Sri K. Pattabhi Jois 1915-2009
Sri K. Pattabhi Jois (Guruji) was fond of quoting the Bhagavad Gita, wherein Krishna proclaims that only by its practice in a previous life will an individual come to the practice of Yoga in this life—and come to it as if pulled against his or her own will by a magnet. It was perhaps just such a pull that led Pattabhi Jois in 1927 to a lecture and demonstration of Yoga given at the Jubilee Hall of Hassan, in Karnataka State, South India. Only twelve years old at the time, he watched in wonderment as a strong, graceful Yogi jumped from asana to asana. He understood little of the lecture accompanying the demonstration—and would continue to understand little of the method and philosophy it propounded for quite some time—but he was so taken by what he saw that he felt he had to learn it himself. The next day he woke early and, bravely for a boy so young, made his way to the house where the Yogi was staying to ask him for instruction. The Yogi met him at the door and, on hearing his request, gruffly cross-examined him. Guruji, as he later came to be known, dutifully answered his questions and, in reward, was instructed to return the following day. This he did, marking the beginning of what was to become a twenty-five-year-long course of study with the great Tirumalai Krishnamacharya.
Nothing in his upbringing would seem to have prepared him for such a choice. No one in his family practiced Yoga, much less had expressed even a passing interest in it. Viewed largely at the time as an esoteric practice of monks, sadhus, and sannyasis, Yoga was thought to be unsuitable for householders, who would lose all worldly interest, it was feared, by undertaking its practice, and so abandon their families. Such a prospect would not have been looked on kindly for the middle son of a Brahmin family.
The family came from the village of Kowshika, a small hamlet of sixty or seventy Brahmin families near Hassan. Bound fast to tradition, the village remains today little changed from the days of Guruji’s childhood: daily life still revolves around the three venerable temples situated at either end of its principal street and the inhabitants still lead the spare, hard-working lives of their ancestors. When Guruji was a boy, to own a bicycle was to be considered rich. Today, despite the passage of more than three-quarters of a century and the recent advent of electricity, very little has changed in Kowshika.
It was here that, on a full moon, Guruji was born on July 1915, the fifth of nine children. His father was an astrologer, priest, and landholder, and his mother took care of the five girls and four boys and tended house. From the time he was five, Guruji was instructed in Hindu rituals and Sanskrit by his father, as was customary for Brahmin boys at the time, and eventually enrolled in middle school in nearby Hassan.
It was while he was in middle school, and without telling anyone in his family, that he began practicing Ashtanga Yoga daily with Krishnamacharya. He would rise early, walk the five kilometers to Hassan to practice, and then go to school afterwards. This he did for two years until a desire to learn Sanskrit led him, without his family’s knowledge, to leave home and move to Mysore. Around this time, Krishnamacharya also departed Hassan. Three years would pass before Guruji would write to his father to tell him where he was.
It was in Mysore that the story of his reunion in 1931 with Krishnamacharya, and his association with the Maharaja of Mysore, began. Now at the Sanskrit College, Guruji had heard that a Yoga demonstration was being planned and, without knowing who was to give it, he decided to go along. At the event, it quickly became apparent that the person giving the demonstration was none other than his own Guru, Krishnamacharya, who had moved to Mysore in the meantime. Delighted, he sought his teacher out and prostrated himself before him, resuming their relationship. It was a relationship that was to hold firm for the twenty-two years that Krishnamacharya remained in Mysore.
The Maharaja of Mysore, Krishna Rajendra Wodeyar, had in the meantime become seriously ill. Informed that a great Yogi had come to town who might be able to help him, he sent for him and soon found himself, to his great delight and where all others had failed, cured by Krishnamacharya. In gratitude, the Maharaja became Krishnamacharya’s patron, establishing a Yoga shala for him on the palace grounds, and sending him and model students such as Guruji around India to perform demonstrations, study texts, and research other Yoga schools and styles. Some one hundred students were schooled at the palace Yoga shala, the Maharaja’s son among them, but as time passed and the stringencies of the practice became too much for some, the numbers thinned, until three alone were left: Guruji, his friend C. Mahadev Bhatt, and Keshavamurthy. These three were Krishnamacharya’s only remaining students when he departed for Madras after the death of the Maharajah brought to an end his long patronage.
A brilliant man, Krishnamacharya was also an exacting teacher. If Guruji was one minute early or late to practice, he would be made to stand barefoot outside the shala in the hot noon sun for half an hour. If his posture or breathing was incorrect during practice, he would be struck for the infraction—a practice, he now says, that instantly led to his doing the posture or breathing correctly! 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.
While he was studying with Krishnamacharya and without his knowledge, a young girl called Savitramma, who was only fourteen years old at the time, began attending his Yoga demonstrations at the Sanskrit College with her father, Narayana Shastri, a Sanskrit scholar. After one of the demonstrations, the girl, who later was called Amma [mother] by her children as well as all of the yoga students, is to have told her father, ‘I want that man in marriage.’ Compliantly, her father approached Guruji the very next day and instructed him to come to their house the following day for supper. Guruji agreed and traveled to Nanjangud, their village, some twenty kilometers away and soon found himself being grilled by Narayana Shastri: Where was he from? What was his father’s name? What caste was he from? To the delight of Amma’s family, his answer to this last question proved to be a match for them, and he was asked to return the following week with his horoscope. Baffled, Guruji asked why, but received little by way of an answer. Nonetheless, he did as he was asked, unaware that in doing so, he had unleashed a small crisis when it was discovered that his horoscope showed that he and Amma were unsuited for each other. ‘I don’t care,’ Amma is reported to have said, ‘Suitable or not, I want him.’ With that, her father threw away the horoscope and went to see Guruji’s father, who agreed to the union. Only Krishnamacharya sounded a note of affectionate warning when he said to Amma, ‘Be careful! He is a very strong man. If you ask him to bring you the Chamundi Hills, he will do it.’ They were married in a love match on the fourth day after the full moon of June 1933, Amma’s birthday.
Guruji was eighteen, Amma, fourteen, at the time. After the wedding, Amma went back to her family and Guruji returned to his room at the college. For three or four years, they didn’t see each other. Then, near 1940, Amma traveled back to Mysore and their family life together began. Years later, she would say that she was so afraid of Guruji at the time that, for the first three or four years of their marriage, she would not talk to him—and did not talk to him until after the birth of their second child, Manju. For the next eight years, they lived in a series of houses, until a group of Guruji’s students got together to help him buy the house in Lakshmipuram for 10,000 rupees. By the time Guruji and Amma moved in, their children, Saraswati, Manju, and Ramesh, all had been born.
Amma was Guruji’s first Yoga student, and, according to him, she learned up through the advanced series very well. Krishnamacharya himself once tested her on the specific vinyasas of the asanas, calling out the numbers, which she had then to demonstrate quickly. Very pleased with her performance, he gave her a teaching certificate.
Life during the early years, however, was not easy. Although Guruji had a teaching position in Yoga at the Sanskrit College, his salary of ten rupees a month was barely adequate to maintain a family of five. It nevertheless would not be until after 1956, when he became a professor, that circumstances eased somewhat. In 1948, he established the Ashtanga Yoga Research Institute at their new home in Lakshmipuram with a view to experimenting with the curative aspects of Yoga. At the time, the house consisted of the front two rooms alone and a kitchen and bath, and it would not be until 1964 that Guruji would add an extension to the back of the Yoga hall, as well as a resting room upstairs. It was also around this time that a Belgian by the name of Andre van Lysebeth made his way his way to Mysore after meeting a swami in Bombay who had been a student of Guruji. Van Lysebeth knew Sanskrit and spent two months studying with Guruji, learning the primary and intermediate asanas. Not long afterwards, he wrote a book called Pranayama, in which Guruji’s photo appeared. This introduced Guruji to the European public for the first time, with the result that Europeans were the first Westerners to come to Mysore to study with him. The first Americans soon followed, beginning with Norman Allen in 1971, who made his way to Guruji’s doorstep after seeing a demonstration given by Guruji’s son Manju at Swami Gitananda’s ashram in Pondicherry.
