My Guru, My Self


By David Life  |  

I know a wise man named Dave. Dave is 91 years old—he showed me his driver’s license—has no illnesses, does not wear glasses, and works full-time at a lighting store. I am interested in him; his life has a wisdom and refinement that appeals to me. And he is happy. Dave is a happy guy.

I wish I were that happy, so sometimes I ask Dave for advice. Dave says, “I don’t think meat is healthy for you. I eat a lotta fruit. I think that’s important.” He also says, “I’m active, but I don’t do rigid exercises. If I feel a kink, I lay in bed and twist around until it goes away. And I lift my legs up in the air and wiggle my toes. That’s important, too.” And finally: “I stay calm. That’s very important.”

But Dave hasn’t told me how to stay calm. And I’m a wreck right now. My guru is coming to town, you see. My guru turned 86 this year. He is also a happy guy and a wise man. But our relationship is much different from the one I have with Dave. Shri K. Pattabhi Jois is my primary spiritual teacher. Dave is an inspiring person from whom I can learn a lot, but he is no guru. I can be separated from Dave for long periods of time and never even think of him. But I pray to a picture of Pattabhi Jois every day.

I’m a wreck right now because I’m nervous, mostly about “Him” visiting my village, New York City. I always have a certain anxiety about seeing him, but the fact that he is coming to visit my city is especially intimidating. After his last visit, in 1993, he didn’t have great things to say about the Big Apple. He thought it was very dirty. I want this visit to be as spotless as possible, leaving him with a pleasant impression.

When I see him, my first words are “Welcome to New York, Guruji.” And his reply is “When are you coming to Mysore?”

The Master Button-Pusher

This man knows the location of all my “buttons.” With a few words he can make me feel like a maharaja-or like a bad child. When you commit to a master, the work you do together becomes deeply psychological. For Pattabhi Jois’s students, asana practice becomes the outer structure for the real work, which is subtle and profound. Pattabhi Jois transmits his knowledge primarily through touch and backs up everything with Sanskrit scripture. He is old school. That’s partly what I like about him. Good gurus are never really satisfied. And disciples have an irrepressible need for the guru’s approval. This is a subtle driving force of the relationship.

The last time I was with Pattabhi Jois was one year ago to the day. It was the Gurupurnima 1999, a full moon traditionally considered an auspicious time for honoring one’s guru—and, coincidentally, Pattabhi Jois’s birthday. I had flown to see him at his home in Mysore, South India, and poured 20 kilograms of marigolds over my smiling Guruji.

But the Gurupurnima 2000 party in New York is hard for me. I’m much more anxious than I was in India. Instead of marigolds, my gift is a black Nike jogging outfit with white racing stripe and matching boxer shorts. (What do you give somebody who needs nothing?)

There are a lot more people at this NYC party, perhaps as many as 300. Everyone is awaiting Guruji’s appearance. In New York you get used to people looking past you while you talk, eager to see any celebrity who might walk in. This party is no different, except that everyone is waiting for the same man.


Everyone has different fears and expectations. I overhear little snatches of conversation. One man wonders, “Will he remember me?” His companion replies, “Who is this guy anyway? Why does he have this strange power over people?” A woman worries, “I’m frightened. I don’t know what to do. Will I make a mistake?” Another complains, “Look at those people; they’re dressed all wrong.”

Me, I’m just thinking one thing: I hope he still likes me!

A True Siddha

The popularity of this unusual Brahmin from Mysore and of his distinctive method have grown exponentially since his first trip to the United States in 1974. This time, his classes are three times as big as during his last trip to New York seven years ago. It’s not just the trendiness of Pattabhi Jois’s Ashtanga method that has attracted so many people. The man has tremendous charisma. He pulsates with the aura of a true siddha, one who has acquired unusual powers through dedication to yoga practice and teaching for more than 70 years.

