Gokulam life in photos

A huge part of practicing Ashtanga yoga in Mysore, India is centered around the locals and yoga tourists who live in Gokulam. Mysore is a fairly large city, and Gokulam is the section of it where the Sri K Pattabhi Jois Ashtanga Yoga institute is located. From the coffee & chocolate man, to the sweet shop, cows, rickshaws and coconuts, here’s what you can expect to see if you travel to Mysore to practice ashtanga yoga. These are just a few of the Gokulam photos I took. There are many more photos from the trip to India over on my photography blog. Feel free to leave any questions in the comments, and Cyndi and I will do our best to explain what you are seeing!

-Cara

 

KPJAYI Shri K Pattabhi Jois Ashtanga Yoga Institutecoconutsindia rickshawthe coffee and chocolate man

Wondering how you can get yourself a copy of one of these photos? You can find them over in the Ashtanga4Life etsy shop. Enjoy!

 

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Oh right, this is HARD.

Settling back in after India; it’s now officially been long enough for me to have come through both the India-was-amaaaazing phase and the WOW-it’s-awesome-to-be-home phase. Now, I’m just back. Back to life, back to reality and back to the realization that having a 5-6 day yoga practice at 6am is… well, it’s hard. Or, let me rephrase, having a life AND an extremely intense, early morning practice, that’s hard.

tap water

One contribution to my "happy-to-be-home" phase: drinking water from the tap

Before I left for our trip, most of my life was wrapped up in preparing for the month away. I was working overtime to finish up things at work, pay my bills in advance, gather my supplies and let everyone know I was leaving. My schedule had become a monster, all of the hours between 4:30am and 7pm were scheduled down to the half-hour, 6 days a week. But it was okay. I had been running like this for months already, and hey, I was about to have a WHOLE month away from it all, so I just kept on chugging.

Now the month is over. The quiet time and unstructured days are behind me, and the 14 hour days are back. For the first few days, it wasn’t so bad. Again, I was fueled mostly by that happy-to-be-home bliss, and the days just drifted by. I was riding high by the time I got back into the Mysore room a few days after arrival back in Boston. That first practice was intense. I, regretfully, went all out and did Full Primary and up through Eka Pada Sirsana in Intermediate. This is where I left off pre-India; I was feeling light and energized with the steadiness and intensity of Mysore still guiding my movements. The twists, folds, and bends came with ease.

Then, I got home. Thankfully, I had taken that day and the next off from work, because as soon as I sat down on my couch, I could tell I had WAY overdone. Everything between my neck and ankles felt bruised and achey. The next day, I did only Primary. That turned into a week of Primary – and my body thanked me for it.

But that was just the Practice. Those aches and challenges were similar to ones I had faced in Mysore, albeit a bit more intense. Things didn’t really start getting tricky until everything else came back into focus, as well. The job, the business, the commute; responding to emails, returning phone calls, checking in with family… the familiar list of to-dos that goes on for so long that finding time for a shower becomes difficult. On top of the usual stuff, I was now playing a game of catch up, especially at work. Many assignments simply waited for my return, and once I walked back into the office, everything needed to be done, yesterday. I’ve worked overtime every day since going back to work. Weekends, late afternoons, and even some regretful early mornings which have interfered with my practice. The fatigue is returning and the balancing act has begun.

work

"Oh, here! We have some things to give you!" ...Real Life comes back into focus.

