I bow to the lotus feet of the Gurus: To Guruji, in memoriam

Via on May 18, 2011

Today, May 18th, marks the second anniversary of the Mahasamadhi or the passing on of Sri Krishna Pattabhi Jois, affectionately and respectfully called “Guruji” by what now amount to his legions of international students.

In his lifetime, Guruji helped systematize and was responsible for spreading to the world the method of yoga known as “Ashtanga Vinyasa.” For 50-odd years he taught this method in Mysore, India, receiving recognition from local instititutions such as Sanskrit University (where he occupied the chair of Yoga), but very little money, few students, no international acclaim.

Guruji eventually began to teach out of his home, and in 1964 the Belgian student, Andrew von Lysbeth, discovered his class and wrote about it, beginning to spread the word. A wonderful account of this encounter, written by Claudia Azula Altucher, appears here on Elephant Yoga.

In the early 70’s, Guruji made a pioneer voyage to Sao Paulo, Brazil, and in 1973 traveled to Encinitas, California under the auspices of his first batch of American students who had stumbled into his shala in Mysore, India, only to return home and begin pooling their limited resources until they had enough to bring over their Guru.

This began Guruji’s custom of traveling to teach week-long “workshops”, designed to and successful at disseminating the method, attracting more students, giving them a taste of unadulterated Ashtanga yoga, perhaps inspiring them to travel to Mysore and see for themselves what “Mysore-style” self-practice was all about.

Relative late-comers, my husband and I traveled to Los Angeles, California in April of 2005 to experience one of these workshops. By then, I had been practicing Mysore-style Ashtanga for about 3 years; my husband for 2. I had seen his previous workshops advertised, but hadn’t been curious enough to attend one before.

You see, I was lucky. I had studied yoga with a short succession of excellent and genuine teachers, all three of them direct students of Guruji. They had done such a knock-out job of transmitting the information they’d received, that I never thought to seek out the source. Perhaps I wouldn’t have, if it hadn’t been for my teacher strongly suggesting that if I had the means I should definitely travel to experience Guruji himself. He knew the effect Guruji would have over us and was planting the seeds of an even bigger trip—all the way to Mysore.

I came home and told my husband that it was important that we experience Guruji’s teaching while we still could. The teacher was in his nineties; us, the students, were attached only to one another and our jobs. The timing was perfect. He immediately concurred. (Yes, I married well).

Guruji would be in NYC and Los Angeles that year. We had a sibling in each of these cities, so we picked the one we hadn’t seen in a while and called him to see if he would be interested in a visit. My brother-in-law lived in West Hollywood at the time, very close to the Roosevelt Hotel where the workshop was held. He and his now wife agreed to put us up for the week. I reserved two spots in the workshop and bought plane tickets.

It was set. It was easy. I was super excited. Except for the whole prostrating thing.

In preparation for the trip, my teacher told me very little of what to expect, allowing room for me to form my own experience of Guruji and his teaching. The only warning, though, came in the form of a thoughtful description of the way in which Guruji’s students customarily line up at the end of class to thank and pay respects to their teacher in Indian fashion: they namaste, prostrate, touch their hands to Guruji’s feet and then to their forehead three times, thus honoring his Shakti.

“If you haven’t seen it before, it could be unsettling,” my teacher said, subtly nodding to our common Jewish background. In our birth faith this might seem like idolatry or improper reverence of a man, but for an Indian person of Hindu background it’s quite normal, he explained.

I opened my mouth to ask and closed it without speaking. But my teacher heard my question anyway and replied, “I can’t tell you what to do. You have to see how you feel about it. If it feels ok, I say go for it. If you feel uncomfortable, then just namaste and hug him or skip it altogether. He won’t care.” “Do you do it?” I wanted to know. “Yes. To me it’s always felt normal and culturally appropriate.”

But he’s been to Mysore, I thought. He’s been a student longer than I. He’s a man, so it’s less weird. I wanted to come up with all the excuses I would need to opt out of prostrating, anticipating that I would freak out at the sight of students bowing down. I told my husband about it. His expression remained unchanged. “So, what do you think?” “I don’t know yet,” he said, in that typical, over-calm, Jewddhist way of his, “we’ll see when we get there.”

