In Loving Memory of Sri K. Pattabhi Jois, "Guruji"
July 16, 1915 - May 18, 2009
By Paul Dallaghan
(This is a personal account of my connection with a great teacher, nothing more.)
The first time I heard his name I thought the teacher was talking about some Irish guy called Paddy Joyce. Intrigued, being Irish myself, I caught the teacher, who happened to be Sharon Gannon, after class to ask her again about this "guru." I then got the name right but stayed curious about who he was. In the early 1990s I lived in the East Village of Manhattan, New York City, above a young and vibrant yoga studio called Jivamukti, owned by Sharon. I had been doing some Sivananda yoga but now could not resist but to get involved here. The yoga was "ashtanga" and Jivamukti's approach to vinyasa. Being quite devotional themselves, they always had pictures up of the gurus, so I started to get to "know" Mr. Jois through the photo. Little did I know.
As the years passed by, I got more immersed in yoga and eventually formed a dedicated ashtanga practice, initially with Eddie in downtown Manhattan. He was very devoted and traditional, so I immediately felt the strong force and influence of Guruji. That first year in the ashtanga practice started to open me up and change my practice. Ironically, it centered me and gradually reigned in all my wild energies. Naturally I had doubts and many questions along the way but was always advised to keep at it: It takes time; it must go in. For a year in the late 1990s, Manju, Guruji's son, was teaching in New York so again I was somehow drawn closer to this man.
Sri K. Pattabhi Jois was born in a small village called Kowshika in the southern Indian state of Karnataka on the full moon day, a.k.a. Guru Purnima, in 1915. Twelve years later in the nearby town of Hassan he first met his guru, Krishnamacharya. This began a lifelong journey in the field of yoga. By the age of fifteen, Pattabhi Jois left to study Sanskrit in Mysore where he was again reunited with his guru. He arrived penniless and even had to beg for food from other Brahmin families for his first year there. His dedication to practices and study revealed itself, and by 1937 he was appointed by the Maharaja of Mysore to teach yoga at the Sanskrit College. His practice of yoga, which included asanas, pranayama and devotional practices continued as life moved along. Marriage, three children and family responsibilities came. Little did he know what would open up from the 1970s onward.
Many times I tried to make it to India but limited funds and opportunities held me back. Then Guruji and family came to New York. Still very intrigued and respectful, I was also weary of the whole guru worship thing. As I reflected within about this I could see what he passed on to me and many others and how it strongly influenced my every day back then. My wife, then new girlfriend, Jutima, had also started the practice and I had observed how it positively affected her. Together we went to our first visit with Guruji not knowing what to do. People were bowing down and touching his feet. Never in my life had I done such a thing but I was up for it. I found myself asking inside, "What am I doing?" as I approached, offered flowers and touched. He looked at me like, "Eh, who are you, eh?" or at least that's what I imagined. Somehow, though, the initial direct connection had been established.
Soon after that first meeting, I made one of fourteen trips to Mysore to study with him and family, Jutima with me. In fact by 2001, we knew our time in New York was done and wanted to be between India and Thailand. So Mysore almost became a home for us between 2001 and 2004. In that time we started Yoga Thailand and had our first son. All along we kept visiting and practicing with Guruji, Sharath and Saraswathi for four to five months a year.
As I look back I cherish those days without a plan and just in it. My love and respect for Guruji really grew from the time I started to practice with him in the old shala in Lakshmipuram, Mysore. Part of my practice now had become the ritual bowing down and carefully touching his feet after savasana. I now did it with total surrender and felt good. I noticed the change just in the nerves along my spine allowing me to now freely bow down, from which before I had resisted.
Guruji gave me his blessing to teach and eventually, when I last saw him two years ago in 2007, certification. I am truly grateful. It has been a great and special connection. My personal experience with him was always extremely positive. He was cheerful, helpful and friendly with me. Though he always kept his space, I felt he cared for me and took time to check in, just in how he said my name or tapped me on the back. As a student you had to go to him with an enquiring mind, ask and listen. Then take what you've heard and reflect on it. Knowing there wasn't much time left, I guess I took as many opportunities I could get to go in to that little office of his and ask him a bunch of questions.
Once we were talking about samskaras and the reason for being in practice in this life. I was keen to find out when that cycle began. If I am doing yoga now based on a previous impression (samskara), then what initiated the impression? As I pushed him for an answer, he looked at me quite sweetly and said, "I don't know. That is God." This response has always remained with me. Never should we think we know it or got it. Be humble. From the touching of the feet to the freely admitting "I don't know," humility must run through us as students in order for us to grow. If it fades, the path within for growth gets blocked.
Ashtanga vinyasa yoga was his trademark. What he taught he learned from his teacher Krishnamacharya—the science of the vinyasa approach with the sequencing of postures broken out into series. Pranayama was also taught but it came later. In addition, his personal devotion in the lineage of Shankaracharya informed much of his teaching and practice. The name ashtanga arose directly from Sage Patanjali's teaching of it. One of those limbs is asana. But you have to start somewhere, and hatha yoga prescribes that traditionally one starts with asana. Of course, as time went by, this system of "ashtanga vinyasa" became limited in the public eye to mainly asana. The truth is, all parts were taught: life lessons, asana practice and higher internal cultivation. Mystery does surround the origin of the sequences, and the public loves mystery. The Yoga Korunta detailed the vinyasa approach to asana which Krishnamacharya himself learnt from his guru, Sri Ramamohan Brahmachari. Pattabhi Jois would emphasise this parampara and encourage us to follow with dedication and devotion. Naturally the practices were refined over time, and still are, but the tradition and method runs through it all.
One of Guruji's biggest teachings was more about life than the method. He was very firm and clear about the yoga practice and the necessity to do it. This I imbibed. But he was more about not escaping from life. Many hide in a yoga practice to escape from life's responsibilities. To him, marriage and a family were important factors. As I have ventured down this path myself, I understand his teaching. He would say, "Yoga is not easy." Life is not easy—years, decades go by, keeping integrity, keeping a practice, honestly and caringly fulfilling your responsibilities. This longevity and balance is the teaching. Everyone is excited about yoga at first. It's great. Keep it with you and deal with what's in front of you for a lifetime—that is not easy. Only time can reveal it.
This is ultimately why there are only a few real teachers around. From his first trip to the U.S. in 1975 to his last in 2008, thousands of students studied with him. But only a few really have carried the thread through. And now his family, grandson Sharath, son Manju, and daughter Saraswathi, carry on the tradition.
In time he knew my name, a unique feat, and always loved to hold the children. My first son, Sean, got to spend time with him on his stage and even sit in his big chair, courtesy of Sharath during led class. Guruji introduced Sean to the love of chocolate which exists to this very day! How could we say no as Guruji pulled out the chocolate bar, broke off a square and handed it to Sean. He ate it with delight and was wired all night and kept us up. These memories always stand out for me. The last time we saw Guruji, he had just recovered from being sick. We had a few private visits with him in the house and brought our new son, Dylan. As Guruji played with Dylan his whole face lit up. I thought to myself, though he may be old and time is near the end now, I have never seen such a beautiful bright face. Automatically it touched my heart.
And that is what I carry from Guruji: a soft beauty in my heart as I recall him and all the different encounters coupled with a discipline and dedication to the path of yoga. To me he always expressed joy and, when needed, a fierce control. This living joy I saw as a manifestation of years in yoga practice.
Long live his soul and the legacy of his teachings, which now embraces millions all over the world, many unaware of his hard work directly affecting them over the years.
To you, Guruji, I bow down with love and respect and wish peace and love in whatever this next stage holds.
Om Namah Sivaya.
© 2009 Paul Dallaghan