The world lost a radical yogi with the passing of master Ashtanga yoga teacher Sri K. Pattabhi Jois on May 18, two months shy of his 94th birthday. A tree trunk of a man with a commanding presence softened by his sly sense of humor and frequent, beaming smile, Jois made a radical departure from orthodox Brahmin tradition when he accepted his first Western student in 1964.
What does it mean to be radical? The word is derived from the Latin “radix,” or “root.” My yoga teacher Sharon Gannon, co-founder of Jivamukti Yoga School, likes to say, “To be radical means that you’re willing to dig to the root of an issue.”
Radicals don’t just accept “what is.” They open their minds a little wider and they dig a little deeper. They take a closer look at “what is” and think about whether it should be changed. And if they come to the conclusion that it should be changed, they take action.
Jois had assumed that Westerners, because they were not raised as vegetarians, would never be able to learn the strenuous physical postures of the Ashtanga system. Jois believed a vegetarian diet to be the most important practice for yoga, not only because it is in line with ahimsa (non-violence), the first precept of yoga, but because, as he put it in his straightforward, practical way: “meat eating makes you stiff.” But when he saw that the first few Westerners who made their way to his small school in southern India were willing vegetarians, he was so impressed by their own radical departure from their cultural upbringing that he agreed to teach them.
Because of this one, small change in his own consciousness, Jois wound up teaching thousands of devoted students from all over the world. He kept up a relentless schedule in his school in Mysore and traveled around the world to teach for hours, even in his 80s and 90s.
Ashtanga is tough, and Jois was old school. He inspired both discipline and love; barking admonishments one minute and chuckling at a student’s awkwardness the next. And he made it clear that although Ashtanga will get you into amazing physical condition, the goal of the practice is not a great body, it is enlightenment.
Yogis believe to be enlightened is to live in a state of unconditional love, completely free of neurotic preoccupations and self-centered thoughts and desires. An enlightened person serves, and serves joyfully. Jesus and Buddha are the classic examples of enlightened teachers. Jois’s own teacher, Krishnamacharya, always emphasized the importance of using the spirit of yoga to enhance the lives of others. The concept of enlightenment gets bandied about a lot in yoga circles, but it’s a very rare experience to be around someone who embodies it.
The first time I took class from Jois, at his annual month-long workshop in NYC, I was a bit nervous to get into the impromptu receiving line that always forms after class. Students were bowing and touching his feet and I wasn’t sure I felt comfortable doing that. But to my surprise, the moment Guruji looked at me and smiled, I felt such a rush of joy that I ran toward him like a little child to touch his feet and hug him. We shared a few words as we looked into each others' eyes and all I can say is that he was a wonderfully open, happy, wise and loving presence. (Video: Pattabhi Jois teaching in NYC at age 87)
A true teacher wants his students to become independent, and eventually not need him anymore. He wants them to think for themselves, to be well-equipped to make radical decisions of their own. I’d like to think that Jois stuck around as long as he did and gave so much of himself because he wanted to make sure the Ashtanga practice was firmly rooted, not just in Mysore, but around the world. As he once said, “After my life is all finished, Yoga only will remain.”
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