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.


  1. maybe it makes you feel less panic stricken that many people have been told by sharath, 'not my foot, your foot.' it is very disorienting being backwards and upside down like that :)

  2. Haay... I can feel your (back)pain...
    Working on the same thing here myself.
    So you'll be my teacher when you're back ok?

    Open your heart!