Friday, March 11, 2011

The Allure of Mysore

If we practice the science of yoga which is useful to the entire human community and which yields happiness both here and hereafter- if we practice without fail, we will attain physical, mental and spiritual happiness, and our minds will move towards the Self."
                                                                                                                -  Sri K. Pattabhi Jois

From what I've heard and read, Pattabhi Jois sounds like an amazing man.  Thanks to his focus and determination he has spread the life enhancing practice of Ashtanga Yoga throughout the world.   At eleven years old he ran away from home to study yoga with his guru in Mysore;  from a very early age his life was devoted to yoga.  He was committed to his dharma of teaching yoga even though he was extremely poor most of his life and some days didn't have enough money for food.  He loved to teach and I am extremely grateful to him for passing along this practice and for all my teachers along the way within his lineage.

I'm committed to the Ashtanga yoga system as my personal yoga practice.  I knew it after my first mysore style class eight years ago when I walked out of the room buzzed like every cell in my body was vibrating.  This year felt like the time in my life to make the pilgrimage to Mysore with the intention of paying respects, connecting to the lineage, and to experience practicing in the main Ashtanga yoga shala for myself.  My experience in the Shala was about developing gratitude and devotion for the practice that has helped me heal from a major injury and enhanced my life in so many ways. I would recommend anyone who is committed to Ashtanga yoga and has the privilege to go practice in Mysore take the journey for themselves-- at least once.  Everyone has a different and uniquely individual experience...  Now that I've moved on from Mysore and have been in Goa for a week, I have some perspective on my personal experience of practicing in the main shala.  Currently I am in Purple Valley Yoga Retreat with many other Ashtangi Yogis who are asking me what I thought of Mysore.  Here's sort of a sum of my experiences...

Lots of people from all over the world are in Mysore to practice at the Shala.  It was a great entry point into India because there is assistance to help students get oriented and find places to live; many apartments, services and restaurants cater to the influx of students.  Expect a week or so to sort it out if it's your first trip to Mysore and you don't have prior arrangements or many connections.  I was there in the height of the season and there were probably at least 250 yoga students at any given time.  The shala can hold roughly 65-75 practitioners at a time so students are given a start time to show up and wait for a space to open up.  The energy in the room is very special.  Lots of heat, bodies and past history of the Ashtanga culture is housed there.  It contains a strong community and most people really dig the vibe.  It was great to experience practicing in the main shala first hand and believe it's worth the trip just to see how it resonates with you.  With so many students it's difficult to get much individual attention and not the reality of practicing in the main shala these days.  I believe Sharath (the grandson of the late Pattabhi Jois and head teacher at the Shala) has a bead on everyone in room but with so many students it must take several months for several years to develop any kind of student-teacher relationship with him.  That's a major commitment and lifestyle choice if that's your path with the practice.

Sharath now has assistants in the room to help with adjustments but there is still a sort of hands off approach.  If you need help binding in Marichiasana or Supta Kurmasana, you will get help.  If you need help balancing in Utthita Hasta Padangusthasana or Sirsasana, you will get help.  There weren't any adjustments to take me deeper into the postures or just because they feel good.  I received an adjustment in backbends each day at the end of my practice and that was about it.  I would not say Mysore is the place to work on or deepen your practice if you only have one month to spend there, especially since there isn't much assistance or instruction from a teacher.  I did slowly build more strength and focus just by having a set schedule of practice everyday and appreciated building a more solid foundation in the primary series.  I feel like one month was enough time to pay my respects and connect to the lineage.  It would take many more subsequent trips to establish a relationship with Sharath and practicing in the main shala if one doesn't already have a history of going to Mysore.  Many people don't want adjustments or already think of Sharath as their teacher and really benefit from practicing in his presence.  I am not one of those people.  I benefit most from working with a teacher who will help and assist me in postures to further strengthen my practice-- to take me further than I can go on my own.

