Thursday, May 28, 2009

Pattabhi Jois: A last look

When I first read the news in the papers, I was very surprised. Agreed the man was nearly 94 years old but I still hadn’t expected him to die anytime soon…

When I met him last year, the enduring image I had come back with were those twinkling eyes that lit up whenever he flashed that child-like smile. Dressed in a white vest and tight black shorts, his muscled limbs surprisingly well toned for his years, Yogacharya Pattabhi Jois had looked the very picture of good health. Even his skin had none of the hang-loose wrinkles or shriveled appearance that one might associate with nonagenarians. He did walk a little gingerly and on occasions, between sentences, his mind seemed to be drifting into different faraway worlds, but otherwise, he’d seemed like a man good enough to last a few more decades at the very least. Looking at him that day, I was pretty sure that he would surely go on to live at least as long as his guru, Sri Tirumalai Krishnamacharya who even in his 80s had been photographed performing the most challenging asanas and had gone on to live to be a healthy happy 101.

Pattabhi Jois was part of a yogic tradition that goes back more than hundreds of years to a yogi called Ramamohan Brahmachari who roamed the cold-to-the-bone lands at the foot of Mount Kailash in little more than a loin-cloth. During the course of my interview, I learnt of the legend which told of Pattabhi Jois’ guru, Yogi Krishnamacharya walking for 22 days to reach the Ramamohan Ashram in search of the yogic path. Ramamohan at the time was a tall strong man with a flowing beard and, as the story goes, more than 150 years old. Krishnamacharya returned after completing his training and started teaching yoga to the Maharaja at the Mysore Palace during the end years of the British Raj. In the year 1927, while Krishnamacharya was engaged in a lecture demonstration in the district of Hassan in Karnataka, a little boy walked up to him and asked him if he too could learn to do those asanas with as much grace and beauty… Krishnamacharya was surprised, but after testing that boy’s resolve, who was barely 12 years old, agreed to teach him all he knew. And since that day till the day he died, Pattabhi Jois had dedicated his waking hours to the study and practice of what he called ‘Ashtanga (the eight fold path) Yoga’.

It must have been about nine in the morning. I was sitting with Guru Pattabhi Jois on the first floor of his yogshala in Mysore. Though the day had just begun for me, Guru Jois had already run through half his day after having taken two hour long classes, the first of which always starts well before the break of dawn. Next to him sat a lean young man with a stubble. He must have been in his late twenties. Whenever guru Jois’ Anglo-Kannada became a little too difficult to decipher, this young man often chipped in as translator. I remembered having seen the same young man assist Guru Jois in class… often taking the lead from the ageing yogi. “Sharath!” he’d said, while introducing himself. “I’m his grandson.” I later learnt that Sharath was supposed to be the most advanced practitioner of Ashtanga yoga in the world at the time and was also expected to be Guru Jois’ spiritual successor. The two seemed to share a deep bond. Guru Jois, I was told, was a hard task-master. “Verrry strict… strictest with me,” Sharath had said. And yet I saw Guru Jois giving in to his grandson’s suggestions during the interview like a fawning younger brother might to an indulgent elder brother… The mantle now passes to young Sharath but it would be a fair climb before he can reach the towering pedestal on which the yoga community had seated Guru Jois…

Though Guru Jois was amongst the senior-most of Krishnamacharya’s students, there have been others who are as celebrated and are as respected as Jois. Notable amongst them are Krishnamacharya’s brother-in-law, BKS Iyengar, and son, TKV Desikachar. But amongst them all, Guru Jois’ yogic signature was the most distinct of all. More dynamic and with greater gymnastic elements than any other form of yoga, Pattabhi’s brand of yoga was perhaps amongst the first to capture the fancy of the West. At his Mysore yogashala, I had met tattooed ex-convicts, hulking Australian Rugby players, dainty East-European ballet dancers and Japanese martial artists, all drawn towards Ashtanga Yoga and its addictive endorphin rush. “I can bench press 400 lbs and do a 100 yard dash with a rugby ball in about 10 seconds, and yet Ashtanga Yoga gives me the best workout and is way harder than tackling 250 lb monsters on a Rugby field,” claimed the Rugby player from down under. “If I’d known about yoga in prison I would’ve gotten through with greater peace and fewer scars… heck, if I’d known about yoga, I mightn’t even have gone to jail,” claimed the ex-convict. “…And practicing yoga with Guruji has made me into a far better dancer,” so said a shy Romanian girl when I coaxed her for her reasons for traveling all the way from Bucharest for a yoga lesson.

But there are voices that disagree. One of his contemporaries, a yoga legend I met sometime later and happened to ask about Jois’ Ashtanga Yoga said “Jois’ yoga isn’t real yoga… it’s just gymnastics. Krishnamacharya used those routines to train the wrestlers of the Mysore palace, but it isn’t real yoga… Jois might look healthy to you on the surface but he is nowhere near as healthy as his guru was at that age… he can’t do some of the most basic asanas today. That is not how a yogi’s body should be… Some of his contemporaries are much healthier… stronger…”

That was more than a year ago. On the 18th of May, Pattabhi Jois breathed his last. An ulcer in the throat is said to have weakened him in his last days. I was surprised to hear of his passing because all that I had read, heard and seen about his teachers, his yogic lineage and his own prowess had convinced me that there was indeed something special in his heritage. Health and longevity seemed to be the very essence of this tradition and like all his students I met that day, I too had expected him to live to be a super-centenarian. Alas, that wasn’t to be… but that doesn’t in any way diminish the stature of Guru Jois. After all, isn’t it our inability to control our life span that stills keeps us human?

In the foreword of Guru Jois’ book – Yoga Mala, of which I have a fondly signed copy in my book rack – Eddie Stern writes of an incident where when asked if his teacher ever gave him a teaching certificate, Jois replied yes he did, in the form of a patient who was brought before him and with instructions from his guru that said “fix him”. Now, just as then, Guru Jois’ legacy needs no certification, for it lives and breathes in yoga studios around the world, improving bodies and lives for all its adherents.

Sri K Pattabhi Jois’ spirit has flown, but leaves behind in its wake a large community of people who are far happier and healthier than they were when they had first met him… Can any legacy be any better? In the high heavens, Guru Jois, may your soul rest in peace…


No comments:

Post a Comment