Friday, February 29, 2008

02-29-08 Yak Attacks and Flesh Sacks

I bought a yak-skin vest. It's true. From the Kashmiris at the market. Yak puns abound. It was a big move. I feel different about it somehow, than if it were Nike, knowing the guy who raised the yak and makes his living from selling yak products. "The yaks have a happy life," he says to answer my angst, "what is the problem?" It's all a bit more simple when we don't expect yaks to have apartments, sushi, and Ikea furniture.

Things are beginning to thin out here. Last class is on the 10th of March, my second month is up on the 6th, which is Shivaratri, an all-night festival holiday. I'll be on the train to Goa that night, which should be interesting. I'll let you know if the train itself includes an all-night festival atmoshpere. Quite possible.

I'm on auto-pilot with full interemediate and ankle taking and all that. I've been studying Barathnatyam, a style of dance originating in Tamil Nadu. These dances tell the stories of Gods and Goddeses, using a lot of hand gestures (mudras), ankle bells and foot slapping. My legs hurt! It is a serious pursuit and feels wonderful to be dancing again. Some people get all involved with numerous classes while they are here. I know Sharath would rather we don't do things that make us stiff, like dance and cycle riding. After years of life supporting yoga, I am in favor of yoga supporting life. I don't want to lay around all day and read scriptures, really don't. I am not old yet.

A friend said the other day about her frequent pranayama and philosophy classes: "Well I figure we will shed this Flesh Sack soon enough, so best start the inner work now." I heard myself answer, "Lately, I've been thinking how I only get this wonderful flesh sack for a short time. I want to enjoy!"

Does enjoyment include the wearing of Yak Sacks? Not necessarily. Possibly.

Those of you who have known me will see this is a whole new me.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

02/24/08 Lead Intermediate Class

In case you were wondering, which I don’t expect you were, but thanks anyways- I got Chakrasana. I can now take just below the knee (with help because my shoulders just can’t make the journey in alone) and stand on my own in the backbend. The key was getting the hands up high enough. Once I became comfortable with the idea (I crack way up high in the thoracic now, not sure exactly where, but its in the center near my neck) I can relax enough to get the hands up there and then find strength. It’s the strength and sweetness together that make it possible, as always, with everything. If we are afraid, neither of these qualities is coming. So much trust of the teacher is required. It is wonderful- and somewhat rare in the American way of life to let someone hold your body in a vulnerable position, encouraging you to breath. Every day.
When I started teaching Ashtanga yoga, I was assisting Nancy Gilgoff in her room on Maui. It was like family members, this crowd. I participated in an “adjustment clinic” and I remember crying, overwhelmed by the beauty of it, that students would allow me to touch them, move them, help them. That this could be my JOB. Even if it means getting up early, forfeiting dinner and evening events of all sorts, the natural rhythm of the city I live in. When it comes down to it, nothing is more important to me than practicing and sharing this yoga, which has brought me so much.

Back to Mysore, yesterday was the Sunday morning lead intermediate series class. Sharath teaches the 4AM primary, Saraswati the 5:45, and Sharath again at 7:15 Intermediate. It only happens once a week, and its invitation only, obviously. My first trip, I remember him telling me to come Sunday intermediate starting that week. I had made it to Supta Vajrasana (outside of Mysore I had been practicing full intermediate for 2 years). How it works here: everybody takes primary first month, or as much of it as you are able. After one month, you will receive one posture at a time, to finish primary or to start second. Some people move slowly, more flexy folks faster. It seems like once Sharath gets you to the back bending sequence of intermediate, he will get you through that part (about half way) within a few weeks. At some point, not the same for everyone, you “split” it, which means you stop practicing full primary before intermediate and jump into Pasasana from Parsvottanasana. This is scary for most, as it means you get less warm up, and within half an hour you are doing some intense backbending. Before you know it sticking that log of a leg behind your head. Yikes! Usually the “split” comes after your first Sunday morning intermediate class.
The class is much smaller. Right now it’s at the biggest, because its busy here (though I think more advanced students are starting to come in the quieter summer months) maybe 40? They start dropping like flies after karandavasana (forearm balance, legs in lotus, lower down and lift up), which is a big cut-off point. When your pose comes (I like to say “nemesis”) you take your mat to the back and finish on your own while the rest of the class forges ahead. Less than half of us make it through. I noticed this week; I was one of three women at the end.