The fees for practicing in the Shala are expensive.... The cost is roughly $600 for the first month and $400 for each month after that just for morning practice. I was under the impression it was $600 for the first month ever, so in returning years it would be $400 the first month.  Apparently that is not the case.  The intention I think is for students to stay for a long time and not just drop in for a month here and there.  I had allotted for six weeks in Mysore thinking I would pay for the first month and half of the second month's rate.  I found out it doesn't work that way.  I could have paid by the week but the cost was about $150/ week.  I actually only had 1.5 weeks and $300 for eight days of practice just felt too excessive, especially since I wasn't working closely with Sharath on my practice.  If I had known this I would have planned for two months in Mysore, but I did not know this so for my last eight days I practiced with Sheshadri.  Sheshadri teaches Ashtanga yoga in Lakshmipuram and was a long term student of Pattabhi Jois, BKS Iyengar, and Krishnamacharya.  There were approximately 12-15 students in the morning practice session so lots of individual attention.  He is a powerful little Indian man with alot of insight and amazing adjustments.  I would recommend for anyone to practice with him if you do not want to practice in the main shala for any reason.  My experience at Sheshadri's is similar to what I imagine it would have been like practicing with Pattabhi Jois 20 years ago.  

Mysore is a great place to go to focus on yoga because everything else in life is cut away.  You can fully immerse yourself in the practice and study of yoga, and Mysore holds alot of yoga history.  In addition to morning practice, the shala offers chanting, sanskrit, and philosophy classes three days a week.  I took sanskrit at the shala and classes on the Bhagavad Gita with James Boag two days a week.  I highly recommend anyone in Mysore take classes with him; he teaches with so much heart and his presentation of the philosophy and how it relates to yoga is superlative.  As great as my trip to Mysore has been, it's helped me realize I am not in a place in my life where I want to only focus on yoga-- I actually feel an ardent need to be working.  Coincidentally, I found part time work to fill my days after practice helping a consultant who works remotely and lives in Mysore much of the year.  India is good that way... it seems to be giving me exactly what I need when I need it.  Like any lessons or anything I need to understand more clearly spontaneously appear.  Amidst the perceived chaos in India is an underlying vibe that everything is alright and exactly as it needs to be, which is the basic teaching of the Yoga Shastra.  Needless to say, I have already learned many lessons in my two months here, not only through my yoga practice which acts like a mirror into the Self, but also from living in India which is like a practice in and of itself.  I could not see going back to Mysore if I were not able to work at the same time.  

Mysore seems to be a preliminary requirement for those with a committed Ashtanga practice and is often spoke about as a mystical place within the Ashtanga community.  For me practicing in Mysore feels like a bit of a juxtaposition.  So many people are drawn there to practice yoga, yet it was really expensive and I didn't get much help with my practice.  At this point, I couldn't see returning to Mysore year after year for months at a time if authorization was not the goal.  Sharath said in a conference authorization should not be the goal and we shouldn't take asana practice too seriously.  Traveling all the way to India and paying $600 a month for morning practice is taking yoga pretty seriously.  If it were 20 years ago when the number of students and practice room was much smaller, and those who went to Mysore were practicing intimately with Guruji, the dedication to journey to Mysore to year after year to practice with him would be obvious.  It's not like that these days-- it felt like a bit of a factory cycling through as many people as possible.  There is a cap put on number of people who can practice in the shala.  How many people would come if there wasn't a limit? The whole social scene in Mysore is an interesting experience and psychological study in itself that I was fascinated by.  Were there many like me there for the first time to experience it for themselves and pay respects? With so many people all over the world now practicing Ashtanga yoga that would make sense.  Had most of the students there already invested years in taking trips to Mysore and have a solid relationship established with Sharath, or is their goal becoming authorized or certified to teach Ashtanga?  If a student has a really advanced practice and Sharath is the only person able to teach them then I can understand-- maybe Mysore should be reserved for those students.  Is it like the phenomenon that a product increases in value once it's no longer produced or albums increase in value once the musician dies?  Since Pattabhi Jois passed away several years ago is there more of a lure to make the pilgrimage to Mysore?  

Maybe I haven't spent enough time there to understand or with more time I'll feel a pull a go back.  What is the allure of Mysore, or is it just being in India which to me feels like the real practice?  Personally, I get more out of practicing in a smaller mysore class with a certified teacher.  The enchantment of practicing in the main shala wore off after a month and demystified what it was like to practice in Mysore.  If anyone feels to pull to go practice in Mysore- do it!  It was a lovely experience, well worth the trip, and I'm so glad to have experienced it first hand for myself.  Something would have been missing in my practice if I hadn't been there to practice.  I've learned I do not feel the need to be there to have devotion and depth in my practice, and feel I would benefit more from practicing with a regular teacher and having a real job where I can put my practice to work.  Go see for yourself what it gives you.

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