Wednesday, 2 September 2015

Should it matter if and how long Pattabhi Jois may have practiced the Ashtanga 'methodology' himself


This last weeks I've put up a couple of posts reflecting on Pattabhi Jois' own  practice and if and to what extent it reflected current methodology.

Did Pattabhi Jois practice some or all of the Series he created and if so for how long?

What does Pattabhi Jois' Advanced A/Third series Visvamitrasana photo tell us about the development of his Ashtanga Vinyasa syllabus.

I've received a couple of comments/emails suggesting that I appeared to be critical of Pattabhi Jois personally.

This is in no way my intention, Pattabhi Jois was by all accounts a warm, gracious and tireless teacher of yoga for over sixty years, longer if we take into account the time he assisted Krishnamacharya. I wish I'd been smart enough to go to Mysore in 1997/98, after first starting Ashtanga, and spent time at his shala. More than that I wish I'd gone to India in the early 80s, I'd spent five years or more hitchhiking around from 1983, the thought of going to India had come up but the Hippy Trail to India had seemed too much of a cliche at the time. Had I done so, given that I had a copy of Iyengar's Light on Yoga in my backpack for some of that time I may well have ended up in Mysore at the old shala, oh well.

Unsolicited Advice: Go to Mysore, if you've just started Ashtanga and you have the merest hint of a chance to go then just do it,  Sharath, Saraswati..... just go ( or to Manju wherever he happens to  be teaching - Greece, this month). Not because you should or that it matters in the least or that there is any obligation or expectation ( and certainly not because it appears to suggest devotion or dedication as if the time on your mat at home every morning or in your shala is any less dedicated) but just that it's there and though the focus of your practice may shift in years to come you are sure to look back on it fondly.

I love this video of Tim Miller talking fondly lovingly about his teacher and how the approach to practice was passed along to him. At thirty minutes your time is probably better spent watching Tim talk than reading my ramblings. After all, Tim actually studied with the man and for thirty years.




Should it matter if and how long Pattabhi Jois may have practiced the Ashtanga 'methodology' himself?

In my view not at all,

Pattabhi Jois had been studying yoga with Krishnmacharya for around twenty years as well as assisting and demonstrating asana for his teacher before he seems to have been asked, in 1947 or possibly earlier, to provide a four year syllabus of asana, pranayama and readings.

Pattabhi Jois clearly based the Asana element of the course on Krishnamacharya's groups of asana (see 1941 Yogasanagalu table) but where Krishnamacharya seems to have had flexible groups ( ' a mountain of asana'), Pattabhi Jois appears to have ended up teaching the asana as relatively fixed series.

This was a pedagogic method, a teaching approach, based on his own practice and experience. Pattabhi Jois came up with a methodology he felt would best benefit his Indian college students within the constraints of a particular pedagogic situation ( ie a four year college syllabus).


Pattabhi Jois had practiced asana within a vinyasa approach. Starting at samastithi he would move though the vinyasa to the state of the asana and then return to samastithi. Krishnamacharya would call out the asana and the student were no doubt expected to arrive at the asana at the same time. Krishnamacharya may well have tested the boys of the Palace on the asana and vinyasa, calling out a vinyasa number and woe betide anyone who couldn't remember or jumped into the wrong position.

As one of Krishnamacharya's assistants he would have led classes, no doubt more gently,  while Krishnamacharya was teaching one-to-one classes ( likely employing more of a Vinyasa Krama approach) in a side room. Although Krishnamacharya's classes seemed to have been based on flexible groups of asana there was no doubt a basic framework that we can see in his Yogasanagalu table. Most likely Krishnamacharya would walk the 'room' telling this student and that different asana to practice, extensions or intermediate and/or advanced variations of the basic, primary asana.

Also. Pattabhi Jois was at this time travelling around the country with Krishnamacharya giving demonstrations, he would have practiced many advanced asana, those no doubt most suited to demonstrations. Some he would have stayed in for an extended period while Krishnamacharya lectured.

It's my conjecture that Pattabhi Jois found  benefit in the syllabus he had devised in 1947 and carried it over into his own shala/school in 1948 for his own students. Few perhaps of his students may have progressed to advanced series asana practice which was fine, as both  Krishnamacharya and Pattabhi Jois considered advanced asana for demonstration purposes. However ,the syllabus was there to draw on when the first Americans came knocking on the door of his shala in Mysore asking for ever more asana and vinyasa.

I have no doubt that in developing the syllabus Pattabhi Jois would have explored the series himself , for a period, as far as he was able. I have posted photos of Pattabhi Jois in some of the Advanced series asana, some he could clearly get into but the pictures suggest he did not practice them for an extended period of daily practice, those pictures suggest that he would have struggle with some of the other asana at the time of developing the syllabus.

In Ashtanga we have latched on to the idea that we should practice what we teach. But if we only teach beginner students should we only practice beginner asana, the primary series. If our students are Advanced B should we still be practicing the Advanced asana that we may have let go of years before?

