Aug '08 Interview

Mysore's Joseph Dunham talks shop

by Julie Choi

Julie: Joseph Dunham, the mystery man. Who is he? Where does he come from? How does he do what he does?

Joseph: No comment. It’s always been a mystery. I have no idea where it came from... I could tell you but then I would have to shoot you ...

JC: When did you first come to Mysore? And was it Derek Ireland who first inspired you to come?

JD: Yes, I came in December of 1992 after being introduced to the practice by Derek Ireland in Crete for 3 weeks. He gave me Guruji’s address because I was going to Nepal. After I went trekking in Nepal, I went and knocked on Guruji’s door and I asked if I could study with him ... even though I did not like Mysore at all.

JC: Why not?

JD: I felt it was a dirty little town. I had just flown from Paris to Kathmandu and I came down from the mountains to Mysore and I just didn’t like it at all. I couldn’t imagine how I would be able to spend four whole weeks there ... really ... and fifteen years later I am still there. But I went anyway and knocked on Guruji’s door simply because he was there. He asked me how long I could stay, and I said, “I can stay a month!” He said, “That’s not enough time.” Someone in the room said (there was only Guruji and me in the room but I felt as if someone else was answering), “Two months?” And he said, “I need three months.” Then someone in the room said, “Okay, I’ll stay three months.” He said, “Very good, you come tomorrow morning.” I walked out where I saw a friend I had met at Derek’s place called Annie. I said, “Annie, I just told that man in there that I would stay in this two-bit town for three freaking months.” She said, “It’s gonna go by (snaps his fingers) like that!” And sure enough, after three months I said, “Guruji, I have good news and bad news.” He said, “What news?” I said, “The good news is I made it for three months, and the bad news is that I want to stay.” He said, “Oh, very good.” So I ended up staying for five months during that first trip.

During that period, there was a six-month trip being planned around the world, and a woman I was spending time with was a liaison for the hosts. One day, she came into the house and said, “He’s not going!” I didn’t have anything to do with this but I asked, “Why not?” She said, “I don’t know, he just said he wasn’t going to go!” So many people called and cried and begged on the phone and about a week later he was going. Then a week after that, he just said out of the blue, “I’m not going!” and without reason. I asked if anyone was going to escort him, and I was told, no people would take him to the airport and pick him up at the other end. Now, fifteen years ago, Guruji’s English was very marginal, and although he was a very important man to us, he was just a little guy in a sheet in an airport. I could see a lot of problems as in customs/immigration, so I went and knocked on his door and asked if he would like me to ride with him, and he jumped all over it. From that moment, he was going. And we went, spending six months traveling around the world with Guruji and his lovely wife Ammaji.

After that trip when people asked Guruji if he would go traveling, he would say, “yes, but if Joseph is not coming, I am not going.” And so for eleven years I organized all his travels and lived and traveled with the family when we were on tour.

JC: When you were organizing the trips were you also the liaison?

JD: I was working in partnership with the host of each city and we would work together. Then the tour would move on to the next city. On one tour we went to thirteen cities in fifteen weeks. It was bizarre ...

JC: 16 years ago, when Guruji was in his late 70’s?

JD: Yes, that’s when we first started.

JC: Would you talk a little bit more about what Mysore was like in the early 90’s? It must be so different now with hundreds of people coming in the winter time, and a lot of people who come and go for short visits.

JD: Yes, there was a maximum of eight people practicing at one time in the old shala when I started in 1992. There were three teachers: Guruji in very vital form; Sharath had just started; and there was also an uncle or cousin - I don’t know - I never saw him again and I don’t recall who he was, but there were three teachers. So it was very, very intense. There are pictures of of me being adjusted by both Guruji and Sharath at the same time. Then when I left after five months in May of ’93, we had a party, and I remember a whole bunch of people being there. You can count them all day long but there are still only twelve people in the photo. And that was everybody that was studying. It was just a very small group and everyone would stay for long periods. Very rarely would people come for just one month, ad they would be gone before you knew it.

JC: Were you already living there by then or did you leave and come back and leave and come back?

JD: Well, after touring with Guruji and Ammaji for six months, my life just evolved into being on these around-the-world tickets with one trip starting and blending into the next. I stopped counting my trips around the world at twenty, years ago. One period, I was gone for more than a year, but I never lived any place else. My stuff is all in storage. I haven’t seen it in sixteen years, so it’s a time capsule by now. There’s a cool television I got sixteen years ago, probably doesn’t even pick up TV anymore. There are letters, photographs and carpets I don’t want to give up so I keep paying for the storage though I haven’t been back even to look at it. I wonder if I could live without it??? I never really “moved” to Mysore, I just finally admitted that I live there.

