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La scomparsa di Norman

Su generosa concessione di Guy Donahaye, direttore dell’Ashtanga Yoga Shala di New York City, pubblico un corposo estratto di una sua intervista a Norman Allen, in occasione della recente scomparsa.

Non mi sento di spendere futili parole su una figura così leggendaria, vi rubo solo lo spazio necessario a rinnovare il mio calorosissimo ringraziamento a Guy per questo dono.

“Norman Allen was one of the first Westerners to stay in Mysore and study with Pattabhi Jois.
I visited Norman on a couple of occasions while investigating the origins of the system of asanas taught by Pattabhi Jois.
This interview was conducted on the Big Island, Hawaii in 2001.”

Guy Donahaye

Norman: After my daughter was born in Malaysia, we stayed there a little while to get her in traveling order, then took the ship across to Madras. We were heading to Pondicherry because I had got word of Doctor Gitananda’s Ashram. There it was basically Yoga 101. You don’t know about this man particularly, but he had a broad scale perspective on Indian culture.

Who he was and where he came from was a little bit unknown, but he was a real showman. He had the litany and he had the stories and there he was 4 miles from Aurobindo’s great ashram. David [Williams] was there, I was there. It was the first wave of people who kind of made that pilgrimage from the West, in one manner or another – in a British double decker cargo ship to Kathmandu, or to hitchhike, take the bus, go this way or that way. That was the road, those were the days: ’68, ’69. There was not yet Goa to hang out in, seasonal places to hang out in, not happening.

But we checked out India, you know, touring. It was wild. I was always on my way to the East, but slowly. I was born in Hollywood, CA. And I went East to New York and then to London and Greece and then Kosovo all through Yugoslavia, Istanbul, Iran, Kabul, got married, went up to Kathmandu and ended up in India in this Yoga 101 Ashram where Swami Gitananda was going to give you the whole works. He had astrologers, he had Vedantic scholars come and give lectures, we did asanas, pranayamas, laya yoga, kriyas, we did levitation, visualization, we did coffee enemas, we fasted… and then ate dosas, we did everything that you could see in any yoga book. He had a big menu and we had a taste of this and that.

Then Swami organized an all India yoga conference. In that part of the world you give an invitation and a first class rail ticket to the participants, because that is the way it’s done. BKS Iyengar got an invitation, Pattabhi Jois got an invitation. Some of them were adepts at certain procedures that were known in Southern India only locally. They could do a nauli kriya, or some special aspect of a nauli kriya.

One man was a yoga acharya who had the ability to create soma, and he would do that in nirvikalpa samadhi while entombed. And you can go to certain authorities and they will give you the dimensions for a proper burial to make sure no ants will come in. I think it was David who dug the hole.

Iyengar doesn’t come. He sent a paper to be read. A nauli kriya expert came and spun his belly around nicely. The yogi came to be buried and the hole was dug. The police came out and would not allow us to put him in a hole to bury him. Instead, the Yogi demonstrated what soma is and how you make soma. He declared that you have to do the khechari mudra, you have to catch that soma by secreting it. Soma was something from inside, not from a plant, not from outside, not from a mushroom but made through certain physical adaptations.

Pattabhi Jois he came with his wife and his daughter and cousin and nephew, who was lean and really spiffy and he came to demonstrate, Pattabhi Jois came to discuss, the cousin to translate, Ama to take care of him. I’m not sure whether Saraswati was there.

A month or two before the conference, two young Indians from Mysore showed up at the Ashram selling saris and little sarongs. Basaraju and Manju. Manju demonstrated some yoga postures that he had learned from his father. Oh Man! 

So I saw Manju and Basaraju and then a month or two later saw Manju’s father and then saw Vishvanath demonstrate, and I said, ‘OK, this I want to learn.’

Guy: Had you seen anything like that before?

No. I had seen the Iyengar book and that was interesting and what we did was kind of nice, a little bit of a mix with some Sivananda stuff. But not like that.

I wanted to study with Jois, no question. I asked, and they said, ‘No, he does not want to take any foreign students.’ One of the reasons was that he had had a bad experience.

Guy: So he didn’t want to have you as a student?

No, he didn’t. But I would bring them everything that they needed: water and coffee, I’d go to town for almonds and badami. I had my beautiful daughter with me and my wife, and my daughter had her one year Hindu initiation with a great scholar in the ashram in Pondicherry. She was a little baby, and you know, in the East they like babies.

Guy: So how did you persuade him?

Well, I didn’t keep on, but I’m a nice guy and Amaji asked him to give it a chance. So because of her… otherwise he wouldn’t have taken us. There was no need. In those days he was teaching at the Sanskrit Patashala making 50 rupees a month and he would have his chetty merchants who were his patrons, and they’d come and he had a room where the locals would come [for yoga classes].

