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“Old student” and certified teacher Prem Carlisi talks to AYI about studying with Pattabhi Jois, tradition and change, as well as guinea pigs

Sabine: Prem, first of all thank you so much for taking your time for this interview – so far, Bali is most certainly the most “exotic” location of any of our interview partners! In fact, you’re probably also one if not THE interviewee with the longest yoga experience, so let’s go back to the beginnings: what was your initiation to yoga? By all accounts, “initiation” does not seem too big a word to use in your case…

Prem: I was introduced to yoga through some friends – in fact some women friends – of mine. They told me: “Tony, you’re really gonna love this”. Tony is what they used to call me back then. I had many different names, Tony Carlisi being one of them. So, “Tony,” they said, “it’s amazing, you need to come.”

At first I was extremely reluctant since I remembered the impression I had of yoga as a child and I definitely wanted no part in it, it just seemed so otherworldly. You know, when very young, I had watched this program with whiney music in the background and a strange, old (which means at least 40 years old…) woman in a leotard. That were the days when you only had three channels: I’d actually been looking for cartoons and I immediately changed the channel for something different but the image nevertheless stuck in my head and I didn’t want anything to do with yoga.

How it all began....

My friends were persistent, though, and in the end they dragged me to a class. In this first class, I wasn’t allowed to participate actively. By the way, we still do it the same way today, i.e. we have newcomers watch their first class, they don’t participate but only look what’s going on. We also ask them to commit for at least four weeks, so no drop-ins.

As I said, I went to my first class, which surprisingly enough was in an old Christian church – very high ceilings, stained glass. They had cleared out the whole building and carpeted it wall-to-wall. It was the “Ashtanga Yoga Church”. In fact, this is what they called it, “The Church”. So I ended up there and I couldn’t believe what I saw. The people that were practicing were highly advanced. I sat in my corner and watched and was simply mesmerized by those beautiful bodies. Probably about three quarters of the way through, the teacher came over and asked me, whether I wanted to participate. I answered: “Yes, that is what I want to do”. They asked me to sign up for three months. I was at first a bit skeptical but they wouldn’t take any less so in the end, this is what I did, I committed myself for three months.

I turned up the next morning at the agreed time. They proceeded to take me through Surya Namaskara A and B. And that was all! I was 21, I was fit and I said “gimme more, I can do that shit!”. But they wouldn’t let me do even one tiny bit more that first day so I kept coming back each and every morning.

This went on for three months. We had a group of about 25 to 30 people who became like a real family: we would always hang out, spend the weekends together and do something like a kirtan every Saturday. I’m telling you, when I started, I knew nothing, literally NOTHING and all of a sudden I was changing so incredibly fast. There was me, off the street, eating hamburgers, hotdogs and other junk – and I went from that into full vegetarianism and yoga. When I do something, I do it full on.

Pattabhi Jois, Mauii 2001

Sabine: As far as I know, your first encounter with Pattabhi Jois also took place in the US. What do you remember about your first time practicing with him?

Prem: One day, there was word that Guruji was coming. I asked “Well, what is a guruji?”. I had no clue what a guruji was at that time and they told me “Well, this is the guy who is the main man in Ashtanga Yoga”. Pattabhi was coming over for 6 months and I immediately signed up. So he showed up and there were also about 20 people from Hawaii coming over, suddenly turning up on our doorstep. Crazy, hippy-style people – including David Williams, Nancy Gilgoff, Danny Paradise, in other words all those people you hear about. Now the room was full, it was really packed. Then Guruji entered the room. He was a man of my current age – I’m 61 right now. My reaction was “Who IS this guy?” He was like something out of a storybook, wearing a white shirt with glasses on, looking really insignificant. He was cruising around the room, giving us only little sound bites and instructions. In fact, his English wasn’t very good. But he impressed on us merely with his presence – a truly overwhelming presence and authority – for the entire six months. He was like a grandfather figure, a coach and a mentor, all of these things balled into one. You know, I lost my father very early on, so when someone like this shows up, that’s a memorable experience. He was very instrumental in my evolution or rather the revolution that was happening inside me. In fact, I remained close to him up until the day he died but those 6 months were very transformational and guided me into my life-long path with Ashtanga Yoga.

Sabine: After this first contact with Guruji and practicing with him in “The Church” you also went to India numerous times. Can you tell us about what it was like to practice there? Were there any differences to what you had encountered in the US?

Prem and the "old students" in California in 1975

Prem: The following year I went to India with a group of other people. In fact, it was the first group of Westerners showing up on Pattabhi ’s doorstep. There were six of us. Everyone else stayed for three months but I stayed for six. Again, it was a very powerful time for me: my first time in India and my first time with him in his home. He welcomed us in like we were his children. The same with his wife. She was so beautiful and gracious and welcoming and she fed us and made us coffee every day. We hung out with Guruji every day and he gave us discourses in his broken English. He truly didn’t speak much English but he shared with us what he could about the Yoga Sutra and different Sanskrit texts. He shared his profound wisdom with us every day. So we stayed on for three months. When everyone else left, I stayed on for another three months and went travelling in India.

