Wednesday, June 23, 2010

I took the opportunity to ask Sharath in his office yesterday if, after the few days of teaching I did here, he trusted me to represent this tradition. “Yes”, he said, “and so much will come from experience. But fundamentals must be same.” I believe he is calling us here to teach the fundamentals. In concrete terms, the fundamentals are drishti, gazing points; asana, posture; vinyasa, breathing system.
Drishti: Each posture has a point on which to fix the eyes. We must be familiar with the points specific to each asana and have the presence of mind to bust students on incorrect gazing. When the mind goes outside the practice, the eyes go outside the body. The sense organs, eyes ears nose mouth skin, are always going in search of objects for sensing. These organs are designed to be busy, bringing in information about the environment, which is important, yet yoga seeks to reign it in so the unconscious action of attention going outward becomes something we are aware of and can contain or utilize at will. Drishti trains the mind, increases focus. I find drishti to be an effective tool that is not often found in many yoga classes.
The vinyasa are fundamental to this practice and might be considered Krishnamachrya’s greatest gift to modern yoga. Vinyasa is a sequence of postures, practiced with specific technique, building up to performance of the main asana. In India, the word “performance” is used. We don’t “do yoga”, we “perform asana.” Performance implies practice and technique. It’s very scientific, the vinyasa, and Guruji was a scientist. That is why he called his Mysore shala the Ashtanga Yoga Reasearch Institute. He and Sharath have done a lot of research on the techniques of the specific vinyasas they are teaching. Sharath is sharing, as a fundamental knowledge of the Ashtanga system, not only what the sequences are (and these can easily be found on the internet) but what the technique is to help students achieve the desired effect of the main asana. The main Primary asanas, Marichasana D, Kurmasana, Baddhakonasana, and backbending must be understood in the context of an entire hour and a half practice which supports systematic, sequential performance. Each of the poses has a therapeutic benefit, generally relating to digestion, circulation, or nervous system (which make even more sense now that I am studying the Ayurveda). The postures are not effective without an understanding of the desired effect, which comes naturally with practice and everyone in the course this month has been studying here at least 8 years.
Correct breathing in the practice is another fundamental. We are instructed to listen to our students' breath. The technique of Ujaayi breathing is audible and it becomes obvious if a student, or oneself, is not breathing correctly. Inhale and exhale breath should be equal. Otherwise, the practice will exacerbate an imbalance of the pranas (circulations of vital energy in the body). When a student is not focused, angry, or afraid, this shows up in the breath. Through control of the breath, the mental disturbance is calmed. Learning to focus the mind on the breath, instead of all the information coming through the senses (including sensation in the body due to the asana) is THE key to the practice of Ashtanga yoga. Everybody knows Ashtangis are all about the breath, and this is why.
So these are some fundamentals, already commonly known. But to be busted mercilessly (they say Sharath is a Libra, but there must be some Scorpio going on!) on our own slip ups, whether we are practicing or teaching here, has again brought the fundamentals to the forefront. It doesn’t really matter how challenging the asana sequence is, the work of training the mind, containing senses, and smoothing emotion- all the while achieving therapeutic benefits, is present even in daily practice of the Suryanamaskar. It is up to each individual to know how far they want to go with this yoga, what is the personal goal. One might be happy with a 30 minute practice, if this is the attention span for drishti, asana, and breath. Slowly, slowly, our capacity to do longer, more demanding practice increases due to our modest daily efforts.
As for the “so much” that comes with experience, there is knowing how best to help each student perform a difficult asana correctly, knowing within a few weeks what fundamental is most challenging for each and creating an environment where individuals can master that challenge, then moving into the next.

Thursday, June 17, 2010


Ah, the familiar sounds of the Bapuji Children’s Home at 6AM. My first morning on Indian soil, I am awakened by the slapping sound of the laundry woman. An item is soaked, swung in circles above the head and brought down with gusto against the washing stone in the courtyard just opposite my second-story flat. And repeat: soak, swing, slap.
Next sound, the banging of the water pump, an old rusty metal lever which takes two hands to maneuver. A few bangs up and down, and the small bucket is filled. Soak, swish, swing, slap, bang. Repeat. The lever is screeching- they need to oil that thing. The chorus of children’s voices gets more complex as the crew wakes up. I look to see a girl of 4 or 5 years standing in a pink foofy dress staring at a little boy in the dirt.
The birds. What is that one sounding like a Cukoo? Every time I hear it, I am transported to Auroville where I first landed in India 12 years ago. I must admit, the transport back in time unsettles me, as the sound of that particular bird. Rev of a motor bike. Later, the fruit cart man yelling to announce his wares as he crosses through each neighborhood of Gokulum, third stage. Two-stroke diesel engine of a rick-shaw passing.
Ten Am, after practice (feelin good after the first few Suryanamaskar, except I can’t hold my balance), its still relatively quiet. Beep of a horn, ding of a bicycle bell. Flip flops on the street beneath the window. I am listening to the water boiling in the kitchen. I will let the pot cool down and have some drinking water until I contemplate putting on the shawl and heading out to see Swami, the tailor who also delivers 10 gallon water jugs, even up the stairs, sweating.
Speaking of sweating, it’s quite humid here. The sky has cleared up; I get anxious to do some washing so it may actually dry on the line. I get excited to do a lot of things, but I sit here instead, pacing myself.
I’d love to go through the smells with you and tell you of the variety, but my face feels swollen to double and I can’t smell much but a bit of must. The taxi ride from Bangalore to Mysore is not good for the sinus, no matter how much oil I put inside my nostrils. I must have wiped it out and reapplied half a dozen times yesterday.
Oh wait- I smell something, if I put my nose to the window. Cooking. Smells like vegetable oil frying. Heaviest breakfast on earth around here. It might be that time.
Namaste from Mothership Mysore!

The school children are still screaming, rick-shaws careening, and dahls frying out here on the Indian sub-continent. It feels as though I was just here. I unpacked the sarees and salwars from my trunk, along with local flip flops, a few stainless mugs, and some towels. Banging my laundry on the roof again, feels like home.

It is a blessing to be in a smaller group here with Sharath, all are teachers and it’s some serious comraderie. We are a family, united in representing this tradition of yoga. I am really seeing how so much of the yoga routine comes from a traditional Brahmin household. For instance, it is one’s duty to chant, one is raised to do it. I ended up at the notary with my landlord (now, that’s a whole different story, which will make its way to the blog, along with others when the politics clear up) for the officiating of a document. The two started speaking in Kannada and I could discern they were discussing their Japa practice of the Gayatri, 108 times in the AM. I was loving how a political meeting was laced with mantra.

The yoga students, we all sit around at mealtimes and discuss our students, our home places, our schedules, our bowel movements (just kidding- we’ve all been here enough we don’t even need to talk about poop anymore). I am always reminded that I wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for YOU back bay ashtangis. I think of you daily. Your respect and faith for the yoga work, your dedication to the evolution of consciousness, inspires me to forge ahead. Teaching with you has brought me great respect for moderation, softness, and patience, all things I needed.

But ah, it’s so nice to just wake up and go to the shala for my own practice every day and get adjustments. It is heartening to find that my being is still opening despite having a daily teaching commitment. Perhaps even because of it. The practice is a bicycle we never forget how to ride. Trust me, its true, its always been true, even when we think we will never bind that Mareechasana again.