Monday, February 8, 2016

between dark and light

Post practice chai means seeing the sky change from dark to light. 

It's Saturday, after Led Primary, the first batch. We come out of the shala and it is pretty much as dark as when we came in around 4 in the morning. Not an extraordinary occurrence here for those with early start times. But over the course of post-practice chai, the sky changes, color slowly returns to the street, structures become more and more defined by the minute. 

I know not everyone can relate as many are starting later in the morning, coming to the door when it's pretty much daylight out. For me, however, this time of the morning, the hours that straddle the dark and the light really remind me of what it's like to practice here. It's a medium for the dualities, good and bad, dark and light, love and fear, they all have a place here. 

This yoga bubble is also a magnifying glass for the real, which we get to see extremely up close, whether it's that sweet opening, so soft and light that it feels blessed by a divine shower of flower petals falling from Devaloka or that moment of grappling with your demons in the dark, that struggle of epic-like proportions. Both extremes exists here, sometimes simultaneously or, at the very least, in remarkably close succession of each other. 

It has been bright returning to India, to once again be a student, to be in the presence of my teacher, to check in with myself, and to meet old friends, fellow journeymen and women, who I have seen throughout the years. The interactions with the later have been particularly special already. To see people change and grow over the year or years is a testament of time and practice. All around I see evidence of transformation, the evolution of human life, which plays out though the year, in our work, our relationships and our general state of being, all skillfully fueled by sadhana, or spiritual practice. All this is also a reflection of the many changes in my own life over the years. 

Even those who I do not know personally but have assisted in the shala since last year or in 2013--it is also really special to see these fellow-students again on their mats in the shala. I am inspired and honored that I get to see the changes in their practice albeit without any life context. It's a pretty amazing thing to experience as an assistant.  

Of course, the more light it is, the more visible the shadows. This first week here has also been about seeing the shadow sides of being in Mysore, the bits of dark that hide in this or that corner of my own ego. 

Sitting in observation of heavier feelings and energies is not my favorite, it makes me feel raw and uncomfortable, though I also have a growing appreciation for it, a better understanding that there is no running away, that there is no real way of covering that which needs to be seen and recognized. 

This first week has been about adjusting to the shifting light and nodding respectfully to the shadows. What comes next, I cannot say! But I look forward to seeing the light change, and the dark too. 

Monday, February 1, 2016

the honor and the privilege

Photo: (c) Barbara Süss

It's 3:10am and my friend and I arrive at the Shala gates, there's already a healthy number of people waiting there, somewhere between 25 to 30. It used to be that going that first morning meant seeing many familiar faces. I counted, 4 or 5, most of whom I met last year. Later more familiar faces arrive but the ratio is fairly unchanged. Mostly it is a sea of new faces. 

This is ok, of course, this is how Ashtanga is growing. It is a different time.  

Because of the growing numbers vying for a spot to practice at the source of Ashtanga yoga, however, a good many long time or returning students could not get in this month or the months previous. I myself got a deny for January and feel blessed to be here now.

I'm amped, and surprised to feel nervous and excited on my first day back at the Shala. Time has not calmed that; I'm glad because it reminds me that it still matters a lot to be here, to practice in that room, to be led by my teacher. 

The rugs are gone, the floor is springy, Sharath teaches with a microphone tucked into the neck of his t-shirt, but the count is the same, if not speedy. So is that incredible wave of energy that just picks you up and carries you through led primary. There's no frills, just straight up practice. 

Afterwards, I down my coconut and swiftly, without engaging in any conversation, walk back to the place where I am staying. This time feels sacred. I get half way there and break the silence between me and my friend, "I'm so happy to be here." There is a little crying, I must admit, I'm soppy like that.

What I'm feeling is this: it is a privilege and an honor to be here. 

I feel this more now than ever because of the new challenges with applying, there are just no guarantees. But the truth is that it has always been an honor and it has always been a privilege to be a student here. 

I realize that even if I profess to understand this, I have over the years lapsed in really living up to it. So many trips doing too much or doing too little; not resting enough and spending too much time at the coconut stand; not studying properly or taking too many classes. 

It's a process, of course. Every season is an opportunity to find a better balance that is healthy and sustainable and respectful of this really intelligent practice. 

There's the coming here, all open hearted, surrendering to the feet of the teacher. Then there's walking his walk, talking his talk. I honestly can't say I've totally done that. I don't think I'm a "bad lady," I'm just learning like everyone. 

I know that I am not the only one to make googly-devoted eyes at Sharath during conference, eyes in samadhi-like concentration or hands busily note-taking so that I might might absorb as much wisdom, only to step out the door and do exactly the opposite.