So, he agreed to take me on as a student, and in a month or so I moved to Mysore. At first, I stayed upstairs, where they reside still, unless they got a new house.

Guy: Was he teaching non-Brahmins or only Brahmins?

He would teach some non-Brahmins, not too many. But in the later years it started to happen more. You have to understand the culture. You grow up in South India in a rural setting as a Brahmin. That’s conservatism and conservatism means fundamentalism, that’s it. It’s hard and long before you make a transformation from that. What do you call that? Evolution?

He certainly got thrown into the forces of a movement of society, and I saw which way he was going, and I saw which way I was going, and they were opposite. But there was a meeting. If you go to eternity, you get off the wheel. What can I say? 

So I went to Mysore and I used to go to the market for him on my bicycle. I had brought a ten speed bike. I’d bike around, shop quite extensively, go to markets, get the Puja flowers, do all kinds of things, anything I could, and go to class. In the beginning, I’d wait until everybody was done, until about 7:30 in the morning, then get a private lesson. Then I graduated into the five o’clock period. I used to go five o’clock in the morning and five o’clock in the afternoon: two sessions. Later on, between those I would go to the University. I did that for a number of years.

After I practiced I sat and I watched. Most of what was being said I never understood. I would talk with people like Kokoraju and Shanta, I would socialize with them and go to their villages and learn about their culture. I probably know more about the Iyengar community than anybody, even Krishnamacharya’s first students and teachers in Mysore, because my first wife became a Bharatanatyam dancer. Her dance master studied with Krishnamacharya’s father. Living with these great men of a very fine scholarship you know, very sweet bhaktins…I got the whole infusion.

David went to America and started to teach. He was teaching in California. Encinitas. He wrote and asked if Guruji would come to Encinitas, and Guruji wanted to go. Guruji talked to me about it and asked me to sponsor him. I said ‘no problem.’

On several occasions when I had gone back to America to show the grandparents my baby, I taught. One of my students was a lawyer, his name was Friedman. Mr. Friedman sponsored Guruji legally. I went with Guruji on the train to Madras to the American Consulate to get the paperwork done. We got his visa. The problem was with Manju, because Manju had asked me if I would get him his visa as well. They said, ‘we ain’t gonna’ give you a visa – you ain’t gonna come back.’ And he hardly ever came back!

When Guruji went to Encinitas I stayed in India. By that time, I had been there a few years and was one of the men that would go talk in Universities or give demonstrations, just like Sharath might do now. Guruji would talk and I would demonstrate the postures. 

Guy: Would he stand on you? [the way Krishnamacharya used to stand on KPJ while performing an asana and proceed to give a lecture]

Well, it depends. In class, sometimes he would do something like that. In conferences, it would depend where it was. In a university, it was different, more sophisticated than that! Because you see, it’s a class thing. Even though Guruji is a vidvan or even maybe a double vidvan, there is still a class consciousness of some type inside brahmanical orders. At that time he was just working his way up into a position. He was recognized as a great man, a scholar, a pukka Brahmin, but when he would mix with the academic people – or with rich people, you would feel a little bit aside. But he was cool as long as he was in his language. The Kannada language is so beautiful, like a cross blend. It’s like Italian, it’s a mixture of Sanskrit and Dravidian, so nice!

Bellowing through the streets of Mysore, [you would hear] this very beautiful Karnatic music. I used to listen to the music, many dozens of concerts with Guruji and Ammaji. You could sit and eat dosa and listen. The lyrics of all the songs that you hear – this is 18th century Karnatic rap, man! Spiritual rap to the utmost! To Vedanta to namarupa… that’s where it’s at, this is their heart, that’s Mysore. The music is spellbinding. You can bring the dead back to life with this music. Guruji, he knew every one of those songs… That’s where the culture is. Right there.

Guy: can you say a little bit about the character of the man himself, his teaching? 

Well, I went in there and trusted him right away. I was ready to let him do it to me, to submit to that kind of practice. First, I lived in the house and used to crawl upstairs and crawl back downstairs. I was laid up, disabled from time to time! Most of the time! My body was a hard body, I had been a bit of an athlete, played football. I couldn’t do Baddha Konasana, couldn’t do anything! I had some idea of form and the ability to use my body, but I wasn’t trained. So I could see I was in for it. It was like having a drill instructor. I was a good student, I showed up, I was determined, and I submitted to it. Sometimes, if you’re not a natural, it’s good to go through the whole cycle of events, and I most certainly went through the whole cycle of events. I know what can transform and get a new body if you want, if you persist.

