Mar 8, 2014

Silence, Science & Samskara's. My Experience with Ashtanga & Mysore, India.

"Whats Your Hurry?" 
Personal Experiences With Ashtanga, 
Yoga and Mysore, India

  Stories of our yogic roots, my beginning in yoga, the beginning of yoga in New Orleans, yoga trends & modern yoga,… experiences in Mysore, to India, to intention, Silence, Science, Samskara’s, the Guru, fire and beyond. Enjoy!

  I can still hear him (the Guru, Sarath Jois) testing the Ashtangi’s from all over the world…”whats your hurry?” each time he offers a lead class early Friday morning. It is both funny and clever, invoking self-inquiry. “Yes, indeed, what is my hurry exactly?”. I can’t help but lift my head…”is he talking to me?”

   I am here in at the busiest time of year that Mysore experiences along with 400+ other yogis from every corner of the world…Australia, Japan, Hong Kong, Sweden, Germany, Spain, Italy, Russia, Canada, The United States, Argentina, Venezuela, Mexico. Ashtanga Yoga is the reason why we are here and Shri K. Pattabhi Jois is the Guru & roots to our lineage of my certification as a Jivamukti Yoga teacher. It is also why every Hatha yogi has heard of Mysore, due to Guruji’s studentship at the Palace here with Krishnamacharya, the well respected  Grandfather of Hatha Yoga. Now in the year 2014, Gokulum, the neighborhood that we practice in is quite a wealthy affluent one due in large to the growth and popularity of yoga. Many yogis here say this was destined since Guruji made his first trip to the United States, invited by Tim Miller, in the 70’s.

   Ashtanga was the first type of serious asana based yoga that I practiced in New Orleans after my very first certification in Sivananda Yoga in 1998.  I was introduced to Mysore style Ashtanga, which is unique as it is not vocally lead. It is a silent self practice within a group where poses are memorized and you do not move forward in the sequence until you are able to do each of the poses in order by yourself and correctly. To be honest, perhaps because of age or evolutionary readiness, it was too “quiet” for my active, rajasic mind at the time since there was no instruction with words.

   At that stage as a yogini, I had a serious amount of agni/fire and no understanding of how to temper it. So, for this reason, the affects of my personal Ashtanga practice were also still a bit immature, unharnessed & underdeveloped. I was ripe but had so much shakti releasing from me that the fire of impatience and residual anger of my youth ( I was a punk rocker & grew up in Seattle, so to me, anger was justified) was really amplifying. I have been known to be a bit of a rebel.

   Now here in Mysore, one day while I was practicing, I remembered Ram Dass saying when we were swimming with him a few years back in Maui that  “if any of those emotions come up, they are all from the ego, remember this…”, but, I was in my early twenties when I started Ashtanga. I didn’t know that at the time. No one told me anything. There wasn’t much yoga in New Orleans or people to ask about the pyscho-kenetic depth and affects of yoga where I lived. My kundalini was quickly altering & expanding. It wasn’t just a physical experience for me. I was hitting new levels of ungrounded euphoria that were quite addictive but untamed. I was also going on a deep Samskaric purge quickly. I needed some guidance. 

   My prior experience with Sivananda was basic but had philosophy (Advaita Vedanta), meditation and bhajan chanting (melodic mantra love songs). Those additional introductions of the various paths of yoga helped me to remember to cultivate a high purpose as I excelled pretty quickly physically in the beginning of my yoga introduction even though I wasn’t interested in exercise in my youth. Practicing these paths along with my asana practice got me interested in a greater purpose, cooled me down and centered me so that I kept in mind the reason for it all. 

   In Ashtanga back then, I felt like a child with lots of fuel and a large stack of wood. Without close supervision I was confused, so I kept looking. This was when I met Sharon Gannon and David Life, the following summer, in the foothills of the Catskill mountains of NY, where I was a lifeguard for a place they held one of Sharon and David’s first yoga retreats at a Jewish Bungalow Retreat. They offered dharma that really resonated with me and took great care to promote kindness and ahimsa. I was both mesmerized and intimidated by them so I knew I was onto something life altering.  Their teachings helped me to stay in the constant practice of purifying my heart and intention, “sankalpa” in Sanskrit. It was just what I needed.

