Recently I have been alerted to the first high-profile case of a certified Ashtanga teacher and assistant to Sharath Jois, who upon reflecting on the ongoing refusal of the Jois family to issue an apology to the victims of Jois’ sexual abuse, closed her school and stopped practising Ashtanga altogether. The reasoning was that Ashtanga was Jois’ creation and therefore tainted by his abuse.
I read the new story that KP Jois created Ashtanga for the first time in the middle of the 2000’s decade. At the time Eddie Stern’s Namarupa magazine republished a press release of a notable South Indian monastery. A Mr. K. Pattabhi Jois had paid his respect to the abbot of the monastery and that Jois was the inventor of a method of “spiritual gymnastics”. This new narrative, that Jois invented Ashtanga, may date back beyond that strange snippet of info but since I had left Jois’ shala for good in 1999, I did not become aware of it earlier. I talked to Ashtanga practitioners in Goa in the 1980’s and started practising in January 1990 but the story in those days was always the same: this yoga was taught in Mysuru by a guy called Pattabhi Jois, who got it from a guy called Krishnamacharya who lived in Madras who got it from an ancient manuscript called Yoga Korunta. Let’s see how far back we can trace that story.
In Nov 1995 KP Jois wrote a letter in reply to Yoga Journal’s Jan/Feb 95 cover story “Power Yoga – the New Ashtanga Wave”. His letter includes “The title ‘Power Yoga’ itself degrades the depth, purpose and method of the yoga system that I received from my guru, Sri. T. Krishnamacharya.” He continues, “It is unfortunate that students who have not yet matured in their own practice have changed the method and have cut out the essence of an ancient lineage to accommodate their own limitations” and finishes with “The Ashtanga yoga system should never be confused with ‘power yoga’ or any whimsical creation which goes against the tradition of the many types of yoga shastras (scriptures).”
We have to remember that this was about 5 years before Jois became world-famous and celebrities started to practise his yoga. I take from this letter that a) he received this yoga from T. Krishnamacharya, b) he believed it to be part of an ancient lineage and based on shastra (scripture). We may doubt this part of the story today but in 1995 this was certainly what Jois believed. There is no hint here that he made up Ashtanga.
About a month after KP Jois wrote this letter I finally managed to get to Mysuru and started studying with him. In December 1995 I interview him closely about the origin of this teaching. He looked me straight in the eye and repeated “Krishnamacharya, Yoga Korunta, ancient lineage, etc, etc.” I asked him whether he had seen the Korunta or had any other sources. He replied that only Krishnamacharya had seen it and that the sole source for his yoga was his guru Krishnamacharya.
We find a similar emphasis on Krishnamacharya in Jois’ book Yoga Mala published in the Kannada language in the 1960’s and in English in 2002. Jois dedicated Yoga Mala to his “esteemed Guru [ ] Sri Tirumalai Krishnamacharya”.
In a 2009 foreword to Yoga Mala Jois’ grandson R. Sharath holds that KPJ “spent decades under the tutelage of Krishnamacharya, poring over yoga texts and, more important, practicing every facet of yoga with the intent of profoundly understanding its philosophical implications”. He also links the content of Yoga Mala to Krishnamacharya’s teaching, “The unique aspect of Krishnamacharya’s teaching was vinyasa karma, the systematic method of linking breath and movement, and Yoga Mala covers this topic in depth. That definitely sounds as if Jois did not invent his yoga.
In a foreword to the same publication written by Eddie Stern, Stern writes that Jois attended a demonstration by Krishnamacharya at the tender age of 12. This was to be the beginning of a twenty-five-year period of study with the great yogi Sri T. Krishnamacharya. One is to wonder, if Jois made up Ashtanga what exactly did he learn in those 25 years as there was nothing outside Ashtanga that he actually taught and passed on.
Stern elaborates on Jois’ belief that Krishnamacharya was the only man he ever met who had full knowledge of the true methods of yoga. This again sounds more like Jois actually received this system from Krishnamacharya than him having made it up himself.
Studying with Jois in the 90’s, I became increasingly frustrated by the fact that Jois limited his teaching to asana. He seemed to have taught pranayama in earlier years but the rising number of students and having to adjust for many hours per day seemed to leave him simply too tired to teach higher limbs. Fair enough. For this reason, from 1996 onwards I took extensive lessons with BNS Iyengar of Mysuru first in the higher limbs and in later years in asana as well. Studying with BNS (as he was usually called to differentiate him from BKS Iyengar of Pune, with whom I had studied earlier) presented an interesting case. He was Krishnamacharya’s last student in the Mysuru era and continued in the shala for a few years after Jois had taken over K’s teaching position.
