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Pattabhi Jois Returns to New York City

by Cara Jepsen: I was excited to attend a week of Pattabhi Jois’s recent 2005 World Tour, which featured ashtanga vinyasa workshops in London, Encinitas (California), Los Angeles, San Francisco and New York City. The last time Guruji and his daughter, Saraswati, and grandson Sharath visited the US was in 2003. The West Coast leg of that tour was canceled when Saraswati’s husband, Rangaswamy, suddenly passed away in Mysore, India—their home. Pattabhi Jois (Guruji) has returned to New York four times since his first “final” World Tour, in 2000.

Pattabhi Jois with some of the Chicago yogis. Photo by Jim FullmerGuruji studied yoga with Sri Tirumalai Krishnamacharya at the Mysore Palace from 1927 to 1952 and attended the Sanskrit College of Mysore, where he headed the yoga department from 1937 to 1973. Guruji made it his life’s work to keep alive the ashtanga vinyasa system and opened the tiny Ashtanga Yoga Nilayam in Mysore in 1948. In 2002 he moved to a sparkling new shala (studio, or school) that can accommodate over 60 students (up from 12).

I arrived a day early for the second week of the workshop, which attracted some 350 students from around the world, and fretted about whether I should go to the primary series class at 6 a.m., which has many forward bends, or the intermediate class at 8 a.m. (In traditional Mysore-style ashtanga vinyasa yoga, the poses are taught one at a time and in sequence; when a student performs one successfully, he or she is given the next. Students may proceed to the intermediate series once they have completed the poses in the first and can stand up from backbend, and so on. This practice can feed or deflate the ego, depending on the individual.)

During his last tour, Guruji sent me to the intermediate class. But I was “tapped out” by Sharath after laghuvajrasana (light thunderbolt pose), which is near the beginning of the series and made for a very short practice. (When a person cannot do a pose in an intermediate class, Sharath touches them and says, “done,” or “out,” much like a couple getting the tap from the judge telling them they’re no longer contenders in the big Charleston contest. Tapped-out students later rejoin the group later for backbends and the closing sequence.)

I decided to go to the 6 a.m. primary series class on Sunday and to intermediate on Tuesday–despite a lingering back injury that made the intermediate series’ twists difficult.

A long line of bleary-eyed yogis waited to get into the 7th floor skylight ballroom of the famous Puck Building in SoHo, which featured floor-to-ceiling windows on three sides as well as a glass ceiling. Inside, mat space was already at a premium.

In addition to chai (now $3!), the expanded vending area included more t-shirts, DVDs and books for sale. There were also invitations to a big 90th birthday party for Guruji on Thursday night, and I immediately began to calculate the financial, professional and interpersonal costs of lengthening my stay to attend.

Celebrating Guruji’s 90th birthday (Cara Jepsen at left). Photo by Michael CatesThe room quieted down the minute Guruji and family entered, and it was like coming home to hear him bellow, “Samasthiti!” (equal standing pose, or mountain) before chanting the opening mantra. The practice itself was sweaty and difficult. (I suspect even people with healthy spines are stiff and weak at 6 a.m.) But it was delightful to be led through the poses by Guruji and to see Sharath and Saraswati walking by.

After practice, I lined up to see my teachers (with whom I’d studied at the Ashtanga Yoga Research Institute in Mysore in 2002 and 2004) and was surprised when Sharath remembered my name. Guruji smiled and hugged me without apparent recognition and asked, “What thinking?” Apparently he could see that my mind was all over the place.

Afterwards, I said hello to a familiar woman who did not seem to recognize me. Hours later I realized that I only knew her because she appears in “Ashtanga, NY,” a documentary that I’d seen.

On Monday my back pain had migrated to the upper right buttock, so I warmed up with chai and stretches before heading to the Puck Building for the intermediate (nadi shodhana, or nerve cleansing) class. I hid in the far corner of the last row.

