Saturday, December 31, 2011

letting go and embracing change, new year 2012

Puja for Sri Maheshwara.

My past patterns and samskaras burning up--
well, at least on paper, for now.

Forecast said rain today and so did the sky, which was a soupy gray. I think it's fitting to have rain on New Year's Eve. I like the idea of washing away all the ills of the passing year, clearing out the air, starting 2012 fresh.

Mysore in general has this magic quality, which when you tap into it has a very potent power. People who come here leave somehow transformed. Even if you don't intend it, the practice seeps in deep. And change is inevitable.

Now, combine this potency with the power of intention, then multiply this by the amount of folks practicing yoga here with their minds focused and hearts open, bent on surrendering to a higher purpose, on a day full of wishing, praying and intention-making. It's an amazing combination, an alchemical solution, a very special energy that can inspire real, tangible change.

Last year, I had one of the most beautiful--and as it turns out, the most powerful--of New Year's Eves. The sun had just set on Chamundi Hill, and I'd written down all that which I wanted to let into my life: love, true connections, the opportunity to come back to Mysore and study at the shala, closer bonds with family and friends, a healthier life and outlook. It was a very general list but a far cry from the reality of my life a year ago. Now, a year on, I'm amazed at how much of what I hoped for during that night came true.

Today, I wanted to observe the coming New Year in a way that would manifest the changes I want in my life. So, I piled into a rickshaw with a beautiful posse of girlfriends and rode up to Chamundi armed with pens, paper, candles and incense sticks. There, we made a swift beeline to the quiet and grace-filled Sri Maheshwara temple a little behind and above the over-crowded Chamundeshwari Temple, the true highlight of the sacred hill. We broke our coconuts in the "Coconut Breaking Station," presented our offerings, then found ourselves a covered corner where we wrote the things that we were letting go of and the things we were inviting in the new year.

The sheet paper with things we wanted to manifest went in an envelope, while the things that we wanted to release, we burned--which didn't come easy with the density of the paper, the dampness caused by the steady drizzle, and the breeziness of midday. We fumbled with lighters as we re-lit the candles over and over. I guess, it's hard to undo our habits and patterns, not just literally but figuratively too. If last year's ritual was about surrendering, this year's is about letting go.

Afterward, I went to a special themed kirtan on "Rebirth," which was being led by dear friends James Boag, Paul Millage and Raddha, which went on an unprecedented 4 hours--an hour longer than the advertised time. And though our numbers dwindled towards the end, the space was charged with song, frequencies of love and devotion, bhakti at its very finest.

It was an emotional kirtan for me. One, because it was just plain old beautiful to sing with so many open-hearted people. Two, because change, as much as I try to embrace it, is hard to do, difficult to accept. And for the last year, I have lived in a world of change, transformation that I myself manifested, but have not, until now, realized the full scope of. I can't help but cry at the discomfort of such a metamorphosis, I can't help but mourn that which I feel attachment for, I can't help but feel the struggle that comes with letting things go.

It's now just past midnight. Fireworks are raging all over Mysore. It's pretty tame in Gokulam, but there is an occasional shout, "Happy New Year!" Standing on my rooftop, I watch the sporadic light show over residential buildings. I inhale the brisk air. I open my arms up to the night sky, quietly embracing yet another new day, another new moment, my heart hopefully ready for the next wave of change.

(Click here for last year's ritual)

Friday, December 30, 2011

new year singing

Paul Millage, Radha and James Boag at Mumuksha.

Ganesh providing the beats on tablas.

When I was growing up, I loved watching musicals. And I formed this idea that in a perfect world people would spontaneously break out in song, just because! I know its silly, but there's something really irresistible about it.

There's something incredibly joyful about singing and I really like the idea of singing into the New Year. Actually, singing and chanting (I've been taking voice lessons with Ranjini and Sanskrit lessons as well) has been a big theme for this trip. Though I've had very little to do with the kirtan events in and around Gokulam for the last month or so, I feel like taking myself and my voice out for a spin.

Luckily, there's plenty of kirtan on offer for this weekend, thought I'd share the events here for anyone else who wants to break out in song:

Friday, 30 December, 5:30-7:30
at Kumar's Mumuksha
386, 2nd Main, 3rd Stage
with James Boag, Ganesh on tables, Radha and Paul Millage on Harmonium

New Year's Eve Kirtan on "Rebirth"
Saturday, 31 December 2011, 2-5pm
at James Boag's place at Saraswatipuram
(first house behind Palace Honda Motorcycle showroom
off 1st Main in Saraswatipuram)

1 January 2011
Regular Sunday Kirtan, 1:30-3:10
at James Boag's place at Saraswatipuram
(first house behind Palace Honda Motorcycle showroom
off 1st Main in Saraswatipuram)
also with Paul and Radha on harmoniums

Monday, December 26, 2011

new pose puzzlement

Everyone has a pose that stumps them (most will have their lion's share over the course of a lifetime of asana practice), which either physically or mentally eludes them. The struggle that ensues takes on epic proportions. Two and a half weeks ago, I got one such new pose, ekapada sirsasana. And since then, it is working me to no end.

