An interview with the Guru’s daughter - a yoga revolutionary
By Lisa Lalér & Bill Brundell
When we were in Mysore, India in 2007 we had the great opportunity to conduct an interview with Saraswathi Rangaswamy - the daughter of ashtanga yoga´s Guru, Sri K Pattabhi Jois. Saraswathi has been practicing and teaching ashtanga yoga for many years, together with her father and son, Sharath Rangaswamy. She teaches classes at Pattabhi Jois´ yoga shala in Gokulum six days a week in a room that takes around 70 students at a time. At the same time she is also responsible for her father’s household.
Saraswathi created a little yoga-revolution in Mysore when she became the first female yoga teacher to teach both men and women together. She was criticized in the local community for breaking the Indian tradition of keeping men and women separate. She also became the first female student to study at the Mysore Sanskrit College, where she studied Sanskrit and yoga.
In the shadow of a male-dominated family shines a petite, but powerful woman, with a twinkle in her eye, full of knowledge, compassion and humor. With an open mind and a firm hand she passes on the tradition to the next generation of ashtanga yoga practitioners and teachers. Saraswathi walks with steady steps - in her father’s footprints, determined to continue to share her passion for yoga, from India to the rest of the world.
Lisa: You grew up with Guruji as a father – can you tell us something about what it was like to grow up in a yogic family?
Saraswati: Yes, my upbringing was very good. The family was very poor but very affectionate. I started to practice yoga when I was five years old but at that age it was just for fun. My father helped me to do handstands and backbends - I was playing with the asanas. Just like my grandchild Shradda is doing now. I started to do asanas regularly when I was ten and I continued to practice until I was 22. After that, I practiced less regularly. But in total I practiced intensively for maybe sixteen or seventeen years. When my mother got sick I took care of her and I had a lot of things to take care of at home. When my mother died I became responsible for my father’s household.
L: How old are you today?
S: I’m 65 years old.
L: When did you start to teach yoga?
S: I started to teach 35 years ago. Before I got married I assisted Guruji and then I got married when I was 26 years old and I moved with my husband to his home near Calcutta. I got pregnant and had two children and I was very busy taking care of them and my husband’s family, but when I moved back to Mysore I started to assist Guruji again.
L: When did you start to teach your own classes?
S: I started to teach my own classes when my son, Sharath was 4 years old (1975).
L: From what I understand, you were the first female yoga teacher in Mysore to start to teach both men and women together. Can you talk about how that happened?
S: I started to teach men and women together more than ten years back. Before that I was only teaching women. Traditionally in India men and women are practicing separately - even though it has started to change a little bit now. Many people asked me if I couldn’t start to teach men as well so I thought, "why not?" Male teachers have been teaching men and women together for many years, so why couldn’t I, as a woman, do that?
L: In the beginning, did Guruji approve of that?
S: Yes... or no, no not at first. I think both Guruji and Sharath were not so happy about it in the beginning. They thought that the boys and men that would come to my class would be a bit shy because I’m a woman. But I was determined; this was something I wanted to do. So I did it! The decision was all mine.
L: You work many hours every day. Can you describe what a normal day is like?
S: I wake up between 3.30am and 4am every morning. I assist Guruji from 5 o’clock in the morning and then I teach my own class until 10.30am. Then I teach again between 4 and 6 in the evening. I rest for maybe 30 minutes during the day, not more because there are so many things to do and the telephone is ringing all the time. There is a lot of work with the family as well. After 6 o’clock in the evening I like to just do nothing! I watch some TV and have dinner. I try to be in bed by 10.30 pm.
L: Do you believe that the asana-practice is or should be very different for men and women?
S: No, not really, but we are different physically. The ladies have their menstruations every month and have the ability to become pregnant and give birth. There are some asanas that are not so good for women to do, but not so many. It is important to have a regular practice but also to rest. Especially for women who often work all-day and then take care of the home and the family. Men can more often focus on their work and then rest. I think for most of the women who work a lot and then take care of their homes and their families it is enough to do Primary series. After having a regular practice for a long time they can do Intermediate as well. Some women can do advanced as well but I don’t think that is so necessary. Primary makes us grounded and strong!
