Wednesday, December 11, 2013

mysore withdrawal

For me, 'tis the season for Mysore. It's not been so very long for me but since 2010, I've spent this time of year in India to study with Sharath at KPJAYI. Until now, that is.

When the season started in Mysore this October, it made me smile to know that the shala life around Gokulam was restarting, that even from afar I felt I could revel in it.

The more time passes, however, the more I feel the shakes for shala practice, for that intense energy that goes into practice, preparing for practice, eating early for practice, pre-practice coffee, post-practice chai...

There's this itch to check on the Ashtanga Mysore Community Facebook page--just to see what's going on--or to stalk friends who I know are there now or are headed that way. Then, there's this deep down feeling of longing that I feel when I see a Mysore shot on Instagram or an update on my newsfeed.

Mysore withdrawal symptoms, all of them, confirming my (healthy! at least on most days) addiction to Mysore, India. (The informal definition in the dictionary for "addict" is "devotee" incidentally, which I think applies well here.)

My body, heart, mind, spirit are having a Pavlovian response to this time of year! I'm not salivating, thank goodness, but am definitely having an interesting reaction to shots of random cows walking the streets, coco stand portraits and especially wide-angle shots of the packed room and expectant faces at conferences. There is a craving for depth of practice with my teacher, the camaraderie of friends who understand similarly the experience of yoga practice in their muscles and their joints and the intensity of the more subtle clenches and the openings that come with it.

And it's not just the practice. Missing Mysore in so many different levels, from the most mundane simple acts that typify a day in the life there, (i.e. morning post-practice chai, Sri Durg Indian breakfast or trip to the Chocolate man for curd) to special Sunday afternoons a capela kirtan in Saraswathipuram leading to conference at the shala with Sharath.

It's interesting now to observe how my attention is drawn to that part of the world, all the way here in Egypt, how connected I continue to feel despite skipping a season, but also how that connection constantly craves for to explain...deepening--which I think is a pretty good kind of addiction. 

Saturday, November 23, 2013


Portable portrait of Guruji (Sri K. Pattabhi Jois), which travels with me.
Makeshift altar at La Zone, Maadi in Cairo, where I am subbing for friend Iman Elsherbiny. 

It's not perfect. But I've stuck to it--out of some deep internal compulsion, out of a great need and desire, out of love. And even though, on occasion, especially as the alarm harps on at crazy o'clock in the morning and there is this small sense of drudgery, that oh-here-we-go-again! feeling, mostly I wake up joyfully knowing that I will be met with both its unpredictable spontaneity and steady consistency. My eyes open and I am happy to breathe with it. The longing does not abate. I know that it is there for me, waiting and welcoming. Mostly, I can't wait to be with it, to spend the hours touching an intimacy like no other.

After seven years, this is the longest relationship I have ever had, this partnership with this mad beautiful ashtanga practice.

I realize that I've never been so committed; that no other part of my life has ever received such attention, such loyalty, such love and devotion. And while that in itself may be flawed, I cannot help but feel gratitude that something has inspired me so, calling me on to act day after day with remarkable presence. Even if the sense of fullness is sometimes fleeting, it has made me look upon each day as filled with the potential for growth. It has inspired me to love in so many levels--to love yoga, to love the practice itself, to love my teachers, and to love my fellow beings. Most of all it has helped me cultivate a profound sense of self love that I hadn't realized was even missing.

A couple of years ago, I wrote an article likening my relationship with the ashtanga practice to dating, that we'd moved beyond flirtation and how we were properly, happily seeing each other. And what a beautiful time that was, how joyful to see our bond blossom.

We've been through a lot more since then, the practice and I. 

There have had some golden moments. The last couple of years have taught us to be easy and comfortable with each other, more forgiving, more patient.  

But there have been difficulties too. Being with practice is not easy. Frustrations at feeling stalled have played on me. Things don't always move forward at the same lightning pace. Being unable to move beyond one posture, for example, made feel as if we'd reached a plateau, that nothing new was coming and I feared the stagnancy of routine. 
I phased through moments of doubts. I scrutinized our compatibility. I wondered whether we were truly right for each other, whether it could truly satisfy me, and whether I could truly represent it and be the kind of practitioner/teacher that I felt like I needed to be for it. I feared its rejection, that I wouldn't be good enough. And then there were times that I felt fidgety and nervous and craved for more. I had to ask: could I truly commit? 

And, yet, here we are: wandering the world together, navigating the strange unknown with remarkable strength and flexibility, adapting to different cultures, coping with the stress of work, travel and movement, being mutually supportive but allowing each other the space to be. I could not imagine this life of mine now without it. 

The question of commitment, a non issue at this point, as I survey my life of, well, commitment to practice. The challenges come and go, yet the practice remains, however sweet, however difficult. It would not have stuck around if I hadn't willed it. If I hadn't stepped on to the mat and breathed it into my body day after day.

These days, I feel committed on a whole new level. 

That while the practice continues to be deeply personal, it has also become greater. That by teaching, my relationship with my own practice now extends to others. 

The authorization, the blessing from Sharath Jois to teach, I must admit, has brought a new sense of commitment to it. Fear, as well. Like a marriage, it feels a great deal more official. More serious. There is a greater sense of responsibility and accountability on my part. That comes with its own set of worries. But this, too, we are navigating together. The practice seems to understand my deeply ingrained fear of commitment and makes no demands. It accepts me just as I am. It bends to my need for independence, it allows me to be the autonomous, creative being that I need to be. 

And what I've realized is, that despite the piece of paper, the intricacies of our relationship is up to us, that we create the kind of loving, respectful exchange that works, that allows love to simply flow easily. 

Want to read more about the evolution of this constantly changing relationship to practice? To read the "dating yoga" blog article:

Sunday, November 17, 2013

a skip season

Guruji's portrait in the shala. 

I would not have thought it possible. Towards the end of my first trip, so certain was I, so gung-ho, so totally obsessed with Mysore, that I was sure I would spend a portion of every year of my life in Mysore, India to practice at the shala--at least until my brittle bones would prevent me from doing so!