Sabine: To my knowledge, this journey ended with a quite unpleasant experience, which you also describe in your book “The Only Way Out Is In”.

Prem: Yes, that’s right. At some point of my journey, I got sick, very, very sick. I caught amoebic dysentery and I can tell you, I came THAT close to dying. I’m very thin anyway and during my illness I lost a lot of weight. Amoebic dysentery is very intense, I couldn’t keep anything down. Looking back, it was totally crazy: at the time when it happened, I was in Benares, the City of Death. It’s a Shiva town, a place where people go to die. They were burning the bodies there and throwing them into the Ganges River. I was living on a houseboat and to both sides of me, there were funeral pyres. Oh my God, it was such a disgusting experience and as I said, I was literally dying. Still, I mustered up the strength to go back to Guruji and his wife Ama. They then took care of me and nurtured me as best as they could. I tried to practice but at a certain point I told him, “Guruji, I need to go home.”. I did that and that’s when I actually found out that I had amoebic dysentery. It took me about a year to fully recover from that.

Prem on one of his many trips through India

Sabine: How did you stay in touch with Pattabhi during the years that followed?

Prem: I remained with Pattabhi till the day he died. I was very committed to come back every year and to go everywhere he went in the US. Then, however, I got kids. But still, even with kids, I tried my best to see him whenever he came to America since I couldn’t go to India as much any longer. I remained devoted and committed to him till the day he passed. In fact, I was in Hamburg, Germany, on the very day and suddenly had the intuitive feeling that something had happened to him. I told my wife Radha, “I think Guruji passed.” I went online but there were no messages but later on that day there were many emails that he had died, so the connection between us was there till the very end.

Sabine: One of Pattabhi’s famous slogans which probably every Ashtangi has heard at some point is “never changed anything”. Is that right? If not, which changes did you observe in Pattabhi’s teaching?

Prem: The main changes I saw in him and the way he approached things was that the numbers got out of control. The amount of people that were being attracted to him and his methodology literally exploded. What is interesting is that he remained very personal to me and other senior teachers and students. “The old students” is what he used to call us. For instance, at conferences, he’d announce “ah, Ragama, very old student”. Nevertheless, as I said, at the same time the numbers were growing exponentially, there were crowds everywhere he’d go and the numbers truly got out of hand.

Another significant change I saw in the early 80s was that all of a sudden he came up with that thing called “led class”. When I first heard of it, I thought, “what the hell is a led class?”. In fact, it was because the numbers had gotten so big that he decided to do led classes, this why they were created. There wasn’t any reason other than that. He simply couldn’t handle that many people in a Mysore room. He wanted to demonstrate to all students what was the correct vinyasa, the correct count. And everyone started to take that literally. They just took everything LITERALLY and blew it out of proportion. Led class was simply to demonstrate the vinyasa, NOTHING other than that. I think it can be an interesting teaching tool but people are now often using it as the primary teaching tool for teaching Ashtanga. In my eyes, led class is completely stupid, it’s the most ridiculous thing of Ashtanga. I don’t like it, I don’t like led class! It’s not correct – to the contrary, it’s Mysore style, it’s self-practice, it’s self-focus that counts.

A class with Guruji Pattabhi Jois

Sabine: In view of your opinion on led class, I think I can already guess your reaction to the current tendency to “speed classes up” as it were, i.e. for instance to reduce the number of breaths. What’s your take on this development?

Prem: Again, when I started, we were doing eight to ten breaths. Led class: five breaths. In the end, Pattabhi did a led class from Samasthitih to Shavasana in 55 minutes. 55 MINUTES! We were like “What the hell is going on here?” It was hilarious, like circus. Everyone started practicing faster and faster and faster – that is the way they taught it. After the 55 minutes he’d say “next” and everyone dispersed, making room for the next group. And another group. And another group. He had so many people and that was the only way to run them through the whole thing. And once again, they took it literally, and they continue to take it literally. So does Sharat – he simply takes it LITERALLY! It’s like a god-damn code, it’s like the Ashtanga religion now. Which is totally ridiculous.

Sabine: A further aspect of Pattabhi’s teaching I’m very interested in is adjustments. Especially in the beginning, they seem to have been very hands-on and physical. Is that correct?

Prem: Again, from the perspective of observing this for almost 40 years: I watched him and I was in a room with him with hundreds of people. He was a master of touching and adjusting people. We actually were guinea pigs. I’m gonna share something with you that I’ve shared with some other people since his death. And this is directly from Manju Jois, I’m not making this up. Manju was holding a workshop in Maui, Hawaii. It was shortly after Pattabhi’s death and many of the old students were there.

