Friday, June 22, 2018

starting third

“Tomorrow, don’t do headstands,” I hear from my teacher across the room just this last Wednesday. I can barely process information at this point, having just sweat what seems like my total body weight as I finish the last postures of intermediate, 7 headstand variants each with their swift air-cutting transition to chatvari, chaturanga dandāsana—these are the last postures he gave me nearly two years ago. I nod, though, I don’t think I understand exactly what he is saying and wonder who in the room I might be able to harass for verification later. I also wonder how he does it, that distressing mind reading thing he seems to do so very well. Just minutes before getting on with the headstands I had sighed silently to myself and wished I that didn’t have to do them anymore.

But...was there more? It seemed like he had said more, but whatever passed through his lips was slightly muffled under the bit of cloth he’d pulled over half his face as he started dropping a student back—I’m getting used to this back-bending-bandit look of his, and I’m glad he is taking better care of himself in there, but it’s definitely hard to distinguish words through it. Luckily, a friend was much more aware of his instructions and filled me in on what I had missed: aside from omitting headstands I was to do vishvamitrāsana, the first posture of Advanced A, series 3 out of 6 in the āsana portion of the ashtanga method. In a way, it’s no big deal, it’s just another posture in another series of poses. I had a brief moment with the first few postures of Third with a senior teacher, but it didn’t feel right at the time, it was so intense, both my body and my mind had serious doubts about moving forward. I felt strongly that when it was really time for me to move forward, the go ahead would come from my teacher.  

So, when I finally had a moment with myself and this bit of news, I turned on my iPad thinking that I might start to write about it—instead, tears came streaming down. I wish I were cooler, more unaffected, but the truth is it is kind of a big deal for me and I’m excited and scared for the new challenges that lie ahead. More so, new postures, when they come, are like landmarks on a long and beautiful path. They help gauge where we are, what are needs are, and what lessons are for us. They help us anchor into the practice, they keep us engaged and keep us from getting distracted. A new series is a whole new chapter, maybe a whole new book, a new way of being in the body, breath, and mind.

What struck me, as I was cleaning out my tear ducts, is the sheer magnitude of the yoga journey, it is so vast and all-encompassing that I often don’t even realise that I am on it. And then a moment like this comes and it’s almost staggering to see the bigger picture. 

I started this practice when I was thirty (I just turned 42), with no previous inclination towards exercise or physical activity. I was fairly uncoordinated and couldn’t even come close to touching my toes. This October will by my eighth year of going to Mysore, it’s my seventh trip, over which I think I’ve spent a year and a half in total studying at the shala. This alone is just fantastic—as in made of fantasy! Like how did this even happen? What weird turn did I make to end up in this alternative universe? It’s been eight years of piecing together Intermediate Series with Sharathji, over which time my body has opened, closed, stalled, gotten more flexible, gotten stronger, become less flexible, etc...  

Everything is relative, of course, I know students who have spent much more time or much less time here; time here and āsana practice is not always an accurate gauge for study and self-transformation. I think everyone has their own pace and learns whatever lessons are meant for them.

The challenges that I have faced, however, in the physical practice have closely mirrored the struggles in my own life. I have totally disintegrated here, I have been ambitious and distracted, I have been lost and uncertain. I have also learned what it means to be a student and how important it is to have a teacher. I’ve learned how to be more patient and forgiving towards myself. I’ve learned to have more fun. And over the recent years, I have also been more stable, joyful, more self-loving, and more accepting of myself and, thus, of those around me.    

Little has changed, really. Starting Advanced A doesn’t come with enlightenment. I’m still huffing and puffing through my intermediate postures. I kind of feel like I won the lottery, I get a new pose and it’s not terrifying or overly difficult AND I get to drop 7 intense headstands. It’s a great deal. Other than that, it’s the same, the same determination, same devotion to practice, the same discipline. 

But, still, I’m kind of stupefied. It’s been such a journey—and there is more, always more with the ashtanga practice. There are more postures, yes, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg. There are more challenges, more struggles, more fun, more terror, more growth, more transformation, more to learn and definitely more to love! 

Thursday, June 14, 2018

led intermediate, so it begins

I lost count at how many breaths exactly, but I knew that if were to survive the rest of the class I had to somehow lower my bakasana, which I entered into with straight arms. Sharathji had called the first inhale and exhale and then paused, perhaps he started to engage with our audience, a lobby bursting at the seams with new students eager to watch last Monday’s led intermediate class. There might have been as many spectators as there were participants; it was unusually roomy in the shala and we took the liberty of spreading out beyond the red marks that designate the mat placement on the floor.

