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David Williams Interview by Guy

David Williams was one of Guruji's earliest western students and the first to start teaching Ashtanga Yoga in the West. We met in Maui in 2001 and we recorded the following interview.

Hello. My name is David Williams. I live on Maui, Hawaiíi. Iíve been practicing yoga since my senior year in college at the University of North Carolina, in 1971. Iím 52 years old and Iíve had uninterrupted yoga practice for 31 years now. People say Iím disciplined; I tell them itís not really discipline, Iím just fascinated to see what will happen with me if I do yoga practice in my life.

When I was in college, I heard about the yogis in India who got older and wiser. I looked around North Carolina and I didnít see anybody getting older and wiser. I was fascinated by this.

I was out at a farm and I saw a friend of mine standing on his head and putting his legs in Lotus and I asked him what he was doing. He said he was doing yoga. I thought I was in pretty good shape, but I knew I couldnít do any of this and I asked him if he would teach me. He said, "Yes," and that was the beginning. The more I got into it, the more fascinated I got and I decided I should go to India and find a yoga master.

Looking back now, I realize I went like a detective looking for the greatest yogi. Wherever I went, I asked people, took yoga classes. My searches took me all over India and in the spring of 1972, I was in Pondicherry, India, at Swami Gitanandaís Ananda Ashram. Thatís where I met Manju, the son of Pattabhi Jois. Norman Allen and I were friends and we met Manju and his friend, Basaraju, who were traveling around India giving yoga demonstrations at different ashrams.

We saw them do first series and I knew this is what I was looking for. I intuitively knew this was the next thing for me to learn. I asked Manju how he knew this and he said his father was a yoga master who lived in Mysore and this was what he taught.

My visa was about to expire, so I left India and saved enough money to return. Norman was just entering India, so he immediately went up to Mysore and started learning the yoga from Guruji Pattabhi Jois. Just as he was finishing up his first session I returned to India and I came up to Mysore and I started learning. I was with Nancy Gilgoff and we stayed in Mysore for four months. I learned first series, second series, and half of third series, plus the pranayama. I felt very fortunate because prior to us Guruji had never taught any foreigners since Indra Devi in 1930ís and so he gave us a lot of attention. We were practicing twice a day plus doing the pranayama and I was trying to learn it all as fast as I could.

At the time Guruji spoke very little English. So, the way I would learn was I would come early and watch somebody else doing the practice and memorize the postures that were ahead of me. I set a discipline of trying to learn eight postures a day and this is how I managed to learn the first two and half of the third series at this time.

When my visa expired I came back to America and went to Encinitas, California, where I began teaching yoga. After I had been there for a little while I got a letter from Guruji saying that he would like to come to America. I decided that I would help him get here and I would save $10 a week until I could bring him. I was all excited about the letter and I went and told my yoga class that he had notified me. They said, ďDonít wait on that, letís get the money together right now and send for him.ĒSo, the next day, low and behold, they had gathered $3000 and we sent for Guruji to come to California.

Initially, we thought he was going to bring his wife, Ama, but as it turned out, Manju, his son came with him and helped him teach. His getting a visa got delayed, as it has over the years at different times, and it was seven months before he finally arrived in Encinitas. By that time we had become a group of 35 people and we were working on the series every day and getting ready for his arrival.

Guruji and Manju came and stayed with Nancy and I and Terry Jenkins for four months and we had daily yoga practice in Encinitas. After that period of time ended, I wanted to leave California and go on to Hawaiíi and discover Paradise. Manju wanted to stay in America, so it was perfect timing. He took over all my classes in California and I came to Hawaiíi. I thought I was coming just for two weeks to check it out. Iíve been here ever since, twenty-six years, and taught yoga at many different locations and met thousands of people who Iíve been able to share this yoga with.

Guy: Can you describe your first meeting with Guruji?

My first meeting with Guruji was in 1973. I arrived in Mysore by train and got a hotel room. The next morning I got a rickshaw driver who told me that he knew where to take me. I was with Nancy Gilgoff. We got into the rickshaw and he took us to the home of an astrologer, who did live in the neighborhood where Guruji lived. It was the wrong address, but the astrologer knew who Pattabhi Jois was and he sent the rickshaw driver to the right place.

