Finding a Guru

Picture of A. G. Mohan

The term “Guru” nowadays is used to mean an expert or a teacher. However it has a deeper meaning. This article explores the deeper meaning of the term within the context of a story of A.G. Mohan and how he found his guru.

The deeper meaning of the term “Guru” is “one who leads you towards God”. A guru is both a teacher and a guide. But a guru is not a porter. He (or she) will not carry you on his back. You have to take the journey yourself. To do this you have to have a strong desire within yourself to undertake the journey. Part of the process of finding a guru is being worthy of a guru. A true guru will not accept a disciple unless he or she is convinced of the disciple’s ability to undertake the journey.

Let us now jump back to the story of A. G. Mohan.

A.G. Mohan is now a world-renowned yoga teacher. He is one of the few people who has spent a long period of time studying yoga under the guidance of the legendary yogi Krishnamacharya. How did A. G. Mohan find Krishnamacharya? How did Krishnamacharya come to accept A. G. Mohan?

Growing up A. G. Mohan always had a deep burning desire to find deeper spirituality and he was always looking for books and material that could quench his deeper spiritual thirst. At one stage he was all set to rush out to find and meet the renowned yogi Ramana Maharishi only to discover that he had passed away decades earlier!

As a teenager A. G. Mohan somehow managed to put his spiritual quest aside and focused on the task at hand: putting his mind on studies. Soon he became a qualified engineer and also got a postgraduate diploma in management. After a few years of completing his studies A. G. Mohan had a steady well paying job and his mind once again began to wander in the spiritual direction.

This was now 1971 and A.G. Mohan was 26. While doing a project with a textile mill he ran into Srivatsa Ramaswami. Perhaps likes attract like and they were drawn to each other and struck a friendship. In a passing conversation with Srivasta Ramaswami he mentioned his interest in deeper spiritual matters. Ramaswami who was already a long time disciple of Krishnamacharya mentioned to him of an upcoming lecture of Krishnamacharya and asked him to attend.

When A. G. Mohan attended the lecture he was stunned at the majestic sight of Krishnamacharya and his sage-like demeanor. Krishnamacharya was already 82 years old but sat ramrod straight and spoke without hesitation and with complete authority. It was as if he was in the presence of a deep flowing river of knowledge and all he had to do was give his attention to tap into its flow! Never had A. G. Mohan met somebody of this caliber and he was completely captivated. He immediately knew that this was a very critical moment in his life and his life would be forever changed.

Without wasting any more time he approached Ramaswami for advice on how to approach Krishnamacharya. He did not want to mess this up and was not sure if Krishnamacharya would accept him as his disciple. Ramaswami suggested that he approach Desikachar (Krishnamacharya’s son), who in turn suggested to first start with a yoga class with himself. Though A. G. Mohan had no interest in yoga and was only interested in pursuing deeper philosophy he agreed. Thus began A. G. Mohan’s journey into yoga.

After he started his regular yoga classes with Desikachar he also regularly attended whatever public lectures Krishnamacharya was giving at that time. He was slowly building his credibility in the eyes of Krishnamacharya. Two years went by and finally A. G. Mohan mustered the courage to approach Krishnamacharya. After a public lecture by Krishnamacharya he approached him. “I would like to study the Upanishads,” A. G. Mohan said. Krishnamacharya studied him intently for a few minutes and finally said, “We shall see.”

After a few more weeks, and at the end of another public lecture by Krishnamacharya, A. G. Mohan once again approached him and reminded him of his request. It was only then that Krishnamacharya agreed and the Guru-disciple relationship commenced.

A. G. Mohan was now having daily private one-on-one lessons with Krishnamacharya on deep eastern philosophical topics. It so happened that Desikachar had to travel abroad, and so as not to interrupt the yoga practice, Krishnamacharya agreed to teach yoga-asanas to A. G, Mohan as well. A. G. Mohan was now a happy man. He had found his guru and his journey into a deeper spiritual yoga had commenced!

This story has been adapted from A. G. Mohan’s deeply touching book on Krishnamacharya.