Now, it may seem to some that this might be the start of an asan(a)ine tirade, pardon the pun. Here goes another ashtangi railing about the physical aspect of yoga. I'm not going to pretend that it is not an important component of this yoga practice. It's absolutely the vehicle for this practice. But for me, the practice goes somewhere beyond the mat. That mat and what I do on it is like a magic carpet.

But first: ekapada sirsasana.

In a way, it's a landmark for me to work on this posture here in Mysore. Not just because it's challenging and totally not suited for my tight-ish hips. It's the last pose I ever received from another teacher, a little more than a year ago. Any new poses will be given to me by Sharath, sealing my student-teacher deal, the one that I myself have chosen, which defines the respect and trust that I have for my teacher.

Though I have only been working haphazardly on this pose until now, I knew it would be challenging to take on in Mysore. I had no idea, however, to what extent. Its amazing how one new pose can utterly alter--ahem, mess with!--one's practice.

On the grossest of levels, there are certain physical drawbacks. I currently have a long practice, full primary followed by my intermediate poses. By the time I get to ekapada I'm usually two hours into it. I'm fatigued. My arms are like jelly. I've lost all composure at this point, gone is the steadiness of breath, gone is my count, what vinyasa!?!

Then there's stopping at ekapada, which is an extreme forward bend. The back is compressed as the leg sits on the back/neck. Not exactly the most ideal last pose before opening the back into urdhva dhanurasana, followed by drop backs.

Last week, I witnessed the total disintegration of my back bending. I could barely come up from lagu vajrasana, I collapsed at my first try at kapotasana, and could not grab ankles in backbending. Sharath had nailed it on the nose after he had to walk me into my ankles, my elbows dragging on the carpet, "Mmm, back tight from ekapada." Really? I hadn't noticed.

That's when my emotions kicked in. The new pose had already filled me with anxiety. Now it was making me fearful. What if my backbends continued to deteriorate? What if I ended up stuck in ekapada for all eternity, the pose mocking my left hip ad infinitum? I was tired and moody. My practice was abandoning me. No one was helping me in the pose. I felt frustrated and alone. My morale had dipped and the dark cloud in my head seeped into the rest of my practice, which for the later part of the week seemed to falter all around.

Self-doubt coupled with missing my family for the holidays made for an emotional Christmas cocktail. Sporadic waterworks interspersed holiday merry making with friends in Mysore. I was happy one moment, some kind of sad another. I felt a little deranged.

The weekend was a good break, though I could feel the tightness persist in my back during the led classes. I did what I could to be nice to myself. I ate what I wanted. I enjoyed the festivities. I watched some feel-good movies on my laptop. I also talked to friends, some of whom had their own tales to tell.

These intermediate poses are intense. They do not have the same sort of gentle healing properties of yoga chikitsa or yoga therapy that primary series is known for. Intermediate is linked to the nervous system. These poses push one to his/her limits with extreme back bends, extreme forward bends and gravity defying arm balances. And when pushed we become vulnerable. Whenever we dig, something comes up.

The body is this frightening repository not just for things we eat but also the thoughts we imbibe and the emotions we experience. Some of these things pile up, sit, and calcify. They can harden and numb us. And now, I'm finding these old stories and feelings are popping up, possibly being dislodged from my sacral region, the seat of svadisthana chakra which governs creativity and my ability to relate with others. It should be a place of union--though the riot in my head as I try to get my right leg into ekapada definitely disagrees. But even this says something.

So, right now, even though I'm "stuck" in this pose, I know something deep within is moving. These emotions are part of this movement. It's too early yet to say where exactly it's taking me, but I feel like the inner part of the work has at least begun and that the external will catch up at some point.

That's the beauty of this practice: what starts with the body subtly works its way into the heart and mind, while the knowledge uncovered there reflects back out into the physical practice, we become stronger, we become more flexible, we take one step closer to becoming free of that which restricts us.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

christmas in mysore

Anokhi Garden Christmas tree.

Christmas Day. My second Christmas in a row in Mysore. This marks the half way point of a 5 month stay in India. And to be perfectly honest, I'm worn out. I've spent part of the holiday weekend close to tears--the other part indulging in sweets and chocolate in a gross attempt to chase away the blues.

It's tough to be away from my family during the holidays. And the practice...well! the practice is challenging me in whole new different ways. I feel fatigued, I feel stretched, I feel pushed, I feel a little out of my element. It is stirring me up in whole new ways, physically, mentally and emotionally.

