Yoga Classics: Yoga Mala by Sri K. Pattabhi Jois

Yoga Mala by Sri K. Pattabhi Jois
Yoga Mala by Sri K. Pattabhi Jois. North Point Press/ Macmillan

Yoga Mala, by Sri K. Pattabhi Jois, was first published in India in 1962, but has only been available in an English language translation since 1999. It is considered Jois's definitive work on Ashtanga, the fast-paced vinyasa style of yoga that he created. Ashtanga's popularity amongst western students, who began coming to Mysore, India, to study with Jois in the 1970s, was a key factor in yoga's dissemination.

 Mala (as in malasana) means garland in Sanskrit. The garland here refers to the gathering of Jois' teachings and wisdom.

Part I: Pattabhi Jois' Biography and Yoga Advice

The excellent forward to the 2002 edition by renowned Ashtanga teacher Eddie Stern traces Jois’s biography and development as a yogi under the training of T. Krishnamacharya (who also taught B.K.S. Iyengar).

In Part I of Yoga Mala, Jois explains the theory and philosophy behind Ashtanga. This includes the eight limbs of Ashtanga yoga: yama, niyama, asana, pranayama, dharana, dhyana, and samadhi. Interestingly, Jois devotes the most attention to the discussion of brahmacharya (one of the yamas), which is often translated as celibacy or chasteness.

Jois argues for a more liberal definition of brahmacharya, which is vital to his desire to promote yoga amongst householders, or married men. Traditionally, yoga was studied by monks and celibates, as it was seen as too all-consuming for those with domestic obligations.

Jois seeks to dispel this notion by laying out a complex explanation of when (times of the day and the month, and even more confusingly, which nostril you are breathing out of) it is appropriate for a man to have sex with his wife and still honor brahmacharya.

Jois also offers practical advice on the lifestyle of the yogi, saying one should wash with red clay, not eat too many vegetables, and not practice on roofs or out-of-doors (something the producers of yoga videos would be surprised to hear!).

Furthermore, a yoga practice is best begun in winter and should be completed each day before 5 am. He also advises that yoga should not be learned from books, but rather directly from a guru.

Part II: Ashtanga Primary Series

The second part of the book takes the reader through the primary series of Ashtanga yoga, illustrating and explaining each pose. It is here that Jois’s caution against learning yoga from books begins to make sense: his explanation of the flow of poses is very hard to follow, even for someone who is familiar with Ashtanga practice. Hence, Yoga Mala is most useful as a document explaining this yoga master's history and philosophy rather than as a practical guide to the Ashtanga method. For that, take the guru's own advice and find a good teacher.

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