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The passing of the baton

Picture of Desikachar

Desikachar is the son of the legendary yogi T. Krishnamacharya and this is a story about how he picked up yoga as a career. Growing up in the Krishnamacharya household was not easy. Krishnamacharya was a strict disciplinarian and a demanding task master. Desikachar was therefore glad to get away and pursue his engineering studies away from home! Even though his father was a renowned yogi he had no interest in pursuing yoga as a career

This was 1950’s and 1960’s and Krishnamacharya himself was fighting an uphill battle in popularizing yoga. Due to his strict approach very few students would stick around. Most students left after a few sessions unable to meet his demands for rigor and perfection. Consequently the Krishnamacharya household constantly battled against poverty. There was therefore no pressing agenda by Krishnamacharya that his son take up yoga as a profession. All he wanted for his son is that he practice yoga for his own personal health and well-being which his rebellious teenage son showed no inclination to do!

The year was 1961 and Desikachar was visiting home during the summer break having just completed his engineering course at the top of his class. He already had a lucrative job in his hand and was looking forward to getting his career started and providing much needed financial support to his family. It was early morning and he was reading a newspaper in the balcony of his home. It was then he saw an expensive car pull-up in front of his home. A middle aged dignified looking Caucasian woman emerged from the car and ran out towards his home. He could hear her shouting, “Professor! Professor!” Before he could react he saw his father open the door and walk out to greet this lady. She immediately hugged him and exclaimed, “Thank you! Thank you very much!” Krishnamacharya smiled and led the woman inside leaving a perplexed Desikachar standing alone in the balcony of his home. Desikachar could not believe the scene he was witnessing. It was uncommon in those days to see men and women touch each other affectionately in public. No wonder Desikachar was taken aback to see a western women embrace his very conservative father!

Later when the woman had departed Desikachar asked his father who the woman was and why she had hugged him. “That was Mrs. Malvenan,” he replied. “She has been suffering from insomnia and I have been treating her for the past few months. Last night was the first night in many years when she had a restful sleep without a pill. She came to thank me. That is all.”

It was in that instant Desikachar understood the import of his father’s work. This was not about esoteric philosophy or dogmatic rituals. This was about transforming lives. He had heard about his father’s ability to heal people before but this was for the first time he was seeing the power of his father’s work in action. He later recalls about the incident, “I was amazed that this wealthy western woman, who could afford the best medical treatment, was finding a cure with my father who was such a simple man, who knew no English or modern medicine. This is when I realized how great my father was, and how great a teaching he had to share with people. It was at this moment that I decided to completely give up my career and become a yoga student.”

At first his father was reluctant to accept his son’s decision. But seeing his persistence and strong determination he relented. This started a new relationship between the two men. They were no longer father and son, but from now on they would be teacher and disciple. For the next 30 years Desikachar would study at his father’s feet and try to absorb as much as he could from the vast body of knowledge that his father had accumulated. Consequently this made him the most qualified person to preserve and carry on his father’s legacy when his father passed on. Mrs. Malvenan was from New Zealand and she had much to thank Krishnamacharya for. On the other hand we have much to thank Mrs. Malvenan for, as her interaction with Krishnamacharya resulted in the change of heart of Desikachar and has done much for the preservation and continuation of the legacy of Krishnamacharya!

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The first lady of yoga

Picture of Indra Devi

Indra Devi, founder of SAI Yoga

Eugene Peterson was happy traveling all over Europe as a part of a theatrical troupe. However one day she met an Indian philosopher and yogi and her life changed. This is a remarkable story of the transformation of Eugene Peterson into Indra Devi the film star, and the transformation of the film star into a renowned world-famous yogi.

Eugene Peterson was born in 1899 in Russia. Her mother was a member of the Russian nobility while her father was of Swedish origin. She died in 2002 in Buenos Aires, Argentina, at the age of 102. “She was like a national treasure” the New York Times quoted one Argentina writer in its story of her passing.

The story of her transformation into Indra Devi from Eugene Peterson started when she and her mom had to move to Germany in 1917 in the wake of the revolution in Russia. She trained as an actor and dancer and became a part of a theatrical troupe that toured all over Europe. During the course of her travels she met the renowned philosopher and yogi called J. Krishnamurti and she became fascinated with India.

She obsessed about visiting India but did not have the funds to do so. She then got her chance when a wealthy banker proposed her. She said yes only on the condition that he paid for her trip to India before the wedding. He agreed and they were engaged and soon she was on her way to India. Three months later upon her return and her first meeting with her fiancée she returned her ring. She felt she had no choice but to be honest with him as she felt that her home was in India.

She then sold all her possessions including the few jewels and furs she had and took a one-way ticket to India in 1928. Soon she became a Bollywood movie star with the stage name of “Indra Devi”, and she was married to a Czechoslovakian diplomat. She was leading the high life, meeting politicians and celebrities, but she felt that something was missing and that this was not the reason why she had come to the country. She prayed for direction.

