Practice Makes Perfect: An interview with Sri K. Pattabhi Jois
article from Yoga + Joyful Living January/February 1994 issue
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. S. 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 labored 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 names.
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.
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 best.
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 (2.49).” 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 2.46).” 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 spine.
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 mokshayoh,” 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 the mind.
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 99-1/2 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]?”