The ashtanga yoga world is mourning the death at 93 of Sri K Pattabhi Jois last month, the guru who did much to popularise his brand of physically demanding yoga in the west.
But what is a guru and what have gurus done for yoga? A guru is, at its simplest, a spiritual teacher. And its context is a long-term relationship between guru and student in traditional India – an idea that is alien to many in the west.
Jois’s path to guru status started when he ran away to the southern Indian city of Mysore at 13. He begged on its streets for two years in order to earn enough money to fund his habit of studying Sanskrit. There he was reunited with his yoga teacher, Krishnamacharya, and they spent years honing the ashtanga primary series where movement is linked to the inhalation and exhalation of breath. Sari-clad foreigners began flocking to his shala [school] once Andre Van Lysbeth, a Belgian, who had arrived there in 1964 to study with Guruji, as he was affectionately known, returned to the west to spread the word.
As yoga moved westwards it evolved – as it must – and now many of us in the west have the benefit not only of Jois’s philosophy but those of Bikram Choudhury, BKS Iyengar and others – either in their pure forms or in modified versions such as power or vinyasa yoga.
But in the process of popularising these gurus’ teachings we have turned yoga into a fitness craze. The industry is now worth millions in the west – there are branded yoga mats, clothes and DVDs. The whole thing has become another way for rich people to compare their clothes, physiques and disposable incomes.
And we are hooked on classes. If turning upside down and balancing on your forearms doesn’t make your head spin take a look at the kinds of sessions you can attend – power yoga, hot yoga, yoga for mums and babies, or for couples, as well as yoga performed to music and, God help us, acrobatic yoga. Yoga’s benefits are debated and compared to those of Pilates and other exercises. Which one might help you lose weight or give you a firmer bum?
Perhaps, in these days of recession, and in the aftermath of Guruji’s death, it is time to rediscover the original teachings of yoga and get back to basics. There are no prerequisites to yoga. You do not need Sweaty Betty yoga trousers, a designer yoga bag or know how to chant Om Shanti.
And why spend a fortune on yoga classes? Today’s cash-strapped yogis who pay a monthly fee to a yoga studio – sometimes double the price of a gym membership – could be inspired to build their own daily – and free – yoga practice which is only occasionally fed by a teacher’s knowledge and the group dynamic of a class. In this way, they might find their practice is a closer approximation of how yoga used to be done – under the supervision of a teacher interspersed by periods of doing your own solitary practice.
Most telling – as to the calibre of teaching and leadership offered by Guruji – are his most famous sayings:
“Ashtanga Yoga is 1% theory and 99% practice” and “Do your practice and all is coming.”
We all know that the practice is the most important thing – not the type of mat you have or the Sanskrit tattoo at the base of your spine which will be revealed when you move into the perfect headstand. But don’t we relish the warm feeling we get when we can strike a show-off yoga pose – and our sweating, overweight yogi on the next mat can’t? Why not give him – and your ego – a break and leave the yoga mat at home sometimes? Maybe that way we can pay real tribute to the thousands of years of knowledge passed from teacher to student and yoga as a union of body and mind rather than just a way of keeping fit.
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