On my first trip to Mysore in 2010, led intermediate filled just about two, three rows. By the time I entered the room in 2013, the space was filling up with breakneck speed as our teacher Sharath Jois moved students forward in the practice. First, the stage filled up, then the spaces in front of the offices, finally, the passage way between the last two rows. Last season, students were even practicing in the locker room. It seems that there are less intermediate students here this time around. This will surely change over the weeks and months ahead, but for now I am enjoying the extra bit of precious Mysore real estate.

Our master conductor checks on our postures during this intense session, often students get their pass or no pass here. For three grueling seasons, I returned only to hover precariously in ekapadasirsasana (the first of the leg behind the head postures). Class after class I would receive a sign to stop and go finish in the ladies’ locker room. Once, after what I thought was a fair go at it, I looked up to see Sharathji slowly slice the air in front of his neck, pretty much the most difinitive “no” he’d ever given me, I rolled up my mat and wondered if I would ever finish the class. With time and practice, change is inevitable and I have a greater understanding with how these postures can naturally give birth to one another. Here, you are led only as far as you can truly go, and until he says so, there you will wait.

These regular checks are the main cause of some of the longest holds of my life, each overly quick vinyasa, each separated heel in dhanurasana, every flailing leg in ekapada, and flexed toe in dwipada can delay the entire flow of the class; everyone must hold the pose as if suspended in time until the the corrections are made and Sharathji resumes his counting. Like led primary, the practice feels personal (everyone has their own experience, their pitfalls, their “ah-ha” moments, their special moments of contact with the Boss). At the same time, the process is collective. We are meant to go through it together.

In discussions with fellow students after last Monday’s led, we wondered if this could be the hardest class on the planet? Even with these built in “stalls”—there are rare moments to catch your breath, for example, in karandavasana as he lifts people out of it—the pace is pretty grueling and continuous throughout the journey of intense backbends, extreme forward bends with leg or legs behind the head, arm balances. With Sharath, there is no space or time for cheating. You cannot take a breather and then catch up with the rest of the class, each vinyasa is sharply accounted for, the transitions and postures are deftly woven together into this incredible roller coaster ride, frightening and thrilling all at once.

Despite the physicality of it, second series truly works deep within the nervous system. The movements (all the extending, flexing, twisting and straightening of the spine) seem to squeeze out so much of our excesses, there just isn’t much room in these postures for much else, let alone distractions, self-doubt, or fear.

Whatever anxiety I started out with (after almost a year of no led intermediate, I was pretty nervous), seemed to just burn off in that room. Not that it was easy; for me, at least, it was definitely not easy. But the amazing thing is that somehow, no matter how difficult, I did get through it, I did manage to override all the thoughts and feelings, the exhaustion, the panic, etc, emerging with so much calm and gratitude towards the practice and especially towards my teacher, who reminded me once again why I am here, why I practice, and why I continue to return to Mysore, year after year.

Somehow, I feel like this last led intermediate really helped me land in Mysore, finally. It set the pace, pulling me out of the funny rhythms of self-practice, which in my case, with life in Cairo, can be erratic at best. It’s quite a sight to behond, it’s true—I understand why people like to watch it—but I think it’s extraordiness exists in the experience of the class itself, how Sharathji pulls you out of yourself, tuning you into a harmonious moving, breathing song of strength and, of course, surrender.

I must say, before closing, that I don’t think you have to be practicing or completing intermediate to have this kind of experience. Deep practice is not exclusive to advanced āsana. And to be pushed outside our comfort zones happen a million different ways here in Mysore, inside the shala and outside on the street. What’s interesting about led intermediate is how that depth is so acccessible, so tangible in a moving, breathing mass; the method comes alive in this context, the body is our vehicle, the 8 limbs are the engines with our teacher driving us towards a greater understanding of ourselves.

Thursday, June 7, 2018

monsoon mysore

It’s monsoon in India and I’ve been regularly trying to beat the rain home. It’s far from the showers of Cairo, which is but a spittle compared to what pretty much amounts to downpour, likewise different from the wet season in South East Asia, it feels more finicky here, like somewhere up in the heavens there’s a lever and a wily temperamental Hindu god; with a flick of the wrist the sky opens like a celestial faucet.

I’ve been drying my clothes indoors, checking weather reports, carrying rain gear in my back pack and a spare raincoat in the seat compartment of my scooter—not that it matters, I always feel it coming on the road, to stop would mean being drenched completely. There is no predicting when it comes, it can be perfectly warm and sunny one moment and the next moment there are dark grey clouds overhead, shortly followed by buckets of rain.