It stressed me out for days, thinking about how I would react and what it all meant in terms of my programming, the plethora nooks and crannies of my stagnant self the practice hadn’t yet loosened and opened. I wanted to promise myself I would be “culturally appropriate”, but didn’t know if it was realistic. Was I capable of kneeling before a man, as I’d been taught not to? Or would I snub the person responsible for the method that had so improved my life, made me so much more balanced and happier, for reasons I couldn’t quite articulate rationally?

On our first day of practice, we showed up extra early and took a spot in the last row, where my husband wanted to hide. I sprung up to my feet as Guruji entered and nearly feel to my knees at the sound of hundreds of voices responding to his loud and clear one during the opening invocation. We moved through the practice in unison and at the precise pace of Guruji’s instructions: “Ekam, inhale (arms up); dwe, exhale (fold forward)….” Those who chose to go ahead of his voice found themselves on the receiving end of a powerfully pointed finger and a “bad man” or “bad lady.” Somehow, these reprimands were both chilling and hilarious, and everyone would laugh.

By the seated poses, I’d grown comfortable enough to look around a bit, and I noticed a man a few rows in front of me who appeared to be a Hassidic Jew. He was sporting a long beard and peyes, and was one of the few men wearing a t-shirt, his tzitzit peeking out at the hem. I wondered what he would do when it was time to thank Guruji, and this made the apprehension well up in my belly, though, admittedly, less intensely than days prior. (I never did notice what he did and still wonder about it).

At the end of class, the line I’d anticipated began to snake around the hotel ballroom and my husband and I added ourselves to its tail. I chewed my nails a little while my husband, normally the shy one, made conversation with some of our neighbors. “First time?” “What did you think?” I watched the students go to their knees before Guruji, one at a time, touch his feet, then their hands in prayer to their heart. Some of the men hugged him; all of the women did, too.

As we got closer, I said to my husband “I’m going first,” knowing that his reaction would inevitably pressure me in whichever direction. He shrugged and smiled. And suddenly there I was, standing right in front of Guruji, no other bodies between us, and I looked at his bald head and the three horizontal white stripes painted across his forehead and there was no question this was no god but a man, mortal like me, a regular guy so to speak. I placed my hands in prayer and bowed namaste and as I looked up and into his eyes something happened—no one told me his eyes were blue-green and crystal clear and younger than I and everyone else in the room. And while there was no question that he was a man, there was also no question that he carried so much knowledge and so much love, and that he was a special man and deserved my respect in whatever fashion he was accustomed to.

Right there, beneath the enormous portraits of Audrey Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart that adorned the Roosevelt ballroom and before Guruji’s feet, down, onto my knees I went, forehead to the floor. As if by their own volition my fingers reached for Guruji’s feet and then my own head, three times, and then I stood on my knees, then onto my feet, and stepped closer and hugged this huge bear of a man and he hugged me back and I stepped away, weak-kneed and light-headed. And happy.

I stepped away without having a picture of us taken and my husband stepped up. Easily, he prostrated and paid homage to the teacher of teachers. He skipped the hug and namasted once more. As he stepped toward me, I whispered loudly: “we’ll wait til Mysore to get a picture.” He smiled back.

We didn’t say much in the car on the way to breakfast or during our meal. In retrospect, I think we both knew then we’d make every effort to get to Mysore, we understood what our American teacher meant when he insisted it was worth it to seek out the source.

The following summer we went to Mysore and studied with Guruji and his family in the ground floor of their home. I spent a lot of time that summer seeking him out and waiting to prostrate. This moment turned from being a test of myself to a sweet exchange with my teacher. I got my picture that first trip to Mysore, a gorgeous and spontaneous shot taken at his birthday celebration, in which he turned toward me and cracked up, perhaps at the sight of the sari I was wearing in his honor.

The summer after that, we returned to Mysore. The following year, in May of 2008, Guruji paid a visit to the shala that was opened for him in Islamorada, FL, teaching a 3-day workshop there. By now, he was thin and in failing health, no longer a bear but still powerful. A year later he would leave this earth.