And now... as friends and, yes, my yoga family converge in India, I sit during spare in-between-teaching moments reading updates on facebook, viewing photos on instagram, and breathing--I breathe into the space in my heart that tightens because I long for it so: India, the shala, the energy and the practice there, the grace of the teacher, the community in and around Gokulam, the yoga folks, the chocolate, the random livestock wandering around the streets. Oh my goodness, I miss it all!

I've been in Cairo over three weeks now, my coming here has allowed another, my friend and fellow ashtangi Iman Elsherbiny, to go and study with Sharath in KPJAYI. The last three months has been this way, me holding space for others. Before this I was in Japan, subbing for a mysore program in Osaka. After this, I will be doing the same in Barcelona. And the current Mysore season will have come and gone by the time I am done with the commitments that I have made.

I have chosen to skip a season, I have to remind myself. I am the architect of this anomaly.

This was not so methodically planned. I do have a ticket leaving London in the end of December going to back to Asia. My intention was to be in India by the new year, in keeping with my "tradition" of spending the eve at the Shiva temple in Chamundi Hill, giving puja, burning old karmas, making new intentions. But so much has changed since I left South East Asia in early June. And life has challenged me to be flexible off the mat as well.

As the year ends, my puja, my offering is my life. Burning old patterns writ on paper isn't enough anymore. I simply need to stop cycling into them. And the intentions, well, my plate is still full there as I toil over the ones from previous years.

Ultimately, I know it doesn't matter where I celebrate the new year. It doesn't matter where I practice, or where I bow to the teachings of my teacher.

Still, I am missing practice at the shala and Sharath's stealthy hawk-eyed gaze. I can feel my body miss the deep down soreness, the depth of self-discovery, the intensity of moving amongst the breath of 70 some odd students, that indescribable push to the edge. But this time, choosing to teach, rather than to study, also seems right.

While studying regularly with Sharath is important to me as a human being and as a student, I can't help but feel his hand in my learning now, that it is because of his blessing that I am out here. That this is my "off-campus" self-study; it is also a part of my expanding education. And when it's time to return to the mother ship, Mysore will still be there. It will still be the same crazy, pressure cooking home away from home.

Life, I try to remember, is an extension of this practice. That "realizing mysore" is not exclusive to being physically in Mysore the Karnatakan city in Southern India. It is a state of being, a process and a tool for living. We go to Mysore to experience it and when we leave, we don't forget its lessons, which have seeped into our muscle memory, into our bones and into our cellular beings. When we leave, that energy goes with us.

And even though I am missing Mysore very much at the moment, I also know that like the practice, Mysore is always with me. 

Sunday, August 18, 2013

wandering student to traveling teacher

One of my first mysore-style classes
at Spirit Yoga, Osaka.

A couple of weeks ago, I arrived in Osaka and met up with two people I had met very briefly in Mysore: Rosangela and Simon from Brazil. I had just arrived to cover two months for one mysore program and they were a day shy of leaving after two months of covering another program in the city.

Such meetings are not unusual within the community of ashtanga-practioners who go in and out of Mysore. What was different, however, as we traded stories about the months since the shala closed in March, is that I was like them, I realized. They'd been moving around Asia and were then going to Europe to cover another program. And like them, I was traveling and teaching. Properly. Not just when I was at home in the Philippines. Not just on the side. Not by accident, which was a lot last summer. I was moving intentionally to teach and share.

I had been to the Philippines to assist after India, followed by teaching in Spain. After Osaka I'll be heading to Egypt, again to cover a mysore program. I had made a transition without being fully aware of it. I was a little shocked at first, then amazed, then grateful...

In 2010, I took my first trip to Mysore. Realized I knew so very little. The director of KPJAYI, Sharath Jois emphasized a lot during conference those months the importance of being a student first. It deeply resonated. And even though I had been teaching already, I felt that it was time to drop the idea that I was a teacher and simply embrace being a student.

And the Universe was good, complying and giving me the opportunities to move about, learn from amazing master teachers, from friends, and from loved ones. When the opportunity arose, I would teach but it was not my focus. I returned to Mysore again. Svadyaya, was a key word. I was constantly, it seemed, self-studying--on the mat, off the mat, from books, and from experience. I often emphasized how I was a student first. But what of teaching?

I still wanted to teach but didn't hanker for it, content to take the time to learn. Perhaps there was a part of me that took refuge in being the student, that my lot wasn't to teach--not yet! maybe never?--but instead to simply prepare. In the beginning, I honestly didn't believe I was ready. But in recent times, I think maybe I was scared. There was safe-ness to being the student. As a student, I was accountable mostly for my own learning. I was responsible to grow and expand for my own good only. And what if... what if I didn't make a good teacher?

I realize now how much I stepped away from the role of teaching. How I was happy to be the student around other great teachers, how I stepped aside for them, not just my seniors but my peers too. But if I were totally honest, I guess there has also been a certain amount of dissonance in this act, because I have learned a lot, because I also have things to share now--and because, I am coming to realize, I've always had to something to share.

Yes, I am a student. Yes, I will always be a student. I will always honor and respect and give time to my own teacher. To my Guru. And that there is always time and space to humbly be the student. 

But, yes, I am also a teacher. And am feeling my teacher-ness more now than last March when I received my teacher's blessing to teach. The authorization from Sharath matters to me, of course--the reasons for which could be an article in itself but I had wondered sometime in June as I blundered nervously through a guided class, whether I was really really ready, had Sharath made a mistake, had he misjudged me, perhaps I hadn't ripened? 

Yet, here I am. In Osaka. Called here to teach. Teaching. I get up very very early so that I can practice for myself but also for the students who will come and lay their mats down after I've finished. And when they come into the 6th floor studio of Spirit Yoga, they are under my gaze and guidance. For a brief moment, their practice is an extension of my own, their breath is my breath. And I try my best to be present in order to help facilitate the subtest of movements.  

Maybe Sharath's blessing is a part of an initiation, this coming of age that we perpetual students must also go through. 

Perhaps being really ready entails stepping into the role, not running away from it or being scared by it. Instead, accepting the responsibility that being a good student now also includes working towards being a good teacher. That all that self-study has to be good for more that just one person, that knowledge so dearly earned is meant to be shared.