Surrendering isn't breaking open your chest bone to grab ankles, it is really trying to live the eight limbs, it is listening to our teacher, it is doing as he asks us. Before we act (not just on our mat but during our entire time here) we should ask ourselves, is this in keeping with the great tradition that I've come all this way to learn from? I like to think I'm ready for this way of practice, if not long overdue...

Again, I cannot say it better than: it is an honor and privilege to be here.

Friday, January 29, 2016

coming home

One flight down, one more flight away from Bangalore, then one car ride to Mysore. Really, I travelled all of yesterday, as well. I left San Francisco for Asia mid December. It feels like getting to Mysore has been particularly long this time around. 

Tallying it up, I feel the craziness of it all, that it's kind of absurd that one of the most stabilizing factors in my life has also fed my mad compulsion for movement. Ultimately, the feeling of heading to Mysore now feels a lot like coming home. 

After six years, five seasons, it is about returning to the familiar, it's about reconnecting with friends (it's a lottery, to be sure, but whoever makes it at the same time, whoever I meet year after year, it definitely feels like a reunion); it's about reconnecting with my teacher (and with its weird sort of dysfunctional parental-like issues, like wanting approval yet wanting to be beyond the wanting of approval or wanting to be noticed yet wanting to be confident and cool enough to be that ignored middle child); and, of course, it's about reconnecting with India, which is also a wise but wily teacher.  

Coming home is also about meeting myself, it's where I get to stand with my back against the wall and mark my height over the years. Mysore is a measurement for change as much as an agent for it. It is where I get to feel how different I was from last year, or from my first trip in 2010, or the change between the me that arrives tomorrow and the me that leaves at the end of March--because I will no doubt be different. 

It is the place where I often find THAT thing (you know the one!). The one that I think I'm so over, that old issue that hasn't presented itself in ages but inevitably resurfaces in a way that can't be overlooked or easily hidden--because that's also where some of my most persistent ghosts live; they live at "home." 

Coming home to Mysore is as complex as returning to my family home or my home town(s). It is both a celebration and a reckoning. I have had amazing experiences and I have also cried through entire trips, the amazing and the difficult are often rolled into one. Sometimes there is more amazing than difficult, sometimes it is only amazing, sometimes only difficult. 

Either way, I'm glad to be on my way. As transitory a place as it is, for that flash of a moment, it is home--with all of it's crazy, with all that I love about it and all that I find fault with, where I exist between this strange friction of belonging and being uncertain of my place in it all. In any case, like the times I return home to visit the places where I've grown up, each time is more beautiful than it is confronting.

It's hard to go home without any expectations, still, here I go. Mysore, coming... 

Saturday, April 4, 2015

Boat builders

I build a boat. There are reeds and leaves and colorful powder. Picked buds along the road. And country coins that I've fished out of my purse: a rupee, twenty-five centavos from the Philippines, a penny, and an Egyptian pound. The peso coin I place on the stern of the boat, this is where I come from. The penny I place at the bow, because I know that is the direction I am going, I am returning to--also where I am from. And the other two in the center, Egypt and India, my heart openers. And I sprinkle my vessel with color, placing just a piece of tamarind on top--for sweetness, for this is the best description for this time here: it has been incredibly sweet! 

The four of us: boatbuilders, stealing a few precious moments before parting ways, packing up, boarding trains. So, here we are, constructing metaphorical ships, great carriers of what has transpired, of the great work of the last three months, of new hopes and clear(er) intentions, along the ceremonial ghats of the Cauvery River, exactly where we wanted to be, though we didn't exactly know it as we set off in a mad rush from Gokulam in search of flowing water.

Each boat means something special for each of us. Each are similar and each are unique. Each resonate. And in the end, the river swallows each of them; their journey is not meant for the surface. And I trust that regardless of the currents, their essence will empty into the sea.

For me the boat is the practice, it is my vehicle, my life raft, my home. It has carried me to so many places, some awesome destinations and some less than glamorous corners of the world. Then there are the other places: dark recesses of mind and ego, and then there are the expansive heart spaces... All together, they have made up the most incredible adventure of my life. 

So the season ends. Three months in Mysore closed. The practice, however, continues. The building, the traveling to new lands whether that is in miles or in kilometers (or in complete stillness) continues. We continue to build, to grow, to flow. 

Incredibly grateful to my fellow boat builders, particularly those who set sail with me on April 1. Louise, thank you particularly for this special and potent ritual. Even the local man at the ghat appreciated the sanctity of it as he helped us guide our boats into the water. I am grateful to ALL the boat builders, the dear friends and strangers that have made this experience called Ashtanga Yoga incredibly special. And to the Captain, the Boss, there are no words ample or subtle enough to express my gratitude. 

Friday, March 13, 2015

shivaratri and the spirit of yoga

Barbara capturing the light show at Srikanteshwara Temple in Nanjangud.
I wish I actually had her photo of the light streaming into the stone structure, truly divine! 

