with K. Pattabi Jois: Practice Makes Perfect
By Sandra Anderson
(This interview was origially published in
Happiness on the face, light in the eyes, a healthy body-these
are the signs of a yogi, according to the Hatha Yoga Pradipika,
the classic Sanskrit text on hatha yoga. Such a description
fits K. Pattabi Jois, who at the age of 78 has the straight
spine and smooth face of a much younger man. He laughs
easily, beaming when we are introduced in a steamy New
York studio, and asks if I would take yoga with him. According
to the Pradipika, hatha yoga is taught for the attainment
of raja yoga, also known as ashtanga yoga, the complete,
eight-limbed path to self-realization, but few emphasize
the importance of attaining perfection in posture and
breathing as a means of achieving the other limbs as clearly
as Jois does.
Born in 1915 in southern India, K. Pattabi Jois met his
guru, Krishnamacharya, who was also B. K. Iyengar's teacher,
while still a young boy. He has been teaching yoga since
1937, and students from all over the world come to study
with him in his home in Mysore, India. He has visited
the United States several times, and although this is
his first visit to New York, most of the students in this
morning's class seem to know the sequence he teaches.
It's hot. The windows are closed, and the already humid
air is thick with the labored breathing of 35 sweating
bodies. The students groan and sigh. For some, the sequence
appears to unfold effortlessly, but still their bodies
glisten with sweat. Jois is everywhere encouraging-a hand
here, a foot there, a joke wherever it is most needed.
He calls out the sequence of postures in a strong deep
voice, using their Sanskrit names.
There's no laziness here: only determined hard work and
a grace born of strength and flexibility, as the class
moves from one posture to the next, pausing only to hold
the pose, and linking the postures with a spine-flexing
sequence reminiscent of the sun salutation and similarly
coordinated with the breath. "Exhale, chatwari (chaturanga
dandasana), inhale, pancha (urdhva mukha svanasana)."
Jois establishes discipline but tempers it with gentle
humor and affection, as he teases students, verbally and
physically, into places they didn't realize they could
And if the coaxing, the energy in the room, and the peer
pressure aren't enough, there's the heat. In spite of
the mats, there's hardly a dry spot left on the crowded
hardwood floor at the end of this rigorous two-hour session.
The sequence of postures continuously flowing with the
breath is designed to stoke the fire of purification-to
cleanse the nervous and circulatory systems with discipline
and good old-fashioned sweat. "Practice, practice, practice,"
Jois says later, addressing a small group of students
gathered in a loft in Soho. He spoke at length about the
method he uses, emphasizing that he has added nothing
new to the original teachings of his teacher and the Yoga
Where did you learn yoga?
From my guru, Krishnamacharya. I started studying with
him in 1927, when I was 12 years old. First he taught
me asana and pranayama. Later I studied Sanskrit and advaita
philosophy at the Sanskrit College in Mysore and began
teaching yoga there in 1937. I became a professor and
taught Sanskrit and philosophy at the College for 36 years.
I first taught in America in Encinitas, California, in
1975. Now I'm going all over America. I will teach anyone
who wants the perfect yoga method-ashtanga yoga-just as
my guru taught me.
Do you also teach your Western
No, only asana and pranayama. You need Sanskrit to understand
the yoga method, but many people, even though they would
like to learn Sanskrit, say they have no time. It is very
important to understand yoga philosophy: without philosophy,
practice is not good, and yoga practice is the starting
place for yoga philosophy. Mixing both is actually the
What method do you use to teach asana and pranayama?
I teach only ashtanga yoga, the original method given
in Patanjali's Yoga Sutra. Ashtanga means "eight-step"
yoga: yama, niyama, asana, pranayama, pratyahara, dharana,
dhyana, samadhi. The Yoga Sutra says "Tasmin sati svasa
prasvasayor gati vicchedah pranayamah (II.49)." First
you perfect asana, and then you practice pranayama: you
control the inhalation and the exhalation, you regulate
the breath, you retain and restrain the breath. After
asana is perfected, then pranayama can be perfected. That
is the yoga method.
What is perfect asana, and how
do you perfect asana?
"Sthira sukham asanam (YS II.46)." Perfect asana means
you can sit for three hours with steadiness and happiness,
with no trouble. After you take the legs out of the asana,
the body is still happy. In the method I teach, there
are many asanas, and they work with blood circulation,
the breathing system, and the focus of the eyes (to develop
concentration). In this method you must be completely
flexible and keep the three parts of the body-head, neck,
and trunk-in a straight line. If the spinal cord bends,
the breathing system is affected. If you want to practice
the correct breathing system, you must have a straight
From the muladhara [the chakra at the base of the spine]
72,000 nadis [channels through which prana travels in
the subtle body] originate. The nervous system grows from
here. All these nadis are dirty and need cleaning. With
the yoga method, you use asana and the breathing system
to clean the nadis every day. You purify the nadis by
sitting in the right posture and practicing every day,
inhaling and exhaling, until finally, after a long time,
your whole body is strong and your nervous system is perfectly
cured. When the nervous system is perfect, the body is
strong. Once all the nadis are clean, prana enters the
central nadi, called sushumna. For this to happen, you
must completely control the anus. You must carefully practice
the bandhas-mulabandha, uddiyana bandha, and the others-during
asana and pranayama practice. If you practice the method
I teach, automatically the bandhas will come. This is
the original teaching, the ashtanga yoga method. I've
not added anything else. These modern teachings, I don't
know. . . I'm an old man!