Friday, February 22, 2008

02/17/08 Study at the Seat of Ashtanga Yoga

There is a vibration on the Indian sub-continent like no other. It hums. Its smells constantly waft through the days and nights, sounds tinkling and blaring at intervals. The sense of movement, of teeming life, is omnipresent. A woman in a sari weaves a motorbike around a cow, talking on her cell phone. Palm fronds clack, dogs bark, children beg for rupees. Before dawn, roosters crow, temple bells ring and chanting begins. Somewhere nearby a householder is seated on a thin mat, praying. Prayer is never far away, and this, I think, is the source of the hum. Whatever aspiration we send out is matched by the Divine and it comes beaming into our lives. It’s hard here, in a place where this simple exchange is a part of daily life, not to be infected by it. Open your heart and aspiration spills out.
In Mysore, the restaurant makes offerings at a small altar between shifts. The papaya guy comes through the streets around 9 AM yelling “Papaya! Seedless!” Around most corners comes a westerner with a fat mat bag slung over a shoulder, walking slowly.

I keep getting queries through the Back Bay web site about coming to India to study yoga, so let me address this here. It certainly makes sense to come to Mysore to study. Krishnamacharya, whose teaching of Pattabhi Jois, BKS Iyengar, and his own son Desikachar blossomed into much of the yoga we know in the west, was based in Mysore to teach the Maharaji. Mysore has long been a city, which supports academics, arts, and music. Many come from all over to study any variety of subjects. Recently the mayor passed a law requiring new buildings to follow guidelines of traditional architecture, in the interest of preserving Mysore’s history.
Mostly whom I am hearing from are new students to Ashtanga or yoga in general. There is a romance to learning yoga in India, perhaps a sense of heightened authenticity. While it isn’t necessary to learn in India to be “authentic,” there’s no question about it: it’s a great experience and it’s far easier to focus on your studies far away from home (though it still requires discipline as all manner of distraction are here). After college, I came to India for six months of study to return a “yoga teacher.” What I found was how far, how very far, from being a teacher I was. Which, in my experience, is better than coming back from a short period of study ready to impart what I am still integrating.
You needn’t be advanced to find appropriate classes here. The Ashtanga Yoga Research Institute isn’t the only place, either. At AYRI, they are very busy to be sure. New students will take class with Saraswati, later in the morning after she helps Sharath. She is wonderful, and the group is great. You will learn traditional method, the same way we teach at Back Bay- one thing at a time. Once you get here and talk to a few people, you hear about other teachers as well. I think Barath has a web site, he is teaching his own style of yoga. Shashadri and his son teach Ashtanga with lots of emphasis on hands-on adjustments. BNS Iyengar, a student of Krisnamacharya, teaches the Ashtanga system and afternoon pranayama. There’s dance, music, sutra chanting, philosophy- you name it. Just be sure not to overbook, as the India experience requires lots of rest.
Places to land, find them on-line: Green Hotel, Shakti House, Chez Joseph.

02/17/08 Yoga Politics

A friend from Vancouver who works in politics asks an American yoga student if his countrymen have voted in the Primaries yet.
“Primary Series?” he asks, in confusion what all the voting is about.

Yes, we are a bit in our own world out here.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

02/15/08 One More!

It’s a full house here in Mysore. When I come out at 7, the foyer is still full, it’s hot, Saraswati and Sharath are back bending students left and right, yelling out “One More!” Most students are a bit sheepish to step into the room and Sharath says, “Come quickly! Why fear?” The cutest thing ever, he was communicating something about my back bending to Saraswati in Kanada and he called her “Mama”. Imagine mother and son working the room together. Guruji is never around in the mornings. I spoke with him once in the afternoon at the office. I try to make it a point to come in every other week to connect and ask some question or other. Guruji looked young and well, if a bit confused in conversation. When he saw me he said his usual, “When you come?” and broke into a huge smile that lit up the whole office. I can see how much Sharath loves his granddaddy, that smile lit him as well.
Guess who never gets a day off around here? Saraswati. She’s maybe, 60? She is in the room starting at 5:30 or so, in Prana sweatpants and a salwa blouse, smelling like some kind of joint rub, adjusting until her own class starts for beginners at 8. She assists the lead classes on Fri and Sun and teaches her own lead class on Saturday mornings. In the afternoons, she teaches Indian students. 7 days a week. And you know she is cooking and taking care of Guruji upstairs. She always smiles. And I complain about getting up early. I’ll be smiling at 3 AM tomorrow. Promise.
02/14/08 Three Deaths You’re Out: A City Bus Experience