L: Why is it that women should not practice ashtanga yoga during the first three days of their period?
S: For some women it is very difficult to practice during these days, because of pain or that they bleed a lot. Most women work a lot and need to rest and to take it easy three days every month - it is very important! It is not good for the body to practice hard during the days when you bleed the most and during the period women should not do Salamba Sarvangasana or Sirsasana. Here, in India according to the Brahman tradition the woman rest these days, she does not cook and does not even go into the kitchen. Other women cook for her and she eats and sleeps a lot!
L: What is, according to you, the most important thing for women that practice ashtanga yoga to consider?
S: That is to let the body rest the three first days of the period so that the menstruation cycle is not disturbed. For some women, who do not rest from the practice those days, the period may disappear or becomes irregular and it can be difficult for them to become pregnant. The organs in the body are purified through the asanas and that is very good, but not during these days. It is also important to eat properly. Many women say that they do not want to eat dairy products, but women who practice yoga need milk and ghee twice a day. Especially ghee is important because it cools the body. In the yoga practice the body becomes very hot and you sweat a lot. It is not good to eat too much ghee, though, and the ghee should be pure and of good quality. One teaspoon in the morning and in the evening is enough. If you eat pure ghee you do not have to be worried about getting too much cholesterol. My father likes ghee a lot and he used to have maybe a little bit too much of it in his food - I had to tell him not to, ha ha ha! After giving birth, the woman should also eat ghee and drink milk to recover.
L: Why is it that women should not do asanas during the three first months of the pregnancy?S: All women are different and react differently with the pregnancy in the beginning. Some are very tired and feel nauseous, and vomit, others are feeling well. It is best to not do the practice during the three first months to see how the pregnancy is going. Even if you feel strong and healthy it is good to let the body rest because so many things are changing in the body during this time. For some it might take a little "will-power" to slow down though...
L: For some western women it is very hard to give up the practice for three month, what would you like to say to them?
S: Will power! They have to use their will power and rest anyway! With a strong mind you will not lose anything just because you do not do asanas for three months. Yoga is so much more than just asanas.
L: How do you think the pregnant woman should practice after the first three months?
S: After the first three months it is very good to practice ashtanga yoga, but the pregnant woman should not do all the asanas. She should not do twists, like Marichyasana B and D and she should not do Kurmasana and Supta Kurmasana. Baddha Konasana and Uphavista Konasana are very good asanas and so is backbendings. To practice during the rest of the pregnancy makes the woman stronger and the delivery easier. I appreciate the western women who practice yoga because they want to practice and become strong! The Indian ladies are so afraid that something will go wrong with the pregnancy so they don’t do anything. They don’t work and spend most of the time in bed and that is not so good for the pregnant body. Maybe the Indian ladies are a little bit lazy and you cannot be lazy if you want to practice yoga, ha ha! Don’t be lazy! I meet many pregnant women when I travel with Guruji to teach in the west. Many of them come to practice even though they are at the end of their pregnancy. That is very good because you need to be strong and flexible in your body to give birth. The breath is very important, both for the pregnant woman and for the baby who gets more oxygen. I have had many students who have been practicing until it’s time to give birth and they say that they think that the delivery went easier thanks to the yoga practice. Many years back I had a Canadian lady in class who practiced until the day before the delivery started. Her husband came to me when it was time to go to the hospital and I took her there. The doctor who took care of her was upset when he heard that she had been practicing during the whole pregnancy and he asked what teacher approved of that. "She is standing right outside the door, so you can speak to her directly", the Canadian woman said. I had to explain to the doctor that yoga is very good for pregnant ladies and the delivery went very well! A pregnant woman should think about moving her body and to eat more - but not of everything! She should avoid papaya and not eat so many mangos. These fruits heat the body and when you are pregnant, you should not become to hot.
L: What about postures like Salamba Sarvangasana and Sirsasana, is it good to do them if you are pregnant?
S: Yes, no problem!
L: Did you practice when you where pregnant?
S: Yes, yes I did.
L: If a pregnant women, who has never practiced yoga comes to you to learn yoga, how do you teach her?
