A few weeks ago, a local yoga studio owner posted a comment on social media that made me think. Until today, I haven’t had time to revisit the film she mentioned, Breath of the Gods, which is a documentary about Krishnamacharya and the origins of modern yoga.
Here’s the comment: “One of the girls watching remarked how agile Iyengar was, even while practicing, while Pattabhi Jois could barely even walk with a cane. It was a keen observation, and, to me at least, speaks volumes about the two styles.” My apologies to you, Kelsey, for digging back through your Facebook to pull that quote. I am a total creeper. Guilty as charged.
Breath of the Gods is a solid film that captures some of what made yoga into what it is today. It’s worth a watch. The comment comparing B.K.S. Iyengar to K. Pattabhi Jois isn’t incorrect. Iyengar is seen practicing asana with grace, while Jois walks with his signature walking stick.
Why the difference? Are their practices really to blame? Any Ashtangi will get it, but maybe those outside of the Jois lineage won’t understand. I’d like to try and correct that.
Here’s the thing: Jois stopped practicing asana after his son Ramesh committed suicide.
I believe that was in the late 1970s or early 1980s, but I’m honestly not sure. I do know that Jois hadn’t practiced asana for a very long time when he died in 2009. It was a form of mourning.
He still practiced the other seven limbs, though, and woke up long before dawn to practice pranayama and puja before teaching for hours each morning and afternoon. His teaching was a physical practice in and of itself. Legend has it that he literally carried Nancy Gilgoff through the series until she was strong enough to do it on her own. He dropped students of all sizes back and pulled them up from backbends every day. Jois remained such a master of pranayama that supposedly, when he went in for a check-up during his final years, he broke the machine that tests lung power.
No matter how strong and able, Jois wasn’t going to appear as nimble as a man who continued to practice advanced asanas every day.
I admire Iyengar’s commitment to the physical practice. It’s impressive. I see that kind of commitment in the senior western Ashtanga teachers. They’re now in their 60’s or older, and they all continue to practice asana. They look great. I don’t doubt that they’ll all live to a ripe old age and stay active up until the day they pass on to the next life. And let’s not forget Karen Cairns, who didn’t start the practice until she was 56, and is now an authorized teacher. Ashtanga seems to age well.
Also, let’s not kid. Both men were old. Jois was 93, in the final year of his life, during the movie. He actually died before they completed filming. Yup. He was lucid enough to be in a movie in the months before he died. I think that’s pretty cool. Iyengar was 91 in 2009. No matter who was more flex, both of these men were doing something right. Heck, I’ll be thrilled if I have as much mobility as either of them in my 60’s, much less my 90’s.
Iyengar and Ashtanga yoga are two different styles, but they’re more similar than different. After all, they both came from the same source. I see them as separate branches of the same tree. In Ashtanga, we practice the same poses over and over every day, allowing the practice to become a moving meditation. Iyengar yoga practices different poses in each class, moving into each posture with precision and care, a process that builds mindfulness. (Iyengar folks, please correct me if I’m wrong here…I have limited experience with Iyengar classes)
Mindfulness…meditation…again, more similarity than difference. I see two methods of accessing the quiet mind that asana helps us to achieve, two roads to the same destination.
I’ve heard people complain that, unlike Iyengar classes, Ashtanga “doesn’t care” about alignment. If you end up in a class like that, walk out the door, and go find a teacher who’s authorized or certified, or has at least studied in Mysore or spent time with a certified teacher.
There’s no doubt that Mr. Iyengar was the king of alignment, and that lineage continues in his teachers. No one does alignment like an Iyengar. Ashtanga doesn’t discount alignment, though. Not at all. Ashtanga operates on a system that restores and cleans the lines of energy in the body. Alignment is important for that process.
Also, all those hands-on adjustments that Ashtanga is famous for? Those are for the sake of alignment. My teacher doesn’t grab my thigh and externally rotate it during trikonasana for shits and giggles. She does it because it improves my alignment.
The student who noticed the difference between the appearances of the two gurus of Western yoga during the movie was observant, but I can’t agree with the assessment that their physical appearance represents something fundamental about the practices they developed and spread throughout the world. Sorry, Kelsey. My intention here is not to call you out for something you said on social media weeks ago, but correct a misconception.
“Never judge a book,” right? In any situation, there are multiple forces at work. In this situation, it was a major family tragedy, among other things.
Besides, I’d rather find common ground between practitioners and styles than differences. I’m an Ashtangi, so of course I’m biased and think it’s the BEST EVERRR (enough so that I make myself look like a fool by writing a whole blog based on an offhand comment on social media) and believe it’s the ideal way to practice, but I try to remember that it’s not ideal or perfect for everyone.
I have nothing but love for my brothers and sisters who practice Iyengar-style, or Jivamukti, or Hatha, or Yin, or whatever. I may not understand why Vinyasa practitioners spend so much time doing handstands, but I won’t pass judgment on the practice. Hell, I salute it. I can’t stand on my hands unless there’s a very sturdy wall very close behind me.
Long story short, anyone who has a practice and devotion to it is worthy of respect. Period.