Soon her prayers were answered. In 1937 when she suffered from some kind of cardiac illness she was directed to take treatment from the renowned yogi Krishnamacharya. However when she visited him he refused treatment. This was the first time a western women had approached him and he was not sure of her level of commitment. Indra Devi was persistent and Krishnamacharya relented. Within a few months he had cured her. But seeing her dedication Krishnamacharya offered to make her into a yoga teacher and she accepted. She ended up staying with him for a year feeling for the first time that her reason for being in the country was being answered. She probably was the first westerner taught by Krishnamacharya to be a yoga teacher. Krishnamacharya taught her a gentle style of yoga, given that she was just recovering from a heart condition.

Soon she moved to Shanghai when her husband was transferred there. In 1940 she opened a school in Shanghai at the house of Madame Chiang Kai-shek, wife of the nationalist leader and a new yoga enthusiast. Amongst her students were many Americans and Russians and she was also giving free lessons at local orphanages.

After World War II was over she moved back to India but her husband died suddenly and she took this as a signal to move. She moved to US and her yoga became a hit with celebrities. This was when she legally changed her name to Indra Devi. In 1953 she married a renowned doctor and humanitarian from Los Angeles. In the same year she published one of the first book on yoga by a westerner. In 1960 she visited Russia and soon she was meeting Russian high officials at the behest of Indian embassy officials. Due to these meetings she was instrumental in legalizing yoga in Russia. (This was formerly viewed as a religion and was banned in communist/atheist Russia.)

When her second husband died she moved back to India. However when she visited Argentina she fell in love with the country and ended up moving there permanently. A single television appearance gave her a rock star like status and large number of people took up yoga.

Indra Devi has played a tireless role in spreading yoga all over the world. Given her contribution to yoga nobody should begrudge her richly deserved title of “The first lady of yoga”.

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The light of yoga

Picture of BKS Iyengar

BKS Iyengar life sketch (Iyengar Yoga founder): Born in 1918 he was the younger brother of Krishnamacharya’s wife. Growing up he was a weak and sickly child. At the age of 15 he moved in with his sister so that he could learn yoga from her husband. He stayed on for 2 years and his health improved considerably as a result.

BKS Iyengar was not Krishnamacharya’s favorite student. In fact when he arrived, Krishnamacharya wanted nothing to do with him and barely bothered to teach him. Instead he gave him tasks such as watering the garden, and other such chores. BKS Iyengar’s big break came when Krishnamacharya’s favorite student was a no-show a few days before a big demonstration. Krishnamacharya had no other option but to rely on BKS Iyengar and began his intensive training. Soon Krishnamacharya began to rely more and more on him and one day gave him the task of leading a class. It was then that Krishnamacharya realized BKS Iyengar’s hidden talent lay in teaching yoga and from then on he encouraged him to become a yoga teacher.

In 1937, at the age of 18 he moved to Pune, in the western part of the country far away from Krishnamacharya. Though Krishnamacharya encouraged him to start teaching yoga BKS Iyengar was still not 100% fit and he himself struggled with the difficult postures. But he was extremely determined and he practiced relentlessly. He was also desperate. Alone and destitute, he had his back to the wall and this was what led him to innovate and be creative. Of all Krishnamacharya’s students BKS Iyengar was the one who was the most creative and took the seed of Krishnamacharya’s teaching and extended it the most.

Slowly he mastered the difficult postures and his health improved considerably. He was the first person to use props in yoga and he created innovative new techniques that allowed people to master difficult postures as he himself had done. Slowly his fame spread and the number of students increased. But his big break came in 1952 when he met the famous violinist Yehudi Menuhin. They soon became friends and Menuhin arranged for Iyengar to teach abroad.

In an interview to Namarupa this is what BKS Iyengar said about Krishnamacharya’s endorsement of his teaching style:

“He [Krishnamacharya] never taught me much about teaching, but he saw me teach. In 1961, he came to Pune and was teaching my daughter and son. He taught them for many hours, but unfortunately they could not get what he was trying to show them. When I came up and asked what was wrong, my daughter told me what she did not understand about a posture. So, I explained to her, “You must stretch from this end to that end.” And immediately when Krishnamacharya saw this, he gave me a gold medal known as Yoga Shikshaka Chakravarti, which means “Emperor of Yoga Teachers, Teacher of Teachers.” He said I must teach like this and not just in private, but in public.”

