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.

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