Saturday, November 27, 2010

Sending Claudia Off

As I see Claudia drive off on her way to the Bangalore airport, the first leg of her 24-hour journey home to the Philippines, I am trying to recall the yamas, particularly aparigraha or non-attachment. I so want to be cool about all this.

Still, it’s hard to see Claudia go. I feel it in my chest and in my clouding vision. We set off on this journey together, deciding back in January the exact date, filling out our KPJAYI registration forms in June, and taking the trip together here a month ago to the date.

I remember when Claudia first came to class, nearly 3 years ago. She was a tourist then on Boracay. Her and her husband Deivis were probably the most advanced practitioners us beginners had seen. Up to that moment, I’d only been up to navasana. I was totally unaware that there was actually more. A lot more! Our yoga teacher stopped the rest of us and had them continue. It was awesome and inspiring.

When her family returned the following year, permanently, it was a total blessing. The universe provided me with a knowledgeable practice partner, spurring me to get on the mat in the morning for self-practice.

To experience this month with her here in Mysore, taking classes at the shala, living together and supporting each other throughout the motions has been incredible. I feel so blessed to have a friend here that I get on so well with, who is so easy to live with, who is even-minded and grounded. I am so grateful.

The last week was perfect, easier going than the previous weeks. The manic-ness of settling in, seeing sights and shopping died a natural death. We ate at all the favored breakfast nooks, had our lunch thali, and finally ate Thursday Taiwanese lunch buffet at Viviane’s.

Yesterday’s led was the first day we didn’t practice in the same class. I got bumped up to a 5:30am start when I re-registered for month two, which means I practice with the 4:30am group on Friday. A prelude of the fast-approaching future, the change foiled our plans to get up early and stake out near the entrance so we could get a spot beside each other during the led class.

(Claudia's class turned out to be a historical moment at the shala. Claudia told me when she got home that Sharath led the opening prayer then quite off-handedly turned the floor over to Todd, an advanced student and yoga teacher, who led the class. It is the first time a westerner led a class in the shala. Sharath had a puja to attend during the class but was back by closing prayer. Todd had led them in "Om..." then paused, causing many students to wonder if after the entire thing he had forgotten the closing prayer. Turns out Sharath would finish it off. Claudia said it was a great class too! Todd was applauded for his efforts by everyone in the shala. I got goosebumps when Claudia recounted the story. These are certainly times of change! Positive ones, I feel).

We enjoy a good Indian breakfast at Sri Durga after Claudia’s class. Take a leisurely trip into the city to hunt down some recommended Bollywood titles at Sapna’s bookstore, then have tea and cake at the picturesque Green Hotel before going to kirtan with James in Gokulam.

We decide to cap the monster day by dragging Jaja (a friend from China, whom we met in Boracay) to meet other friends at 6th Main for dinner. For KPJAYI students this makes for a wild Friday night: dinner after 7 and more than one cup of chai after 8! Wired, we are all glad there is no practice on Saturday!

At home, Claudia and I throw caution to the wind and share a bar of chocolate. (From Truppti’s!) She has a surprise for me, a hand-painted bookmark, another bar of chocolate (my favorite too, dark chocolate with peanut butter), and a clay Ganesh that she also painted herself, under the guise that it was a present for Deivis-—In hindsight, I did find the hot pink and shiny orange a strange color choice for her kite-boarding husband!

“The remover of obstacles,” she said.

So for the last time, in our extremely comfortable Gokulam living room, we laugh and chat about our month-long experience. She gives me a good farewell pep-talk, reminding me to conserve my energy and to keep focus (she knows me so well!) Like a big sister, she checks up on my headspace, making sure I maintain a healthy perspective—that I don’t get caught up, that I simply enjoy the practice. I will so miss her steadiness!

In the morning, after a good lay in, we head to Anouki’s—the designated farewell breakfast. Friends who started at the shala around the same time as us gather round the table. It’s one of those long, lingering dos. Lots of laughs, exchanging of photos, email addresses. Continuously, Claudia is being accosted for not having a facebook account.

Instead of goodbyes, there are a lot of “see you later,” attached with the hope that it will be here, same place, sometime next year. Saying that makes us all feel better, that returning here in Mysore with all these brilliant and loving people is something that we can all look forward to!

Claudia’s Art Calling

Whenever I take a peek into Claudia’s room, she is almost always at her desk. At first just sketching her own creative creatures or the iconography of Hindu mythology (a requirement for her class), later ripping up local new papers and painting canvasses with bright, sparkling colors—inspired by India.

Her trip, which is fast coming to a close, is one of yoga and art, art and yoga, both seamlessly going together. Painting is her sitting practice, her meditation.
In fact, at every turn in seems Claudia is being drawn to the world of art here in Mysore: first by her traditional Mysore painting teacher Anand and then by Shoaib.

Coming to the end of our third week, another happy coincidence pushes Claudia further into her art exploration. (I suspect that the universe is trying to tell her something!)

By chance, we meet Akhilanka in Sudha clothes shop in Gokulam. On hearing of her background as a photographer and artist, he invites her to see his studio and his intriguing creative method (Sunday, November 21). The following is Claudia’s third Mysore art encounter, in her own words. I was not present for this trip. However, she came home so inspired by what she saw, I felt we should include the experience…

Akhilanka is a painter specializing in color meditation with singing bowls. Sounding the bowl he lets the vibration and sound guide his subconscious to choose color and form. The results are vivid, sparkling colorful works in mixed media, using acrylic, oils, sometimes burning the canvas.

Akhilanka also conducts singing bowl meditations. We ourselves are vibrations. By placing and sounding singing bowls around and on different parts of the body, the vibrations change. Blockages can be removed, we can release and open.

After a photo session in Akhilanka’s studio of his works and method for his website, he offers me to try out the singing bowl meditation.

