Ashtanga at its Roots: Studying Yoga in Mysore

The original version of this article was written in August 2012 and appears on

utthita hasta padangustasana
Photo by Christine Hewitt

Is it really important to travel to India to study Yoga?

I’m sitting on the rooftop of my apartment, watching an orange sunset through the coconut trees. A cool monsoon breeze rustles the leaves as scooter horns honk in the distance. And I can just make out a cow as she meanders her way up my street.

Yup, I’m in India.

I’m in Mysore, to be exact. Mysore is a city in the south Indian state of Karnataka, located about 90 miles from the tech hub of Bangalore. It was the home of Sir K Pattabhi Jois (Guruji), the world-renowned teacher of Ashtagna Yoga. Today Guruji’s grandson Sharath and daughter Saraswati continue his legacy as they teach traditional yoga at the Krishna Pattabhi Jois Ashtanga Yoga Intitute (KPJAYI).

This is my second trip to Mysore to study. I made my first journey less than a year ago, and plan to come back again. I’ve left jobs, an apartment, friends, family, yoga students and the comforts of home (washing machine, anyone?) to come dip my toes into tradition.

Someone asked me what the difference is in practicing here as opposed to practicing at home. After all, the asana portion of Ashtanga Yoga is practiced in a memorized, self-led style and includes the same postures every time.

Why make the journey to Mysore? What makes it special?

For any discipline worth pursuing, there is a root. Japan gives us Karate. France, Ballet and classical cooking. Capoeria is uniquely Brazlian, though its dance roots are distinctly African. Nashville is the headquarters of country music. And India gives us the beautiful practice of yoga, and that’s one of the things that makes it so special to me.

A few years after I began practicing yoga, I realized I wanted to learn from the source. I felt terribly unsatisfied with the way yoga was presented in the United States. The English names for poses sounded empty to me, and learning from teachers that treated it only as a way to stay fit felt belittling (it is, by the way, a great way to stay fit).

I wanted to understand the culture from which yoga comes.

I wanted to see India, to feel its pulse and to understand how this very Indian practice truly translates to me.

Here, actually in Mysore, I’m at the pinpoint of something universal. The practice room is full to the brim with yoga students from every corner of the globe. It’s hot and sweaty. It’s intimidating and at the same time so incredibly inviting.

Although it’s almost too crowded these days, I feel a sense of space among the masses. Most importantly, traveling here becomes a sort of pilgrimage. I’m able to devote time to really practicepracticing yoga, just as Guruji did here for his entire life.

I believe that anyone practicing yoga should have some knowledge of or exposure to the Indian culture and circumstances in which the discipline evolved.

But not everyone is interested in coming to India to study, and I think that’s perfectly fine! I simply felt the need to come.  I also feel that just because a teacher or a student has come to India does not mean they are a good teacher or a better yogi.

In fact, there’s a whole myriad of things that go into being an effective teacher

But I want to be a teacher who has seen India.

Last Sunday in the weekly group conference with Sharath (our teacher) a student asked how often we should come to India. He asked her why she had returned to study after almost two years. She answered honestly that she “felt the need to come back.”

He smiled and told us that was our answer. Come study here “whenever you feel that you need to come.”

Have you traveled to India to study yoga? Would you? 

Do you think it’s important for a yoga practitioner?

What about a yoga teacher?