Still, the holidays, though not so vibrant and festive as at is at home, is very special here too. I've really seen the best in people this weekend.

At Anokhi's Garden last Friday, some beautiful friends got together to raise over Rp80,000 for Ashadayaka Seva Trust and Operation Shanti by doing the things they love: cooking, baking, master-minding. The Christmas Party that they organized not only brought people together but benefits the children in this community. Everyone who attended the festivities, who bought tickets, who gave raffle prizes took part in this wonderful event full of good intention.

In one Gokulam Christmas Eve gathering, I saw again the amazing camaraderie that forms between people that come out to practice here, that even in a primarily Hindu country like India, the Christmas spirit lives in the action of people, in a tree cheerfully decorated, in the cakes and pastries that were baked, the food that was prepared, and the time we share with people we care about.

Christmas here is a no frill event. The decorations are at a minimum. There are no carols blaring out of storefronts. There is no massive drive for gift giving and mass consumerism. What drives the holiday spirit, however, is the human connections that makes the Mysore experience so rich and varied.

For me, this year, Christmas is waiting at the gate of shala with joyful anticipation. It's greeting my mat mates a Happy Christmas before practice. It's seeing Sharath come out of his office with a Santa hat and wishing us a Merry Christmas before launching into the opening prayer. It's having Christmas Chai after practice at the steps accross Amruth's. It's about waking up this morning and feeling -- despite all the intensity of being here and being pushed to my limits -- that there is no other place I would rather be this special morning.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

dating yoga

For me, Mysore is about yoga, which in Sanskrit means "yoke" or "union." It is about connection: to our teacher, to the people we meet, to the friends we make. There is an intensity to the bonds formed here, as people are pried open, hearts all soft and vulnerable from excessively deep back-bending. Without barriers, love flows easily and links are made.

However, the most important relationship I've formed so far is with this mad, crazy, magical place, the shala, and within it, this blood-heating practice called ashtanga. It has everything we look for in a partner: it has depth and complexity, it's challenging, it may seem mysterious but it actually makes sense, it makes us work but rewards us for our effort, it keeps us grounded and humble and it makes us feel great, it is constant and yet always dynamic, and it sure is HOT!

The phases of life here even reminds me of the stages of dating.

The first month can be mild, a time of adapting to the inner workings of the shala, to life in Gokulam as well as India at large. It's a time of easy flirtation as one skims the surface of asana practice.

It can also be euphoric, the honeymoon period in which my practice/my teacher and I dance about merrily, getting to know each other. It is full exciting firsts. First practice. First backdrop. First led class. First conference. First coconut. First Indian breakfasts. It goes on and on, all memorable first dates.

Month two is less straight forward, less easy. There are bumps on the road--and as this is India, there are plenty of them. Fatigue wears down the charm of the place and the practice. And the deeper the practice, the heftier the drama. There are amazing highs, but there are lows too.

My practice and I won't always get along. We sometimes misunderstand each other. Other times, we just don't see eye to eye. I may intend to grab calves in back bend but that does not always happen. I may want to move on and get a new pose, but that's not up to me. The practice (and Sharath) may have other plans. I may want to secure my leg behind my neck and back in ekapada sirsasana but my hips won't oblige.

There are petty jealousies. My practice may want me to conserve my energy. To take things easy and rest. It can be possessive. It wants all my time. And sometimes, I feel envious of another student with his/her practice. They look so... happy. They look so good together! Then my practice gets pissed off because my drishti has strayed and I'm not paying it proper attention.

There are disagreements. There are tears. There are disappointments and frustrations. The deeper the practice, the deeper the relationship delves into the deep down stuff that we usually try to hide from each other. Through the difficulties, though, we start to understand each other better. We make up and go back to loving each other, stronger than ever.

I'm days into my third month now. And I can see that my practice and I are getting into a nice groove. It's not perfect, but it feels great to spend time together. I can see there is so much more to discover and I'm looking forward to it. We're learning each other's quirks. We're learning not to rush each other.

I look forward to understanding my practice better, and by knowing it better I feel that I will know myself better too--and that relationship with myself is the connection that I have long wanted to establish, that's what draws me to India, to Mysore, and to the shala.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

distraction detraction

Friday night at Fluid, the nearest premier nightclub--in fact,
the only nightclub in the area.

Though many of us come to Mysore to focus on our practice, one of the biggest ironies of being here is that Mysore itself is land-mined with distractions. A simple thirst for a coconut can turn into an unexpected adventure, beautiful and wondrous, but sometimes totally out of step with intentions of quiet, rest and practice, self-study and a deepened understanding of yoga within the context of ourselves.