And this fear of teaching? Trying to face it, to stare it down. I still freak out just a little bit here and there, I get nervous--about stupid stuff, really, like forgetting the opening prayer midway, or the counting, oh God, the counting! But those evil, little nagging moments of self-doubt, they are coming less and less, they are loosing their power. Last June, after my train-wreck of a class (mind you, the students were fine, only the teacherly were critical, god bless them!), my friend Paul was giving me feedback, I needed to simply practice teaching, he said. I guess that time was also a part of this transition. And, yes, I am reminded that everything comes down to practice.  

So, here I am in Osaka where students call me "Sensei Kaz," which for an American like myself is just so odd and yet so obscenely cool because I learned that word from the movie "Karate Kid." But it's also weighty. It comes with this new sense of responsibility. I'm not in my comfort zone anymore, but it's ok because I know that this is also the place where the magic happens. So, bring it!

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

new shala registration process

The buzz word continues to be change. And even with Sharath on tour this summer, the world continues to turn. Mysore is no exception. Saraswathi started to teach in July or June. And now she too is conducting weekly conference for her students. And the shala, well, the shala rules on registration is as fluid as ever.

For some of us on the ride, it feels a little like a raging rapid what with the ever changing rules in registration for the next season: trips starting only at the 6th of every month, registration changed to the first of every month, and a glut of applicants filling up an entire month all in two days.

December was full by August 3. And the fall months which are usually considered quieter months filled up quickly too. And the question "Do I go to Mysore?" has been edited by the new circumstances into "Can I go to Mysore?" Will Mysore accept me, will I even be able to register? We'll see once September rolls around.

Non-attachment. I've not been going to Mysore so long that I have old-school expectations. I'm actually pretty new school. Still, change is unrelenting. And I am fighting the reaction to have any resistance to it. Relax, I remind myself. Be steady but relax also.

With ashtanga growing so rapidly, with more and more people wanting to come and study with Sharath in India, we must be prepared that the Mysore experience will continue to change, evolve, grow, this is yoga in action, isn't it?--and if we are really practicing, how we too must also expand with it.

Some useful tips for first timers: 
1) Make sure your photo is sized properly and is in the right format
2) Applications sent before the 4 month mark of the month you are applying for will most likely not be counted
3) After registration you should receive an automated response that the shala has received your application. This is not your acceptance letter into the program. But it is important that you receive this 
4) You will receive an acceptance letter from the shala. This may take a little, sometimes a lot of time. Also important, if you do not receive this, I suggest you follow it up

For updated rules on registration process, see

Monday, August 12, 2013


The whole assisting thing was new on my first trip to Mysore. Not just for me, but for everyone involved. And though I had no prior experience to compare it to, no old impression of the shala to hold it against, I couldn't help but feel like I was witnessing a little bit of shala history. There was Sharath working the room, not on his own but with the shala's first foreign assistants. My first back bend in the shala was by an assistant, and she took me to ankles. I was startled--maybe even a little disoriented--yes, but I also felt very supported. I didn't even know such a feat was possible.

Fast forward to late January. I'm reregistering for month two when Sharath tells me in his usual matter-of-fact way, the same manner he says most things, authoritative but somehow strangely off-key, like the way he might inform you that your time has changed, like somehow you had it wrong all along, "You assist for me next month."

I wish I could report that I'm the kind of person that was just totally cool and even minded about it. When in reality, my mind went blank and I think I went all bug-eyed. My mouth might have dropped. I was just glad I was sitting down, else I might have actually fallen over, so much was the mixture of shock, excitement, and joy that he thought I might be ready.

Then reality set in, "Next month, which is...?" Next week, he answered. That's just about when the anxiety chimed in.

What to say about assisting? I've been trying to sum up the experience now for some time now. Maybe there's just no summing it up. There are so many layers to it. So many different lessons-- about the shala, Sharath, myself, my practice, my abilities--and all my issues that have to do with said abilities or my perception of them.

It's a unique opportunity to learn, to share, and to serve at the shala in Mysore, under the guidance of Sharath, with the energy of the seriously devoted practitioners that come and practice there. It was an incredibly intense experience, ridiculously tiring that I would repeat again in a heart beat.

But if I could sum my experience up with one word, it would be "gratitude." To the boss man Sharath, to the students who trusted me with their bodies/practices, to those who gave me good feedback, to the friends who encouraged me, to my first yoga teacher and to every person who helped me along this path. Thank you, thank you, thank you.

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Sharath and the name game

I was laughing when I showed my friend Sharz my autographed copy of Sharath's new book, Astanga Yoga Anusthana, which he signed after the last Sunday conference (March 24). 

"Are you going to ask him to change it?" Sharz asked.

"Nah," I was doing my own version of the Indian head bob, "Really, it's perfect."

The inscription read: To Kiz, With Blessings. Sharath Jois. 

Erm, what's one vowel, right?! Eh, good enough! 

It was funny since I was so careful with my friend's copy which I asked him to sign first but then was complacent with my own. I guess I thought that since he started calling me by name at the start of the season, and especially after assisting in February, he'd already learned my name.

And he did, just not quite so perfectly.

It's not really a big deal. Sometimes, Sharath gets names fast. Sometimes, it takes time--in many cases, a lot of time. With Sharath, one's name, especially if it's an unusual one, can evolve creatively over time. Accents and vowels change, additions might be made, letters may go missing. You can see he's really trying. But as sharp as Sharath might be with students' asana practices, with so many people coming through the shala, he would rightly have trouble remembering people's names. 

In truth, I think it's a miracle he knows my name at all. My first year, I thought he'd never get it as he would write out the four names listed on my passport, none of which was the name I actually went by. But each time, I was in the office to register, I was too freaked out by him to point out he could skip the first three names altogether and replace them with the monosyllabic nickname that I was often called by. By my second trip, he stopped writing my last name and just scribbled down my three given names (they took the entire line already). This year, I suggested he just write "Kaz."

With the student-teacher ratio here totally out of whack, every little interaction is worth it's weight in gold. My first trip, I knew Sharath was my teacher. But did he know that? Was he conscious of the role I had assigned him in my life? It's taken some time, but I feel that by knowing my name, he recognizes me as his student now too.

So, it's ok if he doesn't have my name perfectly. Maybe this is also a part of the subtle schooling here in the shala, where the practice helps you grow but also keeps you humble. Besides, there are plenty of seasons to come. There's time for him to keep on getting my name wrong. There's time for me to keep on learning--among many many things, that there's more to being Sharath's student than a silly name game. 