It is Shivaratri and we assemble a group to make the road trip to Nanjangud, where Srikanteshwara Temple has drawn Shivite devotees and Hindu pilgrims since ancient times--harrowingly, on scooters. There are busses and large trucks with sugar cane. There are rickshaws and cars. There are livestock of all sorts, on foot and on wheels. All of which stirs up the dirt on the road and just sticks on skin. 

We get there, dodging vendors, and we wait in line. We buy a ticket, which is kind of odd, after all, surely, there should be no express lines to see gods. No one complains, however, because it is definitely faster. Much faster. 

Still, there is waiting, the eagerness to get to the holy of holies, to bow before the representation of the Divine, make for anxious crowding, in which there is no room for personal space, some que-snaking is there, and any movement forward must be filled in immediately otherwise there will be unhappy glaring or, worse yet, the loosing of one's place. It is ok, we laugh (reminded of how we actually duplicate this on led mornings) and we wait patiently until the jolting moment of being quickly shuffled in and out, allowing only the briefest glimpses of the inner sanctum, where a golden head of Shiva shines. And as I'm spit back out into the inner courtyard, I feel that it certainly was..something... but I also cannot help but wonder: what was all that about? Did we really travel, braving Indian holiday traffic, all that way for that so-called sacred moment? Anticlimactically, it seemed to have come and gone so quickly.

And then we walk. Slowly, dazed a bit from all the hubbub. But now there is space. And we take our time, stopping at our leisure, viewing lingam after lingam, dropping bills, and sweeping blessing-filled smoke onto the crown of our heads at smaller stations that hold related deities that dot the temple complex, resisting the urge to capture the moment with our phones/cameras in exchange for being in the moment. 

Despite the previous rush and chaos, all around us now is the sanctity of the present: motes of light drawing lines across the stone structure, the earnestness of devotees as they pray, as they light candles, as they circle Nandi and whisper into his ear their deepest desires for the year, as we ourselves admit our secret wishes to the stone bull, as women in their saris roll their bodies across the mid-day heated concrete in front of the temple--how I love this unabashed reverence for God. 

And we sit and we watch, all around us Indians of all ages: the young, the old, babies, teenagers. We take it all in, because it is both so strange and yet so familiar. And it happens: we sink into the spirit of the festival celebrating Shiva, Yogeshwari, the god of yoga because isn't this why we are really here in Mysore in the first place?

That despite the human whirlwind that we create around this place, despite the occasional rushing--not just of bodies trying to secure some spot but of our egos begging for recognition, despite the stirring of deep practice that on more than a few occasions can cause more chaos than peace, at least in the beginning, being here is a quiet celebration of the human spirit which is constantly transforming with practice, it is a reminder that nothing is impossible, that we are always more than what we think we are, that each layer we burn/destroy/peel away doesn't just bring us closer to ourselves but also closer to something so undefinably greater than ourselves, call it Shiva, or God, or Source.  

Saturday, January 31, 2015

the dance of practice

I have seen the lovely Julie Alagde-Carretas dance this stunning number twice before last Friday. The first time--four or so years ago--at the Temple Shala in Boracay she wowed me, the second time also on the Philippine island of Boracay I felt incredibly inspired. But here in Mysore, as she presented her yoga-inspired dance to an intimate group of friends and fellow practitioners at the Chakra House, I understood it on a whole new level. 

I cannot possibly describe the movements of this Filipina contemporary dancer, the fluidity of her, the strength and subtlety of her yoga sadhana interpreted as dance. It is something to be seen, felt, experienced. 

But for that short moment I can say that Julie captured so many of the emotions that I have been experiencing this month--and I reckon not just mine but many others in the room as well, more than a few were tearing up by the end of it.

It feels to me that we are all dancing with this practice.

For me, it is an intimate dance. It is so close, close to the body, close to the heart and mind. It is a solo dance, true. But also one done with many partners: the people in the room, the teacher, the breath, the thoughts, the actions, the self.  It is a dance with the elements, fluid like water, lifted by air, supported by ground, fueled by that deep internal fire.

Julie drew us into our own dances. I felt the deep longing for practice and the even deeper longing that practice creates. I felt the desire and the pull of the ego, the whirlings of the mind, and that precious stillness that is golden even when it lingers only for the briefest of moments. I felt the sweet frustration of practice and the richness of pain. I felt this deep well of love for this dance. And of course, I felt gratitude, so much gratitude that I get to also dance this dance.

To Julie: Thank you! It was a very special experience. I am so happy that you are finding your place here on this your first trip. It's beautiful to have you here! 

Monday, January 19, 2015

foyer yoga

Coming into the shala in the morning is an experience in itself. Any time after the 4:30am start time, there is a process: stepping into the foyer, taking your place amongst the students that share the same start time, feeling the anticipation for practice, meditating, intention-making or watching those already moving inside, feeling inspired or anxious, and slowly/sometimes swiftly sliding towards the door, waiting for your "one more."