One day I could hardly move. I said, ‘Guruji can we just take it a little easy, you know, I have time, I’m not going back over, I’m here and I’m digging everything. Do we have to do it so hard? Six days a week, double sessions, I did that for so long. But you didn’t have to do it that way. Many people in class with me never did it that way. They were the merchants. Different motivations, a whole other kind of criteria for the practice. The personalities are different, the events in their time are different. That’s what I liked about his room. You knew who came in there because they needed their regularity or had too many dosas in their belly – this person comes because they gotta’ come! They’re never gonna’ be jumping around but they can do something else. Maybe they are going to have to stand on their head for 30 minutes against the wall and all these different things, depending. 

Guruji was very beautiful in the way he could speak about the flowers and gems of the Vedanta of Shankacharya, his Guru and his Advaita philosophy. He was nimble and anecdotal in Kannada and Sanskrit, and was known as a very erudite, perceptive and humorous man, if you knew his language. I started to pick up on this language and enjoy it. In the room you could have — you can’t use the word ‘serious’ — but you could have people that did the form explicitly and those that did it inexplicitly to the max but with different accents – and this was going on simultaneously. If you saw the room that I taught in this morning, I kind of do it like that because that’s the way I saw it and that’s the way I learned it.

I’ve never seen a group class. He started teaching group classes at the Ayurvedic College with Basaraju where they did them in the batches, but that’s not the way I learned. I learned to look at the body and see these things and go like that [give an adjustment] and that’s what he had done to me. 

Sometimes you would get a prescription from the Doctor/Ayurvedic School and then work one on one. I used to work with him or watch him work on a Polio victim or stroke victim. It was wonderful to do that kind of work. And so, I learned and watched and learned and watched. I never saw any kind of big classes, and I always wondered how you could see what was going on with not only the physical position of the body…

So he broke me in, he took me all the way, I was there and integrated there and studied Ashtanga Yoga.

Guy: How far do you think the physical practice can take you?
In most cases probably nowhere, without taking other steps.
Guy: Without the right intentions?
Without the right intentions, without the right diet, without yama/niyama it ain’t happenin’. You gotta make sure that you dissolve the ego, get rid of the ego. If practice becomes sensational and competitive it is completely anterior, it becomes tamasic. You gotta’ become sattvic in potential, in means and in intent, or you don’t have a chance.

Guy: You don’t think that practice destroys the ego?

Practice often amplifies the ego depending where the intent comes. The warnings are out there. It’s in the songs, it’s all over the place.

Guy: Do you think Pattabhi Jois makes some kind of provision for helping people destroy that, the ego?

What I’m talking about is common Vedanta. Everybody knows it.

Guy: do you think the physical practice can lead to liberation?

Without real consideration? No. You might get a kundalini flash, an ah! ooh! Or ecstasy or euphoria or something like that. Until you know you are not the body what are you going to do? So if you associate with the body when you are doing the practice, you’ve got some traveling to do.

Guy: You don’t think that the obstacles that you encounter when you are practicing can produce a sort of sudden self-knowledge and understanding of yourself?

Yeah, you can say, “what am I doing with this compost heap, this carcass here, this heavy weight? I wanna be light! I wanna’ rid myself of it!”

But to rid yourself of it, you gotta’ cultivate that thing that one doesn’t get rid of, and that’s the Self. That’s what you cultivate. If you cultivate the shell, the carcass, this compost pile… you shouldn’t get enamored with it, because, if you do, you are really going to suffer, really very much, when it goes. And it’s gonna’ go. And the sooner that you can develop your Self, you don’t have to worry about it going anymore. You are more free.

The asanas take you out of the body and into the prana. You gotta go deep. You have to go to the next level. Forget yama/niyama. Prana’s where it’s at. It has to be cultivated, purified and considered. That’s much more subtle. The practice has to lead you to prana.

If you died right now – and this is what they do in Mysore – they’d tie you up into Padmasana real nice, you’ll sit good! So, I could put you in any posture right now if you were dead. You wouldn’t moan or groan, but I couldn’t give you the prana back. The body would look fine, the statue would look fine, but the prana is not there. Prana is really the next level. Everybody that has been doing this practice for so many years, if they are not into prana in every kind of consideration, I think that they have some nice things to look forward to (laughs.)

Guy: I’ve heard some people say that they see the practice as incorporating all 8 of the aspects of Ashtanga Yoga. For instance, if you have like a violent attitude and you exert that on your body, you experience suffering and pain and so you learn how to develop ahimsa. With the breathing you are working already with pranayama, with the drishti you are already introverting your senses, and so on. The practice somehow contains the whole Ashtanga Yoga in itself. What do you think about that?

Not much! (Laughs) The fine art of disposition. You can develop any kind of argument nicely and debate anything to justify positions, but it wouldn’t stand in any council of Vedantists. You can say that it would be something like that, but you would have to look to see is that potentially there? No big deal, it does a lot of things. 