Thursday, April 4, 2013

the classroom shala, adventures in assisting

(Just got back to this article now. It's been four months since I started to write this and six months since actually assisting at the shala. I guess at this point, it's just better late then never...)

If you've spent any time studying at the KPJAYI shala in Mysore, you know what it's like: the crowded room supported by Sharath's unobtrusively sparse teaching style, which amounts to very minimal adjustments, and very little verbal instruction. If you really strip it down, it seems nearly obscene, the craze to practice in a hot, sweaty, too-full room, with little guidance--yet we pay dearly for this experience. Why do we do this?

The shala is a subtle classroom, maintaining a strange balance between the independent study that happens within the boundaries of one's mat space and the room at large, a heaving beautiful mess of collective energy tuned into breath. The teacher, Sharath, holds the space intuitively. In that room, his presence is pervasive. He practically has eyes on the back of his head. He sees so much, yet keeps his distance.

When I was assisting (last February and March), people would ask: How was Sharath teaching me to assist? or even Was Sharath teaching me how to assist? People want to know what he's like in that context. Truth: Sharath is the same at all times. There's no magic shift. No sudden deluge of instruction and technique. Maybe a few more jokes here and there, because he doesn't seem to want to take it all too seriously--we practitioners do enough of that! He once called me in the office to admire his up-close-and-personal photo of a tiger (and quite an impressive photograph it was), but there's no palling around at the end of class. 

I remember my first day at the shala, getting called in with "one more..." There's no time to dilly dally, once you're called into that room, regardless of whether it's your first time or not, you're basically being thrown into the deep end, sinking or swimming is up to you.

Assisting is like that too. There's no orientation. You come and you do. You bring in what you know, and within the shala workspace, you practice, you refine, you learn. Just like daily practice.

The moment you need guidance, however, Sharath is there. For me, day one of assisting, it was doing  supta kurmasana assists. He must have observed my "technique"--a mix-match of different influences from various teachers I've studied and worked with. Then he appeared, stepping in to demonstrate how he does it, which is so smooth and gentle, there was no cranking and little force, instead lots of integrity and strength. His style of teaching is more show then tell, which then gets to be ingrained into muscle memory as the assistance is repeated morning after morning.

He was particular with maricasana D assists and stopped me a couple of times from helping tight or once-injured yet earnest newcomers, saying that they need a little bit of time before being helped into a bind. And despite the tales of harsh adjustments, he's very conscious of when gentleness needs to be applied. Also reminding me that I needed to keep my own earnestness to assist in check.

Sharath would, of course, answer questions when asked, demonstrate when needed. But there's no coddling in his school. He gives you the time and space to figure things out independently. That's how we learn in ashtanga, through our own body of experience. That somehow part of the lesson of assisting is how we must take responsibility for our own personal survival as we hold a mysore space. How, through daily contact with practitioners, we learn to read people and to feel energy, understand when someone needs help, intuit when someone needs space as they go through their own process, walk away without taking anything personally, be gentle when it's appropriate and be boss when someone just needs get on with it.

Then, there was just being in the shala, taking part in the magic, watching Sharath so totally in his element. It was learning by osmosis. It was transference of energy. For me, this is what it means to be a part of the lineage, that there is a line, so subtle yet nearly tangible that connects the student to teacher, that teacher to the teacher before him and so on. For me, it's not really important how far back this line goes, what matters is that this line is real and that it connects people to the power of practice, to themselves and to each other.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

getting off the gokulam merry-go-round

Just over a week since the shala closed and the mass exodus of yoga students seems to be at its end. Even Sharath, Saraswathi and the rest of the family are in the US, starting their tour in Greenwich, Conneticut just this last Monday.

Though I left Gokulam myself towards the end of last week to situate myself comfortably in the neighborhood of Saraswathipuram before heading back home to the Philippines, I drove around there yesterday morning to run a few errands. 

On the main street it seemed pretty much business as usual, except for the lack of foreign yoga students milling about, riding around in scooters or motorbikes. Guru's coconut stand was closed this morning. As was their food stand. The breakfast cafes are now closed for the season. Trupthi's Coffee stopped stocking fresh tofu, Mrs. Truphti explaining that there were no more yoga students. I said I was still there. She just laughed. One straggler doesn't make for much of a customer, I guess. 

There's a quiet about Gokulam now and it feels like the energy of the neighborhood has shifted some. There's also a certain sweetness to this time. As if some sort of natural balance is being restored in the residential neighborhood of Mysore, India. Gokulam takes back its streets from the foreign yoga students. Gone are the chatty little road blocks that stop in the middle of the street to converse for some five to fifteen minutes. 

Not that the yoga students won't be missed, as room and house rentals, silver sales, and other services slump for the hottest part of the year. Still, other schools remain open and Saraswathi will be back in action by July. But the main glut of eager ashtanga practitioners will come when Sharath commences teaching, rumored to be in late October. 

For me, one of the yoga throng, I feel like I too am regaining some of my own precious footing. Ending this shala season is a little like getting off a merry-go-round. My three month merry-go-round was actually three months of practice, five weeks of assisting, five weeks of courses at Mumuksha, a month and a half of philosophy classes at James', two weeks of singing lessons with Ranjini, not to mention the many precious moments with friends at the coconut stand, at Van Dosa, Secret Breakfast or Sri Durga Bhavan, or at home for intimate breaky or lunch. All of which I wholly treasure, despite the craziness.

It's only now that I fully realize how much I was whirling and moving, from one thing to another, continuously for three months. It's impossible to see straight in the throes of it. How does it feel stepping off a 3 month ride in which you are constantly going and going in circles? A little disorienting. I've touched ground, but things are still moving. What I realize that in order to do all that I wanted I sacrificed being really present, especially in my writing and in my personal relationships.

Moving so much and getting caught up in activity, I realize, is one of my problems, not just in Mysore, but in general. But Mysore does bring it up (and that is a part of it's magic), what with all the great opportunities to learn and expand. It's hard to set healthy personal boundaries. But they are incredibly necessary--for my own sanity and for efficacy of the yoga practice which I so cherish. Sharath always reminds us in conference, to go home, take rest, self-study--but how we manage this in a skillful way is up to us entirely.

