Intervew with K. Pattabhi
Practice Makes Perfect
By Sandra Anderson
Happiness on the face, light in
the eyes, a healthy body-these are the signs of a yogi, according to the
Hatha Yoga Pradipika, the classic Sanskrit text on hatha yoga. Such a
description fits K. Pattabhi Jois, who at the age of 78 has the straight
spine and smooth face of a much younger man. He laughs easily, beaming
when we are introduced in a steamy New York studio, and asks if I would
take yoga with him. According to the Pradipika, hatha yoga is taught for
the attainment of raja yoga, also known as ashtanga yoga, the complete,
eight-limbed path to self-realization, but few emphasize the importance
of attaining perfection in posture and breathing as a means of achieving
the other limbs as clearly as Jois does.
Born in 1915 in southern India, K. Pattabhi Jois met his
guru, Krishnamacharya, who was also B. K. Iyengar's teacher, while still
a young boy. He has been teaching yoga since 1937, and students from all
over the world come to study with him in his home in Mysore, India. He
has visited the United States several times, and although this is his
first visit to New York, most of the students in this morning's class
seem to know the sequence he teaches.
It's hot. The windows are closed, and the already humid
air is thick with the laboured breathing of 35 sweating bodies. The students
groan and sigh. For some, the sequence appears to unfold effortlessly,
but still their bodies glisten with sweat. Jois is everywhere encouraging-a
hand here, a foot there, a joke wherever it is most needed. He calls out
the sequence of postures in a strong deep voice, using their Sanskrit
There's no laziness here: only determined hard work and
a grace born of strength and flexibility, as the class moves from one
posture to the next, pausing only to hold the pose, and linking the postures
with a spine-flexing sequence reminiscent of the sun salutation and similarly
coordinated with the breath. "Exhale, chatwari (chaturanga dandasana),
inhale, pancha (urdhva mukha svanasana)." Jois establishes discipline
but tempers it with gentle humor and affection, as he teases students,
verbally and physically, into places they didn't realize they could reach.
And if the coaxing, the energy in the room, and the peer
pressure aren't enough, there's the heat. In spite of the mats, there's
hardly a dry spot left on the crowded hardwood floor at the end of this
rigorous two-hour session. The sequence of postures continuously flowing
with the breath is designed to stoke the fire of purification-to cleanse
the nervous and circulatory systems with discipline and good old-fashioned
sweat. "Practice, practice, practice," Jois says later, addressing
a small group of students gathered in a loft in Soho. He spoke at length
about the method he uses, emphasizing that he has added nothing new to
the original teachings of his teacher and the Yoga Sutra.
Where did you learn yoga? From
my guru, Krishnamacharya. I started studying with him in 1927, when I
was 12 years old. First he taught me asana and pranayama. Later I studied
Sanskrit and advaita philosophy at the Sanskrit College in Mysore and
began teaching yoga there in 1937. I became a professor and taught Sanskrit
and philosophy at the College for 36 years. I first taught in America
in Encinitas, California, in 1975. Now I'm going all over America. I will
teach anyone who wants the perfect yoga method-ashtanga yoga-just as my
guru taught me.
Do you also teach your Western students
Sanskrit? No, only asana and pranayama. You need Sanskrit to understand
the yoga method, but many people, even though they would like to learn
Sanskrit, say they have no time. It is very important to understand yoga
philosophy: without philosophy, practice is not good, and yoga practice
is the starting place for yoga philosophy. Mixing both is actually the
What method do you use to teach asana
and pranayama? I teach only ashtanga yoga, the original method
given in Patanjali's Yoga Sutra. Ashtanga means "eight-step"
yoga: yama, niyama, asana, pranayama, pratyahara, dharana, dhyana, samadhi.
The Yoga Sutra says "Tasmin sati svasa prasvasayor gati vicchedah
pranayamah (II.49)." First you perfect asana, and then you practice
pranayama: you control the inhalation and the exhalation, you regulate
the breath, you retain and restrain the breath. After asana is perfected,
then pranayama can be perfected. That is the yoga method.
What is perfect asana, and how do
you perfect asana? "Sthira sukham asanam (YS II.46)."
Perfect asana means you can sit for three hours with steadiness and happiness,
with no trouble. After you take the legs out of the asana, the body is
still happy. In the method I teach, there are many asanas, and they work
with blood circulation, the breathing system, and the focus of the eyes
(to develop concentration). In this method you must be completely flexible
and keep the three parts of the body-head, neck, and trunk-in a straight
line. If the spinal cord bends, the breathing system is affected. If you
want to practice the correct breathing system, you must have a straight
From the muladhara [the chakra at the base of the spine]
72,000 nadis [channels through which prana travels in the subtle body]
originate. The nervous system grows from here. All these nadis are dirty
and need cleaning. With the yoga method, you use asana and the breathing
system to clean the nadis every day. You purify the nadis by sitting in
the right posture and practicing every day, inhaling and exhaling, until
finally, after a long time, your whole body is strong and your nervous
system is perfectly cured. When the nervous system is perfect, the body
is strong. Once all the nadis are clean, prana enters the central nadi,
called sushumna. For this to happen, you must completely control the anus.
