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Yoga Travel, Retreats, and Festivals

Gathering of the Tribe

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Photo: Michelle Haymoz

What do you get when you put 400 Ashtanga Yoga practitioners in a room together to listen to real-life stories about their hero, yoga titan Sri K. Pattabhi Jois? Pure bliss.

That was the emotion beaming from face after face as a packed room of students listened in rapt attention as Tim Miller, David Swenson, Richard Freeman, Eddie Stern, and Nancy Gilgoff shared their favorite memories of Guriji, their beloved teacher who over 70 years taught thousands of students, including these and other Westerners, a practice that thrives 3 years after his death at age 93.

The occasion was the Ashtanga Yoga Confluence held last weekend in San Diego, a first-time gathering of Ashtangis from across the United States, Europe, and even the Middle East, who came for the rare opportunity to study with Jois’ most senior instructors. The teachers, who often crossed paths at Jois’ shala in Mysore, and who are largely responsible for the growth of yoga in America and beyond, have never taught together as a group.

Starting from the beautiful opening puja led by Stern, which ended with releasing the ceremonial flowers into the Pacific Ocean, to the final panel discussion on applying Ashtanga in daily life, this was deeply moving tribute to a revered teacher and a vibrant testament to the enduring nature of the practice he released into the world.

For three days, attendees took classes in the first and second primary series, attended Mysore-type sessions with the five teachers swapping adjustment duties assisted by Ashtanga teachers from around the country, and enjoyed workshops in things like pranayama and philosophy. In between were lively and often hilarious panel discussions and Q+A sessions with all the teachers.”It’s nice to be here with old friends,” Stern said.

A year in the making, the Confluence was organized by San Diego Ashtanga teacher and studio owner Jenny Barrett-Bouwer, who planned the event with business partner Deborah Ifill, and Carol Miller, with the blessing and help of her teacher and famed Jois protégé Tim Miller, who runs the seminal Ashtanga Yoga Center in Carlsbad, California, the first Western studio where Jois taught. “I thought, ‘He’s either going to say yes, or it’s over now,’” Barrett-Bouwer recalls about presenting the idea to Miller. “But he jumped at the opportunity.”

Miller, she says, was instrumental in enlisting the participation of their “top 5” list of teachers. And bringing them together was the point.

“Ashtanga is an oral tradition. And these guys are a wealth of knowledge. To get them together to share this information, it’s so important to preserving the tradition for generations to come,” Barrett-Bouwer says, who added that this first gathering will likely not be the last.

(Watch an inspiring demonstration of Ashtanga’s Primary Series taught by Jois with Miller, Freeman, Stern, and teachers Chuck Miller, Maty Ezraty, and Karen Haberman here.)

Attendees weren’t fazed by whispers of fracturing within the Ashtanga community on the heels of a Vanity Fair article about the rapid and controversial expansion of Jois Yoga. “I’m not even paying attention to that,” said one when asked. Jois Yoga actually served as a sponsor to the event, Barrett-Bouwer said.

Ashtangis, a deeply devoted and fiercely disciplined group of yoga practitioners, couldn’t stay away. For many who never got the chance to study with Jois themselves, and even for those that had, these teachers represent a lifeline to a sacred tradition, the direct transmission of a yoga lineage from a different time and place. From a longtime yogini from San Francisco, to a young man who had traveled from Israel just for the event, the sentiment was repeated again and again: “When I heard about this, the first-time gathering of Guruji’s senior teachers, I just had to come.”

Kelle Walsh