(In a way, I'm pretty relieved that this year has been more like a merry-go-round than a roller-coaster--because I've had that too. The dismount from that is not so smooth as now.)

Ultimately, I do not regret any of the amazing learning experiences and all the awesome interactions I've had this season, but I also recognize that I could engage in a healthier way. I have to be more honest with my personal limitations. I have to give myself as much time to sit and be still, that there has to be a healthy balance between rest and activity, so that I can get the most of this crazy ride called Mysore, in this incredible amusement park called Life.

bye from the boss--oh, and practice!

Sharath signing copies of his book after conference.

For me, saying goodbye to Sharath at the end of the trip is always, well, weird. The farewell usually starts with a whole lot of emotional build up, as I come to the the lobby with my entire three months yoga process practically bursting from my chest, which somehow devolves into fear of actually breaking down when all I want to say is "thank you very much, see you next year!" Then there's the anticlimactic, awkward almost-smile and general lack of response that comes from a tired Sharath across his desk, which always leaves me feeling like I'm inconveniencing him by being all eager and at the edge of an emotional break down--which is what I usually feel before leaving Mysore (happily, not my emotional state this year!)

This year, Sharath set a nice tone as he himself said his goodbyes, closing the season at the end of the final Sunday Conference on March 24. He was not remotely sentimental, as one would expect. But probably the closest I've ever seen him to it, dispensing loving advice as Guruji was wont to do, "Practice, practice..." but in his own special way.

Sharath ends conference, "Thank you very much. This is the end of the season. Hope to see you again. I don't know when. When time comes, we'll all see... And...keep practicing. You know, as I told you, life is like Lombard Street, not only Lombart Street. It's got different terrains--in life. Sometimes you go off road. Sometimes you're on a nice track...The terrain keeps changing, it's not smooth all the time. So, don't get disturbed by these things. You keep your practice. Keep your steadiness in whatever terrain comes into your life. Keep on practicing yoga. Never leave practicing yoga. That is how we balance ourselves in whatever  difficult times or happy times. So I want you to enjoy that, keep that steadiness until I see you again. May God bless you all with lots of happiness--and sorrow, sometimes..." Sharath trails off in light but tender laughter.

"To know happiness you should go through sorrow." Never one to sugar-coat, Sharath shares, "In India, in New Year's, what we do is Bewu Bella. Bewu is the neem leaf. Bella is the sweet, jaggery. So, on that day we mix both and we eat it. Why? Because in the whole year, the whole year won't be smooth, there will be rough times also in life, in that year. In both the times, you should accept it with happiness. With happiness you should accept both the terrains, both the happiness as well as sorrow. For the that your mind should be steady and still..."

"If you believe in yoga, if you practice yoga, it will never let you go."

Thank you, Sharathji. Till next time!

Sunday, March 24, 2013

the end of season

Last intermediate led today. Last conference at 9:30am. Last classes for the season tomorrow morning, two led primaries, 4:30 and 6am. Afterwards, finished! The shala will be officially closed until Saraswathi reopens for June. The buzz is that Sharath will teach again in late October. Six months from now.

Last season, I was here for the start, mid October 2011. The energy is starkly different from now. Then, there was this exuberance, excitement coming from all directions, students from different parts of the world, rev-ing up their practice engines at the same time--so different from the energy throughout the season as people flow into the shala infusing new energy in bursts.

Everyone was fresh, fresh from their home practices, countries, or travels. Sharath, too, started rested. He was in a good mood, joking around with students--downright jovial for Sharath's standards. The overall mood was light, fun, celebratory as old friends/new friends come together for practice. There was this feeling of potentiality in the air as the season starts and unfolds slowly.

Now, I am feeling the contrast between start of season and end of season. These last few days, weeks, have been incredibly intense. Every conversation reveals how everyone is so very tired.

For one, it's hot at the end of March. Dry, heat, day and night. Everyone feels it, most people retreat indoors through the hottest part of the day, which is most of the day.

Most everyone has been here a long enough time. Whether it's three months, two months, one month, there's a cumulative exhaustion. I'm pooped myself and there seems to be no end of it.

Our space holder, Sharath, started teaching in July. That's more than eight months he's been at it. Teaching, adjusting, back bending. He's been managing the flow of the shala. And he's been dealing with all forms of our "crazy" -- our questions and issues that eek out during practice and office hours. His eye-bags have been continuously growing, to no one's surprise as he admitted during conference to having four and a half hours of sleep at the moment. He's visibly tired.

As for the shala as a whole, I can't help but feel that we're all feeding into the same process. We're all ending the season together, all getting ready to move on, shift gears, places, intentions. All coming to some kind of closure, all our varied stories coming into climax then resolution all at once. And that intense collective energy is so powerful, yet so tiring. Like the mounting heat, there's been a fevered pitch to practice. And now, we are getting ready for the denouement...wherever that might take us.

I had my aversions arriving in January. And there's definitely some good reasons for coming earlier in the season. But there's something also special about being here for the close of the shala. This intensity that comes with the end, pushes boundaries. And if your an ashtanga vinyasa practitioner, that transformational push is like fairy dust. There's a pensiveness about, an emotional quality, people are being moved--quite literally too.

There is something tangible about the potency of practicing at the end of season. I felt it so beautifully last Friday's led primary, 4:30 am class. It started with "Om" and you could feel the room vibrating with energy, love, devotion. It was somehow amplified, like invisible waves radiating from god knows where. It was powerful. And at the end, during the closing chant, I felt the collective energy, so clearly attuned. What a special time to be here, I thought, feeling my own emotion swelling within. To end the season together, to see the deep, personal work of many months come to an end. It's inspiring in a different way altogether.

There's also this reverence to the lineage, to the tradition started by Pattabhi Jois. Everyday, there are flowers at the shala altar. There's a certain feel you get from people, this love for practice, this connection to the shala and Sharath. And there's a lot of gratitude going around, towards Sharath, Saraswathi, the assistants and towards each other, our fellow travelers, on this the end of one chapter of our yoga journey.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

lessons from leg behind the head

Eka pada sirsasana. In English: "one foot behind the head" or "leg behind head." This moniker has just about the same effect on me as the classification "monkey eating eagle," which is another name for the Philippine national bird. Like there's something I can't quite grasp about it. Like the neurons in my brain just can't quite connect to the information. And with eka pada, it's not just the neurons...

