david williams ashtanga

David Williams And the Export of Ashtanga Out Of India

David Williams and the export of Ashtanga out of India

The first Western student to learn from Pattabhi Jois was a Belgian named Andre Van Lysebeth. He arrived in Mysore in 1966. It is not clear exactly how he stumbled upon Jois. He doesn’t seem to have stayed for an extended period of time. Instead, he appeared instead to travel around India being taught by many different teachers. He mentions many, Jois’ name amongst them, in the appendix to his first book, J’APPREND LE YOGA (I learn yoga).
Indeed, Lysebeth was never a committed student of Ashtanga, nor does he make further mention of Jois or his teaching in any of his further writing. This may be due, according to David Williams’ recollection of meeting a longtime Mysore resident shortly after his arrival, to the fact that Jois had badly injured Lysebeth. The woman had warned Williams not to go to Jois saying that Jois had broken the leg of the last Westerner to study with him.
Nevertheless, Williams studied with Jois. Williams had not heard of Lysebeth, nor did he ever meet him. David traveled overland to India in 1971, across Europe, and through Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, in search of yoga as chronicled in his book MY SEARCH FOR YOGA. (available from David at http://www.ashtangayogi.com)
David discovered Ashtanga in 1972, whilst staying in the ashram of the well-known Swami Gitananda in Pondicherry. There he met Jois’ son, Manju, who performed a demonstration of the Ashtanga Primary Series he had learnt from his father. Manju, keen for adventure, was traveling around India during this period with his friend, Basavaraju, giving yoga demonstrations in order to see more of their country.

This occasion appears to be the first time any Westerner had seen one of Manju’s demonstrations. Williams was quite impressed, having learned a different practice of hatha-style yoga from Gitananda. He immediately asked Manju to teach him or to give him the address of his father so he could learn what he had seen in the demonstration. Manju was doubtful that his father would teach him since he had no foreign students and he did not speak English.

At this point, Williams’ visa was about to expire. He returned home to the US, saved the money to return, and came back as soon as he could the next year. He and Nancy Gilgoff arrived unannounced on Jois’ doorstep, and Jois agreed to teach them. I believe it may have been Amma that convinced him.

David and Nancy were told they would have to practice 6 days a week, twice a day, as the condition under which Jois would teach them. Missing one class would result in expulsion. The fee for the classes at the time (1973) was eight dollars per month.

Ashtanga Yoga as it Originally Was

In the next four months, David learned Primary, Intermediate, the first half of Advanced A, and the Ashtanga yoga pranayama. Nancy has stated that what she learnt originally was yoga therapy, for she wasn’t in good health (she had arrived suffering from reoccurring migraines which had become debilitating). Nancy chronicled this approach by Jois to teaching Ashtanga at this time in an informative article published a few years ago, ASHTANGA YOGA AS IT WAS. This alone stands as proof enough that Jois varied his approach to teaching his series depending on the individual in front of him in the early days. It was only later when the number of students started to increase that he could not continue teaching in this way.

In the early days, it was clearly different. There was enough time and space to address the individual needs of each student and teach them accordingly. Nancy was taught slowly and remedially until she built up her strength. The young and athletic Williams could already easily do all the asanas and moved forward through the series as fast as he could memorize the order, at the pace of about 6 new asanas a day.

Having said all this, there was also a clear methodology firmly in place when the couple arrived. Jois had his Yoga
Syllabus framed and hung on the shala wall for everyone to see. The importance of exactitude regarding the sequences has, it seems, always been a feature of his method of teaching. Williams hand-wrote a copy of THE COMPLETE ASHTANGA YOGA SYLLABUS and later made a poster with photos demonstrating all of the asanas. It is the only poster ever made showing all the asanas of all of the series. It is also available from David at http://www.ashtangayogi.com.
Several years later, around 1980, Jois subdivided the Advanced A and B series. These were split up in the early 1980s into 3rd, 4th, 5th, and 6th series. This, along with other changes occurred over subsequent years. Indeed, as time and space became more of a factor, many unhelpful changes were made, such as putting the backbends (that originally came at the end of the Intermediate series), at the end of the Primary series.
There were six pranayamas included in the original syllabus. These were taught to students after they had completed the first two series with Jois. This precedent continued until a couple of years before Jois’ death when he held a pranayama class once a week for the more advanced students.
In 1974, David and Nancy began teaching Ashtanga in Encinitas, California. In 1975, they brought Pattabhi and Manju Jois to Encinitas, where they taught for 4 months. 19-year-old David Swenson was in this group. Manju subsequently stayed in Encinitas, where he lives and teaches to this day.
David and Nancy moved to Lahaina, Maui, Hawaii, and immediately had an Ashtanga class of 40 students from 11 countries. Two of these students were Kathy Cooper and Danny Paradise. A few years later, Danny taught Sting and Madonna and with their highly publicized praise and enthusiasm, Ashtanga went global.