Surely teachers should choose the methodology/approach they feel is best suited, most beneficial for their students however that may differ from their own practice. Pattabhi Jois had been practicing for twenty years when he developed the Ashtanga series that began with beginner postures and introduced students to a wide range of asana and pranayamas. He didn't need to follow those series himself because he had already served his apprenticeship all he needed to ¥do was explore them himself enough to feel confident they were coherent.

But perhaps he did, perhaps Pattabhi  Jois still got up early, had his coffee, performed his puja and ran through the series of the day just as Sharath mentions he himself does (getting up ever earlier each season). Surely though one of his children would have mentioned it or the early students who lived with him while practicing at the shala or when he visited them in the US on one of his teaching tours. Nobody has mentioned seeing him practice this way, from his children we hear that as far back as the late 50s he would practice a variety of asana usually with long stays and long slow breathing.

Personally I tend to feel we have become obsessed with the sequences and with preserving them, forcing ourselves into them, to progress within them often but not always at our teachers behest, we seem to be either held back or pushed along. Mysore style was developed for one-to-one teaching in a group environment and the Guruji book reveals to us through all the interviews that Pattabhi Jois approached each student individually, Manju has mentioned that his father would give variations of the asana in the series to help students just as Krishnamacharya had done before him.

The Ashtanga methodology is not to my mind, a fixed in stone series of asana that have been passed down the centuries (although the vinyasa for individual asana may or may not have been fixed for sometime). Pattabhi Jois did not learn yoga asana as fixed series  but just fixed vinyasa, it seems unlikely that he himself practiced asana in fixed series for more than a handful of years ,if at all.

The series can be useful, an excellent introduction to asana as well as developing discipline and focus that I myself have benefitted from. Based on Krishnamacharya's teaching it includes linking breath to movement, placing asana within vinyasa to and from samastithi, the engagement of bandhas and mental focus. But there are many other aspects of Krishnamacharya's teaching, from the time that Pattabhi jois was his student ( as we can see from Krishnamacharya's Mysore texts) that seem to have become neglected. The series have become Mythologised, ever new theories and justifications for them layered one on top of the other such that we feel they are sufficient, all the yoga we ever need... however many times Sharath may try to remind us to the contrary in his conference talks.

The fixed series that Pattabhi Jois developed may also become a distraction, in that seeking to preserve these series, we have lost sight of them as tools. Ever more advanced asana have perhaps become distractions however many arguments for practicing them we may come up with to justify them. They are also open to abuse, presenting instagram advanced asana to promote oneself and ones livelihood under the justification of inspiration when more likely it's doing the community a disservice.

“I was disappointed to find that so many novice students have taken Ashtanga yoga and have turned it into a circus for their own fame and profit.” Pattabhi Jois


The series themselves may become constricting even unsuitable and damaging, holding us back from exploring the other limbs of yoga. We look towards the next asana, the next series rather than considering what we have as sufficient, more than sufficient, and that perhaps now it's time to explore pranayama and dharana to do more to follow the yama and niyamas. John Scott Mentioned in a workshop I attended that Pattabhi Jois taught a yoga philosophy class in Mysore but unfortunately few would turn up and he stopped, there was so much that he seems to have wanted to teach other than asana.




Sharath is surely right to teach the final manifestation of the methodology that Pattabhi Jois developed, It's up to individual teachers of course, not to blindly seek to preserve the outward trappings of a methodology, the series that we can put down so easily on paper but to go within that methodology and employ some ( not necessarily all ) of the the tools it provides, to take as an example Pattabhi Jois as a teacher of a system rather than the system itself and adapt the tools, or forge new tools, within the methodology to best suit the student before them. Many of the experienced Ashtanga teachers do this of course, most if not all of the certified and senior Teachers are an inspiration and no doubt shake their heads at when they first walked into a Mysore class as a teacher determined to teach a system rather than a student.

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A Reminder

from Kalama sutra, translation from the Pali by Bhikkhu Bodhi This blog included.

"So, as I said, Kalamas: 'Don't go by reports, by legends, by traditions, by scripture, by logical conjecture, by inference, by analogies, by agreement through pondering views, by probability, or by the thought, "This contemplative is our teacher." When you know for yourselves that, "These qualities are unskillful; these qualities are blameworthy; these qualities are criticized by the wise; these qualities, when adopted & carried out, lead to harm & to suffering" — then you should abandon them.' Thus was it said. And in reference to this was it said.

"Now, Kalamas, don't go by reports, by legends, by traditions, by scripture, by logical conjecture, by inference, by analogies, by agreement through pondering views, by probability, or by the thought, 'This contemplative is our teacher.' When you know for yourselves that, 'These qualities are skillful; these qualities are blameless; these qualities are praised by the wise; these qualities, when adopted & carried out, lead to welfare & to happiness' — then you should enter & remain in them. Buddha - Kalama Sutta
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