JC: What does it feel like for you now to be there, especially during the busy times in January and February?

JD: It’s very different, but I don’t have a problem with it. It’s just a bunch of wild, beautiful yogis coming together from all over the world.

JC: Actually, you seem to quite enjoy it.

JD: I do, I love it. In all the years that I’ve been involved with this particular family group, I’ve never met anybody I didn’t like, which is quite remarkable considering the intensity of the personalities that are drawn to this practice. There are people I am madly in love with; there are people I like; and now, there’s a whole bunch of people that I don’t know. But I haven’t met anybody that I didn’t like. I’ve thought about it quite a bit because it is quite remarkable - a lot of that is because the practice is very humbling on some levels for everybody, no matter how many years or how new you are to the practice. I think everybody has a common respect for people who are on the mat and doing the work. There is just no B.S. You can’t B.S. your way through it. I think in other types of yoga, one can be naturally flexible and it can come to you easily, but in this particular type of yoga, it is challenging for everybody. So I think that’s the reason why. Everyone’s challenged, it’s not easy for anyone. I sense a common respect for anyone who is doing this practice.

JC: There are so many different kinds of people attracted to this practice, extremely different people physically, backgrounds and personalities so that the practice is expressed in different ways by different people.

JD: Yes, but the humbling aspect of the practice is a common thread, and I sense that it weeds out people that I might not have liked. That’s what I sense. If you’re willing to go through this and do this work, there’s a stability in the personality that is willing to do that, and put up with it, and humble themselves in the presence of other people. I hear some people talk about different perspectives, people showing off and the like, but I just don’t see it myself. Maybe it’s because I started this practice at the tender age of 43, there’s never been a whole lot of showing off in this practice for me. I was never delicate, supple and bendy to begin with.

JC: In a way that’s a special perspective ... a lot ashtanga people actually do start the practice when they are quite young, with a background in dance or gymnastics or martial arts.

JD: They’re cheaters! We don’t like them! (One jealous joke is there.)

JC: Ashtanga is often seen as a practice that is very physical, and only physical. could you talk a bit more about the humbling aspect of the practice, and the ability to keep coming back to the practice despite the challenges. i think it takes a lot of courage to keep coming back to the mat.

JD: I think so, too. I don’t understand this, I keep hearing this about Ashtanga being only physical. Where the body goes, the spirit tends to follow. They are pretty entwined. For me, when I’m doing this practice, it’s very simple: I’m just a better man and a better human being. I’ve come in and out of the practice many times for various reasons, and I just find I’m a better person when I do it than when I don’t. And I know the difference. It’s a great motivator to get back on the mat.

JC: Do you agree that everyone can do ashtanga?

JD: Yes, I believe Ashtanga is for everybody but not everybody will do it.

JC: What about the people who say that this practice is too strong for me, I’m too tired, I can’t balance it with my job and my family, or, this is too difficult for beginners -- what would you say to those people?

JD: Well, if you are coming into a class situation, you are given a plate with half the Primary Series on day one, going up to navasana or something like this, you’re going to feel like you’ve been hit by a truck. But on the other hand, as I was taught by Guruji, “You do surya namaskar A, surya namaskar B, now you take padmasana,” and I said, “What’s that?” and he and Sharath packed me into full lotus on the first day (I thought I was going to blow apart into tiny pieces), and my practice was over in twenty minutes, but it built up over time to two hours and eight minutes pretty consistently, practicing daily. I was very tired at first, and it takes some time to get the body acclimated to the practice -- but then that is all part of the lifestyle. Certainly, people have families and jobs -- and they are better for it by doing the practice. You can’t muscle it in and be the way you were coming into the practice, you have to adjust - the practice demands that you adjust your diet and your lifestyle. You can’t fit it into the way you were before, so you have to start it off slowly. And that’s difficult to do when you’re in a world where you pay for a yoga class, and you expect it to last for an hour and a half. In the beginning of practice, you should expect to be done in twenty minutes, and the next day, maybe in twenty-four minutes, and let it build. This can be very challenging for a business of yoga, especially when people are coming in on a sporadic basis. This practice needs to be built upon, regular, daily. And that’s a massive change for most people. If someone comes in once a week, and doesn’t do the practice for the rest of the week, they are never going to get it. It has to become like brushing your teeth, something you do daily or the day is just not right.