   It is interesting to come back to the roots (and the roots of Jivamukti Yoga)  after so many years of tasting numerous flavors of schools, styles and approaches, which is one of many priceless gifts in co-owning a yoga studio. Now I have a deeper understanding of alignment, the benefits of practicing over a long period of time & experience in the whole history of the yoga explosion in the west. I can now better discern what is effectively good, some not so good, some pretty far off the mark lacking depth and what I need to get me to evolve. My intention has also finessed itself a bit according to need and where I am at in readiness. The shape of my body is also a bit cleaner as I started with pretty serious scoliosis in my spine. As a result of straightening that out it feels as though I also have less unsteady samskaras that needed channeling.

 I got inspired to consider Ashtanga again when David Swenson, one of the original Ashtanga practitioners, taught a workshop at our yoga studio, Swan River Yoga, hosted by Jessica Blanchard of Balance Yoga. You will find me at Balance 2-3 early mornings a week religiously studying in silence under their impeccable guidance. Those mornings have changed my life pretty noticeably. They have cooked me and simmered me down and brought quiet to my mind. My body feels great because of my dedication to those magical mornings,  actually the best it has ever felt.  Even better than my 20’s. It feels lighter, brighter, younger & more consciously alive. I also feel myself noticeably evolving once again. There was a short while in my practice where I wasn’t feeling much of anything but maintenance. I don't feel like that right now.

   Since I go to India once per year, I decided to test the source of Ashtanga out full on since I have been enjoying it’s affect on me. I am now in Mysore in the state of Karnataka, steeped in the original sequences of Krishnamacharya, now taught by Shri K. Pattabhi Jois’ grandson, Sarath Jois and his daughter, Saraswhati Jois. I have been personally curious as to how I would respond this time, some 14 years later, doing the same thing 6 days a week with hundreds of others that are quite serious about Ashtanga for an entire required month. I decided to apply to study with Sarath and I was accepted.

    Ashtanga seems to have a few strong reputations. One is that it is too hard for most people. Another is that many say you will get injured in due time. I have not witnessed either of these things to be so.  I do not consider myself an Ashtanga practitioner alone and I do not teach it, but I find myself appropriately challenged by it and have discovered radical transformative shifts. I was yearning for a push in my asana practice for quite some time now.  Ashtanga is orderly and I have not found Sarath to encourage anyone into something they are not ready for or jump ahead, which is often something I would do. In fact, he himself, like BKS Iyengar, did not have a healthy body growing up and so he tends to wait and practice serious caution to the point that people complain because they (or their ego, I should say) wants it all to go faster. I haven’t seen or heard of any unskillful adjustments from him. I have heard of unskillful practitioners that push themselves. I feel very safe. 

   As for the challenge to others, it is difficult, so it requires commitment free of gap, but the system in and of itself doesn’t push you beyond your means. It is also interesting to practice the same asanas over and over again so on can intimately observe the direct progress of dedication & the medicinal affects of each particular pose.There is an art to keeping something exciting after the novelty wanes, just like anything, any place or one you love. I enjoy the chance to cultivate enthusiasm as a spiritual practice in doing something the same way regularly.  I also love shaking things up creatively. Doing something the same way though often pushes my buttons. I enjoy more than ever getting my buttons pushed. The older I get, I want all the triggers out in a deep innate yearning to embody equanimity. There is simply more room for light to enter in.

   I adore being a student of yoga. Even if yoga seems trendy now, it hasn’t been a trend for me or the teachers I continue to surround myself with. They are all still going at it pretty full on. It was very esoteric & mysterious in the West and especially the Dirty South when I first started. I have enjoyed having new company in a shared love & growth of this ancient art that we have probably all done together before. I purely love yoga and the more I rededicate to it I continue to discover new unveiled wonders about it. It works for me and has been the path that has brought to me all of my most cherished experiences, awakenings and blessings. I love being around groups of adults (animals and all ages) that want to keep learning, remaining adventurous and are willing to be child like together.

