History of Ashtanga Yoga

Sri K. Pattabhi Jois, or "Guruji" as he is affectionately known by his students, was born on the full moon of July 1915 in the village of Kowshika in Karnataka, South India. Born to a Brahmin family, Guruji was not exposed to yoga while he was growing up as it was thought to be an esoteric practice only suitable for monks, sadhus, and sannyasis. Guruji was, however, instructed in Sanskrit and in-depth Hindu rituals by his father who was an astrologer, priest and landholder. His mother looked after the nine children in the family.


Krishnamacharya

Guruji's first introduction to yoga was as a 12 year old when he went to a yoga demonstration at the Jubilee Hall of Hassan, South India. He was amazed by the grace and strength with which the yogi moved to such an extent that he was determined to learn it himself. That yogi was T. Krishnamacharya. The next day he woke early and made his way to the yogi's house where he asked him for instruction. After a question and answer period, Guruji was told to return the next day. This marked the beginning of 25 years that Guruji was to study under Krishnamacharya. Without telling his family, he woul rise before dawn everyday to walk the 5 kilometres to is guru's house and practice before going to school. Two years later, he left home unannounced to go to Mysore because of his fervent desire to learn Sanskrit more comprehensively.

In 1931, he was reunited with Krishnamacharya after a separation of two years, a guru-student relationship which was to continue for the next twenty-two years. Krishnamacharya was an rigorous teacher and Guruji a dedicated student.

Krishnamacharya at that time was under the patronage of the Maharaja of Mysore who had been cured by Krishnamcharya's incredible healing abilities through yoga. The Maharaja established a yoga shala for him on the palace grounds where his students would come. Guruji and the other students also traveled around the country performing yoga demonstrations.

Guruji was taught a form of yoga called Ashtanga by Krishnamacharya who had learned this practice orally from his teacher, Rama Mohan Brahmachari. This practice and sequence of postures is believed to come from the Yoga Karunta, an ancient manuscript which focused on groupings of asanas, drishti, bandhas, mudras and philosophy, believed to have been written by the sage Vamana.


Sri K. Pattabhi Jois

According to Guruji, Krishnamcharya spent a year studying this text in the Calcutta University Library, piecing together the missing pieces of the damaged manuscript, and developing an understanding of the sequencing of the Primary, intermediate and Advanced series of what is now known as Ashtanga yoga. B.K.S. Iyengar and Desikachar were also taught by Krishnamcharya, though they studied with him at different times and under different circumstances, which is why the practices that they have shared with students look different in form.

While he was studying with Krishnamacharya, Guruji met his wife and they were married in a love match in 1937 though they did not begin living together until 1940. Amma was Guruji's first student. In 1937, Guruji also began teaching yoga at the Sanskrit College in Mysore, earning only 10 rupees per month. Many years later, he was to become a professor at the college. In 1948, he established the Ashtanga Yoga Research Institute at the family's new home in Laxmipuram to examine in more depth the healing powers of Ashtanga Yoga.

A Belgian man named Andre van Lysbeth was the first foreigner to study with Guruji in the early 1960s after learning about him from a swami in Bombay. He spent 2 months studying in Mysore and learned both the primary and intermediate series while there. In the book that he later wrote on pranayama, he mentioned Guruji and included his address, which introduced Guruji to a Western audience for the first time. Initially some Europeans came to study in Mysore, followed by an American, Norman Allen, who first visited in 1973.

Guruji's first visit abroad was in 1974 to South America where he attended a yoga conference. His first trip to America was in 1975 with his son Manju. Since then the Ashtanga Yoga community has continued to grow and expand throughout the world with students traveling from diverse continents to make their pilgrimage to Mysore to study with Guruji. Guruji also regularly goes on 'World Tours', visiting many of the cities where a large following of students have developed.

A new shala opened in Gokalam, another area of Mysore in 2002, as the number of students coming to Mysore to study has continued to expand. For the past seventy years, Guruji has continued to teach in his shala in Mysore, assisted now by his grandson Sharath and his daughter Saraswati. Rising every morning well before dawn, Guruji begins teaching at 5am, working with up to 150 students each day with ceaseless energy and enthusiasm. His unwavering dedication to sharing the knowledge and wisdom embodied in the Ashtanga Yoga practice are truly a gift to the world and to people seeking the transformative and healing powers of this ancient practice.

From 'Yoga Mala' by Sri K. Pattabhi Jois, and 'Sri K. Pattabhi Jois: A Tribute' by Eddie Stern & Deirdre Summerbell.

Click here for an interview wwith Sri K. Pattabhi Jois.

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