May 2007 – Ashtanga Yoga’s Lineage


Pattabhi Jois his family and students

These are our Gurus of Ashtanga Yoga and people you should know of, since we practice Ashtanga Yoga here in Central PA and do not always have access to its origins, I would like make sure you are familiar with the teachers that gave their life’s endeavors to sharing this form of yoga with humanity.
The Jois Family:

  • Sri K. Pattabhi Jois – (more info below) is the founder of the Ashtanga Yoga Research Institute.  93 years old (in July this year) living in Mysore India.
  • His Grandson Sharath Rangaswamy (more info below) who is taking over the AYRI and teachings in Mysore and around the world.  Sharath will be considered the new Guru of Ashtanga Yoga.  More info at:
  • Sharath’s Mother (Pattabhi Jois’s daughter) Saraswati Rangaswamy has been practicing yoga since the age of 10, and began teaching in 1975.  Initially she taught only women and specialized in helping women with her yoga teachings, but also opened her studio to men which was very controversial at the time.  Since the opening of the new shala in 2002 Saraswati has been once again teaching with her father and son at the shala.  More info on Saraswati at:
  • Manju Jois – Manju Jois is Pattabhi’s eldest son.  He too has been practicing yoga since a child and teaching for over 40 years.  In 1975 he came with his father to Encinitas CA and stayed to teach in America (against he father’s wishes).  While in India it is Manju that David and Nancy saw performing Ashtanga Yoga and it is he who introduced them to Ashtanga.  Manju offers teacher training workshops and travels around the world preaching the true Ashtanga method.  It is very important to him to teach the physical yoga along with the chanting (which improves breathing), meditation (relaxing body and mind) and pranayamas (which assist with purification) for a mind/body/spirit unification.

Sri K. Pattabhi Jois
The founder of Ashtanga Yoga is Sri K. Pattabhi Jois, those who have studied directly with him call him Guruji (Nancy pronounces it Gurrji).  Pattabhi Jois is almost 93 years old and still teaching in Mysore, India and around the world!
He found yoga at 12 years of age; living in a little town in India called Kowshika, Pattabhi Jois saw a yoga demonstration that he was strongly drawn to.  The next day he went to the house where the yoga man was staying and asked to be his student, after a series of questions it was agreed.  This would begin a 25 year period of study for Pattabhi Jois with his teacher, Tirumalai Krishnamacharya.

Krishnamacharya taught Pattabhi Jois this system of yoga we practice today!  Pattabhi Jois got up early before school and went for his yoga lessons, Krishnamacharya at this stage in his teaching career was very strict.  If his pose or breathing was incorrect Krishnamacharya would reprimand him strongly, during demonstrations Pattabhi would hold postures (from the second and advanced series) for sometimes as long as a half hour while Krishnamacharya explained the pose!  Pattabhi Jois says this challenge made him strong and disciplined in his practice.
Krishnamacharya had learned this practice from his teacher orally, but his teacher told him there is a manuscript called the Yoga Karunta (karunta means groups) in the archives of the Calcutta Library.  Krishnamacharya found this manuscript, written on banana leaves and in very poor condition, but he was able to gather more information on this form of yoga.  The Karunta had very detailed information on breathing, bandhas, vinyasa, Drishti, mudras, and about how to get in and out of the postures.  It is the methods from this manuscript that he taught Pattabhi, and later told Jois it was his life’s endeavor to spread this form of yoga.  On March 1, 1937 Pattabhi began teaching, his test to become a teacher . . .  Krishnamacharya gave him one sick man and said heal him with your yoga.  Which he did, so Pattabhi Jois earned his right to teach.

These were lean years for Pattabhi, he was now married with three children and earning a salary of 10 rupees per month!  He and his family lived in a series of houses until 1948 a group of Pattabhi’s students got together and raised enough money to build them a house; this is when Pattabhi Jois officially established the Ashtanga Yoga Research Institute.  In 1958 Pattabhi wrote the book Yoga Mala explaining this timeless practice and its usefulness to humanity.  It was not until 1964 that Pattabhi was able to build his yoga shala on the back of his house it was also around this time that news started to travel about this yogi man’s teachings, first the Europeans started coming to learn yoga from him and soon after the Americans.  Over the next 30+ years Guruji taught every morning to any and all who showed up at his house, he did not stop teaching until all had practiced.  He taught in the Mysore style, opening the shala doors at 5 am students would come in for practice –the room could only hold 12 at a time so people would line up to wait, as one person finished another laid down his mat and began.  Many days Guruji would not be done until 2pm!  In 1974 Pattabhi Jois made his first trip to America, to Encinitas CA (Nancy and her boyfriend hosted him!)—at that time only 20-30 Americans were practicing Ashtanga Yoga, but Pattabhi Jois said “gradually, gradually it will be spreading”.  And it has!