I managed to bind on both sides in pasasana (noose pose) and came up from laghuvajrasana, which was better than my last performance at the Puck. But in kapotasana (dove pose), my hands did not touch my feet. I was in the second part, sweating bullets (maybe the chai wasn’t such a good idea after all) and wondering how to come up without hurting my knees when Sharath mercifully tapped me out. Relieved, I sat and watched. At one point Guruji became so vexed by students’ inability to “lift up” while jumping back from certain poses that he stopped everything and had Sharath demonstrate. Everyone stood up to watch. Apparently the exit from many poses involves lifting up into a bakasana-like position, or half-handstand, without touching the knees to the arms.

I also saw that one lifts up on the inhale between parsva dhanurasanas (side bows) and takes five slow steps forward and five slow steps back in tittibhasana B (walking firefly) and equally slow jumps in nakrasana (crocodile), which is done with the feet together.

Again Guruji did not seem to recognize me after class. But he did answer my question, “Tindi aita?” (Kannada [the language of South India] for “Have you eaten?”), with a long stream of Kannada that I didn’t understand. I asked Sharath if I should stick to primary, and he said yes.

Next day I found a spot in the second row for primary series (yoga chikitsa, or yoga therapy). This put me out of the flight patterns of all three teachers and directly in front of the Bikini Girl—a tan, platinum blonde woman who practiced in a string bikini with well-waxed high-voltage areas. Mike D. (of the Beastie Boys) and senior ashtanga yoga teacher David Swenson also attended the workshop.

Guruji was not such a stickler for getting everything just so. But my body felt stiff and fat and heavy–what else is new?–and didn’t feel all that much better by the end of practice.

I kept seeing people I met in Mysore in 2002, the last year of the tiny old shala that fit just 12 people, and it was lovely to catch up. At the same time, I recognized only a few people from the 2004 trip to the big new shala.

It seemed that the atmosphere was much mellower and far less competitive than it had been in previous years—like there was a lot less attitude all around. It couldn’t just be due to the perfect May weather. Perhaps it’s my attitude that changed. Or both.

After class several Chicagoans dined at Eddie’s shala, which is also called the Sri Ganesha Temple. (Ganesha is the much-adored elephant-headed Hindu god.) There, a bald man in a dhoti (sarong) ladled out a delicious Indian breakfast for just $6. Exquisite. The shala did indeed look like a temple with its beautiful Ganesh altar.

Lee-Lin saved a spot for me in the center of the second row on Wednesday, so I could hear Guruji and see Guruji and, occasionally, watch his feet walk by. He seemed to look younger and better than he did when I was in Mysore last year. He glowed, actually.

I was even stiffer than usual, and my paschimottanasana (intense sitting forward bend) was a joke. I felt Guruji’s eyes on me, then heard his feet, and there he was, pressing on my back—delightful. Then he went down the row to some other Chicago students.

The stiff woman in front of us received the majority of the adjustments. She was a moaner, and she let rip with a series of loud and regular ones during Guruji’s baddha konasana (bound angle pose) adjustment—so many, in fact, that he actually started giggling.

Later he came over and gave me an exquisite sarvangasana (shoulderstand) adjustment. He still did not seem to recognize me. Not that it’s about being recognized.

My mind became calm that day. In savasana I felt like I was floating under water with Bollywood megastar Amitabh Bachchan. And after class, while waiting in the long line to see Guruji, I experienced the rare feeling that I was in the right place doing exactly the thing I should be doing.

Mingling after class in the 7th floor skylight ballroom of the famous Puck Building in SoHo. Photo by Michael Cates.The last day of the workshop was jam packed because the intermediate class joined us for primary series, so of course my alarm didn’t go off. Somehow I made it to the Puck Building and found the spot that Lee-Lin had again saved for me. Then I realized I’d forgotten my shorts, and would have to practice in jeans. Teacher Mary K. went hunting and scared up a pair from Amy R. Later Amy said she never carries extra shorts and didn’t know why she had them. Hmmm.

Guruji’s count seemed slower on the last day. We did who knows how many sun salutations and seven—SEVEN!—navasanas, ouch. My back felt much better in backbend for some reason.