This morning, I waited for my husband to get ready and we got on our mats, chanted together. I knew we were both thinking of Guruji more than usual as we moved through the practice, as I’m sure hundreds of other students around the world were, too. I was not his oldest student, nor his best. I doubt that he would have “picked me out of a line up” and he certainly didn’t know my name. But this is precisely the legacy he has left: touching the lives of so many individuals, both through the practice he taught and in his own being for those of us fortunate enough to have met him in person.

No, he was not superhuman or immortal, that much is evident and clear. What he was, to me, was the teacher of teachers; a person full of both wisdom and the generosity to transmit it; a devoted family man to a family much larger than his biological one; a regular guy who was also very special and deserving of each bit of respect he got and more. He didn’t know me from Adam, and yet what a gift he gave me, for my whole lifetime.

Namaste, Guruji. I bow to the lotus feet of the Gurus, the awakening happiness of one’s own Self revealed….

About Esther Liberman

Esther Liberman writes, plays, cooks, teaches, and practices Ashtanga yoga in Miami, Florida, where she lives with her husband, 2 sons, and pet Yorkie. Born and raised in Bogotá, Colombia, Esther has now been living for half of her life in the U.S. (in New York, Boston, and now Miami) which makes her old enough to know better. In 2005, she obtained her Ph.D. in comparative literature at Harvard University and met Guruji for the first time. It was a good year. You can reach her at estherlibe@hotmail.com.

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11 Responses to “I bow to the lotus feet of the Gurus: To Guruji, in memoriam”

  1. Claudia Azula Altucher Claudia says:

    Hi Esther, nice recount, I always enjoy reading stories like this. And thanks for the mention of the article about Andre being the first student to vista him… Here is the link just in case http://www.elephantjournal.com/2011/05/the-first-….

  2. Esther Liberman Esther says:

    Thanks, Claudia. I very much enjoyed your piece as well, and I'm so glad you linked to it above. The encounter you describe is a crucial piece of the puzzle and it's fascinating to think about the ways in which information used to spread before all of our current technology made it possible to, say, participate in one of the workshops via live stream on the web. Namaste!

  3. Enjoyed this, Esther. There is a lot of attention to this issue of kissing the feet in the movie Ashtanga, NY. I wonder if you would consider reviewing it.

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  4. David Keil says:

    :) almost made me cry. Thanks for retelling the story.

  5. Esther Liberman Esther says:

    I'm flattered ; ) Namaste.

  6. Just posted to "Featured Today" on the Elephant Yoga homepage.

  7. Julian Walker yogijulian says:

    esther – i am curious, in your experience, how has the ashtanga community responded to the photo that circulated of jois engaging in some highly questionable and blatant crotch touching of two female students at once? i was under the impression that it was take by john friend and posted on his blog the day that the guru died.

    i had heard from some ashtangis that there had been an inner circle awareness for some time that he had a problem in this regard and that people were very upset about it.

    beyond the usual rationalizations about him just being a man and something divine coming through his imperfect vessel (presumably only in the moments when he was not engaging in such behavior) – how do you reconcile this with your obvious love and respect for the man?

    also: i have known several people who live in ongoing pain after one of jois' famously aggressive and forceful adjustments, on woman who seems to have had the double whammy of him adjusting her by lying full frontal on top of her (the very first time they met mind you) and forever damaging her hip and adductor muscles. do you feel the next generation of teachers he was teaching were able to side step picking up these kinds of techniques?

    the reason i bring these questions up is that i think part of how yoga can move forward in healthy integrated ways is by shedding some of the old world idealization of gurus and honestly facing the shadow side of this need we have to put people on unrealistic pedestals, from which the more often than not behave quite poorly. there seems to be this ironic pattern of turning a blind eye to the one on the pedestal when they do things we would find highly objectionable, indeed criminal in an ordinary person…

    what do you think about these questions and observations?

  8. Jonathan says:

    I would respectfully submit that yogijulian's dissertation maligning the memory of a man who, in my experience was nothing but honorable, is inappropriate in a post clearly intended as a tribute by a student in honor of the memory of her teacher on the anniversary of his death.

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