GURUJI IN FLORIDA! A DETAILED ACCOUNT
I was scheduled to go to the grand opening of Pattabhi Jois's new Florida shala in March of 2007. But he became very ill and wasn’t able to do it.
The opening was postponed to this March, but didn’t happen then, either. Guruji was again quite ill.
Last month (during Peter Sanson's Mysore class), KT* told me that Pattabhi Jois was coming to Florida over Memorial Day Weekend. At first I laughed. But this time I felt in my heart that he was going to come. I bit the bullet and paid through the teeth for a plane ticket to Miami.
The plan was to fly into Florida as the same time as KB from New York and meet KT from Chicago, who arrived a few days earlier and would pick us up in her parents' car.
Our flights actually did arrive at the same time - unheard of on a major travel day.
And KT was there to meet us the minute we walked onto the median - in a cream-colored Beetle convertible.
We got caught in standstill holiday traffic, but made it to Islamorada in time to check in to our seaside hotel and change clothes.
The Sri K. Pattabhi Jois Ashtanga Yoga Institute USA was a few miles away from our hotel, and its lush grounds are exquisite. There’s a garden, benches, swings, flowers and a massive Nataraj (Dancing Shiva) fountain.
When we arrived Guruji was arriving, too. Everyone was reverent - many holding bouquets of flowers - and waited for him to enter the building.
He was set up in a large chair the stage, looking a little thinner than I remember - wearing white, and less gold jewelry than usual - but happy to be there. He’s been ill for some time, and this was his chance to finally see his dream come true - to open his new shala in Florida. He was flanked by his daughter, Saraswati, and granddaughter, Sharmila as well as her daughter. Four generations of Jois's, all lined up.
The room is amazing. Bamboo floors. Large-scale photos of the family - including an entire wall featuring Guruji as a young man doing ashtanga. There were also photos of Sharath in various poses, plus young (very young) Saraswati and Manju. My favorite is one of Amma (Guruji's wife), Saraswati and Sharmila.
The latter two were there accompanying Guruji and helping him teach the weekend’s three classes.
The mood was much more casual than in Mysore or for Guruji’s workshops in New York City. There was no line. But one at a time, people went up to Guruji and paid their respects. Some touched his feet; others did not. Just about everyone got their picture taken with him. I became overwhelmed with gratitude when it was my turn, and my eyes welled up with tears.
Spiros-the-NYC-chai-wallah, his lovely wife and some helpers were serving up the best tea this writer has ever tasted. The room smelled of jasmine and other flowers. The largest contingents of people were from Florida and New York, and included Chris and Wendy from Florida, Kino MacGregor and Tim Feldman, and many old-school faces from the NYC ashtanga scene. I also saw old asthaga friends and acquaintances such as Jennifer, Adarsh, and Kelly from Lino Miele’s recent workshop.
Longtime Guruji devotee and NYC teacher Eddie Stern, in all white, helped perform a puja in a small temple area and then gave a brief speech. He said that Guruji wanted badly to open the shala, and that tge reason his health better was because of Saraswati’s constant care; when he said this, Saraswati simply bowed her head and said, “It is my duty.” He also thanked Sharath (who was holding down the fort back in Mysore, India) and many others.
Shala benefactor Paul Tudor Jones II, resplendent in elegant Indian attire, also gave a brief talk, saying that his wife, Sonia - the real ashtanga enthusiast - was too shy to make a speech and he was doing it in her stead. He said that she had the whole family getting up at 6AM each day to do yoga. Indeed - the next day they were all there, front and center, doing the practice. Jones also thanked the others who’d helped make the dream a reality - including the owner of the bowling alley in front, who moved his sign so that people would know the shala was there. He also shared a story about when Guruji was in the hospital, and told his doctor that it was his wish to get well enough to open the shala.
Next was an Indian dance performance, during which Guruji left the stage and retired to another area. We lounged on large colorful cushions as we watched.
The spacious, pleasant state-of-the-art facilities feature high ceilings, orange and yellow walls, a boutique, luxurious showers and locker rooms, a private reception room for Guruji, kitchen and a large reception and dining area.
The latter was laden with the most sumptuous feast of North and South Indian foods I have ever seen. Despite the next day's practice, too much food was eaten (that's because when I got to the end of the buffet, plate heaped high, I came upon a whole other room full of food). Again the atmosphere was genial, casual and non-competitive - sattvic - and many new friends were made over the dinner table. Everyone seemed thankful that Guruji had made it and they were there, too. The air was filled with reverence.
The next day I got up early to do a sitting practice on the pier, facing the sunrise. We were the first to arrive at the shala, and waited outside batting gnats while Eddie Stern and his crew prepared the registration tables for us. We were lucky to get spots for our mats in the front row. Slowly the room filled up, and then began to overflow into the other areas. We squeezed our matts a little closer together, and soon everyone had a spot.
When Guruji arrived there was a hush, and everyone stood up. He had no need to yell, “Samasthith!” - a command that means “equal standing” - or get on your feet and prepare to do the opening mantra.
He smiled as he led us through the opening chant. Then he sat down and watched as Saraswati took over. She refused to use the mic as she led us through the primary series. Sharmila worked the middle and back of the room, helping students in various poses.
It was wonderful to be with three generations of Joises again - and to have all of that female energy in the room, supporting Guruji. Saraswati’s count was medium-tempo and even, and it was a joy to follow her. This was my first led class with her, and I’m a huge fan. She and Shamila have so much of Guruji’s good nature and sattvic energy.
