Beyond the household name, the yogi superstar, the one who effortlessly floats through complex vinyasa sequences, and one of the first who brought Ashtanga yoga to the world though the eyes of the media, there is a very humble, deeply respectful student and teacher. He honours, loves and seeks to share the practice that his own guru, Sri K Pattabhi Jois, taught him in the 1980s.
Those who have never met or practiced with him before may not know nor understand the importance he places upon the method of vinyasa count. For him, it is the key to attain depth and focus of the practice, and perhaps taming that wandering mind.
He is also very aware that this method is not one that is commonly taught these days, so may bring up frustration, irritation – or in his own words ‘push some buttons’. Hopefully by triggering this reaction in students, he may encourage questioning, thinking and a greater understanding of the meaning of the practice. Guruji would call it mind control.
In the shala, he is incredibly present. His eyes focus, his voice maintains control of the space, as he skilfully manages to work his way round students, keeping an eye (sometimes at the back of his head!) closely monitoring the room, giving instructions, directions and counts when needed. He juggles adjustments whilst guiding others through a led class, checking in on both students and assistants.
John’s adjustments are spot on. He seems to know exactly when and where to push further and where to slow down. There is a sense of absolute trust in a person who has been teaching and practicing for so many years, and still gets excited by sharing his knowledge with others.
Unlike many Mysore trained teachers, there is less emphasis on deeper backbends – a relief- and more on stability and core strength. On the outside, yes there are a LOT of handstands, he throws in so many combinations (like in the ‘old days’) that involve floating in and out of postures. Not for the faint hearted. But that is besides the point. There is a fuss about hand-balancing in the yoga world these days (and Sharath clearly states that they are unnecessary, and just reinforce the ego), but from a logical, structural point of view it makes sense to balance all that flexibility with strength. At the right time in one’s practice. Extreme backbends day after day, year after year, with very little thinking going into them, can be the source of injuries.
So there is a lot of handstanding in John’s classes, and no ‘catching’ /ankle grabbing. A relief for many, a shock perhaps for others.
It also seems that every single element, word and process in John’s classes are there for a reason. Everything makes sense – perhaps not initially, but eventually it does. His melodious voice slowly counting, his deep breath slowly following each person and the twinkling eyes focusing on aligning bodies.
Like all great teachers, he will inspire many to go deeper into the practice. He has the ability to trigger that sense of intense trust both in him and the practice. He treats everyone with a sense of intensity and full attention. He also believes that a true teacher has the responsibility to offer guidance and support to his students.
Out of all the thinking and processing over the course of two weeks, some questions came up.
Why the importance of handstanding and strength in your approach to practicing?
A slightly long winded answer revealed that working on strength – besides the feeling of exhilaration- provides structure and stability.
Strength based postures like handstands captivate people on the earth and the physical level. The ‘showy ‘ stuff was just for demos, and to some extent, was there to captivate people to seek much further the physical aspect of yoga.
The ability to move seamlessly and with grace through asana practice can be a reminder of swara, flow. Through the continuous process of inhale and exhale, one develops greater harmony and flow.
And finally, he explains that every asana is in fact yoga chikitsa – therapy and structure. The entire practice is about aligning and stretching the nadis. Strength is part of this and provides a stable foundation.
Most importantly – how does he manage to keep up so much energy when teaching so much?
And he gets a lot back from teaching. Sharing his practice with his close team of assistants. He once said his practice was his rock. Well that is one steady and strong rock for sure!
Photos by Coni Horler: http://www.chphotography.ch/