I'm not prone to delusions of grandeur, but I did have one particular day dream about this trip: that Mysore would have worked it's magic on my reluctant hips and that they would open enough to make eka pada sirsasana, the first of the leg behind the head postures in 2nd, possible. That Sharath's mere presence in the room would make them blossom open like a lotus flower on a hot spring day. That the right leg--which until right before the trip would precariously lean on my neck always on the brink of sliding off my sloping head, back, shoulder--would magically just ease itself down behind the head, so far down that the ankle would be leaning snugly against the left shoulder. Ha! One can dream!

There was a part (admittedly, a big part) that believed it would happen. I felt it was important to be optimistic. That part was vigilant, believing every practice day during the first month would be the day that Sharath would finally give me the thumbs up and move me on to dwi pada, an even more intimidating posture, double the trouble of eka pada, not because I thought I deserved it, but rather because I wanted to hurry though these terrible leg behind the head postures.

There was one moment during led intermediate when I thought I'd done a decent enough job. Sharath was there right in front of me. I look up at him, asking for approval. He half grimaces at me, head bobbing side to side in what I instinctively noted as a negative, and draws an invisible loop in the air with his index finger, which he swiftly swooshes towards the locker room, where I saunter off with my mat to finish. Ok, wise guy, I get it. I'm not ready for more!

I have a relationship with this pose. I have dreaded and looked forward to it. I have loved this pose. I have hated this pose. This pose is my junior high"frenemy", my elusive college crush that I secretly stalk down the hallways, my egoic bed-fellow that keeps me grossly in my body and at the same time schools me with incredible humility. Half the people I know in Mysore, skips asking me how I am and just goes straight into: "How's your eka pada today?"

It's been a year and three months in this one posture. Technically, I first received the pose from a certified teacher two and a half years ago but stopped working on it after my first trip to Mysore. With today being the last day of regular practice, I'm likely to be working on this pose through next season.  As I stew in this asana, I recognize that Sharath has never felt more like my teacher. And that, aside from back bending, no asana has instructed me more.

Eka pada is my brick wall. It isn't the first. It won't be the last. But it's the one I keep on banging my head against recently. In ashtanga, there's always a pose to challenge us, to take us to a new edge, that keeps us alert and alive in our practice.

Sharath is tough on eka pada. In led intermediate, that's obvious, as the lady's locker room fills up after the posture. He doesn't move people forward unless they can manage it without assistance--and it's rare to get help from him on this pose. The hip needs to open, the back needs to be strong, the neck uncompromised, the head up. He wants to see space and ease in it--and god knows I'll need it in the succeeding postures, each more intense than the last. I appreciate knowing that he'll move me when he sees that I am truly ready.

Before coming to Mysore this trip, I would often say that I was "stuck in eka pada." Now, in all honesty, though not apparent to outside eyes, I know I'm moving forward. Perhaps not physically, not in a way that satisfies Sharath's standards for the asana, but there is movement none the less. Probably the kind that's more important than moving forward in the series. This posture is transforming me. It is doing its job.

Eka pada has been an excellent mirror these last three months. It has reflected back to me my ego, my expectations, my fears and issues. It has forced me to be more patient with myself and with the practice. It has taught me how to respect my body and its limitations. It has shown me the strange little balance between ease and effort. It has inspired me to dig into my emotional body and has helped me confront some of the emotions that my body has been secretly housing. It has taught me how to slowly, slowly start to release tension. It has kindled an interest in anatomy (this I still I can't believe! I've always hated anatomy!) and the bodily mechanics involved in practice. It has shifted my attention from moving forward to really refining the poses that I already have, to honoring the little details and the small improvements. It has slowed me down enough so I can "smell the flowers" on the daily path of practice.

So, I'm just going to take this moment to love my limitations, to be grateful for the difficulties, for the challenges, for these tight little hips, which are slowly opening. Thank you for teaching me so much, so quickly. 

Wednesday, March 20, 2013


Week 2 of assisting and a grey cloud hovers over me after I do a less than stellar job back bending two advanced students to ankles. Actually, we don't even make it to ankles. But I know for a fact that they are bendy enough, not just for ankles, but higher even. Instead, we struggle. It isn't the pretty seamless assist I was going for. I mismanage it somehow, don't give enough support, don't balance the weight. My nerves, more than anything, get to me.

Afterwards, they are both so graceful about it. One, a friend also, comes up to me before she leaves the shala and encourages me to back bend her another time. I am horrified at her suggestion. Still, they are not at all the worse-case scenario older student peeved at the mere existence of assistants, let alone being "helped" unsuccessfully by one. And although I am relieved by their understanding, I also feel like I failed them, not just them, but Sharath and myself. My confidence is shaken and fear sets in.

I know I am being hard on myself. I just need to learn from my mistakes. And it's just a posture. Just one part of a lengthy series of yogasanas. But back bending, so emphasized by the attention Sharath gives to it, is very prominent hereabouts. Dropping back, coming up, walking towards one's feet and eventually grabbing ankles are major landmarks of practice here, perhaps everywhere in the ashtanga world.

(Before I go on, let's take a moment to examine just exactly how obscenely not normal it is to be in such a posture. Backbending to ankles. Seriously!? Are we nuts? Backbending extremists? Heart-opening fanatics? But it seems an ever-shifting pinnacle: getting to one's ankles--and for the extremely open--calves, knees, thighs even. Thighs! That still freaks me out!)

So, I feel bad for bungling it. I feel embarrassed at my inexperience.

I give myself lots of self pep, remind myself that I'm here to learn from Sharath. And that surely he doesn't expect me to know it all.

A friend, an experienced teacher, points out that anywhere else outside of Mysore, such assistance would be a rare occurrence, that only in Mysore do contortionists converge in such large numbers. True, I've had little opportunity to assist the pose with my little ashtanga community in the Philippines. And they're pretty bendy. Another friend said that in her city-shala of 60 plus students, there was one ankle grabber. I'm encouraged.

A couple of days later, I am still dodging students with flexible backs. And I decide to get up the courage to speak to Sharath, hoping for guidance, moral support--if you practice with this man, you probably know where this is going...

