Excerpts from “Guruji”
Guruji : The portrait of Sri K. Pattabhi Jois Through the Eyes of Annie Pace
Have you had experiences of Guruji taking you to what you think is your mental and physical limit and perhaps beyond? And how did he do that?
Yes, many, many times. I’ve been coming to Mysore now for twenty years and that provides a lot of opportunities for that to happen. It’s taken a lot of forms with myself over the years. In the beginning it was, “Why fearing?”—just asking a simple question for getting me to look at my mind. And sometimes it was physical, sometimes it was humor. Continuously changing forms but always breaking through my self-imposed limitations. When learning advanced B section back in the day, trying to get into buddhasana—this is the one where the leg goes behind the back and the arm goes over the ankle—learning the pose every single day, I would get to that point and Guruji or Sharath would come and help me get into the pose. So we had this little thing going on where at buddhasana I would wait for them to help. I didn’t think I could do it by myself. One day I waited for them to help. There were only six people in the room. And I said, “Guruji,” and he ignored me, and I tried some more and I grunted and I groaned and then, “Sharath,” and he looked the other way and so they had this wonderful little game going on, totally ignoring me. You couldn’t hide in that room, it’s not that they didn’t see me or hear me, they were just not going to help me. And I sat there and I breathed and I fumed and I was frustrated until I got actually pretty angry. I was feeling very neglected, very abandoned. Where were my teachers? I can’t get this done by myself. Whah whah whah went my mind until out of this frustration, “Well then, fine then!” and my mind said, “I’ll just do it myself!” I put my arm over my ankle and let out this enormous grunt. It was “Ugh!” It sounded like I was giving birth and Dena, who was in front of me, turned around and said to me, “So Annie, was it a boy or a girl?” And the whole room laughed, it was just too much. But I won’t forget that one. And then I realized, okay, I could do it myself. They knew the time.
What do you think is the relationship between ashtanga yoga as Guruji teaches it, and the ashtanga yoga of Patanjali in The Yoga Sutras?
The practice that Guruji teaches is the vehicle for the Patanjali yoga in the same way that the breath is the vehicle for the prana. It’s very convenient, because we use our body and our bodies are always available to us, we don’t go out without it. So same, same.
Why does Guruji emphasize the third limb as a starting point?
Because of what I just said. There is asana, there is our body, it’s something that every human being can relate to. Everything else is not as tangible.
Does he talk about the other limbs?
Yes, he does, in lots of different contexts over the years. It’s hard to encapsulate that because it’s always being referred to—yamas and niyamas are always referred to whether it’s in conference, in class, in a posture, or over coffee. In posture maybe, not in words, but in Guruji’s way of communicating—nonviolence, not being greedy, being honest, all the basic things are right there when you are practicing in relationship with the guru.
What do you consider to be the essence of Guruji’s teaching?
The essence of the teaching is that God is everywhere and if we practice we will realize that.
Guruji always says, 99 percent practice, 1 percent theory. What is your understanding of the theory part?
It’s good to have some understanding of the method of the eight limbs. What is the point ultimately? We will find that through practice. I could go on a long time about theory, but what is the point? The point is how to realize God. The practice is the vehicle.
What do you think Guruji’s definition of yoga is?
Yoga is knowing God.
How about the importance of food in the yoga practice?
Your food program is very important. Abhyasa, practice, and consistency with how we live our life, how and when we sleep, what we eat. The practice will teach us. When we are doing the practice, often habits that impede the practice will fall away of their own accord without someone telling you that you must stop smoking pot, you must stop eating meat, blah blah blah. People still say those things, but if we have the basic understanding of Ayurveda and our constitution and we have an understanding of the gunas and the elements, we will start to figure it out. And even if we don’t have that understanding, through trial and error we will figure out what works and what doesn’t work.
Why would it matter what you ate for asana practice or other practices?
Well, if you put it in the context of yoga practice, with a picture of yogic practice, the state of yoga will only be possible if the sattvic energy is predominant in our system. So if we are doing things contrary to that by consuming rajasic and tamasic foods, participating in rajasic and tamasic activities, and so forth, obviously that state is going to be hard to attain. So the commonsense thing is to do what is helpful and don’t do what is not helpful. Food, sleep, how we use substances, all of that is part of our daily life.
You obviously see ashtanga yoga as a spiritual practice, but can you say something about the subtler aspects? What makes it spiritual?
The magic of the ashtanga practice is the spanning and integration of all the different levels of our being, from the grossest level of our flesh and bones and musculature and structure to the most subtle level of the nadis and how the energy is flowing in our system.
When we practice with ujjayi breathing and drishti and some awareness of the bandhas, this integration naturally starts to happen. So if we are really doing the practice, it can’t help but happen even if that is not what we are looking for in the beginning.
And why would you call that spiritual?
I would define spirituality as anything that brings us closer to God. The more still our mind is, the less vrittis there are, the closer we are going to get. It’s a natural outcome.