Wearing a white gown I lie down on a white sheet with crystals and singing bowls placed all around the body. Akhilanka strikes them one by one, then many at a time placing them on different places on the body. It is a deep and special experience hearing and feeling this concert of vibrations all through the body.

A small bowl in the heart center has a high clear sound and trembling vibration, then it is replaced by a large heavy bowl with a deep shaking sound shaking all through to the core. A myriad of sounds, vibrations, emotions. A very special experience.

Singing Bowl Meditation & Color Meditation

The meditation that Claudia experienced was 45 minutes long.

Day Tripping at Bylekuppe

Saturday, 20 November

Beep, Beep!

In my motion-induced sleepiness, I imagine the translation, “Hi, Hello!”

Beep beep!

“Excuse me!”

Beep beeeeeep beep beeeeeep beep!

“I’m COMING up BEHIND you!”

Beep beep!

“Thank you!”

On an Indian road, there is going to be honking. Lots of it. It may seem rude, this sound assault. But in India, we’ve been told, that it is more of a means of communication, giving a pedestrian or fellow driver a…heads up. It is not a sign of offense as it would be in the west where a honk is equivalent to a middle finger. Large trucks even ask to be honked at. Many have politely painted on their rear end, “Please Honk.”

Today Claudia and I are on the road. Taking the path of least resistance, Deepak the driver and a hired car speeding at 100km an hour, with two really lovely students at the shala, Tom (from the UK) and Jen (from Canada).

With full moon on Sunday, the shala closes for a staggeringly long 2-day stretch. Time is like dog years around here. You live a lifetime in a short space of a moment.
Some students would use this extra time to soak at the pool or have a later than usual night out (dancing or maybe bowling). Other students would satisfy the itch to get away from Gokulam, planning trips to places like Coorg—at least one student made it all the way to Kerala.

We are en route to Bylekuppe.

Bylekuppe was the first Tibetan Settlement in India after the Chinese invasion. It was set up in the early 1960’s. Displaced Tibetans were given a parcel of forestland by the Indian government, and since then the Tibetan people have continued their cultural practices here in Southern India while waiting for the time that they can finally return home.

After two hours of dare-devil driving—I felt safe mind you with Deepak, such is the nature of two-lane Indian highways, in which fluid driving means overtaking other vehicles at lightning speed despite on-coming traffic—we reach the Tibetan settlement, apparent by the colorful Tibetan prayer flags flapping in the wind.

One sight that seemed uncharacteristic of our Tibetan expectations was a building with high walls and threatening barbed wire on top. As we sped by we see the words “NUNNERY.” Of course, high security for the nunnery! And past the nunnery went we to the Namrolding Temple compound.

At the juice bar (the, because there is only one) we are greeted by a friendly Tibetan, born and raised in Bylekuppe. He takes it on himself to be our welcome wagon. Shares with us some history, tells us about the current reforestation of the area. He says with total conviction that their goal is to return the land to India as they first received it. When they can go home.

In a world of cynicism, I am struck with his absolute faith , that they will return to Tibet and that it’s just a matter of time. There is no anger in his statement. Only hope.

After having smoothies and a quick turn at the shops outside the temple , which appeared to be promising, we walk towards the complex, which houses the monastery, the high school, several temples, the debating hall and other function rooms.

We are drawn by sound, which takes us to the temple’s music room. These first few moments are a delight to the senses: the bright splash of colors in the architecture and art, the strange haunting music. Class is in session. Young monks in their mustard shirts and maroon robes are in two rows, facing each other, instruments in hand. There is a random mixture of sound. There is the tinkling of bells, pounding of drums, and blowing of horns and conch shells. The sound is almost eerie.

We all stare into the room, through the doors, which are roped off but open to visitors.

Some monks stare back, quite benignly, they don’t appear bothered by the intrusion, a dozen pair of eyes taking them in as part of the scenery, this Tibetan montage in the totally wrong climate and landscape, cameras clicking.

It must be odd to be a tourist attraction—which turns out to be us at some point, particularly fair and bright-eyed Tom and Jen, who become highly sought after for photos with the Indian tourists, who insist on including them in their snapshots. Claudia too. I get thrown into the mix here and there by default.

The morning vibe is calm within the walls of Namrolding as our party shuffles casually among the other tourists also taking in Tibet’s culture, exiled yet safeguarded in India.

The pace is easy going between the four of us, we hardly plan or communicate the hours spent in our synchronized wandering. There are a few moments where we do speak up to make vital decisions. Right or left?

The buildings themselves are not particularly old, nor pretty, but the Tibetan traditions, which are intrinsically wrapped up in all the colorful wall murals, the statues of Buddha, the monks of all ages going about their daily routines, make the experience. You feel the culture continues to thrive outside its own country.

For lunch, we indulge in traditional momos, steamed vegetable dumplings, and noodle soup outside the compound, just right of the gate. The meal, unfortunately, is not stellar. And after a brief second turn at the shops, we re-converge at the entrance where Tom has found out the exact whereabouts of the prayer wheels along the perimeter of the temple walls. We set out, spinning them and repeating the mantra Om Mani Padme Hum, Om Mani Padme Hum, Om Mani Padme Hum, while many monks and nuns overtake us with their speedy praying efficiency.

Before we head to the highway, we stop at the local market area. It’s a small and simple affair, a couple of Tibetan craft shops; the rest are convenient stores, general stores that sell electric goods, tailors, second-hand clothes stores and a handful of run down inns for overnight guests.

Drawing our attention is a food vendor with his propped up table. We see one local after another order bags of his tasty looking treats. Tom, a chef, is most interested. Though we cannot understand each other, the vendor doesn’t speak English, we feel it is safely vegetarian.

I order a dry one, while Tom orders the wet variety. My round of unidentified noodle wrapper is slathered with red chili paste, drizzled with sugar and what he calls salt. The shape of the crystals is more consistent with MSG (we’ll ignore that today). He finally sprinkles either tofu or gluten pieces on top. The entire thing is rolled then cut into inch-long pieces and served.