In 2002 a new shala was built, much larger and not a room on the back of Guruji’s house!  So while teaching yoga has brought forth the fruit of prosperity these last few years for Guruji, let us not forget that he taught for many years with no rewards.  He did not teach yoga for money, he taught yoga from his heart this was his dharma and he was happy to share the gift of Ashtanga Yoga to humanity with no attachment to the outcome.

Sharath Rangaswamy, son of Saraswati—Pattabhi Jois’s daughter, has been groomed to take over the Ashtanga Yoga Legacy that Pattabhi Jois began 70 years ago.  Sharath is also a householder like his grandfather (Sharath is married with one daughter, Shraddha (Faith).  Pattabhi Jois was one of the first yoga gurus to prove that you do not have to be a renunciate living in a cave to be a yoga guru!    Pattabhi Jois had taught his three children yoga at a very young age.  Sharath had been a sickly child and his mother used the yoga to heal him, although Sharath did not take the yoga seriously.  At the age of 19 Saraswati said to Sharath that he should start to practice yoga more seriously and help his grandfather in the shala.  Out of obedience to his mother Sharath began to practice, and after about one year he found he loved this yoga and all he wanted to do was practice!  Sharath now (in his 30’s) practices about 2 hours everyday 6 days per week.  He lives his yoga and practices what he teaches.
When Sharath began to help his grandfather he was only allowed to adjust certain students, but over many years as Sharath got more experience and more advanced he started to gain a deeper understanding of yoga, then his grandfather allowed him to truly begin teaching.  Over the years Sharath has developed his own style and mannerisms in teaching; although he remains true to his guru (his grandfather) and the Ashtanga lineage in teaching how we was taught.  Sharath is strict with allowing students to advance, when a student has learned one asana then he gives them the next.  So you learn slowly—there is no rush.  Sharath does this because he says advancing to quickly leads to injury, when your body can do one pose, then it is ready for the next.  Sharath’s ambition is to keep the practice pure and pass it on as he learnt it.  When instructors teach whatever they like they tend to teach from their ego, teaching as you learned from your guru keeps the lineage alive and pure, it roots it in something real and not just fancies that are created in the moment.
Sharath says yoga is life; of course we need to separate all the external stuff that comes with it.  But if you keep practicing your whole being will become purified and your inner essence will be revealed; as a result you will become more humble, have purer thoughts, and see the human essence that we all share in all beings.  You will feel connected from within—that is yoga.

Other teachers whom I consider from the “First Generation” of the Ashtanga Yoga lineage who you should be aware of and if you have the opportunity to study with:

  • Nancy Gilgoff (my teacher) – Nancy began her practice with Guruji in 1973, going to India with her boyfriend, David Williams.  Nancy at this time in her life was sickly and struggling.  Pattabhi Jois started her practicing twice each day!  She learned primary and second series in her first four month visit to India.  He would put her in all the poses, and many times carry her through the vinyasas (of course in the beginning he had her skip many vinyasa but added them in as she got stronger).  This practice started to heal Nancy and she began to live the Ashtanga system.  She never intended to teach yoga . . . but now 34 years later she travels around the world teaching yoga workshops and when home in Maui people from around the world seek out her little studio hidden in a friend’s tomato farm to learn this ancient form of yoga taught in its true method.  Nancy at 57 is now healthier than she was in her 24!  More info on Nancy:
  • Beryl Bender Birch (my first teacher) – Beryl was first introduced to Ashtanga Yoga by Norman Allen (the first American taught by Pattabhi Jois).  She was studying with him when she heard that Pattabhi Jois was coming to Encinitas CA.  She packed up herself, her husband, and two dogs and took off driving across country with no money (many times sleeping in the car!) to study for 4 months with Guruji in CA.  She is author of the books “Power Yoga” and “Beyond Power Yoga” and is the director-founder of ‘The hard and soft Yoga Institute’ in East Hampton, NY.  She as been teaching for over 33 years worldwide and offers a Teacher Training Program.
  • David Williams – David and Nancy were first introduced to Ashtanga Yoga while traveling in India in 1972 searching for a Guru.  They came across Manju giving a yoga demonstration, of which they were drawn to, in 1973 David and Nancy returned to India to begin their life long studies with their Guruji, Pattabhi Jois.  David and Nancy hosted Pattabhi Jois in 1975 in Encinitas, CA., this was Jois’ first trip to America.  David lives on Maui and teaches workshops around the world.
  • David Swenson – David Swenson began studying with David Williams and Nancy in Encinitas in 1973 after their return from India.  His first contact with Guruji was in 1975 when he came to Encinitas.  In 1977 David went to Mysore India to begin his life long teachings.  David is author of the book “Ashtanga Yoga – The Manual”, has out several videos on Ashtanga yoga, and travels around the world teaching workshops and teacher trainings.
  • Tim Miller was fortunate enough to be living in Encinitas CA, just down the road from where David Williams had opened the first Ashtanga Yoga Studio.  David and Nancy had taken off for Maui and left the studio to be run by Brad Ramsey and Gary Lopedota who also took off for Hawaii (many years later) leaving Tim to run the shala!  Tim Miller was actually the first American certified to teach by the Ashtanga Yoga Research Institute and has been studying and teaching workshops all over the world for over 25 years.
  • Richard Freeman lives with his family in Boulder, CO he is founder and director of The Yoga Workshop.  He has been a student of yoga since 1968, spending 9 years in Asia studying different forms of yoga.  He considers Pattabhi Jois to be his primary teacher but blends these other styles into his teachings of Ashtanga.  He has also studied Iyengar yoga extensively and incorporates a lot of those alignments into his teachings.  Richard Freeman was among the first to be certified by the Ashtanga Yoga Research Institute.  Richard Freeman also teaches workshops around the world.
  • Lino Miele is located in Italy and is a teacher of the true method.  I do not know much about him to share, but someday I do hope to experience one of his workshops, he mostly teaches in Europe.  Lino is known for his book “The Ashtanga Yoga Book” which outlines the primary and secondary series of Ashtanga Yoga and is revered as one of the “bibles” of Ashtanga Yoga.  Lino began practicing Ashtanga Yoga in 1989, by 1993 he left his vocation to open his “Ashtanga Yoga School” in Rome, Italy with his life partner Tina Pizzimenti, he is also known for teaching full vinyasa (meaning full sun salute vinyasas) in his classes and workshops.