  After our practice here at the Shala here in India, we can come and observe the more intermediate levels in the hallway. I like to do this because it becomes vivid that I really and truly am a beginner and I want to be reminded of this. My practice is not advanced at all physically. Watching some of the students in the second or third series has really revealed to me an entirely new level of masterful physique and sculpting of the body as such a beautiful art form.

    In all of my years of studying numerous styles and being around thousands of yogis from remote obscure villages in the Himalayan’s doing very trippy things to their bodies to the trendy Yoga Journal or other various wander lust conferences which I tend to not be so drawn to now, to giant styles of yoga rising and falling, here I find myself amongst the most physically advanced yogis I have ever seen. Hands down. The art of the breath, fluidity and focus ( drishti) is a spectacular art form.

   Another consideration of Ashtanga is that you are requested by Sarath to go to India if you really want to get into it. India itself, as much as I love her, is not easy. It is my opinion that every yogi should make the trek here if the means are possible. India is a very different, complex culture for most Westerners. I have watched many of them have pretty difficult times here and understandably. Coming here reveals to you that yoga is a deeply embedded cultural practice where behind it lies a thick spirit that can not be described nor compared to practicing yoga anywhere else. The air here is literally thick with history and a pantheon of realms and spirits. Also getting here is a serious “tapasya”. (applied discipline or hardship for a greater goal), pulling you out of everything you are use to and giving you the chance to change deep patterns. If you are really into something, why would you not want to come to it's origin? I have felt a stronger, more well established foundation within me by going to the literal, physical source of yoga here in India that I didn't understand until I came. It would be like being really into or teaching say Spanish Culture (art, music, history) but never going to Spain to steep in it.

   Now, back to Ashtanga specifically, please note that I did say that the Ashtangis are “physically” advanced. I have no idea if they are advanced in any other way because in Mysore style you do not really talk. I assume it is just like any other style. Some are in it to go all the way, and deeply, some are in it more on the surface. A thing I enjoy here is that for the first half of my day, until I get to Sanskrit & philosophy class, (which you really have to seek out due to the asana emphasis) I talk to no one and practice mauna (silence). If you do talk a lot, as do a few, it just seems somewhat out of place & insensitive to the environment we are currently in, and in the Shala, there is no talking, even outside. I kind of like it. The more Ashtanga/practice of silence that I do I think we humans talk far too much. We tend to lose an incredible levels of shakti coming out through our mouths. Silence in the practice is helping me to really notice the art of listening with greater spacial sensitivity. I have found myself desiring less words. It creates greater potency to the dialogue. I also find myself editing my words altogether. This is important for a teacher. I truly appreciate clarity and economy of words. The quiet has been profound and informative for me.

   The focus here for yogis, having traveled many places in India as a comparison, is predominantly physical. It is nice to have the time to address and really investigate the physical body and container. I desire to be healthy and understand where I hold my energy and karma's in my body so that I have an optimal ability to serve, to be kind, and to be happy. This is something that is unique about Mysore. It is why we all came. How often will you be in an entire international city devoted to this? I have appreciated having the single pointed focus to delve deeper into my physical practice. I know it is a rare gift to have the time. We all work quite hard here in our sadhana & I am learning a lot about my physical body & personality. As an “adult” (whatever that means), there have been numerous new discoveries this past month.

   As I watch interactions with Sarath, the students are here also for another reason, him. You must apply and qualify to study with him in the Shala. Not everyone gets to be here ( where the energy/shakti level is packed and through the roof due to it’s history of sadhana) and you must win his respect to have approval to teach Ashtanga if that is part of your incentive, which often takes at least 3-4 visits here with him for at least 1 month each time and getting through a good portion of the second series ( no small feat in and of itself as I personally witnessed). To have approval to teach Ashtanga is not easy. This is also a good thing. I do like that about this lineage.  I also do not have interest in his approval so that has taken some pressure off of my enjoyment of the series as a pure student.