This method is physically quite
demanding. How do you teach someone who is in bad shape
Bad shape is not impossible to work with. The yoga text
says that yoga practice makes you lean but strong like
an elephant. You have a yogic face. A yogic face is always
a smiling face. It means you hear nada, the internal sound,
and your eyes are clear. Then you see clearly, and you
control bindu [the vital energy sometimes interpreted
as sexual energy]. The inner fire unfolds, and the body
is free of disease.
There are three types of disease: body disease, mind disease,
and nervous system disease. When the mind is diseased,
the whole body is diseased. The yoga scriptures say "Manayeva
manushanam karanam bandha mokshayoho," the mind is the
cause of both bondage and liberation. If the mind is sick
and sad, the whole body gets sick, and all is finished.
So first you must give medicine to the mind. Mind medicine-that
What exactly would mind medicine
Yoga practice and the correct breathing system. Practice,
practice, practice. That's it. Practice so the nervous
system is perfect and the blood circulation is good, which
is very important. With good blood circulation, you don't
get heart trouble. Controlling the bindu, not wasting
your bindu, is also very important. A person is alive
by containing the bindu; when the bindu is completely
gone, you are a dead man. That's what the scriptures say.
By practicing every day, the blood becomes purified, and
the mind gradually comes under your control. This is the
yogic method. "Yogas chitta vritti nirodhah (YS: I.2)."
This means that yoga is control over the modifications
of the mind.
We've been talking mostly about
yoga practice as asana and pranayama. How important are
the first two limbs of ashtanga yoga, the yamas and niyamas?
They are very difficult. If you have a weak mind and a
weak body, you have weak principles. The yamas have five
limbs: ahimsa [nonviolence], satya [truthfulness], asteya
[non-stealing], brahmacharya [continence], and aparigraha
[non-possessiveness]. Ahimsa is impossible; also telling
the truth is very difficult. The scriptures say speak
that truth which is sweet; don't speak truth which hurts.
But don't lie, no matter how sweet it sounds. Very difficult.
You tell only the sweet truth because he who speaks the
unpleasant truth is a dead man.
So, a weak mind means a weak body. That's why you build
a good foundation with asana and pranayama, so your body
and mind and nervous system are all working; then you
work on ahimsa, satya, and the other yamas and niyamas.
What about the other limbs of ashtanga
Do you teach a method of meditation?
Meditation is dhyana, the seventh step in the ashtanga
system. After one step is perfect, then you take the next
step. For dhyana, you must sit with a straight back with
your eyes closed and focus on the bridge of the nostrils.
If you don't do this, you're not centered. If the eyes
open and close, so does the mind.
Yoga is 95 percent practical. Only 5 percent is theory.
Without practice, it doesn't work; there is no benefit.
So you have to practice, following the right method, following
the steps one by one. Then it's possible.
The term vinyasa is used to describe what you teach. What
does it mean?
Vinyasa means "breathing system." Without vinyasa, don't
do asana. When vinyasa is perfect, the mind is under control.
That's the main thing-controlling the mind. That's the
method Patanjali described. The scriptures say that prana
and apana are made equal by keeping the ratio of inhalation
and exhalation equal and by following the breath in the
nostrils with the mind. If you practice this way, gradually
mind comes under control.
Do you teach pranayama in the sitting
Yes. When padmasana [the lotus sitting posture] is perfect,
then you control your anus with mulabandha, and also use
the chin lock, jalandrabandha. There are many types of
pranayama, but the most important one is kevala kumbhaka,
when the fluctuations of the breath-the inhalation and
exhalation-are controlled and automatically stop. For
this you must practice. Practice, practice, practice.
When you practice, new ways of thinking, new thoughts,
come in your mind. Lectures sound good; you give a good
lecture and everyone says you're so great, but lectures
are 991/2 percent not practical. For many years you must
practice asana and pranayama. The scriptures say "Practicing
a long time with respect and without interruption brings
perfection." One year, two years, ten years . . . your
entire life long, you practice.
After asana and pranayama are perfect, pratyahara, sense
control [the fifth limb of ashtanga yoga], follows. The
first four limbs are external exercises: yama, niyama,
asana, pranayama. The last four are internal, and they
automatically follow when the first four are mastered.
Pratyahara means that anywhere you look, you see God.
Good mind control gives that capacity, so that when you
look, everything you see is Atman (the God within). Then
for you the world is colored by God. Whatever you see,
you identify it with your Atman. The scriptures say that
a true yogi's mind is so absorbed in the lotus feet of
the Lord that nothing distracts him, no matter what happens
in the external world.
What is your parting advice for those who have a desire
to pursue yoga?
Yoga is possible for anybody who really wants it. Yoga
is universal. Yoga is not mine. But don't approach yoga
with a business mind-looking for worldly gain. If you
want to be near God, turn your mind toward God, and practice
yoga. As the scriptures say "without yoga practice, how
can knowledge give you moksha [liberation]?"
Sandra Anderson is a contributing editor to Yoga
International. As a student of yoga she has studied and
practiced a variety of approaches to asana over the past
was provided by the Yoga
International Article Archive. Used by permission.