Tom’s is rolled first and cut into thin noodle-like strips. He sprinkles the same mix: sugar, “salt,” soya/gluten and the chili paste. Then he tops it with garlic water and soy, creating a cool soup.

The noodle-thing is slippery and cooling in the mouth. The flavors salty and fresh and very yummy. We like it so much, we order a second round. This time I have mine wet and Tom takes his dry. Claudia and Jen share a dry one as well. Each order is an unbelievable Rs10 each.

This little snack (name, anyone?) seems to cap the trip off nicely. With full bellies, we pile into the car, sleepily making our way back to Mysore, then to Gokulam, then to Anu’s where we are greet by Ganesh, who we happily pay for the hassle-free experience. Taking our dinners/smoothies at Anu’s we end the day satisfied with our adventure and happy that Sunday is a moon day, allowing us to lie in and dream a little extra of the peaceful Tibetan settlement, not up the Himalayas but only a couple of hours away from Mysore.

To hire a car for out of town trips, such as this, and for airport transport, call Ganesh: +9845279513. You can also book a car at Anu’s CafĂ© (3rd Stage).

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Singing Praises for The Bhagavad Gita with James Boag

Mysore is a hotbed of yoga activities for even the most discerning of yoga enthusiast.
There are chanting classes (now a requirement, actually, at the shala) and Sanskrit. Some take cooking classes; there are several home cooks that offer their services to students. Some take anatomy courses. Some—like Claudia—pursue art as a meditation and sitting practice. Some take classes on yoga philosophy, studying texts like the Yoga Sutras, Bhagavad Gita or Hatha Yoga Pradipika, which is also taught at KPJAYI.

Some of those who don’t study at KPJAYI take asana classes with more than one teacher in other schools throughout the city. (We have signed away that right in order to study at the shala. The punishment for those that make a breach is expulsion.)

So far, I’ve been most drawn by chanting, kirtan and the study of the Bhagavad Gita with James Boag, a Brit studying Sanskrit in Mysore.

Most things happen by word of mouth in these parts. More than one person had mentioned kirtan with James as being an experience, which inspired a trip with with Claudia and Jaime our first week here.

James started by explaining what kirtan is. We were impressed by his eloquence and understanding. A teacher, he explained his knowledge in an easy to understand way.

Then he started chanting—

It was quite an experience, his wonderful voice, his style of leading kirtan—maybe more serious than I’m used to (back home, we’re usually led as if singing ‘round a campfire accompanied by Mo-ching Yip’s harmonium or Clayton Horton’s guitar playing) but the solemnity reminds me of church, and the Catholic school choir-girl in me was secretly delighted.

I was sold on taking up the 2nd chapter of the Bhagavad Gita with him.
I first read the Gita with Alex Medin when he came to Manila more than two years ago. Yoga was still very fresh for me then. It was this undefined space, brilliant and full of possibility. As I read the Gita in English, I felt like I was coming home. Many of the themes in the poem seemed to verbalize so many ideas that were brewing in my head. In Mysore, I looked forward to digging deeper.

The course is a wonderful combination of East and West. As is tradition we chant each verse, slowly building our store hold of the Gita. Chanting itself creates this amazing energy, vibrations. And with each new verse we learn to chant, James unlocks the meaning of the text, what each word means and the different nuances of each. I even feel that I am slowly building my vocabulary.

I half expected to be lost in esoteric stuff. Instead, what I’ve learned seems so practical to both my daily asana practice and to my life in general.

Some lessons that stand out:

Like Arjuna, we are warriors. James refers to Virabhadrasana. In the pose we have to be steady. Once grounded, we are able to expand, he says. As Arjuna’s fight is to be steady in conflict, it is also our role to fully interact with this crazy world, but with a steadiness, with greater discernment.

Or how Arjuna is a fit vessel to receive Krishna’s lessons of yoga when he falls silent, when he empties himself out and becomes still…

Or how the external battle is a metaphor for the fight within, how the true purpose of life is to recognize pure consciousness…

Truly, James explains it all much better. I really feel like I am getting a lot out of the course. The study of which feels like a perfect compliment to my asana practice, and visa versa. The lessons from the Gita class is helping me process the emotions and experiences of daily practice, it is reminding me to be more present and to find more ease in my own practice, it is inspiring me to reprogram my thinking, to take my practice beyond the mat and into the world at large.

If you’re interested to join, the course is designed so that you can drop in at anytime. James also has plans of offering other courses either on Ch. 3 of the Gita or the Yoga Sutras after this one. He also leads Kirtan twice a week.

Bhagavad Gita, Ch. 2
Monday 2-4:30pm
Thursday 2-4:30pm
Recommended donation: Rs500

Sunday 1:30-3:15pm
Wedensday 2-4pm
by donation

Located at:
"Vibha Dhara"
Small street off main street
Landmark: Behind the Palace Honda Showroom
Tel: 9591135031

Good Karma

(Friday, November 12)

Soon there were more than twenty beggars, mostly women and children, sitting in a long circle outside the Lakshmi temple near Mysore Palace. I distributed leaf plates. Two male volunteers at the temple distributed the rice, sambal, and chicken curry. The cook, Devi, her best friend and Claudia, saw to the distribution of the food from the large pots and canisters. The food that Claudia and I speculated to be “so much,” for there appeared to be few beggars at the temple when we arrived, was fast disappearing. The hungry came out of the woodwork. All were very calm, they waited patiently at their plates to be served. They were grateful when they were finished.

I came to stand beside Claudia. We were both stunned by the scene. It was upsetting, and moving and inspiring all at once. It is not everyday you go to feed the beggars. She leaned into me and whispered, “I don’t know how we can go shopping after this?”

This had all started with our desire to go shopping.