When teaching me BNS usually took recourse to his original notebooks from his classes with Krishnamacharya from the 1940’s (before Krishnamacharya was booted out of the teaching position and left for Madras). BNS was adamant that the system as he taught it was unchanged from Krishnamacharya days. BNS taught sequences that were almost identical (especially in their Primary and Intermediate iterations) to the ones shown in David Swenson’s video “The Original Advanced A and B Series”. The same sequences are also contained in Norbert Sjoman’s book The Yoga Tradition of the Mysore Palace.
We can then surmise that the system underwent little evolution from the mid/late 1940’s (when it was taught by Krishnamacharya in this form) to the late 1970’s (when it was still taught by KPJ in this form). During that time the system was somehow in its doldrums. It was popular under the tutelage of the Maharaja (Krishnamacharya’s sponsor had to abdicate in 1948, which saw K sacked) and became again increasingly popular with Westerners when taught by KPJ. KPJ reformed the system in the early 1980’s. This reform hardly touched the Primary series and brought only modest changes to the Intermediate Series. The first half of the Advanced A series remained largely untouched but the second half was shortened and reorganized. The Advanced B series became shortened and reorganized and a new Advanced C (5th) series was introduced.
But what are the sources of this yoga prior to the mid/late 1940’s. For this we have to go to Krishnamacharya’s own series of text books. From 1934 onwards K published a 5-volume series of books first in Kannada (language of the state of Karnataka) and later in Tamil. The publication was initially financed by the Maharaj of Mysuru, Krishnaraja Wodeyar. The series included Yoga Makaranda, Yoga Makaranda Vol 2, Yogasanasagalu, Yoga Rahasya and Yoga Valli. Of those Yoga Valli (K’s commentary to the Yoga Sutra based on Ramanuja’s teaching) to my knowledge remains unpublished in English to this day). Yoga Rahasya was published in English by Desikachar’s foundation KYM. PDF’s of the earlier three books (that deal with asana) can be downloaded from Anthony Hall’s Ashtanga resource page https://grimmly2007.blogspot.com/. You can find here excellent resources on Krishnamacharya’s various phases of creative work including what he taught after his Mysuru period. I want to commend Anthony Hall on maintaining this excellent undogmatic page and for keeping these resources available.
It is impossible in this short article to look into all pre-Jois sources but I will cover two, first Krishnamacharya’s Yogasanagalu and then his first book Yoga Makaranda. In Yogaasanagalu (published 1941) we find the following list for asanas of the Primary Series: (asanas in italic with my comments interspersed)
The first standing postures of today’s series
The following three postures are today part of Surya Namaskara and all vinyasas.
Next we have the first two sitting postures in today’s Primary
Followed by returning back to standing and performing the remaining of todays standing postures in only slightly changed order, but all posture are here.
Followed by the sitting asanas in slightly varied order compared to today.
Baddhapadmasana with yogamudra
Navasana a, b
Followed by part of today’s inversion sequence
And back to sitting to perform the missing sitting asanas.
The only major postures missing are Shirshasana (which is part of the cool down postures today) and Urdhva Dhanurasana (which was included by Jois only in his reform of the early 80’s). We can thus conclusively say that the Primary Series was written down in 1941 in its complete form but slightly reorganised by K during that decade.
Let’s look now at Yogasanagalu’s Middle Series, called Intermediate by Jois:
Dhanurasana – 2 sides
Dhanurasana – 3 Ekapada
With slight alterations this section tallies with Jois’ beginning of Intermediate
Today these postures come after the leg-behind-head sequence
Again with slight changes tallies with today’s second part of the backbend sequence of Intermediate
This may be a typo as it makes little sense to have in inversion in this position
If we simply shift Kapotasana to the end of the backbend sequence and Nakrasana and Mayursasana to after the leg-behind-head sequence we would have something very closely resembling todays Intermediate
This is identical with today’s leg-behind-head sequence
Backbending was in this position until the 1970’s and was shifted by Jois after that time
These postures are today part of Advanced B, although they seem an aberration there
Even today this posture is at the end of Intermediate
Summarizing we can say that clearly “Middle” is an early stage of “Intermediate” and considering that 80 years passed, very little evolution has taken place.
Let’s look next at “Proficient”, which later evolved into the “Original Advanced A and B Series” and from there into Jois’ Advanced A, B and C.
Ekapada Baka, a,b
Ekapada vipareeta danda
Bakasana (hatha yoga)
It is again apparent how close this sequence is to the “Original A and B series” shown in David Swenson’s video of that name. The main difference is that the postures are not listed in two separate series.