In Mysore, I told myself many times: Don’t get used to this, it isn’t normal. But, in the end, I had forgotten the actual scope of demands that I was getting a break from. Of course, the challenge of balancing life is a reality everyone deals with, not just me or just Ashtangis; everyone, everywhere has their own struggles, and tries to cope accordingly. Practicing is one of my coping mechanisms, but it is also my gauge to see how well I am dealing with everything else. I’ve noticed as life has started taking over again that my practice is becoming more distracted. I think about emails I need to write and places I need to be; deadlines and decisions encroach on my breathing and break my drishti. In short: it feels the same as it did before I left. The temptation to fly through primary and give up on Backbends is there, but now I realize that it these are only temptations. Going to Mysore showed me what a practice can feel like without the stresses of life, and I bring whatever I can of that into the practice room now. However, being home has taught me that life will always get in the way, and that I shouldn’t try to take on everything all at once, or I’m going to end up in a heap of pain.  It’s not only about moderating my efforts on the mat, but also finding a maintainable schedule, saying no to a few things, and being okay with the reality of things around me. In the end, ashtanga4life acknowledges more than just a life-long commitment to the yoga (and all that entails), but also the yoga’s ability to support the many facets of its practitioner’s lives. As my teacher has said, “You take care of the practice, and the practice will take care of you.”

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and…we’re back.

Cut to: Thursday, March 1st. 33 hours in transit from Mysore to Boston. That’s 4 hours careening down the Mysore road to Bangalore; weaving around trucks, pedestrians, cows, carts and entire families on one motorbike (mother, father, two kids and yes the baby too). I found it best to just close my eyes at some moments. Once, Cyndi let out an audible gasp as our driver performed a double-lorry passing maneuver with but a quarter inch to spare on either side. Our driver chuckled at Cyndi’s alarm, and when we eventually came upon an uncannily open stretch of road, we all joined him in the laughter. We had to. If you don’t laugh you might just cry. Or throw yourself from a moving vehicle. He was a good driver this one, he knew the way to the Bangalore airport. He drove with a nonchalant, meditative dexterity necessary for navigating porous and unpredictable Indian roads. “Every night,” he said. “Every night, I drive to Bangalore airport, and back to Mysore. For 8 years. I sleep 4 hours each day. My wife will be waiting for me.”

I measured the rapid excess of my own blood pressure, the holding of my breath at each changing of lanes. Every night. No big deal. Day to day existence in India is to a large degree putting your life in the hands of complete and total strangers. The busy roadway you are walking, the rickshaw drivers, the young man selling you the bottled water. It is a bit of a game of probability, but with over a billion souls in India, and growing, I suppose my odds are pretty good. So for a few minutes, anyways, I’ll pull my seatbelt a little snugger, sit back, and enjoy the ride.

Next 11 hours are spent on a plane, followed by a 9 hour layover at the Paris airport. At least they have espresso. And quiche. And those little bottles of red wine. 8 more hours on plane #2 sailing over the Atlantic Ocean and then BOSTON shows up on the little map projecting from the seat back in front of me. We land, and before I know it I’m in a cab exiting I-93 southbound for Jamaica Plain. And for the first time in my life I think all these Massachusetts drivers are some kind of traffic-law abiding angels.

Was it all just a dream?

Tuesday afternoon, Cyndi, Kate and I met up at the shala during office hours to say goodbye to Sharath. We were called into his office, we thanked him for teaching us, and for  teaching everyone who comes (so many people!). I had my camera with me and we chatted a bit about Canons and photography, and then he showed us his wildlife photography. Elephants, lions, tigers, deer, the beautiful kingfisher and other birds. His eyes smiled as he showed us a tiger taking down her prey. A prized photograph. “Many people want to buy this one,” he said pointing to the laptop screen. “I don’t sell, for myself only.” There was a point in his life, when he had the choice to either go to the shala and help his grandfather with the yoga students, or play cricket in the streets with the neighbors. He tells this story. For one week, he didn’t go. And then, he did. And he has been coming ever since. Perhaps Sharath would have enjoyed a career as a globe-trotting safari photographer, but globe-trotting yoga teacher is not a bad standby. I’d say its pretty good. And should the yoga thing not work out, he’ll always have his stash of lions, tigers and zebras in his private flickr account.

I was a student at the shala for one month. By the last few days I finally felt as if I was sinking my teeth in. Instead of a constant state of what is going on here I was becoming used to the sounds and the smells, the later morning practice time, the crowded shala, mid-morning coconuts, the food and the heat. The sore throat and the cautious stomach were gone. I’d found a routine, and also my husband had arrived in India a week prior and that was making me feel wholly grounded.