(Regardless of our shopping requirement, Devi would have fed the beggars. She was committed to doing it as an extension of their puja, when they fed 120 of their family and friends, including us a week and a half ago.)

Claudia sought the assistance of Devi, her painting teacher’s wife. She was happy to accompany us but with one condition, we come with her to feed the beggars. It was more auspicious to shop after such an act, she said.

In the west, we do not put the two concepts together. Feed the beggars = go shopping. Doesn’t make sense, right? But today, I feel like my way of thinking is wrong. There is a beauty in the Indian way, you give, you receive. Good deeds, good karma.
As the women complimented Devi on her superb cooking, getting her to fill the last of her tasty sauce in their plastic containers, I was struck by the bigness of Devi’s heart. Her family isn’t rich, but they are comfortable enough. They live simply. And when Anand is successful with his painting, they go out of their way to share.

In the end, Devi and her friend, had given away all the food—except a couple of bags of curd and a bowl of cucumber slices. We were munching on cucumber slices when we were approached by a group of adults administrating to the feeding of the school children. While we fed the beggars, they had cooked a large pot of veg rice for busloads of touring school children and nuns. They had left over food and were offering us some.

At first, Claudia and I were embarrassed. It didn’t seem right to eat at all after such an experience. We were so pressed, that in the end resistance was futile. A bowl of rice was delivered to our party. Plates were rinsed on our behalf. We sat down where the beggars were eating earlier to take our own meal.

As we ate, Devi explained to us, “This is god food.” All the food she’d prepared was given away, yet we had not eaten ourselves. And here was new food, still hot, and very tasty provided for us. I felt a part of this strange (strange, to a westerner anyway) and beautiful cycle. I dropped my embarrassment and enjoyed the food.

In the rickshaw ride back to Annand’s, I felt this so blessed to have taken part in such a kind act.

We even went shopping. After dropping off the pots and pans, Devi and her friend took us to buy long tops. We then wondered into a fabulous little sari store where Claudia, completing the giving cycle, bought Devi a sari she had her eye on. At the tail end of our shopping excursion, I bought all four of us a round of badame milk and a box of sweets.

On our way back, we took a side tour of Devi’s best friend’s family’s homes—I guess we were the attraction, “the foreigners.” At each stop, the ladies proudly took out the sari to show to family friends.

It was already a full day: Friday led class, beggars, and shopping. And we weren’t done yet. The rest of the evening was a blur of good vibes—that was part of the giving cycle too. We headed out once again to Ashadayaka Seva Trust Fundraiser, where the orphan kids were so lovely and warm at the door. Students at the shala offer their time and energy for the Trust, which exists from private donations.

After the time at the temple, it seemed that this was now a good time to pay things forward with raffle tickets. The show itself was fabulous, the flute player, the ensemble, the kirtan with the children was so hearty and cute, if not loud. Most importantly, the event raised roughly Rs40,000 for the care of those beautiful children.

But it was what came after that truly capped the night for me, after the show was done and more than half of the yoga community had departed, there was dancing. Really fun-loving dancing! The kind of which you do not see everyday, children and adults, moving together with such heart-felt abandon, like it were the grand finale of a big Bollywood film. It felt good to be in the throes of it. And while the dancing would be short-lived, our partners were children after-all and needed to go early to bed, not to mention the neighbors would likely complain about the loud music, the spirit of that amazing day and evening would continue.

For more info on the Trust and how you can help, please check out Ashadayaka Seva Trust on facebook.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

The Breakdown

If being a KPJAYI student were a ready-to-eat food (I’m imagining something like a power bar), I think it should include on the back its shiny plastic/foil packaging the following:

Daily Nutritional Value:

Exercise 90%
Hard Work 110%
Patience 100%
Concentration 92%
Mental Stability 85%
Humility 350%

…and, of course,

Practice 99%
Theory 1%

Daily, we are nourished by this dynamic practice. There are so many benefits to the body, mind and spirit.

There are also some side effects, however. There should likewise be in big red letters, a warning:


The energy is so strong here in Mysore: the practice so deep, the people so interesting and diverse, the place so magical… On the best of days, I can do nothing more than thank my lucky stars. Then there are also “other” days—days when all this energy is just too much, everything and everyone buzzing at these too-high frequencies. No one does it on purpose. It just happens. And, quite suddenly, being here becomes extremely overwhelming.

It happened to me yesterday, and after an amazing day. It was a Sunday and we had led class at 4:15am. We met our new friend Richard for his lovely birthday brunch, complete with pressie, tons of food, quite an open and intimate conversation and, of course, birthday cake care of the waiters at Regalis Hotel (a.k.a. Southern Star). This was followed by lounging at the hotel pool, which we would have stayed at forever where it not for 4pm conference with Sharath. (More on this later!).

After conference, Claudia and I went to Anu’s—must’ve been a good idea, because many students also flocked there. I’d eaten already by the time the place filled up. So many were squeezed around the 3 tables. It would normally not phase me, coming from a country whose people know not the meaning of personal space. But somehow, I felt, out of sorts. The sound levels increased. I suddenly felt overpowered by this incredible white noise. I said my quick goodbyes, paid Ganesh and bolted. Halfway down the road, I could my emotions bubbling up. Two-thirds of the way to the flat, my eyes started to water. By the time I’d shut the door behind me, I was crying. Emotionally, I was overwhelmed.

Apparently having a good cry is quite normal hereabouts. Since my own breakdowns, I've heard of others. Some cry quietly at the shala in the middle of practice, some echo their grief in the marble-lined dressing room, some go home and have their weep in the privacy of their own homes. There are always different motivations for these emotional outbursts. The one unifying factor is that the depth of the practice here boils up the emotions. Back bends especially open the heart and unleash whatever is trapped there.