Summarizing, from looking at these three levels of practise that Yogasanagalu represents and the early form of today’s Ashtanga Yoga surprisingly little change has taken place between then and now. I should mention that Yogasanagalu contains vinyasa counts for every single posture which are largely identical to today’s vinyasa counts. Krishnamacharya even lists for each posture in which vinyasa count you are in the state of the asana, a wording that Jois repeats in his 1960 Yoga Mala.
Let’s go all the way back now to Krishnamacharya’s first book, Yoga Makaranda, which appeared in its Kannada Edition in 1934. Again, here we find an early form of the Primary Series, with the order of postures slightly changed but the vinyasas count identical. It appears that the precise vinyasa count was much more important to Krishnamacharya than the actual order of the postures. Let’s look for example at Pashimottanasana: Krishnamacharya states that this posture has 16 vinyasas and that the 9th vinyasas is it’s state (sthiti). Exactly the same is stated by Jois in his 1960’s Yoga Mala: 16 vinyasas and the 9th is its state (i.e. then we are holding the posture). You could go posture by posture and would find that you could trace almost 100% of Jois’ yoga back to Krishnamacharya’s books.
It is also ridiculous to state that Krishnamacharya did not teach Surya Namaskara. He may not have called it that way but if you look at the vinyasa count of for example Pashimottanasana and simply delete the jump through, the state of the asana and the jump back, you are left with today’s Surya Namaskara A. Surya Namaskara is woven into every one of Krishnamacharya’s sitting postures.
Yoga Makaranda also stands out by the fact that the order of Ardha Baddha Padma Pashimottanasana, Triang Mukha Ekapada Pashimottanasana and Janushirshasana A and B are exactly the same as it is today. Interestingly enough Krishnamacharya had changed this slightly in Yogasanagalu only to revert it back in the late 1940’s when teaching Jois and BNS Iyengar. It may just be that he changed the sequence pending on which student he taught. Also, in Yoga Makaranda we already find Shirshasana preceded by Sarvangasana, again a feature defining today’s Ashtanga Yoga.
If we look at Yoga Makaranda and Yogasanagalu as a unit we certainly find that it was important to Krishnamacharya lots of postures were practised and that they were practised with a surprisingly rigid vinyasa count. He seemed to have experimented with shifting postures around but not individual postures but rather groups of them.
Interesting is in both books Krishnamacharya’s emphasis on Pranayama and chakras but it’s something that I can’t delve into here. Krishnamacharya lists the Yoga Korunta as one of the sources of his yoga in Yogasanagalu. The Yoga Korunta has meanwhile been traced back to Kapala Kurantaka, an ancient teacher mentioned already in the Hatha Yoga Pradipika. The text apparently has around 100 asanas mentioned. I have heard that Kaivalyadhama in Lonavla has a single copy but they are not prepared to publish critical editions unless they have at least three separate manuscripts of a particular text.
I want to briefly touch on the belief of some Western scholars that Krishnamacharya was influenced by Western sources such as calisthenics and gymnastics. The belief smacks to me of neo-colonialism, i.e. if it’s that good the Indians couldn’t have done it by themselves. If you read Krishnamacharya’s book you are met with a staunch patriotism, nationalism and definitely an anti-western sentiment. That might be hard to understand for modern readers but Krishnamacharya was a culture-bearer of a culture that was for 300 years clobbered by foreign invaders and colonialists. He was so profoundly anti-Western that later in his life when he had an accident he chose to remain crippled (which probably reduced his lifespan) rather than to be treated by Western medicine. Bear in mind that Krishnamacharya also refused to teach Westerners with the only exception of Indra Devi. He had to accept her as she was a member of a diplomatic family and had connections to his sponsor, the Maharaja of Mysuru. In Yogasanagalu Krishnamacharya writes for example that Indians should turn back to their own culture and values and that it should be avoided that Westerners teach yoga to Indians. With all that in mind it is inconclusive that Krishnamacharya would have accepted Westerner’s exercise sources into his yoga system.
On a similar note we find that Krishnamacharya repeats over and over again that yoga cannot be learned from books but must be learned from a teacher. It is thus inconclusive that Krishnamacharya didn’t have a teacher himself but learned everything from books. He insisted that his teacher was Ramamohan Brahmachary. Seeing that he constantly insists on the importance to learn from a teacher we must assume that his teacher played an important role in his life and that this person is no mere fiction. Please note that the name of Ramamohan Brahmachary was independently confirmed by KPJ, BNS Iyengar and TKV Desikachar. In his biography Krishnamacharya The Purnacharya, Krishnamacharya states that he learned the postures ‘with their many vinyasas’ from Ramamohan Brahmachary. Unless we then assume that Krishnamacharya downright lied (which I don’t) we must then come to the conclusion that he learned an either basic or quite evolved form of the system from his teacher.