And then the calendar read February 29th, and we packed up our bags and set back out across the globe. Boston greeted us with snow. My cat was apathetic to my return, but still I was thrilled to see him. I used a washing machine, shopped at Whole Foods, and drank coffee from a french press. It is good to be home.

The day after we landed in America, I found myself wide awake at 3 AM and so headed over to Back Bay Yoga to take Karen Breneman’s led primary, her last class as our guest teacher here in Boston while we were all in India. Context was of course different, but these things were all the same: morning, me, mat, breath, posture, drishti, sweat, counting, and uth pluthi that seems to go on forever. And the practice continues…

Afterwards, we gathered ’round in the lobby so Karen could take a group photo on her busy little iPhone. We smiled, and in keeping with every Westerner’s “say cheese” joke in India, she said “Everyone say paneer!”

Be well, thanks for reading, see you Monday!

Cara

"Everyone say paneer!"

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Notes from our final conference in Mysore…

This week was the last conference I will be attending during my stay here in Mysore, and I think it was my favorite. It was another early one, 10am, and Sharath’s fatigue from teaching 3 back-to-back Led classes (2 Primary and 1 Intermediate) was apparent. He was still generous and patient with his time; humor was still often employed, but the tone felt more authoritative than usual — no nonsense. Efficient and to the point; good stuff.

In the beginning, familiar territory was covered: stories and anecdotes were used to remind us that Ashtanga Yoga is not just about the asana practice. A few questions were asked from students, and again his answers suggested a similar conclusion: Ashtanga Yoga is not only physical, but is instead a spiritual practice. All 8 limbs (including asana) are used to deepen our spiritual awareness, etc. etc. …

Then, a departure. He decided to turn the floor over to the audience and ask us,”What does it mean to become more spiritual?”

An awkward pause followed as gazes wandered and dropped, that please-don’t-call-on-me-feeling started to hover over the room.  I know I certainly didn’t want to try to define spirituality to Sharath Jois! Thankfully a few brave souls did raise their hands and attempted to answer.

The gist of the first attempt was basically:Being free from your body and mind; realizing you are one, and connecting with a higher power. Sharath’s reply: “No.” Then some head shaking and further explanation, “This is not wrong, but is a very shallow answer.”

Another hand goes up, and the second attempt starts with, “The Yoga Sutras mention…” but this is quickly rebuffed. “Do not quote from Yoga Sutras! Quote from yourself. I can quote so many Sutras. No Sutras!”

Eventually, he just told us. I wish I had written down exactly what he said, but his basic message was that becoming spiritual means changing yourself. It means learning to keep the focus on the internal world while turning away from the distraction and struggle of trying to change the external one all the time. Surrender. Accept. Change comes from this, yes even externally, but that is not the point.

Oh, so Simple…and yet, oh SO difficult. Hence, that whole lifetime of practice part…

Hearing a definition of spirituality offered in such a straightforward and universal way resonated deeply. No yoga jargon, no connections to religious beliefs necessary. Truly, this can be a practice for everyone.

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Bare feet and glitter

On our last Saturday (rest day) in India, we opted not to rest at all! Instead we climbed all 1,200 steps to the top of Chamundi Hill. In sarees. Kate wrapped us up in our new fabric purchases from Badsha’s Bazaar. We made the pilgrimage uphill, under our umbrellas (portable sun shade), to pay our respects at Chamundeswari Temple. Or perhaps watch others do so. Chamundi is essentially the “patron” deity of Mysore. Look her up, she is one fierce lady!
Yes, it was my day off from yoga asana practice, but the yoga continues. Being here, in India, trodding up the side of a mountain with monkeys and Hindus and yes many western yoga students, to purchase colorful deity souvenirs and mini casts of Ganesha, leave a flower, toss some water over my head, in heat, in a saree, bare feet on hot cement. It’s a cultural experience to be sure, all of this part of the landscape of India, the landscape where the practice of yoga is from.
I welcome this experience of context, the source of all those om’s and namastes we utter back home. It’s like finding the missing piece of a puzzle. It’s under the couch cushion. It’s covered in glitter. And it might even smell of cumin and sandalwood.

