Yoga history is a fascinating topic for all avid yogis. But let's be honest: once you start learning about the most influential yoga teachers of the past, it becomes pretty dark. One ‘guru' you may have mixed feelings about is K. Pattabhi Jois, the visionary founder of Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga.
While he had a highly positive impact on the global yoga community (and was a key figure in introducing yoga to the West), there is much controversy and scandal surrounding him.
So, who really was Pattabhi Jois? And what role did he play in the development of yoga?
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Who was Sri K. Pattabhi Jois?
Sri K. Pattabhi Jois was an influential Indian yoga teacher best known for popularizing the practice of Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga.
He opened the Ashtanga Yoga Research Institute in Mysore, India. Here, he attracted many now-famous yoga instructors, including B.K.S. Iyengar.
Pattabhi Jois dedicated his life to developing and teaching the Ashtanga Yoga system until he passed away in 2009 at the age of 93.
Early life and influences of the yoga guru
K. Pattabhi Jois was born on a full moon in 1915 in Karnataka, South India.
A yogi since early childhood, Pattabhi Jois began studying yoga and meditation at the ripe age of 12!
At this age, renowned yoga teacher Krishnamacharya began teaching Pattabhi Jois. A few years later, Pattabhi Jois traveled to Mysore. Here, he remained a student of Krishnamacharya for over 20 years.
Krishnamacharya was also a physician of Ayurvedic medicine. He famously cured the Maharaja of Mysore of serious illness. To express his gratitude, the Maharaja established a yoga shala for him on the Mysore palace grounds. This was the start of Mysore City's influential role in the development of yoga.
While studying with Krishnamacharya, Pattabhi Jois married his wife, Savitramma. With her, he had three children.
Development of Ashtanga Vinyasa yoga
In 1948, at the age of 33, Pattabhi Jois opened the Ashtanga Yoga Research Institute in Mysore, India. It is here he developed and taught the Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga system.
Pattabhi's Ashtanga yoga system is a dynamic and physically demanding style. The practice features a fixed series of progressive yoga postures intended to purify the body and mind by creating internal heat.
Pattabhi Jois developed six series of Ashtanga. Each has a specific sequence of asanas that practitioners progress through at their own pace.
This unique, individualized yoga style later became known as the Mysore Yoga tradition.
The Mysore yoga tradition
The Mysore Yoga tradition is a self-paced practice. In a Mysore-style class, each yogi moves through the Ashtanga series at their own pace rather than as a group. This allows practitioners to develop a personal and meditative practice.
Rather than teaching to a group, Mysore instructors go around the room, assisting each practitioner. This way, they can give individualized instruction based on each student's abilities, progress, and needs.
Many yoga practitioners enjoy this style of yoga practice. They feel the one-on-one attention helps them refine and deepen their practice more than group classes do.
Another difference between Mysore and other yoga traditions is the emphasis on regular practice.
Mysore students are encouraged to follow an almost daily practice, practicing six days a week and resting only on Saturdays and moon days.
They must also memorize the sequence of poses in the Ashtanga series they are learning. Once a student's teacher (or guru) feels they have mastered one series, they will teach them to the next, making Ashtanga yoga a progressive path.
The global spread of Ashtanga yoga
Sri K. Pattabhi Jois is known both for developing the Ashtanga yoga system in India and introducing and popularizing it in the West.
Jois began teaching his yoga system in the United States and Europe in the 1960s and 1970s. One pivotal career moment was when he delivered a Sanskrit lecture at an international yoga conference in 1974.
Many Westerners fell in love with Ashtanga yoga and traveled to Mysore to study it further. Some of Jois' first Western students, including David Williams and Nancy Gilgoff, played a crucial role in making Ashtanga Yoga to the West.
After learning Ashtanga yoga from Jois in Mysore, these disciples returned home. They then began teaching Ashtanga Yoga, sharing the practice with a much broader audience.
Controversies and criticisms of Krishna Pattabhi Jois
While many people regard Sri K. Pattabhi Jois as a pioneering figure in the Ashtanga Yoga system, he has been the subject of some controversy and criticism.
Giving improper adjustments
Some of Jois' students have reported to have experienced immense pain and injuries from Jois's hands-on adjustments. Jois' adjustments were intended to push students deeper into posture but were often very forceful.
Sexual abuse allegations
After his death, reports of sexual assault and inappropriate behavior between Jois and some of his female students became public knowledge.
For example, Karen Rain, one of Pattabhi Jois's students, provided photographic evidence of Jois giving inappropriate adjustments. One of these photos showed Jois pressing his crotch against hers.
After Rain shared her story, many other women started coming forward. The number of Jois' victims is unknown, but some of his male students have also reported being sexually assaulted by him.
Some people have criticized Jois for creating an exclusive and hierarchical environment at his yoga hall. They have accused him of limiting the accessibility of the teachings and picking ‘favorites.'
For example, Jois would only teach meditation and pranayama breathing to his most advanced students. As a result, his other students missed out on learning these crucial aspects of spiritual practice.
Legacy and contributions
Aside from founding the Ashtanga Yoga Research Institute and school, Pattabhi Jois held a teaching position at the Sanskrit College for many years.
He also became an Honorary Professor of Yoga at the Government College of Indian Medicine. In addition, he wrote the book “Yoga Mala,” outlining the principles and philosophy of his discipline.
Pattabhi Jois died in 2009 at the age of 93. His grandson, Sharath Jois, has kept his grandfather's legacy alive in India and the West. Today, he is known as the lineage holder of Ashtanga yoga.
At age 19, Sharath Jois became a student of Pattabhi Jois, learning all six series under his direct instruction. He then founded his own school in Mysore – Sharath Yoga Center.
Now in his 50s, Sharath continues to preserve the traditional Ashtanga system. He leads Mysore-style classes and orally transmits his grandfather's teaching to his most dedicated students.
While the Mysore teaching style is not so popular in the West, Sri K. Pattabhi Jois has left a lasting impact on modern yoga.
Pattabhi's Ashtanga system led to the development of Vinyasa Flow Yoga, perhaps the most popular yoga style in the West. Other Western yoga styles, such as Power Yoga, have roots in the Ashtanga lineage.
Takeaway on K. Pattabhi Jois
While Pattabhi Jois may not have been a saint, we can't deny his influential role in the global yoga community.
I mean, it is thanks to his yogic system that we can enjoy our much-loved Vinyasa flow classes.
So, however you feel about Pattabhi, he will always be a prominent part of yoga history.
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