There is good news for purists who complain that yoga has been appropriated by the West and that there are more yoga studios in Los Angeles than Mumbai. Sharath Jois says he sees a lot of interest in yoga among young urban Indians.
Jois should know. He is a paramguru and mahayogi who has taught celebrities such as Madonna the moves of the Ashtanga series that his school in Mysuru is known for. Be warned though, his advanced series, and some would say even his primary series, are not for the faint-hearted.
Jois, the grandson and student of the legendary Pattabhi Jois, founder of the Ashtanga Vinyasa school of yoga, also studied under Saraswati, his mother and Pattabhi’s daughter. One of the few teachers in his lineage to have mastered over 500 asanas, he has been teaching and studying yoga for 29 of his 47 years. He has recently co-authored the book Ageless: A Yogi’s Guide To Health And Happiness. Speaking to Lounge in Mumbai, he deconstructs some of the main principles of Ashtanga. Edited excerpts:
Ashatanga or Vinayasa?
Everything comes from Ashtanga, an ancient practice of asanas, breathing and concentration. Vinayasa is part of this practice. It is actually what we call Vinayasa krama in practice—a chain of asanas. You should not go directly to the final position of an asana, but build up to it in a chain of asanas. In Ashtanga, we teach three series—primary, intermediate and advanced. Students should master one set before moving on to the next.
Regular practice is the only way to master yoga. There is a set of asanas one should practise every day. Don’t get confused by all the schools of yoga—choose one and stick with it. Muscle memory and brain imprints will ensure it gets easier and you become more flexible when you work with one set of asanas. There are 30-35 asanas in Ashtanga that can be incorporated into everyday practice.
Every breath you take
Breathing technique is part of the asana flow. There are prescribed moves for inhaling and exhaling. This generates internal energy, purifying the mind and the digestive system.
Our nervous system gets cleansed in the flow of asanas, which can activate your 72,000 nerves, called nadi in yoga. This helps in natural blood circulation. The breathing technique helps the body stay oxygenated, and, as we know, many diseases are caused due to lack of oxygen.
Asana as meditation
Ashtanga has three parts—asana, drishti and pranayama. Asana is also a meditative practice because there is a gaze or drishti to follow for each asana. This helps centre the mind. So when you are following your breath, your gaze is fixed and when you have to move into an asana, you have no choice but to be fully present. That is meditation within your asana practice and prepares you for pratyahara as taught by the sage Patanjali, who wrote the yoga sutras, when you learn to control the senses.
Patanjali’s yogic lifesyle
Traditional yoga from Patanjali has eight limbs—yama(abstinence), niyama (observance), asana (posture), pranayama(breath control), pratyahara (sense withdrawal), dharana(concentration), dhyana (meditation) and samadhi (contemplation).
Pratyahara, the fifth stage, prepares you for meditative practices. As you evolve in your asana practice, it will come naturally.
Asanas for busy lives
No matter how hectic your schedule, there are asanas for every lifestyle. In Ashtanga teachings, the position called Surya Namsakar “A” has nine vinayasas (breath flows and moves) while “B” has 17. These are all you need to start with. For stress, asanas like Padhastasana and Trikonasana help calm the mind. Nadi shodhan (cleansing the nervous system through alternate nostril breathing) and japa (chanting) are my go-to remedies for stress.
East vs West or one world?
Westerners are disciplined in asana practice but it is more challenging for them to adopt a yogic lifestyle as there are cultural issues. Indian students have no problem with the guru-student relationship, understanding ahimsa and so on, but they don’t always keep up with the physical practice. Having said that, once Westerners become advanced students, they follow the yogic lifestyle.
Things are now changing in India. Youngsters are interested in the philosophy, though very few practise all the eight limbs.
Yoga for eternal youth
When you breathe right, your skin will glow. If you follow japa, your mind will stay calm, and it will reflect on your face. Yoga keeps you in a state of well-being. You can start it at any age, but be aware of your body at every stage. Whatever you do, practise every day.