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T-minus One Week – other side of the world edition.

It’s strange, the process of time passing here in Mysore. Technically, I’ve been here three weeks, but if someone were to ask me how long I’d been here (and I couldn’t cheat via technology) I’d be at a loss to gauge the days in any quantitative sense. Plans are never set in stone here. No one is in a big hurry. Meal times blend into one another and familiar faces come and go sporadically.

And then, suddenly, it’s almost time to go. Only now, as my third week of practice draws to an end, am I finally able to form some coherent thoughts about the process. I began to realize what preconceptions I brought with me about practicing here only after experiencing what surprised me along the way. Of course, my time here has provided many surprises wholly unrelated to Ashtanga, but those will have to wait for a future post. For now, the practice…

I had been told a few things to expect regarding practicing here in Mysore:

  • That I would most likely be practicing only Primary Series for the entire month

  • To be wary of injuries because the “shala energy” can be a bit overwhelming

  • That I would probably be starting late in the morning, at least in the beginning

  • and that the room is always packed, necessitating the use of assistants during Mysore practice

In the weeks before I left, I didn’t have much time to sit and synthesize this information into any real sense of expectation, but I did find myself growing silently hopeful to practice only Primary Series (no Kapotasana – Oh Darn.), increasingly excited to start late and catch up on some sleep debt (and maybe even have some pre-practice coffee!), as well as oddly curious as to what adjustments I would and wouldn’t get (would they be the same as the ones I often give?). As for “shala energy,” that just sounded mysterious and slightly ridiculous, so I left a spot in my mind wide-open for it, and pushed it aside.

After being here for a few weeks, and having a chance to draw some preliminary conclusions, I know that:

  • the Primary Series is really fucking hard

  • Shala Energy is very real, very sweaty, and yes, very likely to cause injury if you aren’t careful

  • Practicing late is both awesome and extremely frustrating

  • adjustments in Mysore are familiar, but come with their own differences; also, they are necessarily rare in a room full of strangers and first-time-to-Mysore students – mostly you are on your own

The first of these conclusions doesn’t really seem that surprising. Obviously the Primary Series is a very challenging practice, but back in Boston, I had begun forward-folding through it at a frenzied pace as the length of my overall Practice continued to grow. I had lost touch with it a bit – and I knew it. But, being here and having no Intermediate Postures, no job to rush off to, and (often) no ability to check Gmail, Facebook or any of the other Internet crack my mind tends to wander towards at home – I’ve gotten a real chance to reconnect with the Series.

photo credit: Cara Brostrom

Uh, yeah...the Primary Series IS really fucking hard.

Also, being here made it new again. I was in a room filled with strangers. No one knew my practice and for the first few weeks in the shala, I moved with the heightened awareness of being in unfamiliar territory. Each posture and coordinating breath was deliberate as I continued to focus on the only thing that stayed constant on this side of the world: the sequence.

And, frankly, I had to stay that aware. If I hadn’t, the intensity of the room would’ve been too overwhelming to allow for any real focus. Distraction is easy when you walk into a steaming-hot room filled with 80 or so people jammed together mat to mat. Hands, feet and legs are flailing, dripping, and encroaching in and on you from all sides. Chakrasana becomes a slow movement marked by numerous double checks of the bodies around you so as to not accidentally kick someone in the face while rolling backwards. Transitions to Bakasana, Supta Padangustasana, and Garbha Pindasana are similar: you could hit or be hit at any moment. It’s too crowded to focus on ‘perfecting’ the asana; the awareness instead becomes more holistic: breathe, stay focused on yourself and your environment. Be present, always.

