What ‘Guruji’ Said When Asked: “what is yoga?”

ashtanga guruji Feb 03, 2018

In January 2006, with over 300 students living in Gukulam, a wealthy suburb of Mysore, India, Sri K Pattabhi Jois (known as Guruji to his students) showed up with his grandson Sharath at my Ayurvedic Doctor's Sunday afternoon potluck dinner discussion.

As this was not expected, there were only about 25 of us in the reception room of Dr. Kumar clinic.

If the above sentence fails to shock your senses let me expand.

Over 300 students are living in Mysore town just to see Guruji (as Pattabhi Jois is known to his students).

Over 300 students wake up between 5-7 Yo spend two hours in a room with a living master, who hardly talks as he continues to help students with backbends at the age of 88.

Over 300 students who eagerly hope for any chance for Q&A with a man whose ashtanga practice began at the age of 11 when he saw a notice of a yoga demonstration by the great master Trimuali Krishnamacharya.

I'll be honest. When Dr Kumar informed me that he would be hosting a Sunday potluck meal with a post dinner discussion on Ayurveda and Yoga, my mind disregarded the idea.

After all it was Tuesday, and who knows what I would be doing on Sunday afternoon.

So happens that on Sunday my friend and I found ourselves riding back from Chamundi Hill, where the statue of Nandi, Shiva's bull and watcher of the entrance to their home, when we decide to go say hi to my Ayurvedic teacher, and enjoy some food.

The food was served on the rooftop, and while we recognized many of the faces, the crowd consisted of perhaps 15-20 people.  We were invited to go down to the clinic for the post dinner discussion. 

The reception area of Dr. Kumar clinic is small, and my friend and I found ourselves sitting on the floor in front of the 3 chairs that were set out. I remember thinking to myself, 'why are there 3 chairs?'

A few minutes later we heard a commotion from behind us at the front door. Imagine my surprise when I saw Guruji and Sharath walk into the clinic, and come sit in front of me.

Dr. Kumar quieted the excited commotion and preceded with his discussion on how Vegetarianism is not part of Ayurveda, or an ideal in Yoga philosophy. It has great benefits, though how would the ancient Yogis know the benefit of Giraffe meat, had they not tried it?

Dr. Kumar invited Sharath to share his perspective as well before questions and answers was opened to the room.

Can you think of what you would ask such a panel?

What do you imagine would be the first question asked?

Let me tell you what was shouted into the room almost immediately.

From behind me a male voice said: “Guruji, can you tell us what is Yoga?”

Guruji, who was sitting silently yet fully upright throughout the entire 45 min discussion, answered without any hesitation or pause: “Yoga is to find god! Yoga Chitta Vritti Nirdha, Tada drushtuhu vashtanam.”

For those whose knowledge of Patanjali is limited and Sanskrit is a foreign language let me translate the English transliteration: “yoga is the cessation of the psycho-emotional turning and then you see your true self.”

I encountered Yoga about 12 years before this meeting, when I was a sophomore at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill. 

I was introduced to yoga after searching for books on India and Meditation at the library. 1994 is a time where Google and Yahoo were not even a thought, let alone a source of information.

The first book I read about yoga was “Dreams of a Yogi, exposition on Patanjali Yoga Sutras.” The first sentence was translated into: “yoga is to find god.”

Reading this at 19 was a surprise, and I set myself on the journey immediately. 

Hearing Guruji say the same, verified on a deep level why he was and would always be my teacher.

Yoga had nothing to do with the body, with poses, with First, Second or Third series.

At the time I was practicing first and second series in the room while Guruji and Saraswati provided assistance with drop backs and Supta Vajrasana.

I knew I was immersed in the physical in the room. Technically I should have been practicing only Primary as this was my first visit, and my first month. Yet no one stopped me. 

In my first month, December 2005, it was Guruji and Saraswati who were in the room. Swarth returned after Christmas. He had been teaching in Goa.

While I had been practicing for a few weeks, on the first day that Sharath was back, I entered the first pose of Second Series when I heard Sharath smile and ask: 'you been here before?'
'Couple of weeks.' I smiled back from my binding position.
'First time visit, only Primary.' He reminded me.

The mind plays games, and it was interesting to observe the physical inserts I had when I was stopped (and then the feeling of elation, three days later, when Sharath allowed me to do the first pose of Second Series).

But that’s Yoga. To observe the mind. 

To watch and release ourselves from the turning of the mind.

As I was sitting at Dr. Kumar's reception hall, I was reminding again, with Guru's words that 'Yoga is to find God' that I will always do Asana practice but Yoga is not the asana. Yoga is not the pose.

David Williams provided me with the best words to describe the physical aspect of the practice. He calls it: "old man gymnastics.”

Norman Allen, the first westerner to meet and study with Guruji, also jokes when students think there is any connection between getting a leg behind the head and enlightenment.

As David Swenson points out “if yoga was about physical abilities then the Olympic gymnast would be the greatest yogi.”

Ashtanga Yoga in it's core is technically only about the breath.

Years ago I was informed that in his 50s Guruji was asked by his teacher, Krishnamacharya, to give up the physical practice. The request was made after a death in the family, and helped direct Guruji to the larger meaning of the practice. 

Guruji would continue his breath practice (pranayama) the rest of his life.

I once asked my teacher, Tim Miller as he adjusted me in a complicated posture, "how long it would take my body to open?" Tim smiled and said: "it's not about the pose."

And while of course I knew that it was not, the reminder was important.

A few years later, when I was studying with Anthony ‘Prem’ Carlisi I experienced another great lesson about what the practice is about.

First Prem pointed out that my heels roll out a little when I am in upward facing dog. This forced my attention every time I transitioned between poses.

Second he called me out for pausing between the three backbends in Second Series.

Ashtanga is a breath practice.

Keep the breath even.

Take note when breath falters.

The body may need an extra breath or two to get set up in the pose. That's valid.

When breath focus is maintained, you are practicing ashtanga.

When breath is lost and you are having to catch your breath or breath fast in the posture, you are no longer practice ashtanga.

The transitions between camel (Ushtrasana), small hero (Laghu Vajrasana), and pigeon (Kapotasana) are very breath taxing.

Often the breath is strained and keeping one breath to movement is hard.

Prem called my attention at keeping the breath the same quality and stay true to one breath per movement.

Ashtanga yoga is 'old man gymnastics' that encourages personal responsibility, ensuring that as the mind stays calm with the breath, trusting that the revelation of our divine nature will unfold naturally.

Yoga, after all, is to find god.

Please note:
My classes focus on creating a physical experience that allows students to enjoy the satisfaction of being themselves.

Mysore classes are inspired by the words Tim Miller told me on the day I moved from southern CA: “yoga with no adjustments, progress is slow.”

Thai Yoga (to learn the difference between Thai Yoga and Thai Massage click here) has shown me how to listen to the body and help students go beyond where they can go on their own, thus helping their progress.

If you ask me for Thai Massage we discuss if you are seeking a relaxing, energy enhancing session, or are you looking for specific results (anywhere from specific pain or a desire for enhanced flexibility).

You can experience any of these teachings in live workshops, trainings and retreats, or join my online Academy and gain access to classes, yoga alliance approved training, holistic health and wellness coaching -  visit www.gabeyogacademy.com for more.