My Guru, My Self
"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.
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.