The dynamics of so much heightened awareness, such intense practicing, and the hot, humid room create the ‘shala energy.’ It’s an inspiring, energetic circus which makes every practice lighter and sweatier; before you know it you’ve tricked yourself into pushing too hard and injury occurs. Alas, it’s just another level of mindfulness to bring into the practice: listening to your body, staying partially grounded and in touch with the physical self in a place where becoming light is all too easy. I’ve definitely experienced some aches and pains over these few weeks, but no injuries so far. As time progressed, I became more used to what the room felt like, and moderating effort became more natural. The practice began to feel familiar again, but the deliberate movements remained.

Shala Energy

Can you feel it? It's SHALA ENERGY.

Eventually my start time moved from 10:30am to 10, 9:30, and finally to 9am, and I was no longer able to have leisurely pre-practice treats like breakfast and coffee. The distractions of food and caffeine made avoiding my usual penchant to rush through practice more difficult to avoid, but the gratitude and awareness of staying present have proven fairly successful moderators thus far. Part of me hopes to be moved earlier one more time before I leave, another part of me is just saying, “Who cares?” and trying to deal with the situation as it is. Ah, more battles of the mind to overcome: accepting the unfamiliarity of dictated start times and dealing with my current conclusion that practicing late…kind of sucks.

When I first heard that I would be starting at 10:30am (10:15, shala time), my immediate reaction was: “HELL YES!” My body naturally wakes up and wants to eat at 7am, so I was excited about eating, drinking, pooping and maybe even Internetting all before practice. And, by in large, all of these happened. My body was well-rested, energized and light. It ruled (!) …for like…2 days. After that the feeling of leisure turned to restlessness, and I realized I just wanted to hurry up and move already. As my start time slowly got earlier, I began waking up earlier to eat, drink, etc.; the start time was still too late to forgo eating altogether (at least, for me), and my old friend fatigue slowly began returning.

Sigh. I was actually starting to miss the Boston routine: up at 4:45am, catch the 5:25 train and start practice by ten of 6. When I finally got moved to 9am, I threw in the towel and gave up breakfast. Now I just try to stay in bed until 7:30am, linger about until 8 and then get to the shala by 8:20. There I am faced with some angry stares when the 8:30 or 8:45 crowd realize I am a 9am-er, but I just want to get it done already. No offense intended, I just really want some cereal. Facing the differences here has often made me grateful for what I am so (so, so, so) incredibly lucky to have at home: a consistent time and space to practice in, a smaller crowd to deal with, and access to an extremely genuine, compassionate and knowledgeable teacher.

Not that it hasn’t been incredible practicing along side so many other amazingly dedicated practitioners here. Getting to know many of the other Ashtangis here has been satisfying as well as fascinating. I’m especially impressed with the many practitioners who maintain a self practice during all of the time they are not here in Mysore. Even while here, it is impossible for any one student to receive that much one on one time throughout their practice. Sharath and Co.’s efforts here are certainly harrowing; in conference last week, he talked about his role as a teacher and how difficult it can be to have hundreds of students coming through every month. Most days he helps at least 200 people in backbending alone. Hence, his assistants. They are all authorized teachers, old timers who’ve been here several times and who Sharath has gotten to know over years of study. The adjustments I’ve received from any one of them have been capable, yet cautious. They tend to stick to a standard set of asanas to adjust (at least in Primary): Prasarita Padottanasana C, Utthita Hasta Padangustasana, Supta Kurmasana, and Backbending. Maybe, if you’re lucky you’ll get a Baddha Konasana squish, or if you need it, a tug in Marichyasana D.

The lack of variety makes sense, and it goes back to the anonymity of being a first time visitor to Mysore…especially one here for only a month. There is no way Sharath, or any of his assistants, can stretch themselves enough to develop a deep knowledge of anyone’s practice in a few weeks. They all help where they can, and even without personal attention, it’s been inspiring just trying to grasp the efforts and number of people the Jois family have shared the practice with over the past several decades. Everyone here is just another conduit for the Practice; if we are lucky, we find a good teacher and later, if we are really lucky, good students.