In 1966 he authored the book “Light on Yoga”. It went on to become an international best seller that was translated into 17 languages. The popularity of yoga that we see today is largely because of the effort of BKS Iyengar and the creative energy he put in to make Krishnamacharya’s teaching more accessible. In 2004 Time Magazine named him as one of the 100 most influential people in the world. BKS Iyengar passed away at the age of 95 in August 2014. He was truly the “Light of Yoga” and most instrumental in making Yoga the world wide phenomenon it is today.

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Practice, practice, practice, and all is coming!

Picture of Pattabhi Jois

A life sketch of Pattabhi Jois (Ashtanga Yoga founder): Born in 1915. He first met Krishnamacharya in 1927 at the age of 12 when he attended a demonstration of yoga and was swept off his feet. The very next day he approached Krishnamacharya and began his studies with him. His motivation was so great that he was prepared to get up early in the morning and walk five kilometers to get to Krishnamacharya’s home, do his practice, and then rush back to school to get there in time before school started.

After two years this came to a halt when he ran away from home to begin his studies in Sanskrit and Yoga in Sanskrit University. Krishnamacharya and Pattabhi Jois were subsequently reunited after 3 years in 1932 in Mysore. This time their association continued till about 1945. In 1948 he established the “Ashtanga Yoga Institute” in his home. Pattabhi Jois lived in extreme poverty till 1956 yet his commitment to yoga never wavered. In 1956 his economic status improved when he got a substantial pay rise because he got the position of professor of yoga in the local college. In 1964 the first westerner, named Andre Van Lysebeth, visited him and stayed with him for 2 months. He subsequently published a book on yoga and provided the name and address of Pattabhi Jois in the book. This put Pattabhi Jois and Ashtanga Yoga on the map and started the steady flow of westerners to his home in Mysore. His first trip to the west was in 1974 to South America. He died in 2009 at the age of 93.

Pattabhi Jois was an extremely strong man. Krishnamacharya accordingly, gave him a vigorous and muscular practice to do. Pattabhi Jois has preserved this form of yoga in the form of Ashtanga Yoga. This is also the inspiration for “power yoga” and different versions of it that are now popular in the west.

Pattabhi Jois had mastery over Sanskrit but his English was limited. He was a simple but a very learned man. He had studied all the important texts related to yoga. But he emphasized the importance of practicing yoga over reading texts. He asked his students not to focus on the theory but more on the practice. His most famous words: “Practice, practice, practice, and all is coming!” Let us say that your eyesight is weak. Would it make sense to try and read a lot or first fix the weak eyesight? Trying to study a lot of theory before practicing yoga is equivalent to that. Our intellect is clouded by stress and misconceptions caused by a distracted mind. Yoga cleans this up. Only after the intellectual cobwebs are cleared out, does it make sense to delve into the deeper theory. Pattabhi Jois has shown us the way to approach our scriptures, be it the Koran, the Bible, the Bhagavad Gita, or any other. If we approach these without our “monkey mind” quiet, we will misconstrue and misrepresent them and fight with each other, while the deeper message passes us by.

An overview of his philosophy: http://www.doashtanga.com/pdf/Pattabhi-Jois-Obituary.pdf

Homage by one of his students to Pattabhi Jois, known as Guruji to his students:

“After Guruji’s death, Mysore appeared to be much the same on the surface: the perfect blend of grime and nectar; the stench of cow dung and pollution mixed with fragrant incense; the haunting sounds of the flower and coconut wallahs’ endless mantras as they peddled their wares; the cacophony of traffic flooding the streets. But somehow, the heartbeat of Mysore was gone for me. And yet, still, the deep echo of his being continues to resound in the presence of his surviving family and students, perpetuating the teachings he devoted himself to so utterly and completely, welling up in the bittersweet tears and joyful recollections treasured in our hearts, where he affected our lives most deeply. Guruji, you have touched so many, both seen and unseen, known and unknown, and even the countless that are yet to come. The loss of you is indeed a sweet, sweet pain. And so I wish to you, Guruji, in your own words, a “Happy Journey!” and take as my mantra your advice, “Don’t waste your life!” Your legacy lives on.” – Bhavani Maki

For more of these: http://www.yogajournal.com/jois_tribute

A more complete version of his life sketch:http://ayny.org/sri-k-pattabhi-jois

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