Last month, KPJ Yoga students were honoured with a week-long visit from Manju Jois, oldest son of Sri K Pattabhi Jois – the founder of Ashtanga yoga. During the morning Mysore classes, we enjoyed his experienced and sensitive adjustments. Throughout his visit, his quick wit and disarming smile were never far away. At the weekend, over chai and banana bread made from the banana prasad (offerings during the Puja ceremony to bless the yoga studio) Manju gave us some insight into his family, his own yoga journey and the benefits of chanting and pranayama.
Planting the seed
Manju’s parents, Pattabhi and Savitramma Jois, met under a tree in Mysore where the local girls used to collect flowers. At the tender ages of 13 and 21, they fell in love and requested their parents’ permission to get married. While it was not unusual at this time in India to get married at a young age, love marriages were still very uncommon. Pattabhi Jois’ father proved himself even more of a forward thinking man when he disregarded the fact that their horoscopes did not match, saying: “They love each other, let them marry!” Pattabhi and Savitri demonstrated this decision was a wise one, being very much in love throughout their whole marriage. Did they ever argue? “Yes, of course they had a few arguments,” laughs Manju. “But mother usually won, because father couldn’t stand the ‘silent treatment’!” While Manju’s father was his inspiration, the role his mother played should not be understated. Coming from a family of Sanskrit scholars, she would sometimes even correct Pattabhi when his chanting was incorrect!
The journey begins
Manju’s yoga journey started at an early age. “I have been beaten up since I was 7!” he jokes. At that time of course, yoga was just a game for him, doing the poses as his father called them out. Training began in earnest when he was 13, and by the age of 15, Manju had started teaching yoga.
Feeling the need to get out and experience the world for himself, Manju left home after high school and went travelling around India on the train. He was drawn to the Sadhus (holy men) and spent time with them in Benares. There, Manju pestered one monk until he taught him vastra dhauti – internal cleansing by swallowing a long strip of cloth – something his father had refused to teach him. It took him four or five attempts before he was able to get the cloth down his throat without coughing. Manju also learnt other ‘tricks’ from the Sadhus, like how to chew on glass and blades. “I don’t do them anymore in case people copy,” he says.
Made in America
Interestingly, Manju’s horoscope predicted that he would live overseas, have three relationships, marry the third woman, who would be white. At the time, this was hard for Manju to believe, although subsequently it has all turned out to be true.
Following his father to spread the yoga teachings, Manju moved to America. There he met the woman who would become his wife – Nancy. Being an Italian Catholic from Long Island, New York, their backgrounds could hardly have been more different. Fearing the reaction of their parents, they married secretly and only told their parents when Nancy became pregnant. However, both families were overjoyed and the Jois family travelled from India to see the new-born baby girl. Sadly, by this time Manju’s mother, whose wish it was for Manju to give her a granddaughter, had passed away.
Named in honour of her paternal grandmother, Manju’s daughter Sathu is now 8 years old. She is a multi-talented, beautiful girl who continues to bless the Jois family beyond measure. Manju recollected fondly how she once used her fluent Spanish to help him secure a passport in Mexico. “She found out the options and decided on the best deal, then told me how much money to hand over!”
The family are based in California, but Manju spends most of his time travelling and teaching, particularly in Europe. Nancy, a kindergarten teacher, and Sathu, travel with him during school holidays.
KPJ: Describe your usual yoga practice/routine?
MJ: I practice yoga in the morning every day except Saturday. My routine is to get up at 4am, have a shower and practice for 1 hour, picking a few postures from the primary and intermediate series, then four or five postures from the advanced series. The asana practice is followed by chanting for ½ an hour.
KPJ: You have been teaching for 47 years. What changes have you noticed over that time, either in your own approach to teaching, or more generally in terms of Ashtanga yoga?
MJ: I teach in the traditional style that I learnt from my father. My aim is to keep the teaching pure and simple. Unfortunately the teaching is often not the same as when I learnt. I don’t know if it is because of a shortage of time, or they don’t know the traditional style or don’t want to teach it.
KPJ: You have taught yoga in 22 countries around the world. Have you noticed any trends in different countries in the way that people practice yoga?
MJ: Yoga is becoming a competition, with everyone competing to be the most flexible. In America, they even have competitions with people on stage competing for prizes. I find the students in Europe are not so ‘showy’. People just want to work on themselves. In Asia and Japan, the students are very dedicated and serious. I enjoy coming to Australia. It is very different to America, the students are more relaxed.
KPJ: In the West, we have placed a strong focus on the physical side of yoga. Do you think we have picked the ‘best’ bits and ignored the rest?
