Don’t believe anything anyone tells you! Including us. These wise words have been shared with us by a number of our teachers. Experiment, see what works for you. Verify what you hear and what you are being taught. And so, this is what we decided to do, to go to Mysore, pay our respects to the lineage of this transformative practice and check it out for ourselves. Traditionally, the teachings of yoga were transmitted from Guru to disciple/student based on a system called ‘Parampara’, a Sanskrit word which refers to the transmission of direct and practical knowledge. This type of study happens over a long period of time, not in an intensive one month training course (more on that in our next post…). The emphasis in Mysore, and what students have been doing since the 1970s, is returning year after year to practice with Guruji, and now with Sharath and Saraswati. In doing so, students are demonstrating their dedication and devotion to the practice and to working on themselves. On a practical level, you supposedly need to have made at least 4 trips to Mysore for several months each if you want to be authorised by the ‘source’ to teach this practice to others. As we were sat on our flight heading to Bangalore, from where we would take a 4 hour journey to Mysore, we wondered - will this trip turn out to be the first of many for us too?
If you have ever travelled to India you will know to expect, amongst other things, organised chaos, bustling crowds and crazy traffic, and the bizarre legacy of British bureaucracy. Arriving at 4am in the pitch black at our intriguingly-named home for the month, the ‘Mystic School’, we were struck the following day as we walked about the residential Gokulam neighbourhood of Mysore at how it was unlike any other place in India we had previously visited. It was relatively quiet and clean; large colourful houses were set along leafy, tree-lined streets and aside from a cow or two meandering along, the streets were empty with no yogis in sight. Well, it was Saturday, which is the ‘traditional’ day of rest in the Ashtanga world; otherwise you practice 6 mornings a week. On Sunday we went to ‘register’ with Sharath and were gruffly asked ‘who is your teacher?’, ‘can you do primary series?’ and then ‘why you late?’ Err….I don’t know, are we? As far as we knew, we were on time to register for the exact date we had applied to come. This was the first of many unexplained peculiarities, which at times defied our Western applied ‘logical’ thinking and left us amused, confused and basking in the delight of being back in India. Another classic is so-called ‘Shala time’. The clock in the Shala is 10 – 15 mins fast. You are told to show up 20 mins earlier than the practice time you have been given. So add 15 minutes of Shala time onto that and you get your arrival time, or so you think. At some point, usually early on, everyone was publicly berated for being either too early or too late. It didn’t seem to make sense to try and understand the ‘system,’ if there even was one.
The Ashtanga Vinyasa practice is traditionally taught in ‘Mysore Style’, referring to a supervised self-practice where each student moves through a specific set sequence of postures at his or her own pace and level, as directed and supported by the teacher. Traditionally, the next pose is only given once you master the previous one. When Guruji began teaching, in addition to his Indian students he only had a handful of Westerners, enabling him to teach them on an almost individual basis. The numbers started to grow and continued to swell over the years. This seems to have influenced the teaching and practice itself, which has become more of a set sequence, seemingly to deal with the increasing numbers of students. With the growing numbers of students, inevitably the attention they received became less and less. With little direct instruction, adjustments or focus on alignment (which some teachers would argue is potentially injurious over the longer term) we wondered what people really learned in this type of environment.
Instead, what we, as so many others, experienced is the powerful energy of practicing in the Shala in Mysore. A popular saying amongst Mysore Ashtangis is that 1 day of practice in the main Shala is worth a month of practice at home. There is something very special about sitting quietly at the doorway to the Shala, patiently waiting your turn to practice until Sharath calls out in his distinctive voice: ‘one more.’ You enter the Shala and try to identify the spot that is just about to be vacated. Immediately, you are enveloped by the heat and sweat rising off each practitioner in the room, the effort applied in purifying the body and mind every morning. Some bodies leap and flow gracefully; others thump themselves around like some strange form of self-punishment. Your ears are struck by the energising yet soothing sound being emitted from each person; ‘breath with sound,’ sometimes referred to as ‘ujjayi.’ You sense the laser sharp focus. You feel the collective intention and devotion to the practice. Although Sharath has been up since the unenviable hour of 1:30am, first to do his own practice and then to teach us, his eagle eyes are keeping everyone in check, even if he is sat appearing to read the daily newspaper, as Guruj did in his later years. Sharath’s comments were kept to an effective minimum; though no one in the room could resist smiling when they heard such gems as ‘no fear no fun’ (generally spoken to someone hesitating in their drop-backs), and ‘why you hurry, you got somewhere to go?’ (when someone was rushing in the led class). All the while amidst this scene, Guruji, whose inspiration and guidance is ever present, is gently looking down at us from the wall at the far end of the Shala. On several occasions, as I finished my practice, seemingly out of nowhere tears of gratitude would well up as I knelt and bowed to Guruji, giving thanks for everything this practice has given to me. And then, in turn, offering my respect to Sharath, who would always beam back at me.