As for me, I was tired. We had class at 4:15. We’d had two and a half weeks of practice by then, each morning being so deep. Though it was really nice, excessive sunbathing might have added to the fatigue. It’s been non-stop activity since we arrived.

And the people! You meet new ones everyday. Everyone is so interesting, coming from so many different places and backgrounds. At first, it’s exciting like the first days of college. You meet, you chat, you make connections. You move one to the next stop, whether it’s at one of the fave breakfast haunts, waiting outside the shala, or having a drink at the coconut stand. And then process repeats itself. It’s fresh! It’s fun! But when overdone, it’s exhausting.

Sharath’s advice makes sense. Two weeks ago at Conference, he advised us to stop dawdling at the coconut stand after practice, “Go home and rest.” (Claudia's correction: "Go home and study." My subconscious must want it to be "rest")

I believe that meeting and connecting with fellow students is an important part of the process too. It’s just too easy to get caught up in this very social international atmosphere, however. It’s like a vacuum. It can suck you right up.

And how are we to successfully discover our selves through all this yoga, if I spend all my spare time enjoying ambling walks and lingering meals with new friends? Love those around you. Have space for yourself. Everything in moderation.

Claudia and Shoaib's Art

Here are the products of Claudia and Shoaib's last art collab. The glue hasn't quite dried yet...

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Mysore Creative Spirit

Phosphorous, burning plastic, and singed canvas tickles my nostrils. Claudia and Shoaib are igniting little fires to start today’s art experiment.

I get a bit ahead of myself. I should explain. It started a week and a half ago, on a shopping expedition to Badsha’s Bazzar, the one across the vegetable market. (Highly recommended by the 3 Sisters for saree cloth, which Claudia was buying for a friend.)
We’d been to one shop and were unsatisfied, everything seemed more expensive than it should be and we were a little put off by the car-salesman tactics. To demonstrate the waterproof aspect of one silk, he poured a glass of water onto the textile, which then rolled around the cloth in droplets. It was cool to see, but didn’t entice us to buy. (Glad the fabric wasn’t flame-resistant. I would have hated to see him wield a blowtorch.)

We asked for elegant designs in purple and he turned out one after another befitting Barney in drag. Purple dragon meets Priscilla Queen of the Dessert. I reiterated that we wanted to see something “simple.” He looked at me incredulously and explained that what he was showing was quite simple already by Indian standards.

We slowly backpedalled out of the shop. The sarees he was showing us ranged from Rs1500 to Rs2500. Jaime had said that you could find an average saree at Rs200at the
cheapest. Hmmm.

The moment we walked in to Badsha’s we were greeted by Shoaib Chadkhan, a Mysore local (and artist—we find out later), who in an instant read us like a book. “You are yoga students?”

We affirmed his suspicions and asked to see some sarees in the elegant but not too pricey range in purple and orange. He got us straight away, pulling out these beautiful sarees (silks were also available, but were not in the budget), tastefully adorned. Within 5 minutes, Claudia has settled on a stunning orange saree with gold and aubergine detailing for around Rs500. We dared for more and asked to see their selection on shawls—our new uniform to maintain modesty’s sake.

Shoaib stepped into his element. He gave us a good look, surmising our type: western, yogis, travel, budget, and even took into account our skin tones and the colors we were wearing at that time.

Over the course of our shopping expedition, we established several connections, an unusually long list of mutual friends (all yogis of course, turns out Badsha’s is a favorite among them) and a love for painting and art. He asked Claudia if she wanted to collaborate. They swapped numbers. Then a week ago, an afternoon at Shoaib’s home/art space turned out three diverse art works filled with Claudia’s imaginative little creatures and Shoaib’s abstract ink blots and sweeping painted waves. As they swapped canvasses, I wrote snippets inspired by Shoaib’s recurrent theme: waves, of course.

In a lottery, we each took home a canvas. Shoaib’s will be traveling to the US with a yoga student friend, who asked for the piece.

Today, Claudia and Shoaib have graduated to bigger canvasses. More familiar with each other’s strengths, they launch to the meat and bones (or for the veggie lovers: potato and cauliflower). Shoaib burns canvas, takes scissors to a shawl, slathers paste on different mediums. Claudia lays out her paints and pours forth her darling creatures slinking out of Shoaib’s burn marks.

(I am busy making observations and writing this blog. I too come prepared with my own tools: my trusty laptop.)

Today’s work is different from last week’s. They settle into a groove, quicker than before, one-legged ink beings slither out of a hole in the canvas, a wave-like net await a fresh catch of creative monsters. The total effect is a mixed brew, a dark stew, abstract and textured.

Looking at them, absorbed in their occupation, makes me feel all warm and fuzzy. Today, things are being created. Though this is true for every moment of every day, it is so good to see it in action. It’s a good reminder that we should all be creators in our own way, in ways that makes sense for us.

Images of the current collab between Claudia and Shoaib to follow. Still need to upload from Claudia's camera.

To see more of Shoaib’s work and the work of other Mysore artists, visit his blog:

Friday, November 12, 2010

So Sharp Sharath

I mean no disrespect, quite the opposite really.

I know the title makes him sound like a quick drawing, gun-slinging character from the wild west. Billy the Kid. Buffalo Bill. Doc Holliday. So Sharp Sharath.

At any given time, the shala easily holds over 100 mats, likely more than that. The shala itself is like a revolving door, one student out, one more in. “One more!”
There are at least 200 hundred students at the shala at this point. Probably more. And every morning, Sharath’s eagle eyes preside over the room, keeping a watch on his students’ progress, attentive to when he is needed. (And, yes, I have broken drishti to make these observations, but such things can’t be helped at times). He appears the master multi-tasker. He assists a student and simultaneously takes a second to scan
the room.

In his way, he is all knowing. Sharath may not know everyone’s names, but he knows faces. And he knows the times in which these faces are supposed to show up.
I imagine that his brain goes all Bionic Man. Each person is measured, faces are recognized, stats come up like on his internal eyeball computer screen—in Sanskrit no less.