"Hi Sharath,'m kind of afraid to take people to their ankles."

He looks at me and says matter-a-factly, "I know." He knows!

"Ahhhh..." I wait for some advice, encouragement, anything, but there is only awkward silence before he walks off to back bend someone himself.

Hokay... So much for feedback from the boss. In my optimism, I think he's leaving it to me to figure out on my own. It's not the first time. Last, year I struggled with a new posture. There was no feedback. No assistance, not even with back bending. At some point, I felt very alone as I muddled through the emotions that came up from it. By the end, however, the "personal time" was good for me. I learned a lot from it.

In practice, Sharath knows when to help and when to back off. I believe it's one of his superpowers of perception. I'm going to read his acknowledgement paired with lack of input in this particular instance as a sign that he trusts me to figure it out myself.

I know it isn't about strength. I'm dropping back guys much bigger than my petite Asian self. I understand the technique, more or less. I'm familiar with the ankle routine in my own practice. But I lack confidence. There is fear there...

Sharath's right to leave me on my own. My fear is my responsibility. I know that I can't continue to be afraid. I'm only halfway through the month of assisting and will not be able to avoid dropping back someone bendy enough for ankles. At some point I will be caught edging away from open backs, though Sharath probably sees my slipperiness already, probably smells the fear across the room. Most importantly, I just want to get on with it, I want to be totally present as I assist, and this fearfulness is getting in the way.

I look at my own practice. I ask myself, how am I at going to my own ankles? I can manage with more ease with Sharath helping me, but it is difficult when I am being assisted by someone else other than him, always stiffer somehow, a little less sure. I realize that I wasn't always "successful" (for the lack of a better word) with assistants.  It didn't add up.

Maybe it's easier with Sharath because I trust him so much. But what cause do I have to mistrust the assistants? Something in me stiffens when they are before me as I come up from backbend. Perhaps, it isn't them at all, but rather something in me. Do I trust myself in this process? Or am I relying on Sharath's magic touch to make what I still thought impossible possible? Did my mind create the conditions that made the fear difficult with others?

How can I expect others to trust me, if I myself had a hard time trusting? How can I ask someone to surrender to me, if I can't manage surrendering myself?

The following morning, Sidney, who is assisting at 4:30 comes to drop me back. In silence, I make a contract with myself. I will surrender and he will get me to my ankles. Together, we do it. It feels like a collaboration. And it's easier, so much easier than it has ever been with someone who isn't Sharath. I let something go that morning. Though Sidney doesn't know it, he participated in quite a little breakthrough. And I've been able to catch ankles with assistants each time since then.

It takes a few days to really test it. As luck would have it, I am never in the right place or right time to drop back any of the spectacularly bendy. Sometimes, I'm not fast enough, especially with Saraswathi in the room. Mama's fearless and has no qualms back bending anyone! And, in truth, I actually really enjoy assisting people who are just learning to drop back, it's a beautiful phase in the practice and I prefer assisting folks making those early steps.

Then, one morning, I'm standing in front of a female practitioner who comes up from urdhva dhanurasana. She says something and all I catch is "ankles." Here we go.

Something definitely shifts. I'm calm. And things go smoothly as we both do our part. I trust myself. And what's more, I trust her. I reckon she trusts me too. With the breath--both of us breathing together--she extends the spine and arches back. It's so fast and at the same time so beautifully slow. For me, it is an amazing moment of synchronicity and surrender between two people that don't know each other.

I reach for one wrist and then the other. There is no forcing, only a little guidance. And there in that place of trust, I find a sweet balance between being able to support her and also stepping out of the way, allowing her to reach.

I realize then that with this ankle grabbing business, I'm not supposed to do all the work. I'm support crew. People generally don't go there unless they can and the real task is not up to me really but in the heart of the practitioner finding space to go the extra distance. And for those making that first leap into this strange territory, Sharath's usually there, guiding them towards their feet.

By the end, I ceased running from ankle grabbing. But I didn't chase it either. If I was called, I would do, trusting in the process of practice, trusting in the abilities of the student, and trusting in myself. With more confidence, it all worked out fine--thank goodness!

In the end, it doesn't really matter whether I'm helping people to their ankles or not, whether we're grabbing ankles or even dropping back on our own. What matters is that the practice cultivates the courage to go beyond, to see past the fears and the limitations of our own mind, and that it refines our ability to trust, trust in others as much as trust in ourselves. 

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

the shala, a different perspective

No more. End of the morning practice...

February 4. My shala perspective shifts. Big time.

I realize that I've gotten used to seeing the shala in a certain way. Literally mostly from close to the ground, looking up from my yoga mat, perspective narrowed by drishti (at least on "good" days). I've seen the shala slightly hazy as the area around the tip of my nose, past my outstretched hand in poses like virabhadrasana, or from upside down and under my legs as I stretch out in downward facing dog, fellow practitioners a cloud of movement at the periphery. As my spot moves, so does the small circumference of my attention.

There are other vistas, too, all strangely close to the ground, keeping us humble somehow. From the lobby, as we wait for our turn, we are like vouyeurs peering past the doorway, watching the unfolding movie of other people's practices. Conference, too, on Sundays, finds us sitting on the floor, attention fixed on Sharath on stage. He always looks larger than life from these angles.

But today, everything looks a little different. It is my first day of assisting and the room expands as I come in at 8:30 in the morning. Grinning ear to ear, I take a few moments to take it all in, the room is full of students practicing while the crowd at the lobby eagerly await to be "one more" in this magical space.

This is a new vantage point. I used to have to exercise a certain amount of restraint: don't look, mind my own mat space! But now, my focus is not on my own practice, but on the practices of others. What's also amazing is to observe the collective energy that everyone is brewing together. In practice, I can feel this energy, sometimes it's so potent that it carries me. It's quite another experience to see it. As an assistant, it carries too, for hours it supports and lends its energy. Time goes by swiftly.

It's a little like staring at one spot on the carpet with close intensity, then pulling back so much so that the entire room comes into view. The space opens and everything amazes through this wider lens; things remain intense, the entire room is pulsating with energy.

Most things aren't new, but the license to observe allows me to see more than ever. I am in awe at how diverse the practice is. To see it so clearly demonstrated in such a large yet concentrated space, through 65-some-odd mat spaces, through one round of practitioners after another.

