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Obituaries

K. Pattabhi Jois, leading teacher of Ashtanga yoga, dies at 94

Jois taught Ashtanga, an extremely demanding form of yoga, for 75 years. Beginning in 1975, he taught widely in the U.S., where his classes become wildly popular.

By Jon Thurber

May 22, 2009

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Sri K. Pattabhi Jois, the leading teacher of Ashtanga yoga who is credited with bringing the practice to a mass audience and introducing it to the West, has died. He was 94.

Jois died Monday at his home in Mysore, India, after a short illness, the Press Trust of India news agency reported.

Considered one of the most physically demanding of yoga practices, Ashtanga presents six increasingly challenging sequences of poses. A student must show proficiency in one sequence before going on to the next. Only a small number of practitioners have achieved every level.

"The goal of yoga is to create a unity of mind, body and spirit, and each system has a different quiver of tools to get there," said David Swenson of Austin, Texas, who studied with Jois for more than 34 years and has written books and produced videos on the subject. "Some have likened it to meditation in motion."

Swenson described Ashtanga as "an ancient system that involves sequences of movement combined with breath."

"It is similar in some respects to tai chi in that it involves a set sequence of movement that you learn and practice for the rest of your life. Ashtanga has these different levels, six sequences; it is through the repetition of study that the magic [from within] is forced to arise," Swenson said.

Jois, known to his disciples as Guruji, or respected teacher, taught Ashtanga for more than 75 years after studying with Sri T. Krishnamacharya, who had learned the practice from his guru in Tibet, Yogeshwara Ramamohan Brahmachari.

According to a biography on his website, Jois was born in July 1915 in the village of Kowshika in India's Karnataka state. His father was an astrologer and priest. At age 12, Jois attended a yoga demonstration conducted by Krishnamacharya and asked him to be his teacher.

Teacher and student ended up in Mysore, where Jois had gone to study Sanskrit. Jois taught yoga at Maharaja's Sanskrit College for many years and later started the Ashtanga Yoga Research Institute, which is in Mysore.

In 1958, he wrote his only book on yoga, "Yoga Mala," which was published in India in 1962 but didn't find an English-language publisher until 1999.

His yoga classes drew a relatively small number of students until 1964, when Andre Van Lysbeth, a Belgian citizen, became the first Westerner to study with Jois in Mysore.

The first American students were Norman Allen and David Williams, who studied with Jois in the late 1960s and early '70s. In 1975, Williams and another early student, Nancy Gilgoff, brought Jois to Encinitas in northern San Diego County to teach. His four-month stay there is considered by many to be the true beginning of Ashtanga yoga in the U.S.

Over the next 20 years, Jois taught widely in this country and returned frequently to Encinitas. It was not uncommon for hundreds of students to show up for his classes. Ashtanga has become popular among celebrities, with Sting, Madonna and Gwyneth Paltrow among its practitioners.

Jois is survived by his son Manju, daughter Saraswathi Rangaswamy and two grandchildren, all of whom are yoga teachers.

Jois' funeral took place Tuesday. A memorial service is scheduled for May 31 in Mysore. According to Swenson, it will be attended by practitioners from all over the world. "There is pain in losing him, as one would feel with a family member, but joy and revelation in the time we spent with him," Swenson said.

jon.thurber@latimes.com