S: Slowly, slowly. She can start with just a few postures - Surya Namaskar and the first standing postures. She can do Paschimottanasana with her feet apart to leave space for the belly. Baddha Konasana and Uphavista Konasana are very good and important asanas for pregnant women.
L: After delivery, when is it good to start the yoga practice again?
S: After about three months she can start again. In India, the woman stays a lot in bed the first three months after giving birth and she takes an oil bath everyday. The baby should also have oil bath and massage, every day for three or four month. Caster - oil is the best oil to use - both for the baby and the mother.
L: What did it mean to you to become a mother and how is it to be a grandmother?
S: Ah, ha, ha! To become a mother meant a lot of responsibility! My husband worked a lot and was often out of station and sometimes it was a little bit hard to raise the children all by myself, but there was a lot of happiness too! To have children and become a mother is very good yoga - the mind becomes very strong. To be a grandmother means so much happiness to me. I’m very fond of my first grandson, my daughter’s first child - but all my grandchildren make me very happy and give me a lot of joy in life.
L: Why do you think that ashtanga yoga has become so popular among western women?
S: I think it is because ashtanga yoga is a correct method, with vinyasa and counterposes and it belongs to an old tradition. For example, you should always do Uphavista Konasana after Baddha Konasana. Not the other way around. Many people are teaching yoga asanas without vinyasa and they do asanas without a system. That is not correct yoga. Many students who start ashtanga yoga say that their lives change in a very positive way - and I think that that is the main reason for its popularity.
L: What is the best advice you, as the worlds most experienced female ashtanga yoga teacher, would like to give to all the western women who practice the method?
S: Practice regularly and learn the correct method from a knowledgeable teacher. To teach is important and a part of yoga but it is also very difficult and many students start to teach too early. Don’t hurry. It’s not enough to practice this method for three months and then start to teach - then it will become a moneymaking system. That is not a good way of teaching. First you learn the practice correctly and then you can learn how to teach. You should learn how to teach from an experienced teacher. My father showed me how to adjust the asanas. At first I only watched him and then, slowly, I started to adjust one asana at the time. Sometimes I made mistakes, and then I had to try again until I felt more secure. Nobody is perfect, ha ha ha! You learn little by little, one thing at the time. It’s much more difficult to teach then to practice. Something that is very important is to learn one method, from one teacher and not to learn many methods at the same time with many different teachers. That will be confusing. Try until you find a method and a teacher that you like and stay. If you like B K S Iyengar then practice his method. If you would like to learn ashtanga yoga, go to Pattabhi Jois and so on. Chose one method and one Guru. That is my best advise.
L: Do you still practice asanas?
S: I don’t practice asanas regularly anymore - but sure, I practice every now and then. Three years ago I broke my ankle and since then it has been difficult for me to do asanas. Right now the most important thing for me is to be with my family - especially with my father since he got sick. During the last three months I have been taking care of everything here at home. Guruji is now getting stronger again but he still needs a lot of help with his daily routines - after all he his 92 years old! To take care of my father is something that I really like to do and I do it with love. When he was strong and healthy he was the one who took care of the family and I - now it is my turn to look after him. To take care of my family has been my best yoga practice and to teach and adjust as much as I do today is a big part of my own asana practice today.
L: So finally, Saraswathi, what is yoga to you?
S: Mind, a strong mind. What ever happens in life, it does not matter. That I, through yoga, have gotten a strong mind and a strong body has been such a big help in my life. Now, when I’m 65 years old, my back is straight and my body is strong and healthy. I’m very strong, ha, ha, ha! And I do accept everything that comes to me in life, both good and bad things. Yoga is also will power. My father is so fantastic, he knows so much and he has read so many books. He has got a very strong will and a powerful mind. I have not read so many books. The knowledge I have, I have gotten along with the experience I’ve had over the years, and even though I have been teaching for 35 years there are still so many things I want to learn. There is always more to learn about yoga...
L: Saraswathi, thank you so very much.
S: Yes, yes, thank you very much.
Lisa and Bill met each other in Mysore at Guruji's birthday party in 2004 and now live together with Lisa's two sons in Stockholm, Sweden. Both are regular, dedicated students at the AYRI. For more information, please visit their website www.planetashtangayoga.com.