Tim Miller Interview
[A shorter version of this article appeared in the July/August issue of Yoga Journal, 2003]
Tim Miller has been at the forefront of Ashtanga Yoga in the tradition of Pattabhi Jois since he began the practice in 1978. On the occasion of Jois's 2002 tour, which spent a week in North San Diego, Miller was once again practicing with his teacher. While preparing a curry at his home in Encinitas, Miller discussed teaching, the history of Ashtanga Yoga in America, and his relationship with Jois.
Deborah Crooks: Among Westerners, you have one of the longest relationships with Pattabhi Jois?
Tim Miller: Well, one of the longest. I make an effort to stay connected with him. I go to see him as often as I can. There are people who have been involved longer than I have, who maybe haven't been as involved at the same level.
DC: Taken Mysore-style teaching on, so to speak. When did you meet him?
TM: I met him in Encinitas in 1978. I grew up in Riverside about an hour and a half from here, east of LA, hot and smoggy. When I was a kid, every chance I had to get to the beach was a real thrill. I had a high school buddy who lived down here back in the early '70s and I used to come visit him. When I finally got out of school, I tried Northern California for a while but Encinitas stuck.
DC: So one day you walked into a yoga class.
TM: It was his second trip to Encinitas. His first trip here was in 1975 with his son Manju. They were invited by David Williams who was one of the first Americans to go to Mysore to study. I'd started the practice in January of '78. David Williams landed here in Encinitas because his wife's sister lived here. He started teaching and after a year, a year and a half, he had sufficient interest to invite Manju [Jois, Pattabhi's son] over. Manju had been David's original connection to Guruji. He'd met Manju in Panochari. Manju was giving a yoga demonstration and David was in Panochari studying with some swami who knew a lot about yoga philosophy but didn't really know much about Hatha yoga. Manju showed up and David and ran up to him afterwards and said, "Where did you learn?" David was on the bus the next day to Mysore. So they came in 1975 and Manju stayed. He lived here in Encinitas for 25 years. David moved to Maui and Manju became the local yoga teacher once he settled here. A couple of his students were Brad Ramsey and Gary Lopedota. They left Manju's studio and went out and started their own school which coincidentally was about a block away from where I lived in Encinitas. I started with Brad and Gary in the "old church." It was originally St. Andrew's Episcopal Church. It had been vacant for a number of years and was the perfect place to do yoga. They started teaching yoga there. I went and took that first class and had a really powerful experience. I found what I was looking for, and that was it for me. Jois showed up in August and I'd been practicing about 8 months.
DC: What was your expectation?
TM: One, that he expected a lot of his students. A lot of them were just my own projections. I'd been into Eastern philosophy already. I was reading enlightened teachings of the masters—all these things about these guys with these miraculous powers. I expected Guruji to materialize in a ball of light in the middle of the room, and he came through the front door in his black loafers. He seemed pretty ordinary, but he wasn't, of course.
DC: How long did it take you to figure that out?
TM: Well, I think that was pretty obvious as soon as he took his lungi off. That first trip in '78 was Mysore-style, not the led style he's teaching now. He was here three months. We would do asana practice, and then he would sit with the people who were practicing second series and teach us pranayama. It was fairly intense. I was a relative neophyte. I think it was kind of intense for everybody. We were all practicing to the best of our ability. We were all really nervous, afraid of being adjusted but really more afraid of being ignored. There were maybe 30 people involved in that first workshop we took. A lot of people came over from Hawaii—Danny Paradise, the legendary "Old Cliff." He lived in a cave and didn't own shoes.
DC: Was Jois teaching a lot more quickly then?
TM: Yes, people were getting moved through the practice much quicker back then. Then he was in his early 60s and quite strong and vital—not that he still isn't for a man of his age. You can imagine a man like him 20 years earlier.
DC: He was still doing asana then?
TM: He was still doing asana then up until...[his son] Ramesh committed suicide. After that Guruji stopped practicing asana.
DC: Did you notice a change in him?
TM: The next time I met him, and every time I've been here since he's taught guided classes. I think that's more a result of my teachers Brad and Gary going to Mysore. They went in 1979. Brad was really wanting to get the authentic practice. He was sort of thinking we weren't getting the whole picture, which was true. The whole vinyasa format was a bit haphazard in the beginning.
DC: Was this due to his ability to teach you or his development of the practice?
TM: Well, it's just that we were practicing the way that David had construed the practice to be. It was a brand new practice to everybody. The whole concept of vinyasa wasn't that clear to everyone. When Brad went to India he was asking a lot of questions about the authentic method. Finally Guruji detailed it to him as it is in Yoga Mala—that there is a specific number of vinyasa per pose. So Brad came back and started teaching a full vinyasa format for each pose. Even the sitting poses were started from a standing position. And the next time Guruji came in 1980 he taught a full vinyasa. Since then he's moved to a lesser vinyasa format where you're not going to standing.
DC: He now teaches more Westerners than Indians. Was there a reluctance to give it all to the West?
TM: There was initially a reluctance. When Norman Allen showed up at his doorstep back in the early '70s wanting to study yoga, Guruji laughed. He might have been only teaching Brahmins and this American hippie shows up. But Norman was persistent. He hung around until Guruji finally started teaching him. And that paved the way for David and the rest of us. I was there in the days when he had a lot of Indians as students and I'd watch them practice. He had a completely different way of teaching them—a lot more relaxed. There was a lot of talking. The guys weren't very polished in their practice, and he didn't seem to care. With the Westerners, though, it was a totally different story. It wasn't until the Westerners arrived that Jois became interested in transmitting the teaching authentically. The Westerners were serious about learning; they'd traveled halfway around the world to learn.
DC: Do you think he thought we were more spiritually deprived? Or that we somehow needed more medicine?
TM: There's probably something to that. We were obviously crazy and needed the purifying of the practice a lot, so we got it. You know how Americans are; they tend to be ambitious. When they get into something, they really get into it.
DC: The popularity has increased so much....
TM: Particularly the last five years. For years we were sitting around scratching our heads thinking, "Why aren't more people into this?"
DC: Even knowing how demanding it is?
TM: Americans can handle rigor. They're probably the hardest working people on the planet. We're driven. So if we can channel that, it's a good thing.
DC: Some of you were developing a strong student-teacher relationship with him.
TM: For me, that really didn't happen until the first time I went to India. That's the way it is for most people. He doesn't really take you seriously as a student until then. Up until then, I was just "that man." The first time I went for three months. At that time, he had very few Western students. For a portion of that time, I was the only Western student. For about a month and a half of that time, I was actually living in his home. I had a limited budget, and he was kind enough to offer me a place to stay.
DC: What was that like? Were you getting up with him?
TM: The room I was staying in was a multi-purpose room. It was his office. It was also a room where they stored a lot of grain and things. It was also the dressing room for the yoga shala. So I didn't spend a whole lot of time in my room. I would sleep there and get up early so it could be used for everything. Being a non-Brahmin, I wasn't allowed to eat meals with them. Sharath and Shammie, his sister, would come bring my meals up to my room and sit with me.
DC: Was it pretty much he taught you and didn't associate with you otherwise, or was he giving you information beyond the poses?
TM: He knows a lot about yoga, but for him to express it in English is difficult. He has many yogic texts committed to memory. He'd go off and start chanting things in Sanskrit. It's wonderful to hear it all, but in terms of the English translation it's somewhat difficult to convey. Occasionally, just in conversation you'll get a tidbit or if you asked the right question, but for the most part it's practice and see what happens.
DC: Did it feel hard for you to be an American off in a strange land?
TM: It was great. An incredible experience. I wasn't the only Westerner there. I met Norman Allen there. I had other people to hang out with. It was also really different being one of a few students there getting strong adjustments every day. It was pretty transformative. You'd go into savasana each day at the end, and it would be like being ripped open. I'd lay there and cry for a half hour and then afterwards just feel completely transparent. You'd walk the streets of India, and it would be like it was moving right through you.
DC: Do you think there are any misconceptions about Jois and Ashtanga yoga that could be cleared up?
TM: I think people get stuck in the physicality of the practice. He says things like, "Yoga is 99 percent practice and 1 percent theory." The question is, if this is Ashtanga yoga, why are we only learning asana? I think it's his belief that practice is designed to be self-teaching. If you do the practice consistently, you, slowly over time, transform. You begin to understand what yoga is from the inside.
DC: How long were you practicing with him before he said it was OK for you to teach? He doesn't do that lightly.
TM: No, not at all. I'd been practicing for four years. At the end of that trip in India. In India, it first occurred to me that maybe teaching yoga would be something to do. I'd been teaching a little bit before but had another job. So I asked him before he left, "Guruji, is it possible to get a teaching certificate from you?" He hemmed and hawed and finally said, "Yes, yes." He had the official government stamp on it. That was the first time he'd done that for a student.
DC: Did he ever say, "How's it going, Tim?" in so many words?
TM: It's occasions like this when he comes and teaches my students that he sees the results. So that's my test. Not that they're all my students. But it wasn't until the tour of 2000 that it became such a phenomenon and people came from all over. And I also have students that go to him in Mysore.
DC: Has he changed much since you've known him?
TM: He's mellowing out. He found you can't always take a hard line with people. They [Pattabhi and Sharath] also slowed down people in terms of how fast they move them from one series to another. In the old days when he was young and strong and had the ability to adjust a lot of people in a lot of poses, he'd put you in stuff that perhaps you wouldn't be able to get into yourself. Nowadays, it's a lot more reasonable to slow down how they advance people through the practice.
DC: Have you slowed down?
TM: Yes, I think so. With age you become more patient and hopefully wiser, too, with your students and realize there's no rush. You're not really doing anyone a favor by rushing through.
DC: What do you tell your students who are about to go to Mysore?
TM: If you get caught doing something wrong in class, don't say you learned it from me! No, I say he's great. Be respectful. Do what he says. Have a great time. It's the real deal. It's the chance to practice yoga in a totally foreign environment where you're unplugged from your normal stuff. It's the best place you could go for the practice. It has that added oomph.
DC: Because India is India.
TM: India is India. It's all about treating this state of vulnerability where things happen and change inside, and you come face-to-face with a lot of different stuff within yourself that you never quite looked at in the same way.
© 2003 Deborah Crooks