In the end, being here gave me a lot of time to think, not only about my own practice and the process of sharing it with others, but more deeply about the choices and responsibilities that go along with a truly life-long dedication to Ashtanga Yoga. It’s a lot to take in, and a powerful thing to sign up for. Although I cannot imagine my life without Ashtanga, I know I have a long way to go before I understand the depth of devotion I have seen during my time here. I respected the practice, my teacher, and the community I practice with before stepping on the plane in Boston, and this experience has only magnified those feelings. Am I ready to really experience ashtanga4life…? Maybe? I think so, even though it is a big job and asks quite a lot. But, in the end, only time will tell, so my plan is to take it as it comes, and yes…start planning for my next trip to Mysore. I’m definitely coming back.

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Welcome to India

Tuesday evening, the end of our new moon day here in India. I’ve just had a rest day castor oil bath. Not a habit I make back home in Boston, but when in Rome (or Mysore, as it is), you know what they say. I bought the castor oil this morning from the coffee and chocolate man on the street running parallel to the Shala road (this is real time GPS navigation for Mysore yoga students). He poured 50 rupees worth for me into a repurposed Nutella jar.

From the coffee and chocolate man I also purchased some fancy french jam, pasta noodles and Prego spaghetti sauce. The Prego is not an item I would ordinarily stock in my kitchen, but these days the hot topic among the yoga students is diarrhea: ‘I have it’ or ‘I had it’ or ‘I haven’t had it, yet.’ My own small intestine has had bouts of questionable activity, and the pasta with Prego is the best ‘we can cook this with our one pot and propane burner’ simple, solid, not spicy food we can come up with should things decide to head down south. Plus, it tastes like my college days. And the jam? That’s just a treat.

***Led Primary

A swarm of wasps has moved into the ladies’ changing room.

Cyndi pointed them out to me last week after led Primary series. We were gathering our things from the lockers, when Cyndi nodded her head upwards and said, ‘wasps.’ There they were, a dozen or so black wasps crawling all over each other, in hive formation. With one eye on our new friends, we pulled our kurtas on over our yoga clothes, and slipped down the stairs.

While waiting with a hundred other students on the steps outside the Shala at 5:15AM on a Sunday morning, I get that same sensation of hive behavior. Yoga students flying in from all points across the globe, swarming the shala and it’s teacher (and his dear mother). Little baby yoga bees eager to work for a queen who already has a colony bursting at the seams.

6AM and the shuffle begins. The 4:30 AM class is rolling up their mats and making for the exit. Elbows at the ready we shuffle into the practice room, barely making eye contact. At this single moment it’s every man for himself. It’s not that we want to be aggressive, it’s just that we have approximately 45 seconds to lay our mats out in the yoga room, check our accessories to a locker, and get back to our mats for vande gurunam. 10 seconds too late and you’ll be practicing in the foyer or worse, in the changing room with the wasps.

With so many students here, I cannot help but feel that I’m already too late. There are some who have made the yearly pilgrimage, who knew guruji, who have a relationship with this family, who learned in a very different fashion than we are today. And when they were full of the nectar that is this practice they set off into the world and shared it, with us. And now we are doing a sort of reverse swarming, returning to the origin. And although I am fortunate enough to have been given the nectar by these generous pilgrims I wonder, is there enough honey here to go around?

This is no doubt an interesting cultural experience, and a great luxury to be able to take the time to revolve my life around yoga for one month, away from householder duties, work deadlines, and winter. It is a magical yoga vacation, at the source of something I care very deeply about. But practicing in the city I call home, within the context of my daily life, with a teacher who knows me, my body, my life, this is how I learned this practice. I’ve come all this way to find that the yoga itself lies within. The yoga can do it’s work when it has the opportunity to take root in my whole life, and so I am thankful to be able to view this as a brief stop on a long continuum of whole life practice, not just asana. Nothing to prove, nothing to expect, just listening, breathing doing, one day after the next, Eastern or Western hemisphere.