If you wanna’ be a Hatha yogi, then you are going to put it into that perspective. The way people use that word Hatha Yoga, it’s worse than Ashtanga Yoga – much worse, to use generically Ashtanga Yoga as a system when there are only a few postures even mentioned in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras. You just get the equanimity from body pain and suffering (with asana), if that can be accomplished.

Hatha yogis had different ideas about what to do: using the body as an instrument for emancipation. They wanted to have the pure crystal body. They wanted to use this to transmute the soul and use it as real vehicle. They are the ones that cut the little ligament under the tongue to catch this soma, which we saw take place with that man in Pondicherry. He had to have extreme vows of brahmacharya. They couldn’t go and take their intestines out and wash them without continence. That’s Hatha Yoga, the co-mingling of the sun and the moon, the Shiva/Shakti is where it’s at. They would not be prepared to do Hatha Yoga if they knew what Hatha Yoga was. 

Guy: So, you think that is some kind of fantasy when people think that if they practice what we call Ashtanga, that somehow they will achieve some kind of emancipation? 

That’s only in the beginning. You’ve got a lot of other things to consider, even in samadhi, before you are going to be happening. You have so many stages and things to consider – samadhi with seed and without seed – you have to bring it on up, and when down you have to bring it up. It’s serious work. One in twenty million. It’s not suited for everybody, this yoga or any yoga. 

Except we gotta watch it roll, everybody on that road. You know, Richard Alpert? The whole lot of them tramped across to the East some years ago and came back with the good stuff. We went into their box and took the jewels. They are available to us. So many choices we get as dilettantes in the West. I’m afraid they are still looking for Poncé de Leon’s treasure! You know what that was? The Fountain of Youth! But you know, this practice has many other auxiliaries, it depends on how it’s approached. 

Don’t get me wrong, it’s beautiful, it’s a whole trip, with all kinds of integrated things. But we just want the gems, because somehow we think we deserve them. It’s for the same reason we find ourselves in problems again and again in the world. 

You gotta’ know the gunas. How can you do anything and not know the gunas? You gotta study something. He used to say, and I was the first one to hear it, “99% perspiration and 1% theory.” But that 1% theory is a lot of theory, and you have to know some theory. 

To have a practice that locks you into a format and a discipline that calls you to attention. It will teach you that. If you get afflicted in the body, what means can you use to un-afflict yourself? That’s all there. That’s precise and glorious if you can deal with it. It’s too late to dig the well when the house is on fire. ‘Oh, man I gotta go do some yoga…!’ No man! You learn it early and practice it and then when you are in trouble you can call on it, because then it’s appropriate.

Be established in it. It takes a few years of regular practice. You get to be intimate with your body, you know when it’s out of humor, and you can invoke some relief for it.

Guy: Do you have any idea where the system came from originally? Do you have a sense that this is something very ancient? 

I became very friendly with a guy who was my Sanskrit teacher for a while. I studied the Yoga Sutras with him. You know Norman?

Guy: Norman Sjoman? (author of “The Yoga Tradition of the Mysore Palace”)

Yeah. He’s my very good friend. Norman was one of the earliest students of BKS Iyengar. When he took his Sanskrit PhD from Pune all those years ago, he was being beaten by Iyengar heavy duty! (Laughs) Broke ribs there doing back bends. I got to hear all his stories. Norman came to Mysore. Norman is a brilliant man. He has to be the most brilliant “Sanskritist” in the world today outside of India. I would lay a bet on that. The court astrologer at the Mysore palace even wanted him to be his student, that’s why he got in and got those photos. He’s brilliant. He has a few flaws but other than that! (Laughs!)

Guy: He didn’t study with Guruji did he?

No, Norman used to give Guruji a hard time, but he didn’t study with him. The man on the cover of Norman’s book, Dattatreya, he was Norman’s student. When Norman had to go away, I taught Dattatreya Pattabhi Jois style.

Norman had his theories and I would listen, and Norman always wanted the to see the document [Yoga Korunta], because he would be able to [verify it].

Yeah, so that question, you asked me? First, of all, so what? This whole practice is to go beyond authority, and to experience. No. In my opinion you can’t trace it back to some thousand year old document, and you have to know the nature of Krishnamacharya and how he first presented it. It’s not too hard to investigate. But investigating is really not reaching out spiritually. Unless it’s for an academic approach, that somebody like Norman tried to present. It’s moot. I won’t even discuss it too much. It [Ashtanga Yoga] turned out to be a nice system.

No, I don’t know. It’s moot in terms of its origin. But its development can be isolated. Mainly, practice and experience is where it’s at. So you enjoy it, you watch your trip, and see how you develop in that trip, you got to continue, forget yama/niyama, you gotta do everything eventually.

Su gentile concessione dell’autore Guy Donahaye.