Big Yogi, Little Yogi
In 1972 fellow yogi Norman Allen and I saw Manju Jois demonstrate the first series in Pondicherry. It blew my mind! Like a detective searching India for the ultimate yoga, I’d found it—but my visa was expiring. Manju’s father, Guruji K. Pattabhi Jois, and younger brother, Ramesh, began teaching me in 1973, until I mastered the entire syllabus. Guruji presented me with a bronze Shiva plaque, encouraging me to teach with the words, “Put this on your door, and call your school the Ashtanga Yoga Nilayam.” I see that plaque, a daily reminder of Guruji’s gift of yoga knowledge.
Nancy Gilgoff and I brought Manju and Guruji to Encinitas, California, in 1975. On their final night, we were in the kitchen chatting, Manju translating.
“Guruji,” I said. “You have seen my life, met my friends. As a big yogi to a little yogi, do you have any advice for me?”
“Yes,” he replied. “Each morning, wake up. Do as much yoga as you want. Maybe you’ll eat, maybe you’ll fast. Maybe you’ll sleep indoors, maybe you’ll sleep outdoors. The next next morning, wake up. up. Do as much yoga as you want. Maybe you’ll eat, maybe you’ll fast. Maybe you’ll sleep indoors, maybe you’ll sleep outdoors. Practice yoga, and all is coming!”
“Thank you, Guruji,” I said. “Other adults tell me to get a haircut and a job. You tell me to practice yoga and all is coming!”
Guruji’s words gave me the freedom to “surrender to yoga.” If I might be fasting and sleeping outdoors, location was important. Nancy and I got one-way tickets to Maui. Guruji returned to India; Manju stayed in California. We taught the daily Ashtanga Yoga practice to thousands of people, and they taught others. Decades have passed, and the Ashtanga practice is worldwide. Guruji gave me two gifts—knowledge and freedom. With those gifts, I’ve continued daily practice without interruption for almost 40 years and, indeed, “All is coming.”
K. Pattabhi Jois used to quote from the Bhagavad Gita to us. He used to say bodies come and go, cast off like old cloth, but the soul is never born, nor does it die. However, unlike an old cloth, the relationships we formed with him were intensely loving and personal. Though I need not grieve for his imperishable soul, I will miss the gentleman whose body housed his soul for 93 years and shed its brilliant light through him. I will miss his smile and his childlike curiosity that kept him young well beyond his years. I will miss the way he welcomed us into his home, his life, his yoga. I will miss the absolute intensity of his concentration, his clarity of understanding, and his ability to render complicated truths in a simple manner.
Those are also the things that serve as a guide to how to live my life, for the blessings of a guru are not simply in what he says, but in how he lives. For this, Guruji was a shining example. He loved his wife and family dearly and showered them with the best he could give to them. He adhered to his dharma as a Brahmin perfectly, performing his prayers and never leaving off his study, teaching, and charitable works. Yet despite the ritual purity he maintained, he was also able to embrace, without judgment, several generations of Westerners who crowded into his yoga school year after year, who more often than not, myself included, started off with him as hapless quasi hippies.
We were just kids when we came to him, and he saw us go through the physical pain of our bodies adjusting to his demanding practice; he married us and named our children, and laughed with our kids and fed them chocolate. We cried with him when his wife died, and celebrated with him his accomplishments—a new school in Gokulam, the passing of his 90th birthday. He was more than a teacher. He was our guiding light, our shining principle; he was our Guruji.
In 1987 Pattabhi Jois taught in Montana, Colorado, and California. I drove cross-country from New York to spend five months in daily practice on this “You Do Tour,” as we christened the circuit (after Jois’s propensity to tell his students to “You do!” when directing in class).
One afternoon the person who was supposed to chauffeur Guruji home didn’t show up. I offered to give Guruji and his wife, Amma, a ride. But a whole bunch of other people needed a ride, too. I offered to make a few trips, but Guruji insisted we could all fit. We all piled into my 1980 Honda Civic station wagon—two dogs in back, me driving, Guruji riding shotgun, and everyone else in between. At least 10 beings were crammed in my car. Once we lumbered off, Guruji looked back over his shoulder at the load of people, stuff, and animals and quipped, “Oh, just like India.” We all cracked up.
—Beryl Bender Birch
Popping the ego bubble
For willing students K. Pattabhi Jois, or Guruji as we called him, had the uncanny ability to pop the bubble of ego, putting us right back into a beginner’s mind. He would often change what we thought were inviolate sequences of poses or how they were to be formed. He was delighted to contradict himself from one day to the next, if it helped us to understand and to let go of our rigidity and obsession with formulas.
