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Infinite Yoga

Just realized this area has been languishing and untouched for far too long, so it's time to share some thoughts.

In the last several months there have been some actions taken by the 'families' of the great lineage of both Krishnamacharya and his student, Pattabhi Jois.

The first comes from Kausthub Desikachar, grandson of Krishnamacharya who has begun trade marking 'Viniyoga', a term his father TKV Desikachar coined and subsequently eschewed.

It has caused an uproar. TKV Desikachar asked his senior students to stop using the term in 2003 with the following note:

"Dear Friends,

When I introduced the concept of viniyoga in the late 70’s and early 80’s, I never imagined that it will replace the word “Yoga”.

I am extremely disappointed with the situation today, where this has become the case and caused so much distortion and confusion.

Hence I request you to either delete the word Viniyoga to represent my teacher’s teaching, or remove my father’s and my name from your communications. This is the least you can do for me, as a guru dakshina.

Please feel free to forward this to other students whose email addresses I don’t have.

With Best Wishes
TKV Desikachar"

Kausthub's power grab comes as no surprise, but a better option would have been to trade mark the name 'Desikachar Yoga' which is much more in line with other traditions like Iyengar Yoga.

The second recent action comes from Mysore where Sharath (who has changed his name over the years from Sharath Rangaswamy, to R Sharath, Sharathji and now Sharath Jois) has yet again renamed his grandfather's AYRI (Ashtanga Yoga Research Institute) from the KPJAYI (KP Jois Ashtanga Yoga Institute) to his own name. You'll now find everything under where you will also find an article explaining why he has removed from the published list all but a few of the teachers that his grandfather certified to teach.

Both Kausthub's and Sharath's actions, whether ill advised or not, are indicative of a new generation that appears to shun tradition for self gratification and glory. They are wandering off the path of yoga (as I understand it) and we have seen many a guru's fall from grace when their egos get in the way...