MJ: The Western world has a tendency to focus only on the physical side. This is NOT yoga. You are only practising yoga and getting the complete benefit when you combine the physical with the spiritual. You can’t do one without the other because it causes confusion. If you only practice the physical side you become physically strong but spiritually weak.
KPJ: What do you think is the most common mistake that people make when practicing yoga?
MJ: The biggest mistake that students make is overdoing their practice and not knowing when to stop. Yoga is supposed to be relaxing! It is better to do fewer asanas perfectly with correct breathing, rather than lots of poses if you have forgotten about the breath and bandhas. Keep up your practice everyday. You don’t have to do 100 postures. Listen to your body, stop when it tells you it is stretched enough. People get hurt when they continue.
KPJ: In led classes, we hold each pose for five breaths. Is it appropriate to hold the pose for longer, especially if you have one side stiffer than another?
MJ: In Mysore style practice you can take as many breaths as you want. In fact, usually the body reacts after the fifth breath, so you need to stay longer to get the complete benefit. The Yoga Sutras say Sthira sukham asanam – meaning asana is a meditation and you have to stay in poses and breathe properly.
KPJ: Sometimes people with longer limbs look more ‘right’ in a pose. Is there a right or wrong/better or worse body shape for practising yoga?
MJ: God has created all physiques, none of them better or worse than each other. Personally I am happy I am short because I spend so much time on aeroplanes, I can just sit in my seat in Padmasana (lotus) and not worry about getting Deep Vein Thrombosis!
KPJ: If you are sick, should you take a break from your practice?
MJ: Ashtanga purifies the body through heat. So if you have a fever, you should not practice because your body is already overheated and practising will just increase the heat. However, if you have a cold, you have excess water in your system which has to come out. It is better to practice than to take medication, which simply blocks your system rather than curing it. It is a natural process that the body goes through and it has to come out.
KPJ: There is a common perception that Ashtanga is just for the young, fit and flexible. Is this true?
MJ: Actually, yoga was developed as a therapy. People used to come to my father because the doctor sent them due to diabetes or other problems. People who say they are too stiff to do yoga are just using this as an excuse. If they don’t start, they will just get stiffer and stiffer! It takes a while for the muscles to loosen but if you keep going you will see progress. Yoga is very scientific in the way that it works on the body. The primary series is called Yoga Chikitsa, which translates as yoga therapy. We work on purifying the body, improving circulation and getting rid of any problems. The advanced poses were originally designed for Brahmacharyas so they are not for everyone. The first and second parts are enough for most yogis. Don’t get jealous. Focus on your own practice, not what others are doing.
KPJ: Can you please tell us the story of how you used pranayama to overcome a heart attack?
MJ: The first time happened when I was walking to the grocery store in Vermont. I started to feel the symptoms of a heart attack – a tight chest and pain in my hand. I immediately started to do pranayama and the pain went away. The next day I was ok so I just forgot about it. The second time I was in Heathrow airport, walking to get my luggage. I felt the same symptoms, and again the pranayama helped me. The third time was in Stansted airport. This time the symptoms were worse than before and afterwards I called my wife to book me an appointment with the doctor. Looking at the x-rays, the doctor said that clinically I should be dead. The doctor wanted to know more about pranayama, and after seeing the benefits first hand, he has now taken up his own practice! I had a quadruple heart by-pass. I don’t get tired anymore or need to have an afternoon nap. The doctors say this kind of surgery adds 10 years to your life.
KPJ: What pranayama would you recommend we do?
MJ: Nadi shodana (alternate nostril breathing) is the basic pranayama to help with the respiratory system. You need to breathe slowly, not hyperventilate. The deeper and slower you breathe, the better for you. If you simply improve your pranayama, you will live longer.
KPJ: Can you please tell us about chanting – the benefits and how to get started?
MJ: Chanting is all about creating vibrations. The sound and pitch creates vibrations which are very healing. For example, when my father was on his deathbed we chanted the Mukti mantra. In fact, chanting is much more powerful than asana. As well as creating powerful vibrations, it impacts breathing and helps to make the respiratory system strong. This is because one or two lines are chanted using one breath.
Old age tends to start at the Vishuddhi chakra (throat chakra). This is often where you see the first wrinkles develop. Chanting makes this muscle strong. You see many priests in India who look years younger than they actually are due to the amount of chanting they have done.
I recommend the Gayatri mantra. Gayatri is a very powerful Goddess and the protector of everything. In India, the Gayatri mantra is chanted eight times per day. Also the shanti (peace) chant. Peace chanting has nothing to do with religion. In India, they believe that we have all five elements in our body (fire, water, earth, wind, ether) and the peace chant tries to bring these elements back into balance.
We look forward to seeing Manju back in Australia in October 2010 – more details to follow in future KPJ newsletters!