JC: What would be your advice to someone new to the practice who is interested but not sure?

JD: Watch a class first. Don’t take a class, watch a class. Certainly commit for a minimum of one month. Do a daily practice and be aware you will start of slowly, and it is a process that is slow for most people.

JC: What is one of your more memorable or powerful experience with Guruji, in terms of a student/teacher relationship?

JD: Guruji and I bonded very quickly in a matter of weeks. There was a mutual respect. He believes, and he told me this, that many of the people who show up on his doorstep were yogis from a past life. These were old friends. I don’t know that like he knows that, but I know that I’ve met a lot of dear old friends for the first time in this practice and in Mysore. People I am just so familiar with. Like one of the students here in Hamburg said the other day that she felt so familiar with me. Guruji knows that in his heart of hearts. When I went to my first yoga intensive thirty years ago, I didn’t know anyone who did yoga, I didn’t have any personal relativity to it, it was not a part of my life, but I was always curious about it and was drawn to it. I went to a two-week intensive in the Rocky Mountains and I was overwhelmed with a feeling that I had found my people, my tribe or something, very different than anything I had ever experienced.

I’ve always felt that with people in the yoga community: there’s some knowing there that goes beyond me. There are so many people I’ve met in this community that I just feel so comfortable with. Instantly. Like I’ve grown up with them or something but I’ve never met them. That’s a lot of what keeps me coming back to Mysore. One can have very deep, rich relationships with people you just met in this community! And you can be gone from them - the calendar says years - and you see them again and nothing’s changed, like time doesn’t exist. other than their kids keep growing up!

JC: The evolution of the ashtanga community - how do you see that evolving with things changing so much and the community worldwide growing so much and so fast?

JD: I think it will just continue. I did foresee this on my first trip to Mysore. It grabbed me so intensely and so fast. The first day I did this practice with Derek I loathed it with a passion. Couldn’t stand it. Second day I was too tired to think, and the third day I fell in love with it. Grabbed me so completely that I had a feeling this was going to blossom, once people became aware of it. It began happening when we started traveling and Guruji started getting out. Guruji and the practice are similar: if you talk about the Ashtanga practice before you do it, and then you actually do the practice, all the stuff that you heard before makes no sense. It’s experiential. You can’t talk about it or explain it. It’s like talking about strapping on a parachute and jumping out of a perfectly good airplane: you can talk about it all day but you haven’t got a clue until you’ve done it. Pattabhi Jois is the same - he’s experiential, and a beautiful one.

JC: Do you think the ashtanga explosion will continue?

JD: Absolutely. More and more people will come. If you set up a solid foundation here at your new Breathe Yoga shala in Hamburg, be here regularly, people will find their way. It takes consistency and commitment, it takes being true to the practice, and people will come. It will work.

JC: And where do you see yourself in all of that?

JD: Hopefully contributing, facilitating interaction with the practice, helping to make the practice accessible to people.

JC: You’re doing quite a lot of teaching and traveling now. Have you been doing that, or is it something that is newly interesting to you?

JD: It’s something I had not been doing for many years, and I’ve been chastised for - jokingly - but rightfully so. I have had the honor of spending as much time studying with Pattabhi Jois, considered to be a living master, as only a few westerners, and I had not been sharing what’s been given to me. Pretty recently in the last few years, I started traveling and offering what I have, whatever that may be, and found that I really enjoy it and students are very receptive and appreciative. My life is enriched. This is a very special experience to teach this practice, breathing with students, sharing prana with them, and carefully helping to move them into the places they want to go. It’s a very intimate relationship that I’m very honored to be a part of. This is a traditionally-taught system of one teacher teaching another. I’ve always believed that we are all teachers and we are all students. And I’ve discovered great wealth from sharing what has been given to me and learning from other students.

JC: So you’ll continue to teach then?

JD: Oh yes, I hope so.

JC: Any final, parting words?

JD: As Guruji says, “Do your practice and all is coming” ... and all has not so much to do with asana ... all is all.

Originally from the U.S., Julie has been exploring yoga since she was a college student in New York City in the 90's, and has been studying Ashtanga for 8 years. She started sharing her experiences with the practice in 2003 in Hong Kong and continues to do so at Breathe Yoga Hamburg in Germany (, where she currently resides with her husband. At 8 months pregnant with her first baby, Julie is discovering a wondrous dimension to "practice." (

No comments: