Can turning your body into a croissant ensure enlightenment? Or is it just a way to make a butter butt better? Ratna Rajaiah investigates Ashtanga Yoga.
So speaks K Pattabhi Jois, perhaps the world’s best-known authority on this form of Yoga. His international following is matched by his presence on the net. Ratna Rajaiah loosens up with the master.
It was unnerving, the sight of so many unselfconscious bottoms.
Well actually, there were only four—two more were too far away to startle—and none actually naked, but all so extraordinarily female, so mind-bogglingly shapely and clad in such snugly-fitting cotton tights that they might as well have been. Naked I mean. I tried to drag my eyes away several times, trying to focus on the male posteriors (more decorously clad in loose Bermudas and shorts), asking myself sternly how would I like it if someone had his nose two feet away from my backside as I coaxed it and the rest of my body into the sixth position of a surya namaskara?
But I couldn’t stop staring. I sat, wide-eyed, slack-jawed; a true representative of the East, staring in glassy-eyed astonishment at the amazing facility of the West to rediscover what has been languishing in our own backyards for oh, about 2000 years. Then to polish it up with some high-falutin’ research, attach several glossy, global celebs who swear by it and splash it all over the cover of the Time magazine. (Christy Turlington, no less, in a kukkutasana or rooster pose.) And voila. The world—and we—suddenly discover the joys of meditation, vegetarianism, turmeric, the bindi, curry, Sanskrit…
…And Ashtanga Yoga.
“Ashtanga Yoga is the name given to the system of Hatha Yoga currently taught by Sri K. Pattabhi Jois, a renowned Sanskrit scholar and yogi in Mysore, India. However, the historical definition of Ashtanga Yoga is “eight-limbed yoga” as originally outlined by the sage Patanjali in the Yoga Sutras. Written between 400 and 200 BC, the Yoga Sutras is the primary text of the science of classical yoga in which Patanjali collated and systematised existing techniques and knowledge of yoga.
The path of yogic maturation consists of the following eight limbs or practices:
It is said that there are 72,000 different asanas—as many as there are animal species.”– Pattabhi Jois
I am inside the Pattabhi Jois’ Ashtanga Yoga Research Institute. Seven am on a crisp, chilly winter morning in a quiet by lane of Mysore, just a few blocks away from where once Doraiswamy Iyengar and R K Narayan lived and where Jayalalitha was born. The institute is just another typical middle-class Mysore house, though it is without the customary ‘compound’ filled with jasmine, kankambara, hibiscus and tulsi. The directions to the institute are also typically Mysorean. “Next to the sampige tree,” they tell you.
When you enter the tiny doorway and pause in the even tinier lobby, the first thing that hits you is the sound. A cross between the very gentle, very rhythmic snoring of a couple of sleeping baby dragons and a steam engine. The faintly floral curtain opens and Guruji stands in the doorway. Krishna Pattabhi Jois. Guruji to his students who include Gwyneth Paltrow, Sting, Willem Dafoe and Madonna. And Christy Turlington.
He could be just another retired Brahmin tata (grandfather), complete with janiwaram and sandalwood stripes across his forehead. But the shorts give him away. Calvin Klein meets Ancient India.
Inside, a room not more than 15’ x 15’, in which there are 12 people. All foreigners, half of them women and 10 of them with their backs to the entrance, all contorting their bodies into asanas you wouldn’t think the Rubber Man would be able to pull off. The sound, I now realise, is but 12 people doing Ashtanga Yoga’s prescription breathing or pranayama.)
After I get over being eyeball-to-yoga-whittled butts, I perch on a little stool and move on to the next level of astonishment. (That’s a constant in the company of Pattabhi Jois—astonishment, amazement, awe, wonder, incredulity…) First, at everyone’s single-minded concentration. It’s as if I don’t exist. In front of me is an ashtangi, not a day under 45, with wheat-coloured hair in a Rapunzel-plait swishing at her bottom—yes, one of the very same aforementioned ones. I make direct eye contact with her as her head emerges between her legs that have managed to bend completely backwards and thread themselves in and out of her arms that are in turn embroidered around her body so that she looks more like a croissant with a head —Yoganidharasana or the sleeping yogi pose, though what kind of sleep you get like that beats me. My eyes pop.
Next stage. I now marvel at the strange, mesmeric arabesque of the bodies. They move in slow, measured, incredibly liquid, graceful movements, yet with a controlled energy, as muted as the tautly toned muscles rippling under the skin. (Now you understand why the West calls it “power yoga”, a term first coined by Guruji’s one-time student and one that he angrily dismisses as the marketing jargon of a material girl with an eye to the main chance.) I now begin to see why Guruji’s yoga demonstration landed him with a job at the court of Krishnarajendra Wodeyar, the Maharajah of Mysore.
Actually things go back a little further for Krishna Pattabhi Jois and his tryst with yoga…
1927. The 12-year-old son of the poor astrologer priest of a village called Koshika in Hassan district, Karnataka (population 500), hears of a yoga demonstration. A curious Krishna trots off to see it and is smitten. The next day he finds out where the yoga teacher —Tirumulai Krishnamacharya—is staying and convinces the teacher to accept him as a disciple. He learns yoga for over a year.
1930. At Krishna’s upanayan (thread ceremony), he tells his family that he wants to go to Mysore, then the glorious capital of the royal state of Mysore, and learn Sanskrit and the Vedas. Denied permission, he runs away with the three rupees that he received as an upanayan gift and had hidden from his father. The train fare to Mysore is 14 annas, almost a third of all the money he has in the world. Krishna joins Mysore’s famed Sanskrit College where he learns Sanskrit and yoga, feeding himself by bhikshanna or the practice of poor Brahmin boys begging for food at the homes of richer Brahmins.
1932. Krishna’s guru returns to Mysore and they meet again, forming a touring team that gives yoga demonstrations. Their fame spreads to the Palace and the maharajah summons them for a demonstration. Impressed, he asks Krishna’s guru to set up a yogashala inside the palace premises and Krishna becomes an employee of the Maharajah of Mysore.
1937. The yogashala closes down but Krishna is now a yoga teacher, earning the grand sum of 10 rupees a month. Marriage brings him another five, a special allowance from the Maharajah.
For the next 25 years, Pattabhi Jois, continues to teach Sanskrit in the college and yoga in his Ashtanga Yoga Research Institute, which he founded in 1948. His labours go largely unnoticed even if the Jagadguru Shankaracharya of Puri has conferred the title of Yogasana Visharda on him.
Then, in the ’60s, the Beatles found Maharishi Yogi and a Belgian named Andre Van Lysbeth— Guruji’s first student from the West—wrote a book about Ashtanga Yoga and Guruji. Nirvana had come knock, knock, knocking at the door of the Western world.
In the next 10 years, the trickle of foreigners to Guruji’s feet became a steady stream. Today, apart from Pattabhi Jois’ own institute in New York, his disciples have set up more than 27 centres that embrace the world from Hawaii to Sydney. Interestingly, in India, apart from Mysore, there are only two other centres, in Pondicherry and Goa, both favourite haunts of Western spiritual seekers.
“Disease is the sole consequence of the enjoyment of pleasure…” –Pattabhi Jois
So what is it about Ashtanga Yoga that makes the West crave it the way we once craved Camay soap?
The setting sun bathes everything, including the front of the institute, in a beautiful golden glow. On the steps, scattered like sampige flowers, are Guruji’s students. They wait for him and for the evening ‘conference’ at which they sit adoringly around his feet like so many happy puppies, asking him questions—of a spiritual nature, naturally. He answers in broken, halting English, which they seem to understand. They look different now. Not manic contortionists: sweatily, fiercely twisting their bodies and vinyasa-ing their way to enlightenment but happy, peaceful flower children. They could be hippies, I think, as I watch a male ashtangi photograph a female ashtangi posing with a passing bull with horns painted red. Except that they are cleaner, with a sort of freshly scrubbed glow about them.
I sit cross-legged in a quiet, shadowy first-floor room of the institute, chatting with Chris, Wendy and Abhaya. Abhaya is pretty and very young. With her dark hair and nose ring, she looks Indian. But she’s American. She taught English in an American university until she recently relocated to France and went back to being a student. Abhaya is her real name, given to her by her parent’s guru, Swami Chinmayananda. (She was born when her parents were meditating.) ‘Abhaya’ means ‘fearless’ she tells me. She’d have to be. She has funded this, her third yearly visit to Mysore, with the insurance money that she got when her apartment was burgled of almost all her worldly belongings.
Chris is much older, maybe in his 40s. He used to be a private tutor of English in Spain till he stumbled on Ashtanga Yoga. (Yup, in Spain). Now he teaches Ashtanga Yoga full time. He looks like a yogi; still and quiet. He tells me that Guruji says that being attracted to yoga is a karmic thing, a result of an association with it in your past birth.
Wendy, Chris’s wife and a psychologist is more articulate. She tells me how she survived a brief stint in a Madison Avenue advertising agency as an office administrator only because of yoga and how it helps her take her mind off her clients when she leaves for home.
The conversation picks up as we chat about the life of an ashtangi in Mysore. They tell me their favourite food is a thali at Hotel Dasaprakash. I ask Wendy what they eat when they go back to America. Dal-chaaval, she tells me, her smile reminiscent. I should have known.
“So is this—doing Ashtanga Yoga—like getting off a train for a while?”
Chris’ face lights up: “That’s a good way to put it.”
Wendy says, “All I can say is—when I do yoga in the morning, the rest of the day goes just fine. No matter what!”
“Ashtanga yoga is internal exercise. The rest is all circus.” – Pattabhi Jois
I am inside Jois’ drawing room, along with his daughter Saraswati and his grandson, Sharath Rangaswamy who is also the assistant director of his institute. In the hour-long interview that follows, there is actually only one thing that I really want to know from Guruji. What is the secret of Ashtanga Yoga’s success? (Success means you have a picture of Sting sitting at your feet in his London house, where you stayed during your last visit.)
Did I find out? In a manner of speaking. To me it seemed that basically it was a spiritual Heineken, getting to places that other yogas couldn’t reach. Because it went beyond just postures and asanas, prescribing a way of life, a way to be. What was being fixed was not just the mind but the spirit. You’d think that this might be an odd route to enlightenment. I mean, it seems plausible that by practising a series of movements synchronised to a pattern of breathing, you can detox your system, get your circulation zipping around at a crackling space and your body into stunningly disease-free shape. That it can even improve your concentration is believable. But that ultimately, through this, your mind becomes such a limpid, serene, detached pool; your being so thoroughly de-silted of stress and distress that in it, you can see that all of life—even the mosquito that just finished viciously sucking your blood—is an extension of that Divine Spark which you now love almost as much as you love yourself? Om Shanti, Shanti, Shanti…
If I sound like a jaded Eastern sceptic with too many roads to paradise already leading from my own spiritual backyard, I’m not. It’s just that I don’t have any miracle stories to tell, no irrefutable research to prove my point. (Guruji says that it has cured everything from cancer to chronic depression.)
But there must be something about Ashtanga Yoga that must work. Why would dozens of men and women from around the world fly to this small southern Indian town to learn the art fresh hand from their guru. Why else would a 30-year-old choose to get up every day at 1.45 in the morning to practise his asanas till 4:30 am and then leaves to teach the same asanas for another seven hours, go home for a couple of hours or so, then return at 4:30 pm to teach some more yoga—this time to a few disbelieving, undisciplined Indians—and then go home to relax, have dinner and sleep by 8 pm? That is the life of Sharath, Pattabhi Jois’ grandson and his constant companion and assistant.
This has been his life since he was a 19-year-old. “And will continue to be till the day I die,” he tells me, laughing delightedly. He reminds me that this has been his grandfather’s schedule for the last 60 years, except that he sleeps later—at 11 pm—and eats only once a day…
I stare at him, aghast. Even in New York, I squeak? (Sharath accompanies his grandfather all over the world.) “Anywhere in the world,” he says, smiling some more. I notice that Sharath smiles a lot.
I am even more aghast when I find out that Sharath is newly married. What about his wife? He smiles even more: “I told her what my life was before we got married. She’s fully supportive.” I ask him the same question that I’ve been asking everyone else, Guruji downwards. Why? What’s the buzz, where’s the zing, what’s the high? His answer is as vague. “You get fascinated. It’s like going on an adventure. You can feel it in your body, in your mind.”
Maybe, that’s what it is, I think. Maybe I think, maybe it’s something so special that it’s difficult to put into words. It has to be. I mean, if someone asked you to describe the feeling after drinking a whole glass of cool ginger-’n’-mustard laced buttermilk on a hot summer’s afternoon to an Eskimo, would you be able to do it? Can anyone describe bliss? Maybe that’s what brings Chris here from America. And Maria from Greece. And Abhaya from France, freshly burgled. And Christy and Madonna and Willem and Gwyneth and…
I realize I have been watching the yoga session for almost an hour and I could stay for another. The ashtangis are a constant, rotating stream—you come in, you sweat out your asanas for an hour and then you melt away, making way to the next ashtangi. Each student is charged $550 for a “course”. It allows you one-hour session every day for the length of your stay. Indians are charged Rs150 a month. My trusty calculator later showed me that just the 18 ashtangis that I witnessed had earned Guruji $9900 or roughly about Rs 5,00,000. Not bad for a man who started off with three rupees.
Sometimes, an ashtangi stops at the doorway to drop at Guruji’s feet and clasp both of them lovingly while he stands patiently accepting the obeisance. Then he/she rises, hugs and fervently kisses Guruji on the cheeks. Bellevue meets Ancient India. I watch a pony-tailed young man who looks like across between Sean Penn and a junkie struggle with his surya namskara and keeping his grubby shorts on at the same time. He is clumsy, so is the old man, a yoga teacher from New Zealand. The women beat the men by points, I think smugly. A young John Malkovich wearing only cargo shorts perilously perched on his hip bones walks in. The same beautiful, cruelly curling lips but his head is shaven like many of the other men in the room.
Sharath smiles, says it’s not stipulated, just something they do to match their beloved Guruji. Malkovich is pure poetry in asanas. I rearrange my male-female divide.
Meanwhile Guruji and Sharath weave in and out of the breathing, weaving bodies, helping out with a tricky asana or a stuck limb. I’m fascinated by the way Guruji touches the women’s rumps—firmly but gently as if he was touching the familiar body of a child. Sometimes he suddenly shouts out a command. “Straight, straighten hand!” but I’m the only one who is startled. (Sharath tells me that Guruji’s favourite scolds are “Bad lady” and “Bad man”, so much so that the students once got together and made T-shirts with these words printed on them.) The wheat-haired Rapunzel in front of me executes a titthibhasana (firefly)—a particularly and hideously intricate asana with Guruji’s help. Then she straightens out and collapses into his arms. She is a whole head taller than he, but in the strong, protective way in which his arms are wrapped around her, you forget that. They stand like that for about a minute. I hear the word “pain”. “Naturally,” I think, “it’s a wonder she hasn’t dislocated her eyebrows.” She suddenly breaks away, laughing. Actually what she’s saying is that the pain that she had is gone. Guruji laughs paternally, pats her and she’s gone, with a last swish of her beautiful wheat-coloured, waist-length plait, in a diamond-shower of sweat. Sharath says she has been coming for the last 10 years. I think to myself that maybe for this, if not anything else, I should sign up…
“There are differences of opinion regarding the science of yoga. There are those, for example, who say that its practice is only a form of physical exercise with little else to recommend it, while according to others it is useful only to sanyasins. But this is little different than the opinion of those who look for the faults of sugar without tasting it.” – Pattabhi Jois
This story was first published in the February 2002 issue