Sure, there are parameters to practice, whether it's primary, intermediate or advanced, but it's easy to see how each body takes on the essence of the posture, rather than all bodies conforming to one form. The practice is as multifaceted at its practitioners. Each person's practice is personal, suited to their character and their physical build, to their limitations and potential. Each person follows their own pace and breath, while at the same time, feeding into this sublime collective pool of practice. The room is alive.

Then there's Sharath. Sharath, who by the time I return to the shala to assist, has been holding space for 4 hours. There will be at least another 3 hours. In the height of season, he goes on for about 8. In his book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell speaks of those rare folks who go over and beyond their field of expertise. He says the magic number is 10,000 hours of practice and work to be outstanding at one's area of specialty. In teaching hours, Sharath's easily closer to double that number. Factor in practice time, it's no wonder he's the Boss, it's no wonder his adjustments are so light and intuitive, it's no wonder that he can see where you are in your head and your body.

He remains sharp throughout the morning. It's truly a sight to see him manage a room, how he schedules class times, who he chooses to help and and when he chooses to help. Like clockwork, he takes a few breaks. A few minutes here and there, he retreats into the office, as Shrutti, his wife, brings him some chai or coffee and snacks. The moment he steps out, the door barely open, he's calling spaces: "One...two...three more."I think, how does he even see that!? His eyes are like lightning. It's incredible what he catches, what he remembers, what he intuites from his observations. He's not infallible, but for the most part, he recognizes the returning from the newcomers, he has a good idea of where one should be in their practice, and he senses haste, fear, and ambition.

This new view of Sharath feeds my larger than life image of him. But it also makes him more human. I see how he looks after students in his quiet way. How when he sees someone struggling, he supports them. How he never pushes, even when students push themselves. How he sees everyone's potential and encourages those that need it. How he makes time to joke around with assistants or to call us into his office to show us his latest opus, a blown up photograph of a tigr. He keeps the energy light and easy.

I feel incredibly blessed to see things from a different perspective, but really whether you're close to the ground, sitting, lying down, standing up, or walking around the shala, it doesn't matter from what angle you observe it from because simply: it is a place of incredible seeing. See your teacher, see the practice, see yourself.

Friday, March 15, 2013

on being quiet

One of the signs in the ladies' locker room...

I've missed this blog. I've missed writing about Mysore and my experiences here. I'd meant to keep it up for this season, but somehow my attention slipped. With only a week to go before the shala closes, I feel overwhelmed by all the things I wanted to share but haven't.

Over the last two trips, this blog, which I started to keep friends and family back home abreast with my India adventures, was also a way of processing practice here in Mysore. It helped me understand what I was going through, it put the alchemy of being here into words.

In many ways, I've been busier than in previous years--if that's even possible! And writing has not been as big a priority as simply being.

In truth, most of the last 11 weeks (I can barely believe that's how long I've been here now!) have been utterly indescribable. For example: how does one properly relate how practice just peels and peels away different layers of self, leaving one so raw sometimes, so delicate? Or the sound of 65-some-odd people breathing, moving into different shapes, many quietly subtly working through their own stories, creating this awesome group energy? Or how we might have these moments outside of the shala, where we share just the most sublime experiences with people we might have nothing in common with other than the practice, and just feel so much love and camaraderie?

In other ways, my silence has also been self-imposed. In trying to conserve energy, I've been more insular, more protective when it comes to putting myself out there. Assisting through February, I wanted to focus my efforts. I was wary of too much noise, afraid of the unnecessary details one hears at the coco stand or around the cafe breakfast tables. I didn't want to overhear how this assistant was good or, worse yet, how this one was not so--I didn't want to invite any of that into the experience. So I myself have been very very quiet.

When it comes to practice, as with life, there is no one way, no template for "getting things right." Each Msyore adventure will be whatever beast it needs to be. Sometimes it's good to be in the thick of it. Other times, going solo is necessary. Now, as I come out of the solitary confinement of my own making, I realize that my need for quiet has also been a reflection of my own fears. And that by blocking out the possibility of absorbing any negative vibrations, I may have been isolating myself from the positive as well. Still, I respect that whatever process comes naturally is how it needs to be.

Now: one week to go. How did that happen? How did eleven weeks pass so swiftly?  How do I even go about putting the experience into words?

Monday, March 11, 2013

taking rest

We’re at the end of last last Friday’s first led class. “Sapta…” then Sharath surprises the entire shala this morning as he instructs us to jump through and lie down. It’s a miracle! I can’t remember that last time I’ve taken rest (what most people call shavasana but what Sharath calls "taking rest") after a led class. Certainly not in this trip. Possibly not last trip either.

He sees the confusion in our faces and explains, “first time in four months.” He smiles and gestures for us to take to our mats. There is something gentle about Sharath at this moment. Not demonstrative (that would be out of character), but loving in his reserved and strangely paternal way. We all lie down, feel the entire room hush and the rest grounds us after a full-powered led primary.

The energy is shifting on this first of March. This is the second Friday with only two led classes. And while it was still very full this morning (locker rooms, the marble passage way, and lobby all occupied) it had only a little of the craziness (and pushing!) of the Friday before. A lot more people are leaving over this weekend and early next week, our numbers are dropping.

Tuesday (April 26) before leaving the shala for the morning, Sharath looked at the clock, smiled and also noted that it was the first time in four months that self-practice finished before 11am. Sharath has been teaching, assisting, adjusting, back-bending hundreds of students for 8 months straight, a monster stretch. During the last four months, the peak of the season, he’s been teaching for at the very least six and a half hours straight.  One less led class and smaller numbers means more rest for him as well.

This shavasana (I admit, I have a hard time calling it anything else but that) marks a change of rhythm for the shala—and for me personally. That frenetic energy that came with the swelling shala numbers at the beginning of the year is starting to relax. We are reaching the home stretch of a long season. Space is starting to open up. As well as time.

With less than two weeks to go and assisting at the shala done, I can't help but feel like the time has finally come to settle into practice, to take rest, to allow for the magic to really happen.

While post led class shavasana-s continue to be rare, the one two Fridays ago is a reminder that I have to be responsible to give myself rest, to allow for the practice to integrate deeply into my system, to give space for the real yoga to happen.