I know he doesn’t know my name, but he knows that my face is linked to Claudia’s. He’s asked me where she was before, “Where is your friend?” She is also nameless. Claudia observed last Thursday that he scanned the room after he saw her, and then settled back on her face unsatisfied.

Did he come up short in his mental roll call? Had he figured out that I was missing that led class?

The following Monday, I was in ardha baddha padmotanasana. From behind me, I could see him purposefully coming my way. By the time I was right side-up, he was before me. I felt like a kid in trouble.

He coolly asked, “Where were you Thursday led?” (Friday was off for Diwali)
If this were a country western film, this is the scene where fingers twitch, itching to unleash pearl-handed antique gun, dust is flying around the shala, tumbleweed rolling across the background…

“Ladies’ Holiday, first day,” I answered concisely, surprised by the question. But I too was armed with a legitimate excuse.

His face lightened. He didn’t exactly smile, but tension seemed to evaporate. He nodded and walked on.

I continued with my practice with the knowledge that I wasn’t forgotten, that somehow I counted among the countless number of students. It made me happy, of course. The second emotion was wonder at how very sharp and perceptive he is. It’s amazing that he noticed my absence at all in a room packed with people. The third (lesser) emotion was inevitably worry, what else had not managed to escape his bionic supervision? My miscounting? My tired vinyasa?

Word to the wise: don’t mess with So Sharp Sharath, the Sherriff of the Shala, the fastest pair of eyes in the land.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Back-bending Chronicles

November 5, Diwali, the Festival of Lights celebrating the Hindu mythology of Rama and Sita, was yesterday. All of India was riled up, lit up in their special way. Fireworks and crackers have been going off all day and night. The streets are littered with cracker confetti and there is a smell of smoke in the air. It was a special day off with the shala. Two days off, really, as today November 6 is a Saturday.

The week has been a quick blur. On Monday, my time changed from 6:30am to 6am—Claudia to 6:15am. It is normal for times to move up with students coming and going. And though feeling quite random, Sharath announces it without ceremony as he calls you into the room the morning, “You, 6am.” It feels like it also fits with some grand plan.

There is more waiting at 6am than 6:30. At least that was last week. There are more and more students coming everyday. I come in 5:45 and already there is a line. Earlier times go first. He calls out, “5:30…5:45…6…” The moment you walk into the lobby, it’s a game of memory. You try to remember the order in which you came, who was there before you and who arrived after—you recognize those with the same time and give way to those who have earlier times.

Personally, I like it that there is a queue. It’s a good time to orient your self, making that transition from your rest time at home to practice at shala. You get to warm up in the lobby, where you can feel a little of the heat of the room. It’s nippy in the morning at Mysore—not at all humid like the Philippines. If anything, the weather reminds me of the fall Berekely weather. I also get to watch, peek into the shala doors, see the advanced acrobats who are finishing.

The daily self-practice is deep. The heat of the room—it’s like steam rising off of student’s bodies at six in the morning—and the collective energy of at least a hundred students breathing and moving in ashtanga-like meditation makes for such a special practice. My body is instantly warm. And when I focus, it feels like I simply slip into a stream of constantly flowing water. I am on my way.

Focusing, however, can also be challenging. With so little of it, space is an issue. And the quality of these students practices—wow! Sometimes, you can’t help but look on with admiration—sometimes, envy—at their amazing feats. But rather than feeling inferior (by a lot, potentially) they are inspiration. And believe me, the energy they create in the room is shared, so the best thing to do is buckle up, do my best and throw some good energy into the room myself.

The practice is unobtrusive. You are allowed to get into your own flow and are adjusted in poses only when absolutely necessary.

You do feel the watchful eye of Sharath scanning the room. He appears to be constantly vigilant, surveying the room, his hawk-eye keeping track of so many students. I was rolling up my mat last Wednesday to move to the dressing room (for finishing postures—to clear space for newcomers), when Sharath caught me out and asked, “You do backbend?” I nodded, as I am mostly dumbfound when he speaks to me—I swear he has this affect on me that results in me acting completely stupid. Maybe its nerves or just complete awe. Another time, he asked me where my friend was (meaning Claudia), I also couldn’t speak but pointed bobbing my head to the figure beside me. Good that she was near, I would have hated to gesticulate to her across the room.
Anyway, I digress. “You do backbend?” I nod.

But maybe he’s doubtful, he asks, “Who drop you back?” I look around frantically. I do not know the girl’s name. Finally I spot her three rows ahead. Again, I do my stupid point/head bob. He must think I’m part mute by this point.
He half grins and mutters in passing, “There is no escape.”

Little does he know, I would never think of it!

Gulp. So that is where I am at in my practice. I have to work on my backbends. I know that doesn’t make me special, everyone is working on their backbends. But on a personal level, to know that they know that this is where you are at…feels good.

Backdrops are deeper than ever before, no doubt. In the days that I have been practicing at the shala I keep inching closer and closer to my heel. And there have been a few attempts by Sharath’s assistant students to get me to hold my ankles, but to no success. My brain ceases to work properly, my motor skills totally tweak and my hand goes soft, gooey. It’s like I have no command of my fingers, they simply cannot grab, even when my hand is directed to my ankle. There’s a fear there. It’s irrational. My mind says my left side hurts. I can feel it, but there’s no real pain. I panic. And come up regretful that I couldn’t hold it.

Sharath himself is totally gentle. He holds on to my hips and directs me to come closer and closer. I had his toes once. I was panic-stricken as he said repetitively, “Not my toes, not my toes.” My walking fingers scrambled in I don’t know what direction, trying to find my heel. It is a comedy of errors.