Spice Market. Mysore, India.

   I also think to myself often here that the whole yoga charade might look a bit funny as a bystander from the outside looking in. We do wait fervently outside until there is space for quite a long time. Nothing is on “accurate” time but on “shala” time.  There are days I get no adjustments at all. It is a bit on the higher end in terms of investment from an Indian/Rupee standard. It is unbelievably crowded even from a NY city perspective and sometimes that practice is in the bathroom. My very first day this is what he told me, “you, practice in the bathroom. Go.” I think since I was new it was my initiation. There is a seniority here that we all fall into and he remembers the order. Having come all this way, there are no special privileges. I couldn’t even see him and of course did not get one adjustment from him or anyone as all the helpers are male. And again, this too revealed to me personal work and tapasya.

   Since my start time was the latest one when I first came, which starts at 4am, Sarath was reading the newspaper (still common in India) on the stage and stopped adjusting by the time I arrived. I simply didn’t see him moving about any more. I got a bit confused by this. Can you imagine me or any of the teachers doing that at Swan River? .  But thats just the thing, we are not in the United States and he has been into this thing called yoga far longer than I have. He still had everything under total control and didn’t seem to miss a mark. He was very sharp, aware, concerned and present. We are in a different culture all together and that is indeed a part of the teaching in coming to India.

   My attitude and pace have softened tremendously. I too am a bit less impatient, edgy or critical internally. In my practice, I have delightfully had the time to notice new nuances I hadn’t considered in each of the asanas before even in doing yoga pretty consistently since 1996.  I have also really found this new level of harmony in my approach, somewhere in the dance of the middle of effort and effortlessness, neither one greater than the other…. just enough of both so it is more elegant and fluid, moving in graceful waves.  I have been able to notice when I just fly through the practice with my ego, acting like it is so easy, but missing the juicy details that are fun to recognize and work on. In the transitions and I have noticed my tendency to over- effort at times, where I then get tired more quickly. It has been quite a treat to have the time to step back and observe myself intimately “doing” yoga for such a long immersion.

Chamundi Hill. Mysore, India

   It’s also quite a game doing the same exact sequence each day for the mind too. Sometimes my mind is thinking “this again. Can’t we do something different today. Why am I so crazy to keep doing this, and with all of these crazy, type A ,over the top ,extreme people?” Again and again. Or “can he please give me a new pose? I already know how to do all of this.” Which by the way, he gave me one (yes only one) new pose the entire time I have been here, even though I can physically do all the poses. “Whats your hurry…”

   I am beginning to realize there are so many layers to this thing, this Sadhana, that I am just scratching the first layer even if I think I can do it all and have done yoga for a few years now. Just this week even, I felt a new block in my mid -thoracic spine that I have never tapped into in all of my years of asana. It is my new focus. I am delighted at the assignment of releasing this. Now when I flow from up to down dog my spine feels more like an undulating snake. It just glides and leads the rest of the body into the movement. It is an incredible feeling I have never felt in this body before ever.  My body already feels so light and emptied out I was surprised to discover this. I thought I knew where all of my blocks were.  And it was funny, it was that day that I discovered it that Sarath came up to me and said “you are blocked here…” and pointed to it. “you must get this open to do all of the backbends well.”

   Now that I am working on this newly discovered block, there is a deep emergence of emotions freeing. Deep anger, qualities of pride and needs of acceptance that I had the chance to work through. For the first time in a long time I was cursing and swearing inside this week as I practiced.  I haven’t done that in years. I was tapping into some old grips of “egoness”. I remember in one Swan River Teacher training someone coined that “the inner shitty committee”… Loved that one. If I hurried through all of that I might have overlooked this entire new teaching and layer of release. Being in each fluid moment, the same one you have done, again and again, yet allowing it to be different, is quite a teaching.