Do you think Westerners have an unrealistic view of the path of yoga?
Mostly I think there is a lot of confusion about what is yoga. You ask ten different people on the street in the West, there will be ten different answers.
What do you think Westerners are looking for through practice?
Some are looking for a healthy body, some are looking for someone to fix them, some are looking for a new dress size, some are looking for God. Again, there’s a lot of confusion and there are a lot of differences.
You said earlier that your understanding is that yoga is about finding God. But I think for many Westerners that is fairly remote, and perhaps for you it also was not your immediate experience. How does one move from doing this physical asana practice to something so subtle as that?
It’s a natural progression if you are really practicing. Students sign up for the fast train to God. Who wants to be healthy, feel good, and find something that works, that gives us some peace of mind? And that’s probably the point at which the practitioner realizes that, wow, something is happening with my mind! There is some contentment there. There is some peace there, this is a good thing, more is happening than on the physical level. We are not going to experience samadhi, experience God or the divine, with many vrittis in our mind. So the calmer one becomes, the closer we get. It’s integration, it’s a natural progression.
Still, the jump from body . . . yes, we can see the mind is a big obstacle, but getting to God is an enormous step.
I don’t think it’s always a huge leap. I think it sneaks in there.
Can you say something about that?
The practice works. It works all the levels. It’s a package deal. So as different as we are as individuals, we can have different levels of acceptance or denial or acknowledgments, but it will creep in there one way or another.
I guess the question is, what is the relationship between God, the mind, and the body?
That would be yoga. Body and mind linked with the breath, how the breath works in the human system. Because of our system of nadis, we have the capacity to cultivate a predominance of sattvic energy in the system. So through all of our practices—in what we eat and how we sleep and how we practice and how we use our breath and all the different facets—if the sattvic energy is being cultivated, the nadis are putting it out. It will become integrated. The link is there. We have the capacity within our system to make the connection. The vehicle for that is the breath, which would mean that the state of yoga would be accessible to any human being that is alive and breathing.
How do the vrittis reduce? What’s the procedure by which God reveals himself?
Most of us need to practice. Fortunately we have a practice, we have a system, we have a lineage, we have a package that is pretty clearly spelled out for us. What a gift! So we practice. This is not an era where we came in just ready to be enlightened, we weren’t born into that state. We were born into Kali Yuga. Some of us were born into the Western culture. It’s who we are and it’s when we are, and we are in an era that requires effort, requires practice for most of us. It’s a time of technology. Technology also implies technique. We need techniques, we need some help, and we have them, so why not use them?
What do you think are the most foremost considerations for a lifelong healthy yoga practice? And as we get on in life, with sustaining it?
The practice inevitably will change form as we grow, as we age, as we come into different ashrams [stages] of life. The essence remains the same.
What do you have to consider? What do you have to think about? Or do you think it will just naturally change and evolve without you?
It’s a lot of common sense and appropriateness.
Some people don’t have common sense. Can you perhaps—
Slowly, slowly. As we practice, if we look at the actual practice itself, I think we should let our breath guide us when we are not in the presence of our guru or teacher. First off, we have a guru. Some of us have Western teachers as well. Even when we are practicing by ourselves, which I do most of the year, the breath will teach us. The breath has an intelligence, and if we listen to it, we’ll know, it will become obvious. If your breath is spastic and strained, you are obviously pushing too hard. I think that would be our biggest guide or barometer.
Some students will never be able to achieve the more advanced postures. Do you think they have less hope of a spiritual evolution?
The essence of the practice and what happens energetically in our system, in our mind, is accessible to anyone who has the capacity to believe.
Then what would be the function of the advanced asanas?
To provide a challenge to those individuals where it would be appropriate, those with strong bodies and enthusiasm and energy. The advanced practice is not appropriate for everyone. It’s not appropriate for most, but it does certainly exemplify the strength and grace that we have as human beings.
Would you like to share some final thoughts?
I have extreme gratitude for Guruji, for his family, the lineage, and on a broader scale gratitude to have a system, a program to practice, to follow, when so many people are floundering without a method. Having a method and a system I believe automatically reduces the vrittis in our minds…
It’s spelled out for us, and I’m grateful for that, to have a system, a guru, even to have faith or trust in something or someone, where most of my life I didn’t have that. I have my parents, who I always love and respect. One time when I was working in the corporate world, taking some sort of a leadership-management seminar, and one of the questions as we were brainstorming and writing down on the easels with all the little markers and everything was: Who are your heroes? You couldn’t say your parents and it needed to be someone who is alive today. This was before I met Guruji. And I was in this corporate workshop drawing an absolute blank, one of those moments I won’t forget. I didn’t have a hero. I didn’t have some figure outside of my parents I could really look to and totally trust and respect as a guide. And there was a feeling of really being lost at sea at that point. But fortunately that didn’t last forever. Again, it goes back to gratitude for having a system, having a guru, having teachers in my life who inspired me and have allowed me to make some decisions and be very clear about my intentions and my role in life.