I feel like I've actually done less than my previous trip, the first two-weeks of which I was a hyper-tourist/yoga student who was making the most of my first trip to India. I've now mostly dropped the tourist part. I spend two hours plus every morning, six days a week, excluding moon days and ladies' holiday at the shala for practice. Including singing class, Sanskrit and chanting at the shala, I spend an extra 10 hours of what I feel makes up my "formal" self-study. Factor in an hour for conference a week, that's still only 17 hours out of a 168-hour week. Even if I sleep half that time (I wish!), that still leaves 67 hours. Where in the world does all this time go?

Its different for everyone. There are many around here who seem extremely skillful at managing their time and conserving their energy. I think these people are incredibly stealthy and discerning, they appear only when they totally desire it, they engage only when necessary. I wish to God that I were one of these gifted people.

Instead, I'm one of the ones scratching her head, after one of those seemingly interminably long lingering breakfasts, wondering where the last two months have gone. Over the course of this trip, I've ended up in the mall, in temples, a couple of cooking classes, the palace for the Sunday lighting, a bowling alley, a night club, obscure food joints half-way across town, and--once--at the horse races. And I'm slowly catching up on seasons of television shows that I didn't even know existed 2 months ago. I've been party to some really fun social situations, and am often with friends, mostly having to do with eating. More than a few times I've caught myself wondering if I have somehow completely failed in my original goal, had I lost sight of my purpose of deepening my practice?

At this point I could berate myself for being a "bad lady," a hack of a yoga student--and I have, at times, gotten to this point, totally guilt-ridden at not having accomplished some goals that I'd personally set for myself. One of these goals was to religiously blog, which I obviously haven't done in a very long while. So yes, I have failed to some extent.

In my defense, however, I feel like I am still on course. But like many of the paths I've chosen, its never so straightforward. Some of the things I have engaged with may seem like petty distractions, but they are still a part of this unorthodox means of schooling that exists in this Mysore yoga pressure cooker.

In truth, my interactions with people help me understand more about the practice itself, not to mention how it fits in my own life. Every experience is a part of the Mysore experience, whether its on or off the mat. And some of the activities, well, they're just fun and light and I am so grateful to have such moments that make me happy and keep me grounded. It's good to laugh, its good to eat, its good to dance.

Still, I understand that a good balance must be struck between my yoga practice and my practical everyday life. My intentions must never be forgotten. Its also important to go with the flow of energy, where my heart wants to go, what things it longs to uncover. I realize that being a student of life doesn't mean I have to always be studying; life is not so serious. Our life lessons are meant to be enjoyed. Everyday should be honored with celebration--a healthy combination of quiet and boisterous merry making--because its truly a miracle to just be here, to have the time to explore who we are in such a magical place, to have the opportunity of self-discovery thrown at us in such a myriad of ways.

Monday, December 5, 2011

the revolving door

Old friends and new friends taking chai at
Amruth's after led class two weeks ago.

The shala has a revolving door. People come and people go. This is a fact in these parts, evidenced by Sharath's voice doling out new start times continuously. Overnight, it feels, old faces go missing while new faces peer into the door in the later morning hours.

I'm approaching my second month, and I am amidst month no. 2's exodus in which a good number of those who are in my intimate circle, with whom I spend the most time with, who make up my beautiful support system here, must go. Most have already gone. My entire island crew have flown homeward or to their designated pit stops. At this moment, my roommate Claudia is waiting for her flight at Bangalore airport. And I find myself wadding through this wave of change. Last week, I felt physically drained. This week, I am emotionally tender.

Noticing the sudden disappearances of those I am not even close to also takes a toll. We get used to the energy of people we see day to day. We fall into each others' routines, we bump into each other at breakfasts, on the street, at the store to visit the chocolate man. We form silent relationships with people with whom we share an inch or two of communal space between mats in the shala. Without knowing, our breaths and movements merge in a symphony of yogic energy, quiet and potent.

It's hard not to mourn the sudden absence of such intense connections. Nor should we stop ourselves from honoring the gift of them, those who genuinely share themselves so openly in such a short amount of time.

But I am also reminded that this is a part of the Mysore experience, that there is a transitoriness to the friendships that are forged here. Some will exist only here, reuniting during serendipitous trips to the shala. Others will continue virtually over Facebook or Skype. Some will crossover and reconnect through the tight-knit ashtanga world. One thing is for sure, the shared experience of being here creates very special bonds.

For me, I feel, this is a time to practice non-attachment, hard as it is. We must embrace those that come and we must release those that go. The connections that enrich this time is still separate from our practice. Their road is different from ours. This is just a reminder to stay cool and steady amidst a sea of constant change.

Part of the change is also good. As new blood cycles in, they bring with them new energy, new insights, and new adventures. In the end, we are all a part of this amazing place, we are all passing through this revolving door.