Ashtanga Yoga for a lifetime
There are 5 (or 6) series in Ashtanga yoga:

  • Primary Series – This is the first series, Primary series is known as Yoga Chikitsa or Yoga Therapy. It is in Primary series that we detoxify and align our body. If we have disease or injury we work that out in Primary series.
  • Secondary Series – This series begins to work on the nervous system. It starts with a series of back bending—back bends purify the nervous system, open the heart, and help us overcome fear. From there you work into a series of putting your legs behind your head—and just why would you want to do that?? Putting your legs behind your head gets a deep stretch of the spine allowing blood to get into the spinal cord to nourish it, also blood flow is improved around the vertebrae keeping the spine healthy. While your legs are behind your head there is a rush of blood to the heart and lung systems, in Yoga Mala Pattabhi Jois says this helps prevent heart disease and lung problems such as asthma and bronchitis. Also while your legs are behind your head you are getting a deep stretch in the kidney area purifying the kidneys. And finally putting your legs behind your head increases humility, a favorable personality trait. Second series ends with a series of arm balances and headstands preparing your body for the advanced series.
  • Third Series aka The Advanced Series – The third series of Ashtanga yoga is the hardest and longest. We have spent many years in Primary and Secondary series opening our body up, now we are going to make our body very strong. There is a series of arm balances and headstands that lift up to arm balances strengthening our body and again many different ways to put our legs behind our head and then right into deep backbends, by the time we practice third our body should be open enough to go from an extreme forward bend (legs behind head) to a deep backbend—this is what makes it advanced. I am just learning the advanced series (spring 2007) and feel it working more into my joints and less into the muscles belly. In recent years the Third series has been broken down into two series (with a few additional poses added) because of the difficulty of the original series. My teacher (Nancy Gilgoff) still teaches the original method which is what I am learning and also what I will teach.
  • Fourth Series aka Advanced B – Now the practice slows down a little. This series involves some challenging postures mixed with easier postures mixed with meditative postures.
  • The Rishi Sereis – The final series is the Rishi Series, a Rishi is one who knows. At this point in our lives we have been practicing many many years and our body knows what it needs.  In the Rishi series you choose 10 poses and hold each one for 50 breaths, one of these postures is always sirsasana (headstand).  David Williams has a nice description of the Rishi series and some advice to prepare you for advanced series:
    “Doing a practice of 10 postures for up to 50 breaths is a method of preparing for “advanced series” after one has learned 1st and 2nd.  It can be done once or twice a week.  One does the “salutations” and then starts going thru the series, holding each posture for as long as comfortably possible.  Notice which postures could be held for 50 breaths.  The next time you practice this way, the postures which you could hold for 50 are omitted and new ones are added at the end.  One gradually works thru the series, dropping and adding asanas, still doing 10 asanas per session.  I have gone all the way thru 1st and 2nd this way several times over the years and have found it beneficial.

    Then, once one has mastered all of the asanas, one can practice “the rishi series”, the most advanced practice.  One does the 10 postures that one intuits will be the most beneficial and appropriate for that day, holding each posture for up to 50 comfortable breaths.  
    I hope this is clear.  Please feel free to ask further questions.  
    All the best to you.
    Yours in Yoga,
    David (Williams)”

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