Can I tell you about the buses? Everybody’s got a good bus story. Mine is this, maybe you had to be there…in Chennai 1999, an overcrowded city bus…
You should know the buses are huge, absolutely gargantuan. Wide and thick and swaying and precarious, despite their grandeur. Rules of the road: the big guy always wins. So look the hell out for the Indian bus. Two buses coming opposite directions play chicken. Whoever spots the other guy first starts with the horn, one long, unrelenting wail. The other bus joins in. Two horns, unbelievably loud, blare until the buses pass, six inches between them. I have learned, as a rider, not to look. You may be reassured by this urban myth: a bus driver is fired after only three counts of manslaughter while driving. Three deaths you’re out. Assuming he is not beaten to death on the scene, as drunken bus drivers often are. Instant justice prevails.
School kids erupt from the windows with ruck-sacks. Imagine jasmine flowers, braids, a twenty-pound bag of onions, armpits, pomade, and tiny naked babies, all cascading in a careening cacophony of India. Mysore buses are quite nice, actually; new and colorful and not so crowded. But Chennai: The bus is old, older than Arunachala, and looking it. Paint half gone, tires a bit squishy and bulging out like the upper arm out a South Indian sari blouse. I mean you could SEE the weight bearing down on the rubber. Ten or more men dangle from the side bar of the back door entrance all bellbottoms and buttons- if one leg makes a stair, you’re in. The bus rolls up to a stand (bus stops are bus stands here), more crush at the stairs. Pushing. Steadily, patiently, pushing. Same thing goes for the front door. As both the doors are on one side of the bus, that makes for about twenty more people on one side. The bus lists. Something about the shocks around here? All the buses bounce incredibly over bumps, spouting fumes in blasts, dipping almost in slow motion due to their bigness. Boing. And there are always so many bumps.
But this bus is something else. The heavy side of the bus is a visible two feet closer to the ground. With every bump I cringe (riding behind on a motor bike) for sure it would bottom out. Bump! The bus rolls like an ocean wave, defying all the rules of engineering to make it over another pothole. Limbs flap like prayer flags around the side doors. I want to change lanes, badly.
Ah, India. No one falls. The back corner of the bus, three inches from the ground, clears it every time. She pulls up to the city bus stand and twenty men hop down, straighten sweaty collars, link arms, and head off down the street.
02/13/08 Propane and Other Impurities

Well, Im up late tonight, getting gassed by my new propane tank, which somehow isn’t on right, judging by the air quality in here. No worries, the alarm still goes off at 3, so I won’t die in the night.
There is no possibility of bodily purity here, always some chemical or other is there. It is interesting here how “nature,” ie. Roaming animals, poop, and rampant parasites, mingles with human-derived impurities like plastic, dyes, and diesel. I notice the travelers get sick a lot. So many of us are not at 100%. I have these weird yellow dots on the whites of my eyes. We discuss the quality of our digestion often. The sinus, the throat, the eyes get irritated by dust, burning garbage, fumes from the rickshaw’s two stroke engines. (This just in: my friend saw a woman Rick Shaw driver this week. Never before have I seen or heard of it. She had the trademark brown smock on, flowers in her hair. I wonder if she is the youngest of a slew of ugly, dowry-less sisters and she figured, screw it- I’m getting me a rickshaw).
I imagine that all these kriyas, the cleansing techniques of yoga, such as asana, puking salt water (vamana dhauti), flossing the nose (sutra neti), churning the stomach muscles (nauli) were fashioned because they are needed to keep the body well. Yoga is so practical! Here we go thinking its some extremist in a loincloth, when it could be the necessity of keeping clean in a crowded, dusty environment. I practice pretty much the same kriyas here as I do at home. Because I am teaching every day, it is just as important to be clean, for myself and for the students, but in India, it’s a health trip.
Talk about smog. When I ride my bicycle to town, out of the village of Gokulum and into Lakshmipuram (not a huge city by any means, but crowded of course) I wrap my face and head in a scarf. I’m sucking cotton when I pump the gear-less wonder up the hill. Do you know there are more bikes manufactured in India than anywhere else? Probably because A: there’s a ton of people, and B: the cycle is a viable mode of transportation. Imagine if everyone who wanted a car in this country had one?? I saw a Ford Explorer inching up the shala road the other week. Everything had to stop to let the monster pass because the roads just aren’t built for cars. I thought to myself: Ego Passing, Everybody out of the Way!
I like my bike. She’s red, Hercules brand, and as the chain guard tells us, “lite and sporty” like the rider! I started two races with Indian guys last week coming back from town. Toasted them. They thought it was hilarious. So did I. As long as I win. I had to buy a new one as the last got stolen from inside the gate of the building I live on top of. There is more and more trouble in Gokulum the bigger this Ashtanga scene gets. Teen-age boys following western ladies in the evening, theft. I do not go out walking after dark alone. However, while the chance of being harassed here is pretty good, chances of violence are scarce. You make a lot of noise, whack him, and he runs away. Noise is the key. Imagine you want to wake up his mother and have her see the disgrace that has become of her son.