We finally made it to utpluthih (the final pose, in which you lift yourself off the floor in lotus for what seems be an eternity). Guruji typically counted to 10 while we held the pose, which often ended up being around 50 of my regular breaths. When he saw people give up, he’d back up a few numerals or keep calling “Nine!” until more people lifted up—all with a smile on his face. In India and in previous workshops I had been able to hold it the whole time—not anymore.

After Guruji finally called “Ten” in utpluthih, everyone started spontaneously clapping in appreciation for his teaching. It didn’t stop for some time. Then, after the closing mantra, applause broke out again (as is customary on the final day of the workshop). The clapping lasted a long, long time. Then everyone stood up and clapped harder. Mary K. said she saw Guruji wipe away a tear. He wasn’t the only one who got choked up.

Later I asked Sharath to clear up a few dristi (gaze) questions and learned that the correct dristi in utpluthih is the nose, and in yoganidrasana (sleeping yogi pose) it’s the third eye.

Saraswati asked when I’m coming to Mysore, and I said, “Within the year” and plan to make good on my word. Guruji still didn’t recognize me but gave me a big hug and kiss goodbye anyway.

That afternoon, Lee-Lin and I went to a puja (religious ritual) at Eddie’s shala. It was led by a Brahmin priest and included chanting and taking holy water. It was beautiful, and afterwards there was again that exquisite food made by the same man who did breakfast.

Afterwards I visited the tiny Indian enclave at 27th and Lexington and picked up a salwaar kameez (long dress with baggy pants and scarf) for the birthday party, because everything I’d brought from home seemed disrespectful.

The party was starting to hop when we arrived at the skylight ballroom. It was beautifully decorated with plants, and everywhere there were straw mats with cushions for sitting. The beautiful centerpieces had floating candles and flowers and perfectly ripe fruit (see photo).

A slide tribute showed highlights from Guruji’s life, and the bar featured organic juice and natural soda. Aromatic South Indian food was being served, and a stage had been set up where a Carnatic singer (Carnatic music is South Indian classical music) and tabla player would perform.

It was strange to see everyone dressed up and looking so good. We were talking to NYC teacher Zoe Slatoff, who was wearing an exquisite maroon sari and planned to go to Mysore in a couple of weeks, when the family arrived.

Guruji looked resplendent, and Saraswati was in a beautiful green sari; Sharath wore a very hip shirt, and the rest of the family was there too. (Sharath’s wife, Shruti, was looking extra beautiful, and their daughter is getting very big!) Guruji sat at a front table for some time, and people got their picture taken with him or touched his feet or, in the case of many women, got a hug and a kiss. Me too, of course.

I saw senior ashtanga teacher Lino Miele (who is based in Rome), wearing all white, and jumped up to say hello; he was there for the party (and recognized me). Of course I took this as a sign that yes, it was indeed a good idea to change my ticket and attend the party.

Sharath made a speech before the ensemble played and said that NYC is their favorite place—their second home. Take that, California beach towns. The Carnatic ensemble did a special new guru song for Pattabhi Jois and had us chant “Om Namo Narayana” (a mantra invoking Vishnu, the source of humanity).

Afterwards Guruji gave a brief talk, the majority of which I didn’t catch (as usual). It was something about “Do not waste your life. Do not have bad thoughts. Do not waste your life. Do yoga. Yesterday is gone. Tomorrow do yoga…” It was very inspiring, and hopefully I’ll remember it on those days when I practice at home, by myself, in that weird yoga void.

Then Guruji was presented with a check for $23,000, which had been collected for his birthday in lieu of gifts. It goes to the new the new Sri K. Pattabhi Jois Charitable Trust, which will help fund the Mysore charities of his choice. The idea is that the community has been very good to the students, and they should give something back. And since Guruji has everything he needs, it is the best possible way for us to honor him.

After Guruji said a few words, a vegan chocolate cake with many candles appeared and everyone sang “Happy Birthday.” It was a lovely end to an amazing week. Afterwards I was fired up to get back to Mysore and trying to figure out a way to attend Guruji’s other 90th birthday party, in July.

Source: AWAKEN


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