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Stupid Yoga
One of our students brought a cartoon to class recently that showed a woman complaining to her partner: “My back hurts – stupid yoga”. It was very funny. But who is to blame if your back hurts after class? Is it yoga, your instructor or you?
Let’s begin with a review of the spine’s anatomy:
The spine is made up of a series of vertebral bones stacked on top of one another. Separating each vertebra is a disc that acts as both a ligament to hold the bones together, and as a cartilaginous joint allowing movement between vertebras. Any movement in the spine is a product of these discs and the health of the disc determines the degree of movement.
Discs, like shock absorbers, are subject to wear and tear. Although we have been walking on two legs for millennia, the anatomy of our spines hasn’t evolved significantly and it would be much happier and healthier if we were still on all fours – mounted horizontally and supported at both ends. When you combine this with our sedentary lifestyle, it means that deterioration of the spine – particularly the lumbar area, often begins in our early twenties. Herniated, bulging and degenerated are all too frequent descriptors of discs.
As the legs and pelvis have become the support mechanism of choice for the spine we should also consider their contribution – or lack thereof. The normal spine follows an ‘S’ shape. To maintain this during normal daily activities, the pelvis must be free to tilt and adjust. Among other muscles, this requires extension and flexion of the hip-flexors – the areas that are most tightened by our daily predisposition to sitting.
Now is yoga to blame?
The ancient yogis believed the health of the spine determined the health, longevity and energetic quality of the individual – and for them the energetic (subtle) body needed to flourish for spiritual growth. We know from anatomy that the central nervous system, the brain’s communication highway, runs through the core of the spine. It’s role in keeping us healthy and preserving longevity makes obvious sense.
When we practice yoga, bending and twisting are done to increase the health and vitality of the spine; to keep the joints mobile and the body strong enough to be able support energy shifts. Correct breathing and use of bandhas lead towards control of prana, the path to spiritual awakening. None of this should cause pain or discomfort. I don’t think we can blame it on yoga.
Here’s a quick 101 on Yoga’s Energy systems:
The Subtle Body contains energy channels called nadis that have similarities to the meridians of Chinese medicine, but are quite different. The principle energy that runs through the nadis is prana – the life force that animates us. Two key prana-carrying nadis, the Ida and the Pingala, run alongside the spine from the nostrils to mulabandha, the root lock and back. Ida is the left channel that represents the feminine principle; Pingala the right channel that represents the masculine principle.
The major energy channel that runs through the center of the spine is the Sushumna nadi. This nadi connects the chakras, the energy centers of the body.  Spiritual awakening occurs when Ida and Pingala are united at the base of the spine causing spiritual energy, Kundalini, to be released and rise up the sushumna nadi piercing every chakra.
What about teachers?
If a student already has a back issue, it is important to tell the teacher before class. They may recommend use of certain props and advise the student to remain in simpler postures rather than attempting more advanced ones. In a group class setting it is often difficult for a teacher to give a lot of personal attention but they should still be able to deliver “for those of you with back issues do this…” at key points throughout the class.
At IY, whenever we work privately with students suffering from back pain we begin with the legs and focus on spine lengthening postures like trikonasana and parsvakonasana. We also focus on breath and uddiyana bandha to support the lumbar spine and extend the cervical spine.
It may seem counter-intuitive, but back-bending postures strengthen and relieve back issues when performed correctly. When teaching backbends to students with or without back pain, teachers should recommend the use of props; present backbends in progressive steps with options to remain in postures or to move forward; and always provide a series of stretches afterwards to help the back recover.  If any of these steps are missed the teacher may be contributing to back pain rather than relieving it.
And how about you?
Knowledge and patience is the key. If you understand the mechanics of your back, know your level and work diligently under good instruction, you’ll find you can progress in your practice relatively pain-free. Naturally, you will experience some discomfort as the body adjusts and changes, but it is usually quite bearable and short-lived.
However, if you practice when you already have pain and don’t tell the teacher; if you push too hard; if you attempt classes and/or postures that you are not ready for, you run the risk of hurting yourself, possibly seriously. Backbends require the body to open, and opening takes time, concerted effort and patience.
With good instruction, time and patience anyone can experience yoga pain free – no need for stupid yoga!
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“Live happily and die majestically.”
At the age of 96, BKS Iyengar passed away on August 20th 2014. Tributes poured in from around the world and yoga mourned the loss of one of its great luminaries.
Son of a schoolteacher, as a child he was sickly, suffering from tuberculosis, typhoid and malaria. It wasn’t until his brother-in-law, the great yogi T Krishnamacharya introduced him to the regimen of yoga at the age of 16 that his health began to recover. When he was 19, stronger, and a sufficiently competent practitioner, Krishnamacharya sent him to Pune to teach yoga (it helped that he also knew a little English – the lingua Franca of India at the time). He made Pune his home and remained there for the rest of his life.
In the beginning Iyengar saw yoga as the means to cure himself physically. It was only after he had achieved health that he was ready to explore deeper aspects of the practice. In the end he regarded yoga as a spiritual discipline: "The quest of the soul for the spark of divinity within us". Another quote illustrates the hallmark of his teachings: “My body is my temple and my asanas are my prayers”
Having learned the fundamentals of the practice from Krishnamacharya, Iyengar developed his own style of yoga. A significant portion of this came his own intense self-study combined with his experiences of applying yoga therapeutically to patients of a local doctor in Pune. Along the way he developed a range of props (blocks, blankets, straps, chairs, rope walls, weights etc.) to help with alignment that you will find in many yoga studios today.
In 1952 Yehudi Menuhin, the world-renowned violinist, sought him out and brought him to Mumbai (Bombay at the time) because Iyengar had worked with the philosopher Jiddu Krishnamurti. Menuhin was very tired and could only spare 5 minutes. Iyengar gave him a restorative pose, he fell asleep for an hour, awoke refreshed and then spent a further two hours with him. Menuhin was instrumental in bringing Iyengar to the West – the rest is history.
Iyengar has written extensively on yoga and his asana masterpiece “Light on Yoga” is probably on the bookshelf of every yoga teacher. His writings are eloquent, erudite but easily comprehensible.  His “Tree of Yoga” is an excellent introduction to the philosophical principles that lie beneath yoga.
Although none of the teachers at Infinite Yoga ever had the privilege of studying directly with BKS Iyengar himself, both Dana and Trevor have studied with some of his senior teachers who were directly taught by him. At IY we adopt Iyengar yoga principles in our Foundation classes and Dana frequently uses the techniques he pioneered when working privately with students.