Claudia too feels this immense disorientation when upside down. But slowly she feels that soon she will get it. I have often wondered at why Claudia struggles with dropping back and coming up. Her practice is beautiful. She is seriously strong—stronger than myself. She is seriously bendy. She has a regular practice. There aren’t any impediments, I think, except the ones in her head.

Her back-dropping adventures with Sharath seem to prove it. On one of our first days, he comes to her mat, “Drop back three times?”

She shakes her head and quietly responds that she cannot.

He seems to look at her oddly then. Then jokes, “No? You pay a fine.” He then attends to assisting her up and down.

We’ve talked about his joke at length. And maybe we’re just being crazy ashtanga students, over thinking and decoding every dialogue into some secret message. But we think that he thinks that she can do it.

Regardless, I think part of our responsibility as students is to be sensitive to all the cues, whether it’s an adjustment, an advice, or a joke. Maybe at this point, both Claudia and I have to simply start believing in our selves too, approach our backbends with an openness of mind and heart as well.

Last Week's Conference

Sunday, 4pm, shala time—15 minutes earlier than ordinary Indian time—all the shala students gathered for conference with Sharath. This is my first conference. I have heard of stories: Guruji sitting with students, being asked questions, him dropping his trademark gems of wisdom that are now everyday sayings for the ashtangi.

We are all sitting in front of the stage. The red chair, the throne-like seat in which I imagine Guruji would normally sit on stays empty. In front, another chair is pulled up. Sharath walks slowly to it, sits, appears to think upon a list he’s prepared in his head.

First he shares some observations, reminders to the students in general on good asana practice: the importance of alignment, a demonstration of proper foot placement and length in trikonasana, the benefits of certain poses, ashtau as the state of an asana, the necessity of deep and steady breath, an endorsement for oil baths, particularly castor oil bath on day’s off—as lubrication for joints and bones, helping in better flexibility.

Then, he takes questions. There is some hesitation to ask, but they come eventually. There all sorts from the bandas to the shat karmas—which he says are unnecessary if you maintain a consistent asana practice, which is already detoxifying one daily.
One particular response struck me the most. One student asks, what makes a good teacher. Sharath answers: a good teacher must be a good student. He explains that it is important that a student has a teacher, that a lineage is important to the development of a student and thus creating a good teacher who can continue to share that lineage.

I feel that this answer is directed to me. I have come to be a student. Yes, to become a better teacher too. But beyond teaching at all, I am here at Mysore to be a student. I am registered at the shala to follow a lineage that those who have taught me ashtanga have followed before me. I am getting up every morning, laying down my mat at the shala to find my teacher…

He has good news: that Stanford University (my alma mater’s nemesis! Go Bears!) is launching an ashtanga program. Sharath is particularly proud of it. Despite my long-standing dislike for Stanford’s mascot "The Tree", the program is definitely something to be proud of, especially in a university of Stanford’s caliber. There is a light in Sharath’s eye as he says yoga should be taught to children!

He also has some bad news; there is a reminder for women to be diligent in appropriateness of dress due to cases of women being disrespectfully grabbed. Dangers lurking at night. Women to walk with friends. And a request to not loiter at the coconut stand, the students’ favorite hangout. Hmmm.

Getting Up Early and Giving Thanks

Last Sunday…31 Oct 2010

There are two days of led classes at the shala. The first one we experienced on Friday at 5:45am. The following Sunday it was at 4:15am. Sharath’s classes are split into 2 groups. The first batch goes early on Fridays. The later batch goes early on Sundays. Fair enough, but still hard on one not used to getting up at 3am (ahem, such as myself)…

Getting up wasn’t too bad, but practicing at 4:15am in the morning takes, I am hoping,
getting used to.

Overall, the practice was hard. My mind, I fear, played tricks on me. There was that shadow lurking in its shallow crevices, being bad, being defeatist. I finished worn out, tired. The class required alertness and strength, both were a challenge to call up so early in the morning—for me at least.

We were home by 6 in the morning. I went directly to bed, I took savasana there which was followed by a 3-hour nap, in which I awoke much like 6 hours earlier: still tired.
No matter, we had a full day ahead of us.

We were invited to a puja by Claudia’s painting teacher. A thanksgiving feast organized to celebrate the sale of Anand’s paintings—an entire collection. Waking up to a similar time as ourselves, Anand’s family had gone to the temple, chanted, made sacrifices and then slaughtered a goat, which they were cooking in a huge pot when we rocked up to the house around 1:30pm. In fact, there were several large pots stewing on the rooftop. The smells were divine.

It was a lovely gathering of Indians. Mysore natives and even family members from Bangalore were in attendance. Claudia, her classmate Arancha and myself were the only foreigners.

They cleared out Anand’s studio, laid out mats along the wall on which people sat, cross-legged mostly. In front of each person was placed a plate made out of dried leaves stuck together by bits of toothpick. We were in the process of wetting our plates as instructed when we were informed that vegetarians would eat separately downstairs—a custom, it turns out, to keep veggie food from being spoiled by any meat—maybe that ends up in the air. We happily obliged.

It was a delicious meal of spiced rice, sambal topped the rice, curd rice, string beans with lentils and a dessert that seemed like overcooked noodle in a soupy sweet concoction—all served by Anand’s lovely daughter. In fact, the family served the entire time, as is custom. Before we dug in, we each were spooned prasad water into our right palm, which we drank. It tasted a little like milky roses.

Later, Anand would proudly tell Claudia that he and his family fed 120 people that day. What a beautiful gesture of gratitude their whole effort made—to celebrate their good fortune by sharing it with friends and family.

For Art Lessons, contact:
M.S. Anand
Tanjore & Mysore Traditional Painting Class

Friday, November 5, 2010

A Posh Hotel, a Grand Ole Pastel Palace, and 3 Sisters

Day off! I love days off. Claudia and I sleep in. By the time Jaime returns from her class, we are up and about contemplating breakfast. So we go off together to sample Regalis’ Saturday breakfast buffet.