***Mysore Style

9 AM, almost 5 hours into the morning Mysore practice at the Shala and still two hours to go, Sharath stood in the foyer looking out the window for a long time. Was he wishing to join the Japanese students at the coconut stand across the street? Perhaps longing to take a drive to the forest? Or to eat breakfast with his son? One of the things I find most endearing about this grandson of Guruji is how dutifully he has accepted his role, of how humbly he describes his role as teacher. I wonder, what is to come for the members of the Jois family and their precious charge?

I was standing outside with cyndi. She was not well. Sharath stepped away from the window, leaned out the door, and called out to Cyndi, ‘you have diarrhea?’ Cyndi confirmed his very direct assessment. ‘Welcome to India,’ he said with a smile, and then disappeared back inside the practice room.

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True Bliss

“Each practice should be blissful practice.”

R. Sharath Jois, Sunday conference 2.19.12

The blog has been silent this past week as I have had much to take in, to digest, to reflect upon, to observe, to seek and to find, or at least enjoy the grasping about in the dark corners.

Refreshed to find another week of practice before me (less one moon day) with bliss as the compass, mat to mat with strangers and companions, roadmap to nowhere and everywhere, on this side of the looking glass.

More to come,

Cara

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Shakti in the house!

Sunday morning was led primary at 6am, and I stayed after to watch from the foyer as Sharath taught counted led intermediate series at 7:30 am.

I have to admit, watching from a distance as 50+ Ashtangis practiced second series in unison was some crrrrrrazy looking yoga. I often think that about this series. It’s not pretty. If you’re not that down with yoga anyways, you might find it downright insane. Hey everyone, let’s do a series of freaky backbends followed some extreeeme forward bending with our legs behind our head in various orientations, followed by some padmasana while balancing on our forearms. Then we’ll do some seated poses which combine every twist and bind imaginable and finish up with about fifty headstand variations. Ok, go!

the koshas ashtanga yogaTo the untrained eye this seems like a big heaving breathing twisting contorting yogi mess. I get that. But energetically, there is something really magnificent going on. And I could sense that in the room.

Primary series is a lot of forward bending, of working in the hips and the hamstrings, strength building and all in all refinement within the realm of the gross body (Annamaya kosha, if you’re into the sheaths).

Watching the second series of ashtanga yoga I became very aware of the opening and lift created within the series. A lightness generated through its purification of the nervous system via diverse yet sequential spinal movements, as well as the mental challenges (and sometimes even fear) which these poses bring to the practitioner.

While there continues to be much action in the outer sheath – the physical body which may be sensed outwardly, there is a wealth of movement happening within the more subtle realms of the pranamaya kosha.

For the western mind I might describe this as a sort of aerobics for the nervous system. Or maybe an iron-man triathlon. Or climbing mount everest on your synapses.

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Check out Shakti's wicked sword!

I’ve been learning the intermediate series for just over two years now. Watching the full series, I know I still have a long sojourn ahead of me. But I was able to watch much of the led class with a kinesthetic understanding, a recognition of the form on the outside as well as an understanding of the inner life of the series.

I worked on pinchamayurasana for a very long time (still learning!). Each day when I reached this point in the series I felt like I was full of electricity. Sometimes this even manifested outwardly in small tremors or shaking. Sounds like a totally normal thing, right!? Well actually, maybe it is. Kate once described the shakti stirred up by this series. So I looked up Shakti on the ol’ Wikipedia and here is what I learned:

Not only is the Shakti responsible for creation, it is also the agent of all change. Shakti is cosmic existence as well as liberation, its most significant form being the Kundalini Shakti, a mysterious psychospiritual force. Shakti exists in a state of svātantrya, dependence on no-one, being interdependent with the entire universe.

Mysterious psychospiritual force? Sign me up! Thanks Wikipedia.