David Williams was basically interrogating Manju about the Yoga Korunta. He said: “Manju, I just want to talk to you about the Yoga Karunta…”. Manju cut him off and said “David, you know, Guruji made up the sequences, he’s the one who created the sequences.” All of us looked at each other and thought “What did he just say?”. A couple started chuckling nervously, but I laughed right out, a real deep belly-laugh and said out loud “That’s so hilarious!”. Since in my mind I flashed back and remembered how he’d change things, how he moved some positions here and others there. For instance, he took out the seven headstands of Intermediary. He was moving things around the whole time and when we asked him: “Guruji, why are we doing this now?” he always replied “ah, same method”.

For instance, he came to Maui in 1981 or 1982 and introduced a new pose. He said: “After Parsvakonasana, you take this pose, you do Parivrtta Parsvakonasana.” We started doing it – and Jesus, it is a hard pose. But we did it and kept doing it for a year. So he comes back the next year and says: “Why are you doing this crazy pose?” And we said: “Guruji, you told us to do it.” To which he replied: “Ok, you take it.” This is the kind of person he was, a joker, a kind of prankster. He was testing us all the time. This is also why I was laughing so hard when Manju told us about Guruji making up the sequences, creating them all by himself. I specifically said: “Manju, that means we were like guinea pigs”. To which Manju replied: “Ya, basically ya – all of you westerners that showed up, he was doing research on you.”

Let me add something to that: you know what his institute was called? The Ashtanga Yoga Research Institute – he was doing research on us every day!

The Carlisi family with Manju Jois

Sabine: You were among the first westerners who went to Mysore. Do you think that there is a difference between you, his first students, and the people who went to Mysore later on?

Prem: Oh my God, it’s “like night and day” as we say in English. Completely, completely different. The last time that I was with Guruji, I was kind of disgusted. I was disgusted by the energy, the cliqueness, the overwhelming concern about “What series are you on?”. There was all this jealousy and weirdness and people fighting for space. For instance, after the first led class, people would fight, they would argue over a stupid little yoga space. It was just insane.

When we went there and I was with him, we were authentically showing up, we were sincere students. I don’t want to come across as purist, but we truly made sacrifices to be there. I worked my ass off and used every little bit of money to go to India. I’d do anything to go to India and stay for six months. I did that every year. Now people just go there and want a stupid little piece of paper. A stupid little piece of paper that means nothing. I didn’t even want a certificate. He wasn’t handing out pieces of paper but just said “Yes, you teach!”. That was the traditional way, when the teacher sees that you’re ready to teach, he tells you “Yes, you go out and teach.”.

Sabine: In fact, this leads me to my next question. When you taught your first yoga classes, you hadn’t been given the “go ahead”, whereas by now you are an extremely experienced (and authorized…) teacher. What has changed in your teaching approach over the years?

Prem: Well, in fact it’s still changing and evolving. When you’re young and dumb and full of no experience you think you know everything. The same with me: in my twenties I thought I knew everything. Pattabhi told me not to teach but I was already teaching. So I said “But Guruji, I’m teaching” and he replied “No, you don’t teach”. I was very hurt and offended and my first reaction was “F*** off, I’m still going to teach, that’s how I earn my living.”. Still, looking back, I had no business teaching then. Eventually, he said “You teach!” and gave me his blessing. That was very important for me. In the end, I also did get a certificate. In fact, it was Sharat who encouraged me to get it. I think it was in 2000. There was a tour in London, England, and Guruji was there with Sharat. Sharat came up to me and told me “Anthony, you should be certified.” I answered “but what’s the point? It’s only a piece of paper.” To which he replied: “Yes, but there aren’t many people who are certified. You’re an old student and I think it’s something you should do.” I then talked to some of my other friends and in the end decided to go for it. So around 2003 Guruji gave me a certificate and he put 1994 on it. I said to him: “Guruji, why are you putting 1994 on it, it’s the 2000s!” He only nodded and said “Ah, very old student.” I just accepted it and after that many years I really cherished and valued it, it was much, much more than just a piece of paper.

Sabine: Let’s come back to the present or rather the future. You mentioned to me that you had plans to come to Europe on an annual basis from next year on. What is it that we may we expect?

Prem: Yes, that’s true. In fact, we intend to come to Europe to teach there in June 2017. Right now, we’re still in the planning phase but all dates and the actual locations will shortly be announced on our homepage.

Sabine:Well, in this case we’re definitely looking forward to hearing more – and hoping that Germany is somewhere on the list! For the time being: thank you so much for your time and for sharing your experiences, insights and ideas!