Krishnamacharya’s teaching principle was: "Teach what is inside you, not as it applies to you, to yourself, but as it applies to the other".  BKS Iyengar did just that – his intense self-study gave him a unique knowledge of the inner workings of the body (it’s “intelligence” to use his words) and combined this with a deep sense of alignment that could be applied to all – with, or without the aid of props. Our main teacher, K Pattabhi Jois always followed his Guru’s words “I teach what my teacher (Krishnamacharya) taught me” by applying the tried and tested Ashtanga Vinyasa system rigorously –  “Do your practice, all is coming”.
“When practice is done consistently, tirelessly and with sincerity it becomes a firmly rooted, stable and solid foundation.” (Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra 1:14).
We are blessed with the gifts these great yoga teachers have bestowed on us and honor their memory.
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Who’s Vanity?
(This post was originally published in March 2012 in response to an article published in Vanity Fair magazine. You can view that article here:
I read with avid interest the recent Vanity Fair article about the Jois Yoga. I was acutely aware of the upset surrounding the opening of the studio in Encinitas and was keen to see if the article gave more insight. I wasn’t disappointed.
As I read through the article I was delighted to find mention and quotes from Ashtanga luminaries, most of whom I have met and many I count as friends. I am not suggesting I am in any way special, but mention this more to illustrate how small and close-knit the Ashtanga community is, and how accessible it is for serious students and especially those who travel to Mysore, India.
The article was very balanced and even-handed in its approach, leaving it to the reader to draw conclusions. However, as I read, it became clear that the upset was brought about by over-zealous ‘philanthropy’ on the part of Sonia Jones. I’m not even sure philanthropy is the correct word, it seems more like self-indulgence on a scale only available to the super-rich.
No-one would argue about the healing and life-changing benefits that Sonia, like so many of us, have gained from Ashtanga yoga. It was through his healing skills that Pattabhi Jois received his teaching credentials from Krishnamacharya and how early practitioners like Nancy Gilgoff became advocates for the practice.
Nor would anyone complain when Sonia stepped in and refunded everyone for the cancelled grand opening of her Centre in Islamorada when Pattabhi Jois was too ill to attend. But even that center is to me an example of her misplaced largesse.
The Ashtanga community that Patthabi Jois built around him was based on family values.  If you studied with him he invited you into his house and into his life. When it came time to leave India, he would say “leaving?” in a sad way that made you feel like you were running away from home. He’d always ask you to come back soon.
It would be an understatement to say he was passionate about yoga (read Yoga Mala). He believed it should be everywhere and urged everyone to spread the word. It is no surprise that he would ask Sonia to build him a school at her home in Florida – whether it made sense or not.
At the recent Ashtanga Confluence in San Diego, Nancy Gilgoff recounted an occasion when Pattabhi Jois came to Hawaii to teach. At the end of the trip as she was handing him his fee, he told her that the studio needed to be bigger for his next visit. She was reluctant to comply as she had only just built it, but said she would extend if she could keep the money.  He quickly back-tracked and said “studio fine”. He was the ultimate pragmatist.
So I have no doubt that Guruji would have asked Sonia, where money was no object, to build him studios. But I don’t believe he would have approved of the way she has gone about it.
In the article Lino Miele quotes Guruji calling Tim Miller a good man. He is. I’ve studied with him for over 10 years. He is true to his teachings just as Guruji. Both teach as their teacher taught them. Tim has had a yoga studio in the Encinitas area since 1981. It is now just in the city limits of Carlsbad, but only a few miles from its original Encinitas location.  Like Guruji he struggled with very few students for many years and it was only with the yoga boom of the late nineties and early 2000’s that his fortunes began to rise. Again, like Guruji, you will find Tim teaching at his studio everyday, except when he is travelling or at a retreat.
Encinitas has a population of 59,518 according to the 2010 census. Hardly a major metropolis and with a thriving community already present, as unlikely candidate you could imagine for choice of location to spread the word of Ashtanga. True, this was the first place in America that Pattabhi Jois visited and, as Tim attests, Guruji did see it as his “American Home”, but where is the logic here?
Let’s revisit the Jois studio locations. Sonia’s first entry is her home in Islamorada Florida, the next place is Sydney Australia, Sonia’s ancestral homeland and where her sister lives. Again there was an existing and vibrant ashtanga community there. Follow this with Encinitas, where Salima Ruffin, her business colleague and fellow JoisYoga partner has an office in Carlsbad. Now we have Greenwich Connecticut, near Sonia Jones home – and hardly a place where yoga is undiscovered. Do you see a pattern here?
And then there the arrogance of offering Tim Miller a job and finally – a clothing line?  Somehow I don’t see Guruji’s wishes at work in these decisions.
But the Jois family has also been complicit.  As far as I can see they have been more than happy to come along for the ride. And with all expenses paid trips to the US, why ever not. I don’t doubt their wish to preserve the true essence of ashtanga yoga, to ensure it doesn’t become watered down or polluted by the Western teachers. But I’m not sure that even that was Guruji’s vision.
Again from talking to those who practiced Ashtanga from the 70’s it is clear that Ashtanga Yoga was Patthabhi Jois.  Although deeply rooted in the ‘method’ Krishnamacharya taught him, the method clearly included the ability to modify the series according to ‘research’. Remember Pattabhi Jois named his yoga shala Ashtanga Yoga Research Institute, not the KPJ Ashtanga Yoga Institute. Guruji was a Sanskrit scholar and an accomplished yogi and under his guidance there have been numerous subtle changes to the series over the years as a result of his ‘research’.
Perhaps the change of name to KPJAYI is designed to preserve the system intact as of the demise of Guruji, but if the method itself is designed to develop as a result of ‘research’ isn’t that a mistake? Of course, Sharath isn’t a Sanskrit scholar, nor is he honored as an accomplished teacher in the same way as his grandfather, but there are Western ashtanga elders who studied with Guruji that are. And, on the principle of parampara perhaps they are just as entitled and maybe even better suited to carry on the legacy of his work. But I digress…
Let’s come back to the concept of philanthropy. If you want to do something for disadvantaged families in India, the Jois family is rather bad example. Certainly, Pattabhi Jois lived a frugal life prior to his discovery by the West, but in his last decade he was a man of means in India, capable of rebuilding temples in the village where he was born and a brand new purpose built shala in Mysore. This is not a family in need of help.
And if you want to do something to accelerate the West’s awareness of Ashtanga, you’re more than 10 years behind the times. Madonna did more for Ashtanga in the late 90’s than Jois Yoga has to date.
I don’t see philanthropy, just self indulgence.
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