Monday, February 11, 2008

02/11/08 Chakrasana: You Take Ankles

Taking the ankles. If you’ve practiced in the shala in Mysore, you know it, possibly you dread it. The Wheel. The closed circuit backbend. It’s like a Kapotasana standing up. You walk in from Urdhva Danurasana (the backbend with hands and feet on the ground to create an upward facing bow) until your feel touch your ankles and then, usually with help from Sharath or Saraswati, you take the ankles. To avoid the shoulders going out to the sides, its best to go into the pose from drop backs. Sharath grounds your hips and you go back as far as you can, keeping the elbows in. He takes your wrists, very gently, one at a time, and brings them to your ankles. Then, if you are ready, he walks your hands each up the back of the leg. A few inches, eventually the hands are above the knees (I’m working mid-calf these days). At the point of getting to the ankles, I was thinking what the hell am I doing this for? WHY is Chakrasana so important here? Rather than surrender to the pose without question, I have been trying to understand it.
The pose does require surrender, at the same time strength. Surrender comes in when the teacher is taking your arms back. It’s the deepest backbend of the day and it hurts until you press into your legs, straighten out, and join in the breathing fun. The first day Saraswati walked my hands even furthur up my legs, I thought surely she wants to hurt me. Which is ridiculous. But in the moment, anything goes inside the mind. I’ve had three cracks in the pose. They keep moving up the spine. This week I cracked up between the shoulder blades. Exciting to get some movement up there.
It took a month for me to get beyond the point of complete angst inside the pose. There is a feeling of having no control, the breath gets shallow and fast, in the shala there is a lot of grunting going on. I figure if I can’t breathe freely in the pose, I shouldn’t be doing it. However, I had an intuition here that this pose has something important for me. It is one of those poses that Sharath and Saraswati are intense on adjusting. You wait for backbends, and if you try to escape, often he will call you back. Not everyone of course, only intermediate practitioners who are ready for it. Why so important? Is it the connection of hands to ankles? Deep bending of the spine?
I keep talking to others abot their experience in the pose. It seems to bring up fear and resistance. Probably because it hurts, and because we aren’t sure what the pose is about. Sharath taught me last week to press the hips forward, and suddenly, his hands were gone and I was standing on my own in the pose. He said “very good” and the light bulb went on for me. I knew he was looking for something in the pose from me- that’s it, to stand freely. It’s scary. It requires total presence of mind, comfort in the pose, and strong breathing. There’s no way I can calmly stand there in this backbend if I am freaking out in any way.
I conjecture that presence of mind in an extreme backbend is an indicator of a strong nervous system. Therefore, the pose is one of those points we reach that signal to Sharath we are getting somewhere in particular. I’m not sure exactly where that might be, but I trust that he understands the process and he watching all of us, seeing these signals along the path. I completely trust him in this way, and I enjoy learning to understand the system through the experience. It’s the only way to manage so many students, to have set signals to watch for. In this system there are certain poses which are turning points. For example, Utthita Hasta in standing poses tells us when the hamstrings are opening, which is necessary for the primary series. Mareechasana tells us lotus is coming, and the digestion is clearing. As a Mysore style teacher, I tend to get sucked into particulars of my students bodies, but really it’s a big picture, this Ashtanga yoga. What an interesting way to learn all this, by taking the ankles.

