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.
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.
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.