Part of the beauty of this collective intention present in the Shala, is that it spills over outside too. You can feel it in the places you eat, the kirtans (devotional chanting) you attend and the people you meet. Gokulam is a residential neighbourhood so for the most part the only foreigners you see are yogis, mainly here to practice Ashtanga Vinyasa. This results in a high concentration of aligned energy in a small place. That is certainly a large part of the powerful draw of being in Mysore. We reconnected with friends we had met in Thailand last year, some we had met in India 2 years previously, and made new friends, who had all made this pilgrimage to Mysore, the melting pot of Ashtanga Vinyasa yoga. A large part of the social scene revolved around food. Many places to eat were in residential homes, open mainly during the ‘season,’ where delightful hosts such as Anu and Ganesh (Anu’s place), Sandya (Sandya’s place) and Guru Prasad (Pink House) would open up their homes, and pour love into their cooking, creating sumptuous delights for us yogis to recharge ourselves with. Oh, and did I mention the ‘Chocolate man’ who sold melt in your mouth chocolate chip cookies and peanut butter chocolate? Inevitably conversation over shared meals would turn to ‘Shala drama’: what Sharath said, what he did, who got told off for arriving at the wrong time, etc. But these were also wonderful occasions to connect with people, as our paths intertwined at this juncture in time, in magical Mysore.
Outside of our practice, we also immersed ourselves in a variety of classes. We did a Sanskrit course with the entertaining Lakshmish at the main Shala. Yes, we can now just about write the opening chant of the Ashtanga practice. Catherine tried her first harmonium classes with the lovely Radha and nearly bought one to take home. We listened attentively with our ears and hearts to James Boag’s passionate accounts of lessons from the Bhagavad Gita. Originally from Yorkshire, now turned wandering Sanskrit and yoga philosophy ‘vagabond’ (his own words!), he truly spoke from the depths of his heart. We left James’ talks and kirtans literally glowing, radiating a warm fuzziness, feeling that our souls had been truly nourished. One gem which gave us a lot of food for thought was on the topic of identity. He put forward that what we, as humans, want most deeply within us is to be recognised. If no-one recognised or acknowledged you at home, in the workplace or as you were walking down the street, how would you feel? Whether we know it or not, the ego desperately tries to create and cling to a sense of identity we create for ourselves and through which we are recognised by others: I am Ewan, a lawyer. I am Catherine, a yoga teacher. We grew up here. We studied there. We live in Senegal. When you strip these outer layers away, what are you left with? A fear of not being recognised, of being no-one. The practice of yoga helps us to unravel these self-created layers bit by bit. It helps us to overcome our fear that nothing will remain if we strip them away. It instead gives us a glimpse of our infinite beauty, a blooming lotus flower within that knows no boundaries or limitations and feels no fear. Last but not least, we attended Sharath’s ‘conferences’, which take place every Sunday. His sweet but mischievous 6 year old son, Sambhav, was often in tow, imitating his father as he sat on his chair in ‘padmasana’. Sharath’s love of cars led him to allude to yoga as being like a function in the new Land Rover cars, ‘terrain management’, helping us to navigate the difficult terrain of life. His comments and observations were refreshingly clear and direct: ‘do your practice and the practice will grow in you.’
In spite of our initial misgivings, we seem to have painted a somewhat rosy picture of Mysore. But just like in any other corner of the globe, there are bores, and there are people with big egos. Before led classes yes, there is some rather un-yogic pushing and shoving to get into the building and secure a spot. The cleanliness of the rugs in the Shala is highly questionable. The style of teaching is a little abrupt. And no, you won’t get that much attention or adjustments. However, as a friend told us on our first day, every person gets what they need in Mysore, even if you don’t initially know what that is. So would we go back you ask? A resounding yes, and we hope to be blessed with the opportunity to do so again soon.
For more information on the Sri K. Pattabhi Jois Research Institute (KPJAYI): www.kpjayi.org
For a bite-sized portrayal of Sharath Jois: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6dSAyFmmARI
For a beautiful account of Guruji, upon his passing in 2009, written by our teacher Paul Dallaghan: http://www.ashtanga.com/html/article_dallaghan_pj.html
For more information on the inspirational James Boag: www.jamesboagyoga.com