Krishnamacharya’s system was very well formed even in its earliest Yoga Makaranda iteration (1934). Krishnamacharya wouldn’t have invented the system there and then but would have either received it from his teacher or worked on it for quite some time until it was worthy of being published by the royal press of Mysuru. We find this confirmed in Eddie Stern’s introduction to Jois’ Yoga Mala. We read that Jois saw Krishnamacharya first when attending on of his lecture-demonstrations in Hassan/Karnataka in 1927, at a time when KP Jois was only 12 years old. He was amazed by to see Krishnamacharya ‘jumping from pose to pose’. We have to remember that Jois referred to all movements between asanas as “jumping”. KP Jois did not only call the movements between the standing postures “jumping” but also the vinyasas between sitting postures “jump through” and “jump back”. When I practiced with BKS Iyengar in Pune in 1993, Iyengar always critically referred to the whole Ashtanga Vinyasa system as “The Jumps”. We must infer then that what Jois saw Krishnamacharya perform in 1927 was actually vinyasa yoga. Interestingly this is even before Krishnamacharya’s Mysuru Palace time.
It is conclusive therefore to believe that some early form of the system already existed in the 1920’s at a time when KP Jois was still in his childhood. KP Jois can then not have invented Ashtanga Yoga or what is today colloquially referred to by this name.
If that then is the case why was the story changed at all? Let’s remember briefly that during the 1990’s the story handed down was still that KP Jois did get the whole of this yoga from T. Krishnamacharya.
Possible reasons for the change in narrative are
- The early 2000’s saw the rapid rise to fame and wealth of Bikram Choudhury. Bikram claimed to be the first yoga-billionaire and he did so by claiming to have invented a sequence, trademarking, creating a global franchise and suing those who infringed on his trademark. That maybe way off the mark for some but then Sonia Jones (wife of investment billionaire Paul Tudor Jones) said that KP Jois asked her, ‘Will you open schools for me all over the world?’ (Vanity Fair April 2012) At this point Jois definitely had a franchise in mind.
- Even without taking a material motivation into consideration, claiming ownership may have simply been linked to keeping non-authorized people from teaching Ashtanga, whatever the reasoning for that may have been. For example, after Monica and I in 2006 – 2007 were taken off the Jois-family’s teachers list it took only days for some of our students to be approached that they should leave us because we were not listed by the “founders and owners” of Ashtanga anymore. For such a claim the narrative needed to be changed and even if the sole reason was to make the Mysuru institute seem to be the only one able to train and authorize teachers.
- Part of the motivation may have also been to simply protect Ashtanga from being watered down and its essence being diluted.
I mention this last point because at some point we need to come back to an objective evaluation of KP Jois’ life and work. I remind myself that without him it would not have been likely that so many of us would have ever bumped into Ashtanga. For all of his obvious problems that can finally, in the wake of MeToo, be openly discussed (I was yelled down on several occasion when raising the issues earlier), he was the torchbearer of Ashtanga from the 1960’s through to the 90’s. The problem is that he was unreasonably deified by his students which reflected more their emotional need for a spiritual daddy than reality. Now the pendulum is swinging into the opposite direction with a similar unreasonable velocity. Like all of us KP Jois was a frail, complex human (possibly with a few more issues than some). [Edit: It has been pointed out to me that my previous sentence constitutes an inaccurate minimization and normalization of KP Jois’ actions. I acknowledge that he sexually assaulted and abused students over many years. This included several counts of digital rape and injuring a significant number of students through forceful adjustments. I apologise for my inaccurate minimization and normalization and any distress caused.] He ended up in a position where a powerful and precious system of transformation was handed down through him. During that time, it possibly also lost some of its spiritual essence by limiting it to “spiritual gymnastics” and replacing Krishnamacharya’s emphasis on the higher limbs with adoration of the Jois family. Let’s not lose the entire system over what happened to Jois.
When we look at Krishnamacharya’s original system then a complex and even athletic asana system was ultimately practised in service of developing one’s pranayama practice and leading from there to chakra meditation and on to samadhi. In recent decades all this has been replaced with devotion to a guru. The problem with that is that eventually we will see the guru as only all too human and then we may lose dedication to the whole system.
Krishnamacharya refused to be drawn into that trap. He said, “Don’t call me guru. I’m a student of yoga like you. Maybe I’ve studied a bit longer than you but a student nevertheless.” I think it’s this attitude that we need to cultivate as teachers. And we need to encourage students to not be devoted and dedicated to us but to the system.