In 1958, Guruji began work on a book that would prove to be a boon in years to come to the Ashtanga community worldwide. Writing the entire text by hand over the course of two to three years, as his family rested during their regular afternoon siestas, he outlined the timeless nature of the practice, as well as its usefulness for humanity. Entitled Yoga Mala, this record of Guruji’s knowledge and proficiency in Yoga appeared in book form for the first time in 1962 in India, its publication arranged by a coffee plantation owner from Coorg who was also a Yoga student. The Shankaracharya of the Sringeri Mutt in Mysore was so impressed by Guruji’s understanding of the subject after reading Yoga Mala in manuscript that he wrote an introductory note for the book. Some thirty-seven years later, Yoga Mala would be published in English, the first of many languages it would translated into as its influence spread across the planet.
In 1997, Amma unexpectedly passed away, devastating the entire family. As the family’s center and anchor, hers was a presence impossible to replace, an absence impossible to fill. In memory of Amma, Guruji undertook a series of projects, beginning with the renovation of two temples in Kowshika of special importance to him. Separated by a year, the renovations included the building of new exteriors for Kowshika’s Ganesha and Rameshvara Linga (Shiva) temples, in addition to which Guruji had solid silver decorational coverings made for the temples’ deities. To celebrate the openings of the refurbished temples, elaborate three day-long pujas and feasts were held, to which the entire village was invited, as well as all of Guruji’s Yoga students. Next, he began construction on a temple in 2000 dedicated to Adi Shankaracharya, the famous 16th century teacher of advaita vedanta who is also his family Guru. Installed in the temple was Sharadamba, goddess of wisdom and learning, and Navagraha, the nine planets of Indian astrology, worshipped to secure their beneficial influence on the happenings of the world and individual lives. The temple was opened in 2001 to great fanfare. Conducting the proceedings and giving his blessings was the Shankaracharya of Hebbur Mutt, which was a great honor for Guruji. In Indian villages, temples serve as important spiritual and community focal points, as well as sacred spaces that afford access to the Universe. The construction and renovations of the temples were thus a gift not only of remembrance to Amma, but of the continuance of an ancient spiritual tradition within which such a tradition can be maintained for the benefit of all beings.
The archival photographs of Guruji that are often seen, such as the one of him in samasthiti, were taken in Tiruchinapalli and Kanchipuram, both in Tamil Nadu. Tiruchinapalli is home to the famous Sri Ranganatha temple, and Kanchipuram, to Adi Shankaracharya Mutt, Sri Kancha Kama Koti Peetham, as well as a sprawling Siva temple. Amma’s grandfather, a great scholar of Sanskrit, Veda, and astrology, was the teacher of the Shankaracharya Chandrasekharendra Saraswati, when he was a young man. This Swamiji was to become a major figure and driving spiritual force in Hinduism. Widely regarded as an enlightened being, he was known for his extreme humility and genuine compassion for all beings. People from all over India traveled to see him, and his knowledge of a vast array of subjects was renowned. Around the time that the photographs included in the book Yoga Mala of Guruji doing asanas were taken, Guruji and Amma had gone to visit the Swamiji. On their first visit, he inquired who they were and Guruji told him that he was the son-in-law of Narayana Shastri. With this, the Shankaracharya visibly brightened and the two spoke together at length about Yoga and philosophy. Guruji and Amma then remained with the Swamiji for eight days and, during that time, the Shankaracharya asked him to give a Yoga demonstration. So impressed was he with the knowledge and abilities Guruji demonstrated that he asked him to stay on in Kanchipuram to teach Yoga, but Guruji’s obligations elsewhere forced him to decline. He and Amma however visited the Shankaracharya several more times. On their last visit, they came with the entire family. When they arrived, they were informed that the Shankaracharya was keeping silence and thus not seeing visitors. But when a secretary informed him that Guruji had come with his family from Mysore, the acharya came to the door, smiled, and raised his hand in silent greeting, before again retiring.
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.
For Guruji though, there was never any question. He taught unstintingly for almost three-quarters of a century, with no thought of fame or pecuniary gain. Although in his later years these have come to him, it has not been from any desire on his part for them. Instead, he was a brilliant example of unwavering dedication. Never advertising himself, but remaining at home, teaching what he himself learned from his Guru, he attracted people from all over the world to the door of his modest school. The impact he had on the world of yoga, and the impact on the thousands of individuals who passed through the doors of his yogashala, is immeasurable. Guruji served as a living example of what it genuinely takes to keep the light of an ancient tradition burning brightly.
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