   Working with asana and pranayama is such an incredible release, ascension and purification of our samskaras. The science of yoga is often forgotten but it is important to remember and respect. You are doing some serious manipulations to your karma, history and future by moving the energy at this accelerated yet grounded, visceral rate. Ashtanga requires 6 days a week from you at 6am if you follow the tradition fully. And many do. I have witnessed them. It is pretty inspiring. I like being around people that are driven, revealing care for what they do. Work is love made visible. I truly do bow to their level of discipline. 

  They say that the first series of Ashtanga is all about purification. It really takes your ego on a trip, because once you uncover a physical block, you are not allowed to go any further. Your block is not taken lightly by a good teacher. If it is a led class (which happens once per week), you sit and humbly watch everyone else do inspiring, picturesque poses that you can’t do yet and you are told to stop.  Now, with a healthy attitude, you realize the amount of work it took for all the able others to get there, yet there is no self aggrandizement here and Sarath is not trying to win your approval, impress anyone or fluff any words (which are little). I do like that about him. The little he does speak is direct and commanding, yet, when you leave the Shala each day after getting stripped down in a drenched, tattered, fresh mess, he looks at you in kind, caring understanding. When you turn around to bow to Guruji’s, his Grandfather’s altar, he notices that you have done so, and he makes an effort to clearly look at you in the eyes and smile at you, no matter what he is doing, every day, and even if you feel like a hot mess, of which I did often. He does this to everyone while assisting and running the whole show. It is quite remarkable. It is a sweet, sincere smile. It is obvious how much he cares.

   Today I go for what Guruji would recommend doing once a week for Ashtangis… a full Ayurvedic castor oil bath, where your entire body is dipped in a pure freshly ground thick castor seeds and 2  well known nick-named “Sisters” climb all over you, hanging by ropes, pushing your excess heat out with their strong feet. One of the “sisters” was the only Indian female in the first Primary Series Ashtanga video shown with Guruji. She has also practiced along side our teachers, Sharon Gannon, David Life & Lady Ruth. The whole web is connected. I enjoy being connected to this story and following in my teachers footsteps, being in their literal location or shared states of consciousness.

Vande Gurunam Charanaravinde. Sundarchita Svatma Sukhava Bodhe. Nishreyase Jagalikaiyamane. Samsara Hala Haalaa Mohashantyai. Abahu Purushakaram. Shankachakrasi Dharinam. Sahasra Shirsam Shvetam. Pranamami Patanjalim. Pranamami Patanjalim. OM.

   In the Tibetan Book of the Dead it is stated that when one is dying, the elements of the body are the first signs to look for, as they too become imbalanced. The excess earth will make you feel more heavy, the water will dry up, the fire will burn you, the winds unruly, unless tempered. Something in me has died in the commitment of my Ashtanga practice here and a tremendous amount of fire like traits has harmonized as I recalibrate my elements and connection to the earth. I felt it this last week especially. I am grateful. I must say I feel very very different.

   In Mexico, where I go each year to lead a yoga retreat, we have meditative bon fires to learn how to be  a “keeper of the fire” and meditate on the fire for 10-12 hours with the indigenous Huichole there, lead by a fire Master, called a Maracame. The practice is for innate understanding & relationship with fire’s nature and it’s “rasa” ( essence). We are not to move at all, trying our best to not lie down or move but to just fixate on the fire alone with our drishti as our Source of inspiration. Once “seen”, anything damaging about fire is no longer. It is instead illuminating and light shedding on deeper levels unknown before, be it toxic emotions or gripped memories that created fire like habits or qualities in our bodies. Without this light & depth, even our spiritual practices can remain superficial or inflate our tendencies.   I want to be sensitive and miss no-thing…so in the fire, the spark of our lives, I will remember Sarath…”whats your hurry”  with gratitude for the teachings this experience has brought in a full cycle.

No comments:

Post a Comment