We got to Gurujiís house and he wasnít at home; he was still down at the Ayurvedic College, but was expected back in a while. Fortunately that day a fellow named Coconut Raju was there for Yoga class. He spoke good English and decided to stick around to be our translator. We made friends with him and have been friends ever since.

Guruji came in a few hours later and said, ďHow did you find me?Ē I said, "Well, I met Manju and saw his demonstration of the first series and Iím a friend of Norman Allen who has been here and I want to learn the Yoga as well. I practice every day; Iím really fascinated by it. As a matter of fact, Iíve even taught a few people. So, this was my idea to get accepted. I said, ďI think you should teach me, so that I donít return to America and teach people wrong.Ē Guruji thought about it a little and he said, ďOK, stay in your hotel for three days and in that amount of time Iíll be able to find you a place to stay near by and you can start daily practice.Ē So, indeed, thatís what happened. He found us a little apartment right around the corner from his house and we moved in there and stayed for the next four months.

Guy: What was your first impression of Guruji?

I thought he had a really nice smile. He was very intense with his focus and concentration, but I liked his smile. He was a very healthy looking guy. At the time he was 59 years old. He had great skin. He was a really radiant person and I knew whatever he was doing, I wanted to do it.

Guy: How would you describe Gurujiís teaching in those days as a young man?

Well, younger than now; he was 59. One would come to class and there was eight positions for people to do their practice. Each person would come in and start doing their practice. I came at 6:00 AM and 6:00 PM and I would do my practice. I worked up to where I was doing about two hours and a half each time. We were doing half vinyasas and then after the practice in the morning, we would rest a little and then come back at ten thirty and do the pranayama. I was totally fascinated by it. I wanted to learn it and put all of my energy and attention into that. For the next six years, until I had completed learning the entire system that he teaches, I put all of my energy into that and then after that, I continued to be able to have a mastery of it and itís been my fascination now for thirty one years.

Guy: Iíve often heard Guruji say he teaches real or original Ashtanga Yoga. What is your experience with Guruji as a teacher - a true teacher of yoga?

As I understood it, this series can be chanted move by move, breath by breath in Sanskrit. Itís an exact formula that goes back thousands of years and has been time tested to be the most efficient way that one can get themselves fit in the amount of time they put into it each day. My experience after practicing more and more years is the realization of the perfection of the orders of the postures. I say now that itís like a combination lock. If you do the numbers in order, the lock will open. If you just do any numbers nothing happens. I feel this is the way with yoga practice. If you do the yoga practice in a certain order your body and your mind open up. If you just do random yoga like is taught in so many places, itís much less efficient. So, the greater amount of times I practice, the more I appreciate the order of the series and when I teach people I try to teach them exactly the way I was taught and not try to modernize it in any way.

The other thing I found is that after ten years, one is starting to get a bit of a grip with the mulabandha. After twenty years, I realized this was the real strength of yoga. Now that it has been more than thirty years, more than ever I realize the real strength of the yoga is in whatís invisible. I tell people, whatís invisible is whatís important. The breathing and mulabandha; the name and the form, namarupa, is maya; itís an illusion. And the people who give too much emphasis to the name and form miss the real importance which is the mulabandha and the breathing, the invisible internal practice.

Guy: Yes, I would say that there is a real obsession with the asanas, the number of asanas, the series and so on, progressing through it. How would you say Guruji really focuses in on the invisible aspect- how does he teach the invisible aspect - even beyond the mulabandha and breathing? Ė The spiritual aspects of the yogaÖ How does heÖ how does this practice contain those things would you say?

Well, from the beginning he told us that the yoga was 95% practice, 5% theory. If you do the practice, all will be revealed and to me, thatís the spiritual part of having the revelations by first getting the body in a fit enough position where it wonít interrupt you, so you can get into a state of meditation. The word 'yoga' and 'meditation' are synonyms. I, more and more over the years, work to make my yoga practice a moving meditation and then at the end of my practice, when I get up and walk away, I continue that meditation into my life, all day long, so I consider the practice to be a foundation of a twenty-four hour a day meditation.