Mostly, when I look around at this time in the morning, I see how we all strive to be good students. How we come prepared, ready to get in there, in the shala proper, to "practice," to do our work, whatever that is--which is awesome and inspiring!

I realize that this is not a one-size-fits-all yoga practice, and everyone approaches practice in different ways--but I cannot help but notice (and yes, often over the last couple of weeks, get frustrated, admittedly an issue of my own ego) how, at times, our zeal to be such good students get the better of us. We get so fixated on wanting to practice ourselves that our vision narrows and we see only that bright tunnel between us and the door into the shala. Sometimes this happens quite by accident. Sadly, at times, quite on purpose, and we fail to see or be conscientious of the others around us.

I know this is a gross generalization--and for this, I apologize in advance to the innocent bystanders. Most students during my time are lovely and thoughtful. A precious few come in smiling. Many inquiring after each others time, making certain that folks with earlier time slots or those who arrived before them go in first, happily giving way to the mothers with children here with them; the moms are a beautiful exception to the waiting rules, they do not have to cue. There are some that appear calm throughout, non-plussed any aggression--and I so wish, I was one of them.

But the small number who push their way forwards before their turn, changes the energy of the room. And at times, the foyer is tense.

So, I take the liberty to use the pronoun "we" because we are not just individuals practicing alone on our mats, we share this room, this incredible collective prana and energy; we are a community. We should collectively preserve this community by respecting not just the sanctity of our personal sadhana but also by respecting each other's.

Sharath really drove this home for me last conference as he answered a question regarding ego. "First you stop. Avoiding 'I' 'I' 'I'... 'I know, I know', 'I don't know'..."I'm better than you"...action should always be humble action, inside it should be very humble, compassion, everything, this is what our life is."

When we fixate in the getting into the shala, doing our thing, how much of it that is the "I" that Sharath speaks of, I wonder.

In my growing frustration, I have also wondered, what my responsibility when I see someone behaving in a less than fair manner. I recognize, however, that my own reaction is also a form of I-ness, it is also ego, a representation of how much I also want to be in the room to do my thing.

Sharath, as usual, breaks it down for me, "Nobody can change the world, but you can change yourself. Your change, which happens within you. Then once you change yourself, the whole world will change. If you care for people, if you care for trees, if you care for animals, if you care for everything--caring is very important....once you care for others, that is the meaning of this life, you have to care for everyone then your practice will change. That is the purpose of your practice. Not only will you take, oh! ekapada, oh! kapotasana." He quips on, "You are so excited, everyday, you go here, oh I practice four times kapostasana...your purpose here is for kapotasana? Or to gain good knowledge, clarity within you? Kapotasna should help you get that. Not to grow your ego."

He concludes, "Whole practice is to change yourself." (Right, that's why he's the Boss.)

I cannot say that I will not call out the next person that cuts the morning line-up. But I will certainly look into my own frustrations, rather than attaching them to the actions of others. I will take responsibility that my defensiveness and ridiculous fear of loosing out adds to the negativity in the foyer. I will re-enter the waiting game after the moon day, not only refreshed from rest but also with the spirit of caring, not just for myself but for my fellow students as well. I will come into the space, not just prepared for practice, but practicing already. But enough about me. What if we were to do this together, how great would that be? How much quicker would we change the world?

(Aside: I hope that this article doesn't give any wrong ideas about ashtanga or yoga practice. What I am observing is not an issue of ashtanga yoga, it is an issue of the human condition. And moments like these are simply opportunities to deepen our practice. Ashtanga and Mysore often has a reputation for being extreme. Mostly, I feel both are extremely effective mirrors. What we choose to see, is wholly up to us.)

(27 January 2015)

It’s been a month, nearly. And I feel how overtime, things always find a balance. The change in the mood of the foyer at my time has noticeably shifted. More people seem conscious of the process and conscientious of each other. Some have stepped up to maintaining peace, others have chilled, and whoever else seems out for themselves each morning, well, the collective seem to bother little about them now. 

I feel much more chill about the whole thing, having aired out my issue and trying to come into the space myself with a lightheartedness and excitement for practice. I remind myself each time I enter the room that everyone is like everyone else, eager to do the work, trying our best to find the yoga in it all. This I feel is a testament to how yoga does work, that the "citta vrittis" calm eventually and everyone finds their place in this heaving movement of practice around the KPJAYI shala.

I know as the month ends, old friends will go, new friends will come, and the cycle somehow continues. I hope that the energy of yoga before and after “practice” prevails, that we continue to be conscious and mindful not only of ourselves but of each other. That we bring the steadiness of the asana practice into the patience of the wait, that as tight as it might get in there, there is always room for everyone.