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As Sri K Pattabhi Jois (Guruji) used to say: “strong body, strong mind, weak body, weak mind.”
He placed tremendous value on physical strength and bodily health as a path to happiness and fulfillment in life, and also especially in attaining the concentrative mental powers that lead to self knowledge. His message to his students was crystal clear: to receive the healing benefits of yoga, you cultivate a life long discipline of practicing postures, breathing and movement.
For Pattabhi Jois, the third and fourth limbs of yoga were not stages of yoga that the student passes through on the way to the further limbs. To him, the third and fourth limbs were the necessary, permanent foundation of the practice that needed to be reinforced on a life long daily basis. In mastering limbs three and four, the student masters all the limbs. To any question concerning other limbs of yoga, Pattabhi Jois would invariably urge students to take serious practice of asana and pranayama and then those types of questions would answer themselves.
In addition to his yoga asana teachings, he was a practical folk healer who adhered to natural remedies whenever possible. After class, as part of saying good bye to him, students would often complain about their various pains or ailments. Guruji would emphasize the need to take more practice, but also he would recommend a yogic or ayurvedic remedy, a medicinal preparation of food such as kichari or rice gangi in acute cases, a cleansing diet, a short fast, an herbal remedy, an oil bath (or even ingesting oil for cleansing) and other natural remedies.
But he also strayed away from a natural remedy when circumstances dictated. One senior student tells a story that she was feeling very sick and no one could figure out what was wrong with her. Guruji took one look at her and prescribed the most allopathic, toxic “worm bomb.” Sure enough she took the pill, passed a sizeable worm and soon regained her health.
There are many such stories of Guruji’s intuitional and wide ranging physical and energetic healing abilities.
One time in Mysore, India when studying with Guruji, I contracted a case of awful, painful, large, ugly boils. The students and even other Indians around town were horrified by the sight of the ungainly red and purple-colored golfball-sized boils that looked like tumors marking my body. When I showed up at his house for advice, Guruji was delighted at the sight of them and with wide eyes he exclaimed, “Oh, big size!” He told me emphatically, “No cutting, no cutting (no lancing), new body is making, new body is making.” To lance the boils would have cut short the natural cleansing process that was taking place within me.
Of course, he wasn’t delighted by the boils, he was delighted by the cleansing process that the presence of the boils indicated. He saw clearly that the yoga practice was causing my body to flush out toxins as part of making an entirely new body. He regarded the cleansing process and the releasing of toxins as a simple and natural phase of being involved in a deep study of yoga. He placed full trust in this process and thus he was confident and unshakable in the face of pain, distress and illness.
He offered suffering people who might have had no where else to turn, the possibility of renewal and healing. Above all he believed and valued the curative and medicinal possibilities of yoga. He helped people to overcome or at least get partial relief from the harmful effects of even serious physical and mental ailments: diabetes, asthma, cardiovascular disease, sexual abuse, childhood trauma, phobias, depression and addiction. Part of the greatness of his teaching was that he transferred his confidence to you; working with him gave you more fight, helped you feel you had a better chance to overcome virtually any type of illness or obstacle no matter how strong or serious.
His belief in the healing potential of Ashtanga yoga is one main reason why he insisted that practice was to be “99 percent practice and only one percent theory.” Because it is practice (not studying books on theory or talking about yoga) that will heal what ails you. Through practice you restore your health by rejuvenating the important foundational systems of the body. Through a daily regime of skillful asana work you can directly influence your health and well being by increasing your breathing capacity, blood circulation, digestive system, range of joint motion, emotional expression, mental stability and regularization of endocrine function and brain wave patterns.
And this is just to name a few of the healing possibilities of Ashtanga yoga.
We apply the techniques to create actions in our asanas with an eye towards extracting an essential sap from within your self as you stay in the asana. The sap I am referring to is not difficult to understand or imagine because it is simply the sum of your ability to accurately notice what is happening within and around you at any given time. Your high level of concentration and awareness can be imagined as generating a sap or an ambrosial life generating beverage. And meditation is a sipping of this best of beverages as appreciatively as a man walking long and desolate in the desert appreciates finding an oasis and the glorious taste of clear, cool water he finds there. Appreciatively sipping internal consciousness is the opening of the flood gates of yoga and of healing because when you are truly conscious you automatically and naturally find your authentic breath, you find bandhas, dristi, dhyana and all the essential techniques. They exist and belong within you as naturally as your eyes, nose, and mouth belong on your face.
However, becoming truly versatile in these core techniques can prove to be challenging for even the veteran student. True subtle mastery of these techniques eludes even serious students. This highlights the need to seek the guidance of a teacher who has a deep well of patience and consummate knowledge of the internal practices of yoga. Such a teacher can help you become increasingly established in the techniques, the teacher can help you find unique ways to develop your practice, ways that are particularly suited to your individual needs and capacities.
It is only then that practice will facilitate not only the restoration and optimal function of your brain, nervous, digestive, lymphatic, circulatory, organ, endocrine and other systems, but will lead you inward to where self knowledge and spiritual awakening await your arrival.
Author: David Garrigues
All Photos by Joe Longo Photography
Editors: Renée Picard; Yoli Ramazzina