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!