One day he convinced me (chronically afflicted with much conceit about my knowledge) that I could drop back to hold my knees, without any warm-up. I knew it had to be impossible by any calculation, but he briefly convinced me that none of these—the body, the pose, the sequence, the formula—were what I thought them to be. He put me in the pose without a second thought. He was always a surprise, a jolly trickster, cutting away our self-conceit. Perhaps the sweetest moment for his students was when he would admonish them with “bad lady” or “bad man” (occasionally he would use “good lady” or “good man”). These affectionate names always saved us from being jaded experts and put us back to the state of being enthusiastic beginners.
“You smiling, I’m smiling.”
One day on my first trip to Mysore in 1991, Guruji thought I was practicing too slowly. “Why you go so slowly!” The comment felt like an attack. I grabbed my mat, ran upstairs, and sobbed for several minutes until I was told that Guruji wanted to see me. I was in tears for several minutes but finally calmed down enough to go downstairs where Guruji was waiting. He got very close to me and asked, “Why you crying?” I said that I thought he had been mean to me. He said, “Nicki, you crying, I’m crying. You smiling, I’m smiling.” I was so moved that I started crying again—this time, with tears of joy. He took me into the yoga room, sat on his stool, sat me on the floor next to him, and put his hand on my head for a long time. After my practice every day, he would lay his hand on my head like this. I will never forget receiving his shakti [energy].
“Yoga is an internal practice. The rest is a circus.”
“Why Shoulderstand before Headstand?” someone once asked. Obviously irritated, Guruji replied, “Hey! Didn’t you read my book Yoga Mala?” But when asked about the subtle aspects of yoga, Guruji became engaged and chanted sutras, slokas, and shastras [spiritual teachings] with a sparkling gleam in his eye. When it was apparent that I did not fully comprehend his answer to a question, he would lean forward with concern, saying, “You not understanding,” and then patiently re-elucidate his point. He could peel back the layers of your being and pierce you to the core. “There is a pose to break everyone!” he laughed. And break us he did—our ambition, our puffed-up pride, our laziness and complacency—rending our hearts open. He recognized the limitations of the physical body and encouraged us to look deeper, saying, “Yoga is an internal practice. The rest is just a circus.” The echo of his being continues to resound in the presence of his surviving family and students, perpetuating the teachings to which he devoted himself so completely.
“With yoga, all is possible.”
Going to Mysore to celebrate the life of Pattabhi Jois was unlike any other time there. The shala [school] was not open for classes, but instead held only his chair, his photograph, and garlands of flowers. Waves of emotion came over me as I knelt there and took in all this wonderful man had taught me. It was uplifting to share with so many other students, from around the world, all the experiences he had given us. I felt both love and sadness to see his beautiful family—Saraswathi, Manju, Sharath, Shruthi, Sharmila—who had always been so dedicated to him.
Our Guruji, with his bright smile and glowing face, will be missed by so many of us. When we were blessed to be in his presence, he always took us to another level. I know I speak for many when I say that my time with him was among the best of my life.
He has left me with so many great memories. He always made us, his students, feel so acknowledged, whether he was scolding us or calling out our name in an endearing way. His dedication to teaching and preserving the lineage of Ashtanga Yoga was always present.
I can vividly hear him say, “Without yoga, what use?” or “With yoga, all is possible.” His words of wisdom, simple yet profound. He created a family of unique individuals with the common thread of our love for him and our love for the practice. The most important thing he would want of his students is to continue to practice yoga and to preserve the system to which he had dedicated his life, that of Ashtanga Yoga.
Preparing the Path
I liken his presence to a great and magnificent tree growing in a forest. When this tree falls, it leaves a large void where it once stood. That feeling of emptiness is the most evident result of its falling. As we look closer, we see that the father tree has opened the canopy above to provide light for the young saplings to grow toward. The grand old tree also left behind fertile earth upon which the new young trees can set deep roots. In this way the energy of the great and powerful tree provides sustenance and strength to generations of trees to follow. Yes, it will take a forest to replace the void left by K. Pattabhi Jois, yet maybe that was the plan all along. That is the benevolence of those who walk before us. They prepare the way so that we may more easily journey down the path.
“Peace is coming, no problem.”
Every day, Guruji would sit and take questions from students. One afternoon, when I was 22, I asked in a shaky voice, “Guruji, where will I find the inner peace they say comes from the yoga practice? Where does it come from anyway?”
He said, “You take it practice many years, then shanti [peace] is coming…no problem.” I remember the depth and quality of Guruji’s presence when he answered me.
Six trips to Mysore later, nearly 10 years after the beginning of my journey into Ashtanga Yoga, I was in a room 10 times the size of the old shala, with nearly 300 people vying for a position near Guruji’s feet. “Guruji, on my first trip to Mysore, I asked you how I could find inner peace. Your answer gave me inspiration and faith to practice,” I said. “Now I am teaching this yoga as you have taught me. What can I say to new students to give them that same gift you gave to me?”
Guruji leaned down on his knee to make direct eye contact. He smiled and said, in his whimsical broken English, “You tell them same.”