Aside from the inconvenience, which is still pretty minor when you are living in this contained little Gokulam bubble, I love it. I love the lushness of India at this time. It’s so alive. The trees are a glowing green. The parks are pretty, all covered with a healthy carpet of grass. In the winter, they look so barren, I can’t imagine children playing there. India, which can be so dusty during the dry season, is now so resplendent. 

This is only my second monsoon here studying at the shala and I can’t help but feel the season within the walls, within practice during this period. The air is full, heavy with possibility. Practice in the shala is a different kind of humidity right now, our pours are so open and we seem to flood easily onto the floor. I’m in there between 4am to 8:30am (shala time) because I’m assisting and it is so intense after the first hour. It’s gross, really slippery and actually dangerous. We still seem to really love it. Sharathji has asked us to bring a towel just for cleaning up the liquids we have deposited on the floor around our mat. Not that it helps much in the long term, dryness seems to be a very temporary state of being in the shala these mornings.  It’s been two years since I’ve been here but it just seems like a different kind of heat, a different kind of moisture, the body seems to want to give up all its reserves of water. Having said all that, like the trees around Gokulam, I also feel alive and vibrant.

The grey clouds when they come provide so much shade, the moist air is pleasant. It feels like great conditions for this kind of transformational work, it makes me want to go in. Go in doors, go into my practice, find shelter in the most solid parts of myself. I love South India in the winter too, but the weather is almost too good, it invites one to go outside, to go adventuring and exploring, I always end up out and about. But maybe this is just who I am right now, the kind of trip that I am having. Every Mysore trip is different, determined by so many factors aside from the weather. 

The rain feels cleansing. Mostly, it feels really soft. Until it doesn’t, that is. So does the deluge within the shala. And when it’s not raining the expectation of rain seems to still be on us. I know we are supposed to overcome expectation but there it still is. I suppose regardless of the season we come like this, with this feeling that something will change, move, shift, grow while we are here. Inevitably, it happens. 

All the same, I feel even this is changing in me. Not that I have exhausted the amount whittling down this mind/heart/body can muster—but I do think the process becomes more refined.  On my first trip to Mysore, I wrote about Mysore being a pressure cooker. I think that’s also still true. But, what if, over time, this pressure is like a passing tropical depression, we sweat a bit more, get a little bit more wet, and do our level best to keep our head above the water. We’re not necessarily cooked but definitely more tender, more purified? Being here is tapas, travelling all this way, surrendering yourself into the hands of your teacher and leaving your excesses on the floor in puddles...

Thursday, May 31, 2018

one more, self practice

Today, I rolled out my mat on my living room floor here in Mysore, knowing full well that it would be another two months before self-practice became a solo flight once again. The night before, I had thought about messaging some friends here and inviting them over to practice. Why practice alone when you’re in Gokulam? One could throw a rock out here and easily hit an ashtanga practitioner. Still, there was a part of me that wanted to savour this last self-practice, the strange quiet of a room with just my breath and the occasional (ok, more than occasional!) murmur of my thoughts interjecting themselves in the funniest of places.

Somehow, it felt important to honour the fact that mostly I’m on my own. And while I saw Sharathji a year ago for a week of led classes in London and have been fortunate enough to piece together a whopping three weeks with some very special authorised and certified teachers, it has been two years almost since my last Mysore trip—an incredible two months during the last teachers’ course which was too precious to even write about. Barring getting together here and there with a couple of my fellow ashtanga teachers in Egypt (I’m so grateful for this), I’m a lot on my own, and so many of us do it.

I do feel guided daily by my teacher, supported by the thought of him, but largely the grind of daily practice has been on my own shoulders. And so I practiced, just me, me and all my flourishes, all my extra breaths and extra stretches. Even though it’s been like this for a while, I’m amazed that I can get on the mat not just when it’s easy (and there many beautiful times when it is), or when there’s a teacher (which is so awesome when it happens), but also when it’s just me and all of my heavy inflexible thoughts join in, and it’s hard and everything is a struggle and I have all these bad feelings because I’m tired, or I’m hungry or because students aren’t coming. I think I must be doing ok because these moments pass, sukkha and dukkha are like waves, maybe—for now—we are just meant to ride them.

Of course, today’s self practice was also special because I know what’s coming next: two months of a heaving energetic room, community, my teacher. I am starting now to see the sustainability of maintaining practice in Mysore and practice wherever it is we are meant to live, that one thrives off the other. That not only does the time spent here in Mysore, India fuel all the other days, but also visa versa. All those solo flights ultimately bring us back here, they return us to this surreal alternate universe that is also kind of home. 

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...