The Old School of Ashtanga Yoga
Three Degrees from Guruji
Today, however, I’d like to give voice to the underground community of ashtangis trained by Guruji’s most senior students, one of whom is Manju Jois. Manju is Guruji’s eldest son and I’m surprised by how often he gets overlooked when students talk about the Jois family.
At age 70, Manju has been practicing and teaching longer than just about anyone. After accompanying Guruji on his first American teaching tour, Manju chose to stay in the U.S. and forge his own destiny. Perhaps that’s why I’ve always gravitated toward him—I’m a bit of a rebel myself.
I met Manju several years ago while he was giving a workshop in Chicago. I fell in love with his spirit, his smile, and his stories. Through the years, I’ve continued to study with him and I’ve developed a deep respect and appreciation for his approach to teaching.
Manju teaches in the way he learned from his father, before there were hundreds of students waiting to get into the shala. He encourages students to practice as many postures as they have the energy for and rarely tells them to stop. He teaches that we must listen to ourselves to know when to stop.
A Lesson in Intuition
In November 2014, I was in Maui practicing with Manju and Nancy Gilgoff. One day, I asked Manju if I could try the next posture in the Advanced Series. He told me to study the next several postures in the sequence then come back and try them all the next day!
I was shocked, nervous, and excited. I spent hours watching videos of Guruji leading this portion of the series; I studied the Sanskrit names of the postures and the vinyasa counts. I began practice the next day, and when I got to this section, I realized that my studying did not translate into action!
I struggled, fell (a lot!), laughed, and by the end, I was reduced to a ball of humbled exhaustion, breathing deeply, trying to calm myself. The next day, I stripped away all my new postures except for one.
This was an incredible lesson for me. Manju didn’t stop me—I stopped myself. Instead of placing power in someone else’s hands, I recognized that I needed to move more slowly and I used my own power to hold myself back.
Kickin’ It Old School
This is one of the beautiful things about the old school teaching method. It teaches us how to listen, feel, and explore. It teaches us that our intuition—not a rulebook—should tell us what and how much to practice each day.
The framework of committing to daily practice is important; but if that framework gets too rigid, it will suffocate us.
Manju also teaches that progress doesn’t occur in a linear fashion. Often, postures that come later in a series help earlier postures. I have proven this myself, having found that deep transformation began to occur when I started practicing all of primary and all of intermediate, respectively.
As a student and teacher, this is the method that has inspired me the most. The goal for me is not to attain a level of physical mastery, but rather, to attain enough stability and comfort in each posture that I can experience its energetic effects.
This is what I look for in my students as well. I don’t demand perfection in an asana before encouraging them to try the next one. I pay more attention to their breath, their energy level, and the circumstances in their lives.
In my experience, teaching this way eliminates the “asana chase” that many practitioners get trapped in. Because students understand that not being able to do something won’t “hold them back,” they’re free to approach challenging asanas with vigor and a sense of fun. Yes, practice can be fun!
Breath, Bandhas, and Drishti
Guruji’s senior students have cultivated a community of practitioners that resonate with this more old school approach. In contemporary Ashtanga discourse, however, this community often gets left out.
We hear a lot from the community of newly authorized teachers coming out of Mysore, but we rarely hear from the thriving community of teachers trained by Guruji’s old students. Both communities are part of the global Ashtanga sangha and deserve equal respect and recognition.
Despite small changes in the vinyasas or differences in teaching methodology, the central tenets of breath, bandhas, and drishti remain at the core of our practice. These tenets are what unite us and I revel in how constant these tenets have stayed.
Whether new school or old school, the heart of the yoga that Guruji taught is beating strong. Though it’s seductive to think otherwise, there is no “one method” or “best method.” There are many approaches that, when practiced with correct intention, can all lead to greater health and happiness.
You Are Your Own Book
Once, Manju told a wonderful story about a man who was searching for all the answers. This man asked God many, many questions and got no answers. He thought he should try the sages, so he went to one and asks him many, many questions.
The sage tells him that the answers to his questions were in a book 1,000 miles away in a small temple on top of a hill. The man hikes miles and miles through rough terrain. At the top of the hill, he finds the temple.
He hurries inside and is overjoyed when he sees the book with all the answers! He looks at the table of contents and opens to the page that he thinks will have the answer to his first question.
To his great surprise, the page is a mirror. He goes back to the table of contents and opens to another page. The page is also a mirror. He tries again and same thing—the page is a mirror. He flips through the entire book and realizes every page is a mirror!
Then the man understands—all the answers are within us. In Manju’s words, “You are your own book.”
Your Practice Is a Mirror
This is the profound gift of Ashtanga yoga. It is a practice of self-exploration. It is a mirror. From Sharath, I’ve learned precision, discipline, and surrender. From Manju, I’ve learned lightness of heart, flexibility, and the deep energetic effects of the practice.