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.