On the way there, I spot a vendor on one of Mysore’s main avenues. Hanging from rope was a familiar site, a mysore mat in colorful stripes much like what I’ve seen from friends—reportedly from Mysore. We ask our auto-rickshaw driver to stop. We each decide to buy one, haggling the mats down from the original R180 to R500 for 3. Were it not for strict weight restrictions, I would have bought one of each style!

Despite an endorsement that Regalis was a hot spot for yoga students on Saturdays, we are the only western yoga students there. Regalis, formerly the Southern Star, turns out to be a plush hotel. It’s dining room stylish and modern, the likes one would see in 4-star hotels in Manila. For less than R300 each, we indulge in a selection of Western and Indian food. The food was delicious and truly value for money. Though easily twice, three times, even more as much as we could spend for breakfast, it was nice to have the full service and the choices.

The pool is also open to members. And like everywhere, membership can be arranged with a copy of your passport and 2 passport photos—usage for pool is then R200 per use, per person. (Make plenty of copies of passport and visa as well as a stock of passport photos. I am on my last 2 pieces and will have probably have to take more as everything seems to require a photo: the shala, SIM card purchase, even pool membership).

Having full bellies, we continue with our “tourist” excursion to Mysore Palace. There I am amazed at the quantity of Indian tourists. They are so many, that as we file in and out of the rooms and galleries it is as if we have joined a thick soup of people as we pour in and out of rooms.

The biggest shame is that photographs are not allowed inside the palace. The colors and details really tickle the eyeballs. It is the same sensation of the flavors of India on one’s tongue. Foreign, fabulous, and far out! Soft turquoise columns lead to bright stained glass ceilings, picturing peacocks, feathers ablaze. The marble floors too have patterns and colors, while the walls display murals picturing the Maharajah of Mysore’s past dignity and stonework have carvings of elephants and lions, gods and goddesses. Everywhere there is detail. Everywhere there is color.

Quite visually worn out after a tour of the palace and two adjoining temples, we decide to scout out the 3 Sisters, a place we’d heard about from friends who had made the trip to Mysore before. Here we’d heard, we would be able to experience a castor oil treatment, one that is highly recommended by the shala, for removing the heat in your body and lubricating joints. We also hear that they serve food and juices, so with an address, tel no and a map drawn into my notebook we are off. The rickshaw driver still gets lost. I show him the map. We ask for directions. As a last resort we call and still manage to make it the long way around.

And it’s no wonder we don’t see it. We pull up in front of a blue door. There is no sign. There are, however, three sisters. They lead us into their simple abode and into a small room where 2 students who look familiar from the shala are already sitting.

Amidst the simple setting me meet the nicest Indian siblings. Harini, is the yongest—and she says bossiest. She is the expert in oil massage. Is a yogini, a student of Pattabhi Jois himself who is in the process of building her own yoga shala. The third sister is the master cook and juicer. We order a juice each. Claudi and Jaime take the beet, carrot and ginger. I ask them to hold the beet for mine. Super yum!

We also make appointments for this castor oil massage. Castor oil treatment is pricey at Rp1800. But we were given advice to try it 3 Sisters first then after seeing how its done to purchase the necessary ingredients ourselves in Loyal World Super Market and doing in ourselves at home.

While we are there, it starts to rain, giving Harini the chance to tell us stories of the old days, of Guruji, and of the old shala in nearby Lakshimpura. She gives us tips on where to buy cloth and where to we can visit a silk factory.

On the way home, we make a trip to the Rama Krishna Ashram, we browse through a pretty serious collection of books, many of which are devoted to Swami Vivekananda.

Exhausted and tired from all of the day’s varied outputs, the posh hotel, the colorful palace, the three sisters and the yoga bookstore, we grab a simple dinner at the Green Leaf Canteen—where I have a tasty masala dosa duo for Rp30 and a banana lassi for R30. Dinner at R60—the cheapest meal so far!

* Regalis is also known as the former Southern Star Hotel
* 3 Sisters is located beside Hotel Keval in Mysore, tel no: 08212522788

The First Led Class

(Aside: Still in the long process of sorting out my own internet at home, it's been hard to keep up with postings. this is from last week's led class, October 29, 2010)

There is something about being so fresh here in Mysore, particularly in Gokulam. Everything is a new discovery. Every new piece of information is a gem. Each moment is an adventure. It feels a little like college; going away from home for the very first time, meeting new people, seeing a new place, figuring out all the cool hangouts.

Today starts earlier than usual. We have led class at 5:45am. There are 2 batches. We are the later. By Sunday, we will switch and we will be practicing at 4:15am!

We arrive early, quietly waiting at the steps as the previous group continues through their led class. We hear Sharath’s steady counting. He takes his time. I brace myself.
We are allowed to shuffle in as the first group packs up, place out mats down and throw the rest of our belongings into the dressing rooms before the opening prayer, ready, get set, go…

The led class is a good pace. In fact, Sharath’s repeating line is, “Why are you in such a hurry?” He advances when we are all synchronized. I am grateful for all the visiting teachers on the island this year, particularly Govinda Kai and John Scott—I feel prepared for this pace. I try to be alert. I try not to get too speedy.

He fixes my Supta Padangustasana, which I know I get away with through flexibility not strength. He moves my leg away from me, placing his foot on my opposite leg, forcing my weight down. It is then up to me to lift my upper body to my leg. I know now that’s something I’ve been able to get away with—again, try to break habits. Also, here the toe points.

I felt that I managed well enough until uplutih. My arms by then were exhausted. He had been taking rather long breaks between counts throughout the finishing sequence. My arms shook as I tried to lift myself up….10 ½…

Savasana lasted no longer than a minute when we were told to take rest at home. A short rest at the dressing room and a coconut after, it was truly over. I was pooped, but I’d survived it. Mysore might not break me after all…