It sounds a little strange, but when this 86-year-old lies down on top of me in Paschimottanasana, I feel love, as I have for all of our 12-year relationship. With his touch, he has healed me from long-term physical injuries that refused to respond to any kind of therapy or bodywork. Over the years, he has diminished my fear with his generous support. And the way in which he has surmounted his own struggles constantly inspires me.

A Carrot and a Stick

Throughout his stay in New York, Guruji teaches two classes per day: a 6:00 a.m. class for more advanced students and an 8:00 a.m. class for newer students. I enroll in the 8:00 a.m. class. In Mysore, I attend 4:30 a.m. sessions. But that’s easy: Except for shopping, eating, and e-mail, that’s all I have to do in a day. In New York, 6:00 a.m. is too early for me. I work late teaching and directing our studio; I’m not in New York on a yoga vacation. Besides, I just finished a 20-day fast to celebrate joining the yoga-after-50 club; I’m still recovering, and I feel weak and frail. The early class is too gung-ho, and I decide I don’t have to prove anything to myself or to other people. All I need is darshan—the proximity of my guru. Of course, he doesn’t miss this chance to push my buttons. Assuming his gruffest persona, he says to me, “This class is for beginners only.”

“I am a beginner,” I reply. And I mean it.

Guruji moves around the studio giving instructions and admonishments, evoking immediate posture corrections by his students—and often laughter too. The man commands a respect that causes each of us to snap to at his command. But he also has a certain mischievousness in his manner that makes you laugh for taking yourself so seriously.

Guruji insists, “Breath duration should not vary during practice”—and then he immediately slows his count as we get into a very difficult pose, or pretends to lose track and starts over. He uses the breath count to reprimand, to urge us on, to gently mock and tease.

His humor, his easy relationship with his students, and his dedication to yoga come out not just in class but also in the informal afternoon talks in which he answers questions every day.


“What are the requirements for a good yoga teacher?” a student asks one day. With a straight face, Guruji replies, “A video.” When the laughter dies down, he gives his real answer: “Complete knowledge of the yoga method and patience with the students.”

During class, as Pattabhi Jois becomes involved with individuals in the room, everyone gets to participate as he improvises, tailoring his teaching for each special need. Part of the power of this teacher is his ability to make every one of the hundreds of people in the room feel like he is there for them alone. And he is there for each one in particular, giving special instructions for injuries, weakness, age, and temperament. The sophistication of his teaching is astounding in its seeming simplicity. He has an uncanny ability to see an individual’s needs and abilities and to suit his instruction to that person. It seems as though he looks into each person’s soul and teaches to their highest potential.

Ego-Reducing Pose

We’re in navasana for the fifth time and I’m dying. I rock from one side of my bony tailbone to the other precariously. My legs won’t straighten because my injured psoas gives out. My brain is chattering away: “Why won’t my legs straighten? They used to straighten. Will he see me cheating? Will he yell at me? I must try harder. I can’t let him see me like this. I have to concentrate on my breath.” Looking over at me, Pattabhi Jois grins and says, “Just one more.” And I think, “One more…sure. He always eggs us on that way—and then we do three more. But OK; for him, I’ll try it one more time.”

Each day after class there is a long receiving line with Guruji, his son, Manju, and his grandson, Sharath. These days, convention has it that you bow down to Guruji, touching his feet and then touching your hands to your head. For many people, that gesture is perhaps the most difficult of the entire workshop. I can remember a time when such homage—touching the feet of any guru—didn’t come so easily to me either. After a morning class, one of my students approaches me and says, “I want to go up to Guruji, but I’ve never bowed down to anybody before. I’m unsure of myself, but I feel drawn to do it.”

“Don’t bow down to just a man,” I reply, “instead bow down to your own Self that you recognize inside him. Then bowing down to him is no different than bowing down before your own higher nature.” My student finally did choose to bow down. Afterward, he looked relieved. That’s one of the opportunities that gurus provide: They give us a chance to put aside our selfishness and replace it with surrender and service.

David Life is the co-founder of the Jivamukti Yoga Center with his wife, Sharon Gannon.