document received by ashtanga certified teachers

Graduation From The Original Jois Academy And Amping It Up

Ashtanga Certified Teacher

David Williams was the first Western student to be an Ashtanga certified teacher from Jois yoga academy. He recalls a great ceremony around this occasion – not least because he was apparently the first person to graduate Jois’ yoga curriculum in over ten years! On the occasion, far from receiving money for conferring the accolade which came shortly later, Jois gave Williams several gifts, what he called presentations. Amma served coffee and biscuits and Williams remembers it being a very pleasant affair. Williams told me he still has these gifts up to this day; a small metal dancing Shiva medallion, roughly the size of a jam-jar lid, and a cashmere shawl like the one Jois used to wear himself.

At this time, Jois instructed him to teach exactly what he’d been taught and not to change it and told him to put the Shiva over the door of any shala he opened, calling it ‘Ashtanga Yoga.’ (followed by the place name where he taught, similar to the way it is often done up to this day). So, some things do seem to have been in place from the beginning. On the other hand, the kind of approach in evidence at the very beginning does seem to have been almost inexplicably different. Most particularly, the demands of the sequences simply weren’t so stringent as well as enforced as such. This came later with the arrival of the early American students and, basically, the general ambition and competition they brought with them.

There are many examples of this; one particularly representative one that may be found surprising by the modern student is that the original upward dog was practised with the legs resting on the floor. Everything was just a little softer, most. This trend of making the original syllabus harder continued for several years. And, at this time, Jois encouraged these flourishes; especially the adding of handstands in and out of postures. He greatly enjoyed the displays of strength and ability given by students committed to his method. It was also at this time that the straight leg jump through and back was invented. [1]

Indeed, like many innovations made by his students, Jois tolerated them up to a point in this era. Another example is supta kurmasana, where the legs were originally brought in in front of the head (as opposed to crossed behind the head). Indeed, in a private conversation, Chuck Miller recalls this tendency to constantly increase the challenge of the original posture as a precedent set by Jois himself. He personally recalls that once when in dwi pada sirsasana in the Intermediate series, Jois adjusted him into a more advanced version of the posture, pulling his legs further down his back which resulted in an injury from which he never fully recovered.

The real first Western Ashtanga student

Although David Williams is often recognized as the first Western student and teacher of Ashtanga, along with his then-partner Nancy Gilgoff, this isn’t the case. Instead, another fellow American, Norman Allen, was in fact the first committed Western student of Jois. Allen arrived in Mysore with his young family on a motorbike having spent an extended period on the road between Vietnam, Myanmar, and Laos. He stayed in Mysore for a few years to learn the practice of Ashtanga yoga from Jois as well as studying at the Sanskrit college.

However, Allen, of particular temperament; fiery, staunchly independent, anti-capitalist and non-commercial-minded, was always very specific as to how and with whom he shared what he was originally taught by Jois. So, although, hugely influential in the spreading of Ashtanga in general through some of his well-known students, on his own account, he remains little known in Ashtanga circles, for he never broadcast his teaching or promoted himself as a teacher. Instead, he spent the last twenty years of his life living as a hermit, farming a small ranch in Hawaii whilst still teaching the method he had learned from Jois, to whoever looked him up and made the journey to practice with him. Famously, he only charged people when they didn’t come. If you came every day, you came for free, the more you missed class, the more you paid.

However, despite his lack of a public-facing personality, Allen’s’ influence was far-reaching due to the aforementioned students who ended up becoming influential teachers in their own right. These students were Beryl Bender Birch and Derek Ireland. Birch learnt with Allen during a period when he returned to teach from his home in his native New York in the early 1980s. She went on to form the first brand of vinyasa yoga, named Power Yoga (followed by her popular and eponymously titled book first published in 1995). She also opened The Hard and Soft yoga institute in New York. Her influence, although not strictly Ashtanga did a huge service to its’ promotion, as well as firmly establishing the roots of the now ubiquitous vinyasa yoga trend.

Derek Ireland kept more to the original teaching he had received. English by birth, he was hugely influential in the spread of Ashtanga to Europe (of which we shall say more shortly), teaching highly popular workshops in London and Brighton (UK), before opening his famous centre; The practice place on Crete, Greece, in the early 1990’s. After he had learnt from Allen, Derek, unlike Birch, made continuous trips to study with Jois in Mysore.

Derek met Allen whilst at the Sivananda ashram in the Bahamas at which (along with his partner Radha Warrel) Derek was the director at that time. A former athlete[2], was immediately attracted to the comparatively more dynamic practice of Ashtanga Allen showed him over the gentler Sivananda style they knew and were teaching. Soon, Radha and Derek were practicing Ashtanga as opposed to Sivananda yoga. Accordingly, it appeared a good time to leave their posts as head of the Sivananda ashram.

[1] Apparently, by Richard Freeman, but I cannot confirm this for certain.

[2] Derek had enjoyed a brief career as a professional footballer with Brighton and Hove Albion until a knee injury abruptly ended this. He then established himself as a Rock promoter, famously bringing The Clash to the UK. But, he was carried away with the lifestyle a little too much and hence when Radha introduced him to yoga he found a way out to better health and state of mind.