It’s 9 AM, Cyndi and I are readying to leave the Kuteer guesthouse and head to the Shala for yoga practice. Sharath has moved our start time up to 10 AM (from 10:30). Over our yoga clothes we wear kurtas (long shirts) and scarves around our shoulders. We do this this to respect the modesty of women’s dress in this local culture, but also I would rather look a bit less conspicuous than usual (hard to do with my blonde hair and blue eyes). I’ve seen a handful of western yoga students wear tube tops and short shorts about the town, and I admit I too am shocked to see so much skin.
It’s a 10 minute walk to the yoga school. I note that the day seems cloudy, but I don’t know if the haze is more to do with atmospheric conditions, or the massive amounts of auto pollutants clinging to the air. This place is teeming with people, as well as their outdated fuel-inefficient cars, buses, and rickshaws.
On the Shala road a group of students is gathered around an enterprising young coconut man, who sets up shop outside the Shala each morning. There is definitely a scene here, I can see the potential for getting caught up in a sort of college-era popularity contest. But I’ve met too many genuine and good folk here to become absorbed in that, and perhaps am too old now to care now anyways.
Leaving my shoes on the front steps I say hello to the shala’s guardian, Prakash, and swing open the heavy wooden door to the foyer. Ten or so students are gathered there, sitting on the floor in concentric semicircles outside of the open door to the practice room, waiting to be called in to practice.
I can hear the ujjayi breathing of some 80 students in the practice room, the air is heavy and wet with perspiration and respiration. I can see the windows are all steamed over, and the day is only getting hotter. As one student finishes their back bending, saraswati and sharath call out, one more! And one by one we in the foyer are called in to practice. Sometimes there is hesitation, we who are waiting try to be polite and let those who were here first go in before us. But a second too long of delay, and sharath comes to the door and says, why are you fearing? Come come.
Saraswati calls again, one more! No one budges so I leap up even though I am out of turn with the others. I gingerly step over busy yoga mats to where saraswati is smooshing a student in paschimattonasana. This student gathers her mat and towel, and as soon as she steps away I am filling the space with my yoga mat and rug. My spot established, I stop off in the changing room where more ladies are lined up on the locker room floor doing their finishing poses. I stow all of the non-essentials in a locker, and then head back into the practice room.
Standing on my mat, a massive wooden clock hangs above the door. It reads 9:50 Shala time (Shala clocks are set 15 minutes fast). To the left of me a wall full of family photos, guruji and ama, saraswati as a young girl, sharath in what are surely the most bizarre poses of the 6 series of ashtanga yoga. In the center of this wall, two oil lamps burn on either side of a 3 foot ganesh, a lotus flower bowl at his feet. Larger photos of guruji, ama, and krishnmacharya hang from the other walls.
At the front of the room is the image of Patanjali. Below this, sharath sits in his chair, reading the newspaper. From behind the Times of India, I hear the occasional point your toes! Or you stop! His chair is on a small stage, and 3 students flank him on either side, practicing their yoga in every available inch of space in the room.
I begin and am already drenched by my 3rd suryanamaskar. It is going to be a sweaty 75 minutes.
Standing, holding my big toe, leg opening to the left, I turn my head to face right and sharath is there, assisting the man next to me with back bending. He nods to me and says your name is Cara, you are Kat-e-leen’s assistant. I nod my head to confirm, he smiles and we both laugh softly.
Sharath and Saraswati work hard, they start with the students at 4am, not stopping until around noon. They keep the mood light. I remind myself that these two are mother and son, and this is the family business. Occasionally a student will kick a window or crash into a wall, sharath responding, do not break the Shala! We laugh. It is always the same jokes, every morning. But they are welcome. There’s a lot going on that room, struggles, with the body and the ego. I certainly appreciate the humor.
I finish Primary Series. I secretly hope to be started on intermediate series while here, but it does not happen today, and I remind myself to let go of that longing and just be present and do, without expectation. Saraswati is stalking me for back bending. She must think I’m easy. I want to tell her no ankles today, only walking! But honestly I don’t even have the energy to protest. I just go back, she takes my hands to the ankles. I cannot find the space of ease in the pose, it just hurts today. I stand, then sit down to bend forward. She casually smooshes me, the way one might fold a newspaper before dropping it to the floor. There’s nothing dear about it. But that’s one of the things i love about ashtanga yoga. She calls to a student in the back row, move here! and then I’m out of there.
Afterwards, cyndi and I meet outside the Shala for a coconut. Sharath has worked with cyndi today on her backbends, taking her further than ever. She is glowing. She tells me, i couldn’t even feel his hands, but still felt very supported. I consider the subtlety involved in teaching yoga, and how many hundreds of students he must work with daily. It is a fine gift.
We stop for mosquito repellent on the way home. It’s hot. I wish I weren’t wearing so many layers.