Saturday, February 09, 2008

2/08/08 The Trash People

Being in India is a great reminder: when it comes to trash, there’s no such thing as away. You can’t throw it away. An interesting part of my experience in Goa was that I didn’t know what to do with my trash. Everything is packaged in plastic here, whereas it used to be in leaves or newspaper.
In Mysore, there is a trash collection service going. I throw my compostables off the rooftop into the empty lot where any variety may come and munch it: dog, donkey, water buffalo, goat. There’s been a herd of shaggy horses ranging the neighborhood this week, which is a first for me to see. Paper items I’ll keep aside and burn (I am fortunate to have septic that can handle TP, so I don’t have to save and burn that. I haven’t encountered that in some years.) The rest, I put out on the curb for the collection. Of course the dogs come in the night and tear it all up, which is why I don’t put food scraps in there. I don’t like to think of the trash collectors having to scrape it off the street. Last week, as soon as I put my little bag out, a woman was looking inside it. I imagine travelers throw away all kinds of treasures.
They move in pairs, two men or two ladies, pushing a cart. They are wearing green smocks and headscarves, no gloves. The cart has four woven baskets about the size of ten gallon buckets. The trash is separated here, the cart pushed to a central location where there is a lorry to empty the baskets into. I don’t know what happens next. I’m scared to think of it.
At my favorite chai spot today, I saw the trash ladies again. The chai is best here because they use fresh, unpasteurized milk and lots of sugar. The chai is constantly boiling in the back of the tiny shop, which also sells sweets (tasteless cakes, delicious apple balls) and namkeen (endless combinations of fried pulses, rice sticks, green peas, coconut, peanuts). My 8-ounce cup of chai is 10 rupees- about a quarter. Trash service costs 20 rupees per month. A man knocked on my door at the beginning of February to collect.

The trash lady asked for a freebie from the chai guy. He made her wait in the street. She smiled at me in open curiosity, checking out my shoes, my jewelery. When she came near, I smelled trash strongly and it took a moment to realize it was she that smelled like a landfill. She was covered in it. Smears on the smock that covered the top of her sari. Small, course hands, long braid down her back, unusually dark skin. All the trash people are very dark skinned. She took a few minutes break to stand and drink the tiny plastic cup of chai. I watched them push them the cart down the hill as I drank mine. On my yoga vacation in India. How’d I get to be the one with the big cup?
I wonder about the idea of karma, seeing these daily distinctions between poverty and privilege. Accepting the present as the effect of past actions, from lifetimes already lived. Everybody’s got to work her way through it, I guess. Maybe I already did? Maybe I’ll be back there again? There’s no assuming that I can understand what I’m meant to learn in this life, through what vehicles.

Friday, February 01, 2008

1/27/08 If Evolution were a Sensation, It would Feel Like This.

I was part of an amazing photo shoot this week with Tom Rosenthal. Tom has been a number of times to Mysore and is an avid practitioner himself. He had a showing of his work at India Song House this year, a few years in the making. He scouts out amazing spots in and around the city for yoga photos. Because we are all Ashtangis, there tend to be more advanced poses featured. I loved working with Tom because first of all he knows the practice, and loves it. Secondly, the expression of the asana is as important as the rest of the photo. Indeed, it is an alchemy of the yoga and the sacred surroundings. His understanding of the art of photography as well as the yoga, coupled with a wealth of amazing models to choose from, makes for quite a product.
After working with a few others, mostly for clothing, some for yoga books, I was feeling a bit done with photos. The amount of work and love that goes into what one is seeing when seeing me perform an asana (it always cracks me up how Iyengar uses the word perform) really must be appreciated. Photographers get excited about the more interesting poses I can take, but for what? To share that part of myself is important and I am so thankful for the opportunity to work with Tom. It hasn’t been easy to find a safe and nurturing place to share the aesthetic qualities of my yoga.
Even more special than the product was the experience of the shoot. To practice in these amazing places! We started at the Naandi bull statue on Chamundi Hill outside the city. An amazing drive up to a huge black bull decorated with flowers, rubbed daily with oil, and a pilgrimage of 1000 steps up to receive a blessing. The site was less crowded than usual and our yoga display was met with delight and respect from the visiting families and vendors who gathered to watch. “You are making very nice yoga, madame. This is very much work you are doing.”
We took photos on the ghats (stairs) leading down to a water tank surrounded by red and white stripes and drawings of Shiva’s trident. The sun was perfect, the stone steps warm. Then a climb up to a tiny temple, about 8 feet by 8, with an ornate carved dome lit by the setting sun- and a candy wrapper full of red ants, it’s always India after all. Practicing in these places, in an area steeped in the holy, for the purposes of capturing this alchemy between a sacred practice and a sacred place; performing this yoga which has been cultivated through years of focus and intention in places which are richly blessed by hundreds of years of the focus and intention of pilgrims…wow.
By the end I was shaking in the subtle way I have learned to recognize as Shakti moving in a heavy dose. If evolution were a sensation, it would feel like this. It was such a blessing to be able to give my gift to these places. When we come all this way to take practice in Mysore, though it may look like MTV’s The Real World meets yoga sometimes, it is a pilgrimage. Every day we journey inwards with this practice, wherever we are, is a pilgrimage to our Source. But here, the response is stronger. The energy we put out is returned exponentially. Evolution is compressed. Some days its glorious, some days exhausting. Like the experience of India itself.