Soon the room was hot and humid. I hadn’t practiced in a week because I’d been fighting off a cold. Yet somehow I had one of my best practices in memory - strong, flexible and focused. What helped it was stealing glances at Guruji, and feeling his presence. I felt like I had come home. All of my past experiences with Guruji, dating back to 2000, came back to me - and there was nowhere else in the world I’d rather be.
Afterwards we all gave our respects. There was chai again. And again it was free.
For breakfast we met TL at Bob’s Bunz, recommended by KT’s mother. As promised, the cinnamon rolls were amazing - and their effects were minimized by massive salads we ate with them.
After showering we headed to the beach, on the Atlantic side, that was recommended by the waitress. Parking was $30 per car and admission was $10 per person. We decided to park down the street, and took a free shuttle to the beach. The ocean was bathwater warm and many hues of blue. The breeze was soft. There were frozen drinks (when I asked for a virgin key lime pina colada, the bartender said, with finality, “I’m the only virgin here!”). There was a reggage band. There were string bikinis and tattoos. We stayed too long and got burned on the spots that the sunblock missed.
In the evening we went for dinner at a place called Lazy Days, right on the Atlantic. Although it was recommended for its vegetarian fare, the only veg options were pasta or pasta. But the stunning view of the sea was worth it. It recalled a view I’ve seen many times in dreams, and had always thought was Costa del Sol, in the south of Spain.
Afterwards we went to a free beach on the Gulf side and looked for a place to watch the sunset. People on this side were polite, well-behaved and demurely dressed. We strolled past yachts and shops and restaurants and a man playing “Hello Dolly” on steel drums, until we found the perfect spot at the end of a pier.
On Sunday I again did early sitting on the pier, and again we arrived early to the shala and found spots in the front row.
Everyone’s head turned when TIm Miller (the first American certified to teach ashtanga vinyasa yoga) walked in - another senior teacher! - and there were hugs all around
Gurujii’s opening chant was strong and loud - he certainly didn’t need the mic he refused to use - and afterwards he sat on the edge of his seat led us almost through a fastpaced version of the majority of the standing poses before Saraswati took over. Again I sneaked glances, and often saw him sitting on the edge of his seat, watching us.
(At one point during the pratice I felt something strange on my shoulder. I reached back and grabbed something soft; when I inspected it I realized it was a falsie, which had somehow disengaged itself from my fancy yoga top with built-in boobs. After showing it to KT, I quickly hid it under my towel).
Afterwards we paid our respects. At one point we were told not to go onstage because it tires out Guruji, and to greet him from a discreet distance because the close proximity tires him out. A few minutes later, Guruji and his helpers were moving his chair so that he could be closer to the students.
Before leaving they announced that we would start a half-hour early the next day - Memorial Day.
Afterwards we raided the local grocery store and had a healthy breakfast on our balcony. Then we headed to the quiet (sattvic) beach at TL’s hotel, where parking and admission were free.
We spent the day lounging on hammocks, swimming in the blue blue bathwater and enjoying the breeze. I also had a opportunity to catch up with Matrika, a Florida-based friend from my 2006 trip to Mysore, and drink a frozen virgin pina colada while watching pelicans sitting on poles.
We ate dinner at Tower of Pizza (I can't help but like a place where, when you ask them to turn down the volume on the NASCAR race, they calmly hand you the TV remote). Then we went back to the previous sunset beach and searched for a place to have key lime pie.
We struck gold at the Zane Grey Lounge, which was named for the adventure writer and located above the largest fishing store I’ve seen (outside of Brass Pro Shop), called World Wide Sportsman. Perched high up, with an unobstructed view of the Atlantic, we celebrated our final night by eating key lime pie, listening to a bluesy rendition of “Brick House”, talking about the Bhagavad Gita and watching the sun set.
The next day we arrived at the shala early enough to again get spots in the front row. (Sadly, my alarm didn't work, and I missed my sunrise meditation).
It was cooler on Memorial Day, and Guruji arrived wearing a monkey (stocking) cap and a broad smile. As he came in, the room quieted and everyone stood at the front of their mats, palms in prayer. The atmosphere was one of reverence and respect - as it had been all weekend.
Guruji led the opening chant even more strongly than he had on previous days. Again he led us through the standing poses, his voice booming. Near the end Saraswati took over, and Shammi adjusted students in the back rows. Eddie Stern and his daughter practiced behind us. Indeed, there were many children practicing along with the adults, while other children (and babies) waited in the wings.
Saraswati’s count (the time in which we hold poses) is longer than Guruji’s, and as on previous days Navasana (boat pose), Urdvha Dandasana (L-shaped headstand) and Utpluthith (balancing on the hands while in lotus) seemed to take forever. She also had some stern reminders for us - such as "No hurry!" when people left Cataranga Dandasana (pushup pose) too early and "Head back! Head back!" in poses such as Ubhaya Padangusthasana. During the final seconds of Utpluthith, Saraswati kept telling us to lift up (just as her father does) and chided those in the back of the room for cheating.
Since this was the final day of the workshop, we came to standing at the front of the mat after the final vinyasa. Guruji stood up and led us in the Mangala Mantra (closing chant), and his voice was even stronger than before. After one final sun salutation, he told us to lay down and take rest. Instead everyone got up and applauded him - our way of showing him how happy we were to have had the privilege to see him. It was an emotional moment, and my eyes welled up with tears.
Later there was more picture-taking and hugging and touching of his feet, during which he smiled and smiled. I also had my photo taken with Saraswati, who asked, “When are you coming to India?” “Sometime this year,” I promised. Now I have to make good on it.
Before they left, Saraswati said the thing we wanted most to hear - that she and the family would continue to come back and teach there - with her father of course.
*A huge - HUGE - thank-you to KT for her enthusiasm, patience, photos and excellent driving skills.