You must carefully practice the bandhas-mulabandha, uddiyana bandha, and
the others-during asana and pranayama practice. If you practice the method
I teach, automatically the bandhas will come. This is the original teaching,
the ashtanga yoga method. I've not added anything else. These modern teachings,
I don't know. . . I'm an old man!
This method is physically quite demanding.
How do you teach someone who is in bad shape physically? Bad shape
is not impossible to work with. The yoga text says that yoga practice
makes you lean but strong like an elephant. You have a yogic face. A yogic
face is always a smiling face. It means you hear nada, the internal sound,
and your eyes are clear. Then you see clearly, and you control bindu [the
vital energy sometimes interpreted as sexual energy]. The inner fire unfolds,
and the body is free of disease.
There are three types of disease: body disease, mind disease,
and nervous system disease. When the mind is diseased, the whole body
is diseased. The yoga scriptures say "Manayeva manushanam karanam
bandha mokshayoho," the mind is the cause of both bondage and liberation.
If the mind is sick and sad, the whole body gets sick, and all is finished.
So first you must give medicine to the mind. Mind medicine-that is yoga.
What exactly would mind medicine be?
Yoga practice and the correct breathing system. Practice, practice, practice.
That's it. Practice so the nervous system is perfect and the blood circulation
is good, which is very important. With good blood circulation, you don't
get heart trouble. Controlling the bindu, not wasting your bindu, is also
very important. A person is alive by containing the bindu; when the bindu
is completely gone, you are a dead man. That's what the scriptures say.
By practicing every day, the blood becomes purified, and the mind gradually
comes under your control. This is the yogic method. "Yogas chitta
vritti nirodhah (YS: I.2)." This means that yoga is control over
the modifications of the mind.
We've been talking mostly about yoga practice as asana and
pranayama. How important are the first two limbs
of ashtanga yoga, the yamas and niyamas? They are very difficult.
If you have a weak mind and a weak body, you have weak principles. The
yamas have five limbs: ahimsa [nonviolence], satya [truthfulness], asteya
[non-stealing], brahmacharya [continence], and aparigraha [non-possessiveness].
Ahimsa is impossible; also telling the truth is very difficult. The scriptures
say speak that truth which is sweet; don't speak truth which hurts. But
don't lie, no matter how sweet it sounds. Very difficult. You tell only
the sweet truth because he who speaks the unpleasant truth is a dead man.
So, a weak mind means a weak body. That's why you build
a good foundation with asana and pranayama, so your body and mind and
nervous system are all working; then you work on ahimsa, satya, and the
other yamas and niyamas.
What about the other limbs of ashtanga
yoga? Do you teach a method of meditation? Meditation is dhyana,
the seventh step in the ashtanga system. After one step is perfect, then
you take the next step. For dhyana, you must sit with a straight back
with your eyes closed and focus on the bridge of the nostrils. If you
don't do this, you're not centered. If the eyes open and close, so does
Yoga is 95 percent practical. Only 5 percent is theory.
Without practice, it doesn't work; there is no benefit. So you have to
practice, following the right method, following the steps one by one.
Then it's possible.
The term vinyasa is used to describe
what you teach. What does it mean? Vinyasa means "breathing
system." Without vinyasa, don't do asana. When vinyasa is perfect,
the mind is under control. That's the main thing-controlling the mind.
That's the method Patanjali described. The scriptures say that prana and
apana are made equal by keeping the ratio of inhalation and exhalation
equal and by following the breath in the nostrils with the mind. If you
practice this way, gradually mind comes under control.
Do you teach pranayama in the sitting
postures also? Yes. When padmasana [the lotus sitting posture]
is perfect, then you control your anus with mulabandha, and also use the
chin lock, jalandrabandha. There are many types of pranayama, but the
most important one is kevala kumbhaka, when the fluctuations of the breath-the
inhalation and exhalation-are controlled and automatically stop. For this
you must practice. Practice, practice, practice. When you practice, new
ways of thinking, new thoughts, come in your mind. Lectures sound good;
you give a good lecture and everyone says you're so great, but lectures
are 991/2 percent not practical. For many years you must practice asana
and pranayama. The scriptures say "Practicing a long time with respect
and without interruption brings perfection." One year, two years,
ten years . . . your entire life long, you practice.
After asana and pranayama are perfect, pratyahara, sense
control [the fifth limb of ashtanga yoga], follows. The first four limbs
are external exercises: yama, niyama, asana, pranayama. The last four
are internal, and they automatically follow when the first four are mastered.
Pratyahara means that anywhere you look, you see God. Good mind control
gives that capacity, so that when you look, everything you see is Atman
(the God within). Then for you the world is colored by God. Whatever you
see, you identify it with your Atman. The scriptures say that a true yogi's
mind is so absorbed in the lotus feet of the Lord that nothing distracts
him, no matter what happens in the external world.
What is your parting advice for those
who have a desire to pursue yoga? Yoga is possible for anybody
who really wants it. Yoga is universal. Yoga is not mine. But don't approach
yoga with a business mind-looking for worldly gain. If you want to be
near God, turn your mind toward God, and practice yoga. As the scriptures
say "without yoga practice, how can knowledge give you moksha [liberation]?"
Sandra Anderson is a contributing editor to Yoga International.
As a student of yoga she has studied and practiced a variety of approaches
to asana over the past decade.
Reprinted permission for this article was provided by the
Yoga International Article Archives.