji’s, quoting a verse from the Bhagavad Gita in which Krishna would declare that if one found yoga in this lifetime it was because they had practiced in a previous life and would return in this life as if pulled by an unknown force. All I can say was I was captivated by the practice and by this story. It just felt right, I couldn’t resist it. Although I can hardly compare myself to the lengths Guruji himself went to in order to study (walking miles each day to practice before school and eventually leaving his family as a teenager without a word to move to Mysore and study Sanskrit), I do know I returned home from that holiday and haven't stopped practicing since. I have made strong choices and some sacrifices along the way to continue to practice over the past 15 years and can’t imagine the pull of practice changing in the next 15, even though of course it is ever evolving and experiences seasonal changes. In the beginning the physical aspects of practice are enchanting, but over time the other limbs grow, so regardless of what physical shapes are carved I still go to my mat 5-6 days a week (often this involves me waking at 2.45am) and make the sincerest attempt to let my yoga be a 24-7 practice whether that is teaching, connecting with others, doing my chores and generally living life.
Personally, I was hooked on the stories of Guruji in the early years, the myth of a man who seemed so strong, genuine and devoted. This person and his method to me seemed so powerful and transformative. It was practical and engaging yet steeped in history and philosophy and originating from the mystical east. At this time, I was also searching deeply, for meaning and purpose, for direction. Having studied both dance and psychology I found yoga to offer me the best of both worlds. Movement that invited self-inquiry, breath that evoked being. After a few years my natural next step was to head to the source, Mysore India.
I’m sure I am not alone in this experience but on my first trip to Mysore the very act of showing up seemed to be a test. The internet was still in it’s beginning phase (seems funny to contemplate these days!), instead you were to send a paper letter in the post to the shala requesting to study and declaring your dates (any dates within the season). You didn’t receive a reply or acceptance, you then simply on faith showed up. After a near death 4 hour taxi ride to Mysore I arrived at the shala and was ushered to the office. I sat opposite Guruji with Sharath (his grandson and current director of the institute) to one side. I explained I had come to study and had sent a letter. Guruji stared at me, no letter had apparently been received. Our dialogue went back and forth for a while. I sent letter, met with, ahhh no letter here. At that moment I thought am I crazy?! I just came all the way to mysore on faith, was I to turn round and head home. I repeated a number of times with increasing passion that I had most definitely sent a letter a few months back and was very sincere and committed to study. At that point I felt like Guruji stared right into my soul with his fierce gaze. It felt both uncomfortable, vulnerable and also just right. To be seen in my search and to be required to show up. After what seemed like an eternity (probably in fact 30 seconds!) his face softened, a big grin appeared on his face joined with an endearing indian head wobble, I was told OK I could study, no problem.
Thinking back on this memory makes me feel sometimes modern yoga these days has fallen into the trap of the customer service model. Sure we all start somewhere and have no idea initially whether we wish to pursue something or not until we try. That said my teachers, my peers and myself have gone to great lengths in order to acquire this practice and knowledge. If no one had discovered Guruji the current yoga world would be in a different place. But it’s worth being prepared to work a little for the good stuff right?! To be willing to invest in a relationship with your teacher that grows stronger only through commitment, time and dedication, to not expect to get everything at once. Honestly none of us are ready for that, we just absorb what we can at any given time. As a teacher I’m not really interested in giving poses, or an ‘experience’ I’m invested in giving you something far more worthwhile. Clues and keys to your own transformation, just like my teachers have given me, including Guruji. It just so happens that the Ashtanga system and sequence is so expertly engineered that along the way various poses or the collection of them do just that and can indeed facilitate far more than surface change.
Although I was only able to get to Mysore towards the end of Guruji’s long and busy life, I couldn’t help but revere what he had accomplished in his lifetime. His life since a boy had been driven by the pull of yoga and he had devoted himself not only to his own practice but to sharing this gift with the increasing number of students that flooded to his doors. The essence of Guruji’s greatness has also filtered through to me indirectly through my extensive studies with Dena and Hamish, both senior certified students of Guruji who were able to learn extensively from him and who I am humbly able to call upon in times of doubt.
But what now, what happens when the man and the myth are questioned? How can I reconcile the conflicting thoughts and feelings? Do Guruji’s mistakes overshadow his great accomplishments and offerings to the community. Do we phase him out because we are uncomfortable knowing how some students felt in his presence. Can we appreciate the clash of cultures that occurred and remember him as a human that taught us much and invited us to find new ways to integrate the east and west. Perhaps unintentionally Guruji has tuned out to be very human after all, a mix of incredible achievements and terrible mistakes. Something I’m sure we can all relate to.
For years my practice and teaching space has always contained a picture of Guruji, a way of paying respects and connecting to the source of the practice that shapes my life. His warm smile lighting my way. However after much personal struggle last year following allegations of his abuse of certain female students with great sadness I took the picture away. I understand that for some students honouring this man can be incredibly triggering and I want to acknowledge the hurt and suffering of those individuals who felt betrayed. Outside of my teaching I am training to be a counsellor and every week partake in volunteer work with individuals who have sometimes suffered great abuse at the hands of others, even to the point when they consider taking their own life. Power can be such a dangerous thing and when abused the repercussions are devastating. It makes such an imprint on someone, you trust them and they manipulate that. For those who relate to Pattabhi Jois in this manner I can only say that I am open to listen and willing to sit with you in your pain. I can’t fix things for you, all I can do is empathise and support you in your process. A teacher student relationship is both a thing of beauty and a thing fraught with danger if you surrender your power. You walk a fine line as a teacher, something I constantly try to evaluate in how I relate to others. For any students who feel unsafe with adjustments or being in the space, my door is always open, please reach out.
However I think I’m not alone in saying that the connection to lineage and tradition of Ashtanga is in a confusing place. Some people talk of the practice severing all ties to Guruji. Sure the practice works it’s own magic, yet in my eyes without Guruji I would have never been exposed and perhaps treading a very different path in life. For me the photo embodied a connection to the parampara, the family tree of knowledge bestowed and I’ll admit I miss it greatly, yet also acknowledge I have to be more creative now. How can a new student entering my mysore room begin to understand this is more than just a workout. A photo isn’t the only way. Instead I now display a sūtra at the head of the room and we chant it together after the invocation to encourage my students to be curious and explore further. Every moon day there is something to read. If the opportunity arises I will encourage the student to go deeper, question why, consider the larger context. As time with the practice unfolds I’m always delighted to encourage students to expand their vision. As an individual I am treading new ground moving forward sharing this practice, it’s a work in progress and it’s a collaboration in which I would encourage my students to take part in. I try to see each student as they are, what will work best for them, both to challenge them and hold their struggle compassionately, but for me I have to also honestly declare that this individualised approach blossomed as a result of how I perceived Guruji would work with people.
I’m sure for many years to come I will still try to make sense of it all, but on this day I will hold in my heart what Guruji represented to me, how he enticed me to practice day after day, year after year, How he planted the seeds of what this YOGA really could be, more than physical postures, more than achievement, more than feeling good. Humans are messy. It seems the increased popularity of Ashtanga still makes it messy today. I’m not denying that Guruji may well have made terrible mistakes and misjudgements that have caused extensive suffering, yet life is dark and light and whilst I bear witness to his shadow I also can’t sweep under the table his grace. To me Guruji devoted his life to sharing this wondrous practice with so many of us and I will forever by grateful.
I gladly welcome comments from all sides on this, perhaps this is the beginning of a new conversation, where the practice is the teacher, where it comes from remains treasured but where it’s going becomes even more crucial.