Guy: Were there many Indian students in the yoga shala when you started practicing?

When I started practicing, other than Nancy Gilgoff and I, it was all Indian students. At that time about 90 to 100 people were coming each day. They would start at 4 AM and go until about 10 AM, then again start in the afternoon at about 4 PM and go to 9 or 9:30. After several weeks a fellow from England, John McGeoch, came. He became the third non-Indian and that was it.

Guy: Did you ever see Guruji practicing?

No, Iíd always hoped to, but it never happened. My greatest wish, maybe, was that I could have practiced with him at one time. I asked Saraswati why he didnít practice and she told me he had had a bicycle wreck and after that had discontinued his practice and never recontinued. When I asked him myself, he told me that he was putting all of his energy in teaching us and not into his own practice and working on his legacy that way. As I was the student and he was the guru, it was not for me to question at that time. For my first twelve years with Guruji, I tried to put all questions aside and just surrender to the Guru and do as I was told.

Guy: Were Manju and Ramesh teaching with Guruji at that time?

No, only Ramesh was helping. Manju was traveling around India with Basaraju, but was not teaching in Mysore.

Guy: Can you say something about Ramesh

Ramesh was my best friend in Mysore, other than Nancy Gilgoff. He taught me quite a bit at the time. He spoke very good English and so he could explain things to me, answer my questions, lead me around the market, introduce me to Mysore. We spent a lot of time together. He was fascinated being with us, I think, because he had not met any Americans previously, other than Norman and his family. We were great friends and, like I said, in the classes I liked his help very much and I liked Ramesh very much.

Guy: We described this practice as being an ancient practice which precedes Guruji and which will live beyond (his) lifetime - what do you see as Gurujiís role in this?

Well, Iíd say with Nancy and myself introducing Guruji to America, the three of us, plus Norman, when he was in America, began the spread of Ashtanga to all of the world. At the beginning, Guruji just taught a limited number of brahmins in Mysore. After he started teaching us it went world wide, which was Gurujiís wish and I think it made him very happy to see that this happened. I believe more people outside of India now are practicing Yoga than inside of India.

Guy: Why do you think that is?

A lot of people in India didnít have the leisure time to do it, for one thing. A huge amount of the population works for enough food to feed themselves and their family that day and they are working from dawn to dark. Also, at least with this system of yoga, it was only taught to brahmins up Ďtil we sort of released it to the rest of the world and prior to, say, the 1960ís, yoga was kept pretty much a secret. The guru taught the disciple and there was a lineage and, before mass communication, one person would learn one yoga system in their life, if they got introduced to Yoga. Now all of that has been blown wide open with mass communication and videos and all of that.

Guy: What kind of role did Ama play in Gurujiís life?

Ama played a very strong role in Gurujiís life. She always had a smile. She was really friendly with all of us; it was a joy to see her. I always loved eating her cooking when she would feed us. Sometimes we went on picnics and those were the best meals that I remember in India. She was really a fine nice person. She wanted to relate to us and as quickly as possible she started learning English, once the foreigners started coming. She ended up learning to communicate pretty well, but even before she knew English, she was very intelligent and figured out how to communicate from the beginning and everybody loved Ama.

Guy: Would you care to share some final thoughts?

My final thoughts that I would like to share is that everything that I was looking for at that time in my life, I got from Guruji. I went to India searching for the best possible yoga practice and I found his system and started learning it with diligence. Since then I have still continued my search of the world for the greatest fitness program; I ask everybody that I meet, ďHave you found a better yoga system than this?Ē I still havenít found anything better than Gurujiís ashtanga yoga practice. If somebody said to me, "OK, you have fifteen minutes or one hour. Do something good for yourself; you can have all the equipment, no equipment, barbells, bicycles, whatever..." I would get down on the floor and start doing my Salutations to the Sun and start going through the first series. I am entirely indebted to Guruji for all of the hundreds of hours that he put into teaching me the ashtanga yoga.

Originally published on Guy's website:



Copyright 2004 David Williams  

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