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Bhairavasana from Ashanga Advanced A series: translates as bhairava = terrifying, horrible; asana = pose. Sign me up, please! (image from ashtangayoga.info)

So maybe there are concepts that cannot be fully understood from reading a Wikipedia entry, but it’s a start. And tomorrow morning I return again to my own laboratory of research: the mat, my body, the practice.

Sharath wrapped up his epic led intermediate class with 5 poses from the 3rd series, Advanced A. By now there were only a dozen or so students still practicing. All others had stopped sometime prior at their individually assigned last pose. As we watched bhairavasana, another student sitting next to me in the lobby said, perhaps I will only want to stay with Primary series forever! There is always a challenge waiting for you Ashtangis, on your yoga journey.

May the force be with you,

Cara

 

 

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Not Authorized.

Kate introduced us to Sharath a few days ago. We are the Boston crew, all here in Mysore together. Cara was introduced as her assistant; I was, “a very good student, coming every day.” Kate also added that Cara teaches when she is out of town. Sharath’s immediate reaction: “But not authorized, not eligible.” Then that warm smile and the characteristic head bob; in combination these seem to mean, ‘I am only teasing, but not really, because I am right. Okay.”

Not authorized, not eligible – to teach, he means.

Ha. Well, not yet! No one really knew what to say, so Kate and Cara emphasized again that it was, “only when Kate is gone!!!!” and we all chimed in with, “Kate is our teacher! She is a great teacher!” … then some awkward smiles and looking at the ground while Sharath walked away. Cara is definitely on Sharath’s radar. Teaching ‘the method” of Ashtanga without being authorized is a bigger deal than I realized. Or at least it seems to be once you have a relationship with the Jois family. I wonder what the coming years will bring?

The whole interaction was pretty funny, and just..real. Things are said without judgement, just as facts. Like everything in India: just real. No one goes out of their way to make it seem like serving you was the highlight of their day; if they are doing a job they do it; if they genuinely enjoy it – you can tell, but if not, why pretend? It’s comforting (at least it is for me), and this element of culture extends into the shala, as well.

The day after our brief meeting, Sharath came up to Cara and me both during our individual practices. Cara mentioned this in her blog, she is “Kat-e-leen’s” assistant. Kate informed us that Sharath must’ve looked us up, the Boston crew, otherwise he never would’ve called her “Kat-e-leen” (his phonetic pronunciation of Kathleen). He also knew my name, which was a shock; yep…definitely looked us up. Putting a face with the introductions, kind of nice that he followed-up. He was paying attention, but there was no need to prove it to everyone.

He called me, “Cyn-tee-a,” and helped me with half backs. His fingertips were almost imperceptible on my low back, and yet I felt completely supported as I fell towards the ground. The half backs were fast, inhale-exhale, one, two, three, and then time to do the last full back bend. Exhale back, hands touch. “Walk the hands.” I inch them forward. “Walk.” Again. “Walk.” Again. “Walk.” My fingers are only crawling now, but I feel calm and my breath is steady. “Bend your arms, Cyn-tee-a.” My elbows bend, I know my fingers are almost at my heels now. “Very good Cyn-tee-a. Very good. Walk.” I touch my heels. “Very good.” Five breaths.

Chakra Bandasana

Sharath got me to go ALMOST this far. My hands stayed on the ground, fingertips to heels...and I looked A LOT more surprised about the whole thing.

Then the inhale – I fly up. I’ve never even remotely come close to touching my heels before. He chuckles. I’m sure I look surprised. I give him a “Wahoo!” look and he bobs his head saying, “Good. Okay. Okay,” before squishing me down in paschinmattanasana. It is a brief squish, and then he’s off to help some other sweaty Ashtanga devotee in the room.

That was the last day of Mysore-style practice for the week. Friday and Sunday are Led, and the latter I missed due to an inevitable occurrence of, “I ate something weird, and now my stomach hates me.” Thankfully, the worst of it is over now and I am ready for tomorrow.

…I think.

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