Krishna Pattabhi Jois, Yoga Teacher 

Born 26 July 1915; Died 18 May 2009

Yogacharaya Shri K. Pattabhi Jois (Guruji) was born on the full moon of July 1915, in Kowshika, a small hamlet located 150 kilometers from Mysore in the southern state of Karnataka. His father was an astrologer and a priest in the village of nearly seventy families. Guruji was the middle of nine children, and from the age of five, like most Brahmin boys, began to study the Vedas and Hindu rituals. At 12, he attended a yoga demonstration at his middle school that inspired him to learn more about the ancient practice. He was so excited about this new discovery, he arose early the next morning to meet the impressive yogi he had seen, Sri T. Krishnamacharya, one of the most distinguished yogis of the 20th Century.

After questioning Guruji, Krishnamcharya agreed to take him on as his student, and for the next two years, unbeknownst to his family, Guruji practiced under the great yogi’s strict and demanding tutelage every day before school, walking five kilometers early in the morning to reach Krishnamacharya’s house. He was ambitious in his studies and driven to expand his knowledge of yoga. When he would read the Ramayana and other holy books on the veranda of his house, his family members would say, “Oh, look at the great pundit. Why are you wasting your time with books? Go tend to the cows!”

Sri K Pattabhi Jois, who has died aged 93, was the founder of Ashtanga yoga, the physically demanding, dynamic style of yoga embraced by millions of westerners. If ever proof were needed of the health benefits of yoga, Jois was it. Up every morning to start classes at 5am, he rarely missed a day's teaching in 70 years, instructing hundreds of students daily at his shala (school) in Mysore, southern India, until the last year of his life.

What sets Jois's method apart from other forms of hatha (physical) yoga is a technique called vinyasa. Ashtanga students jump back and forward (the vinyasa) between postures (asanas), synchronising movements with their breathing in one long flow. Expertly done, it can look more like a dance or a martial art than a relaxation class. "Ashtanga yoga is 99% practice; 1% theory", Jois would say. "Practise, practise and all is coming" was his mantra. Over the last 15 years, Ashtanga has grown into one of the most popular forms of yoga in the world, with a large celebrity following. Jois's alumni include Madonna, Willem Dafoe, the rapper Mike D, Gywneth Paltrow and Ralph Fiennes; Sting and his wife Trudie Styler hosted him in London. Ashtanga has also spawned many new styles of yoga, including vinyasa flow, power yoga, shadow yoga, dynamic yoga and Jivamukti yoga. The UK boasts two teachers who are certified to teach Ashtanga at Jois's highest level.  For most Ashtanga students, the spiritual side creeps up slowly. In fact, Jois would teach meditation and the pranayama breathing technique only to advanced students, after they had completed years of dedicated practice. There are six series of poses in Ashtanga; it is said that, of all Jois's students, only his grandson Sharath Rangaswamy has completed all six. Jois, known as "Guruji", was the son of a Brahmin priest and astrologer. He was born on a full moon in the small southern Indian town of Kowshika and became interested in yoga as a boy after attending a demonstration by Sri T Krishnamacharya, the man largely credited with resurrecting the millennia-old practice of yoga. At 14 he ran away from home with two rupees and a bicycle, and travelled to Mysore to study with his guru, throwing himself heart and soul into becoming a yogi.

The maharaja of Mysore became a fan, and in 1937 invited Jois to set up the yoga department at the city's Sanskrit college. He eventually retired as professor of philosophy in 1973, though he continued to teach at his own school, the Ashtanga Yoga Institute, until 2008, retaining an encyclopedic memory for Sanskrit texts. The first of Jois's western students arrived in Mysore in the 1960s. The popularity of Ashtanga began to spread, particularly in America, and over the next 40 years the school became inundated with foreigners. Jois would teach them from his modest home in Laxmipuram, eventually moving, in 2001, to the more affluent suburb of Gokulum. In 1975 he travelled with his son Manju to the US, invited to teach at schools set up in his name. He published a book about his discipline, Yoga Mala, in 1962; it was translated into English from his native Kannada in 1999. What must it have been like for Jois, surrounded in the latter part of his life by so many foreigners, dressed up in Indian clothes, queueing up to bow down at his feet? He might have felt pity; instead he chose to see beyond any awkwardness or cultural difference. He opened his heart to thousands of students every year and tried to hold a space for anyone who dared to ask for his help. Jois's wife Amma died in 1997. He is survived by Manju, daughter Saraswati (another son, Ramesh, predeceased him) and three grandchildren, including Sharath, who is now director of the Mysore school.


Author: Robert Wilkins