I am finally coming around to working my way through that box of books I brought back from Mysore in November. There is a book about Shri K Pattabhi Jois and the personal accounts of his students and family members
It’s a new habit of mine lately to scan the table of contents first and to jump straight to the part which catches my interest first. Naturally, I zoomed in onto Saraswathi’s interview. I think Donahaye and Stern did an awesome job in keeping her answers in its most original form, edited only as much as is required, but still allowing her voice to come through. Because it certainly felt that way. Reading it was like listening to her talking at the Sanskrit College in October when she and Sharath were invited as honorary guests for their contribution towards spreading the light (and method) of yoga.
I remembered the first time I had ever seen her in person. In Brickfields when she was in Kuala Lumpur for her 2014 Asia tour. My journey with Ashtanga yoga then was new, and I wanted to find out what the hype was all about being able to practice with immediate family members of Shri K Pattabhi Jois. I remembered a room packed with people so early on into the morning, and the gentle rhythm of chanting from the temple nearby. When I saw her it wasn’t really anything special. She struck me as a regular woman. And though it may be anti-climactic in that sense, there was an energy that emanates from her and throughout that entire LED class. I didn’t know what it was or exactly which moment in that entire class that made me realise I wanted to spend an extended period of time practicing with her, but I knew that very night I will be headed to Mysore sometime in the year just so I could practice in her class again.
In an earlier account somewhere in this blog, I wrote about the first 2 weeks in Mysore being filled with a combination of confusion and disappointment. I loved being close to her but that persistent thought of “I learn more and progress more at home with other teachers then here” was the main theme at least for those first few days. Week 3 & 4 was when the magic took hold and I began to understand that learning and progress occurs in so many other ways that the traditional method of learning I grew up with.
My experience of her are fond and warm, very much like a warm embrace of coming home. Even when I barely knew anything about her personal life aside from the fact that she is the daughter of Pattabhi Jois and the mother of Sharath Jois. I remembered at the end of my first practice in KPJAYI when she stood next to me, leaning against the rows of pictures lined up on one side of the shala, and casually asking me where I had come from. “Malaysia”, I said and her face lit up and immediately peppered me with questions about Ganesh and his wife.
There is a firmness in her touch, yet a kindness that follows through closely behind that. The only adjustment I would ever get from her are the rare support in Utthita Padangusthasana, and at the end in Shirshasana. One morning she called me to stand next to C, who was also about to enter into her Utthita Padangusthasana and made us complete that posture next to each other while holding our legs steady with both of her hands. I wished someone had took a photo of that! C and I laughed about that all throughout breakfast admiring her skills at multitasking all these students in her shala.
If anyone ever catches her eyes, there is a kind of gentle humor that resides in the depths of her soul. It’s like a gentle crinkle of the eyes and a smile that is just there for no reason at all. A day before Diwali, she was in class adjusting as usual, singing to her favorite songs. By then I’ve developed the habit of occupying my thoughts and movements within the perimeters of my mat but the strange voice of a woman humming eventually made me realised it was her singing. It was only when she stood in front of me, I realised she had an earphone in one ear and walking around with an iPod too.
It was luck that my stay there somehow coincide with that event at the Sanskrit College because that night, while she was giving her speech, was the first time I realised her immense contribution not just within the circle of Ashtanga practicing community but beyond that as a woman. I don’t know if she ever realised this, but being the first female Sanskrit scholar (largely thanks to Pattabhi Jois’ insistence as well that women should receive equal education) and later the first and perhaps the only yoga teacher at the time to be teaching Ashtanga to a mixed group of men and women opened up space to reconstruct, expand or even reimagine the role of women within the Indian society. I believe, her exposure in the Western world helped reinforce her presence within the social fabrics of the traditional Mysorean family life. Reading her accounts of having neighbours and family members giving her grief for moving back to Mysore after having her 2 kids while her husband was away working with Tata Motors was heartbreaking nonetheless.
I have been blessed to be introduced to yoga through so many other wonderful beings. The journey that started if at all by chance all the way back in 2003, and the amazing souls I had met and learned from since then is responsible in its own way for allowing me to be where I am today. Those that we learn from, especially in isolation for long extended period of times (as in committed to one teacher at one time) undoubtedly leaves its mark within us. The way they speak, adjust, teach and sometimes think eventually and to a certain extent is reflected in the way that we speak and teach. And that I believe is the most beautiful outcome from a student-teacher relationship.
At the end of her interview for this book she said:
When your mind is strong you stay with one teacher (…) when you meet the right one, you will know in your heart
Before I left, some of the more common topics circulating around the breakfast table in Mysore was “would you come back to practice with Saraswathi or would you try Sharath?”. My answer was always the same, to practice with Saraswathi for as long as she is around. Because I know in the depths of my heart that I would miss no other teacher more than I do for her.
2 more sleeps before my flight back to Kuala Lumpur.
Being in this moment right now takes me exactly to that time when I am seated on the floor of my little tiny bamboo hut in Koh Samui, looking at my neatly packed bag and wondering what life would be like once I get back to the motherland and learn to integrate my experiences in the last one month into my daily life.
The only difference I feel is the magnitude of experience and changes that has occurred within myself while being away to focus solely on deepening my yoga practice. While before during my Teachers Training in Koh Samui the realisations that occurred were more obvious and exponential, this time around the lessons that came to me were subtle. If 2 years ago I went away merely to fulfil the curiosity of an intensive yoga practice and a brief respite from the corporate world, this time around I went away with nothing else in mind besides wanting to be close to this woman whom I had met once but felt a pull to return to in a way that can’t be quite justified in words and to return as a ‘full cup’ so that I can share more with those whom I come across in my own classes.
My life has been simple in Mysore. Waking up at 5 am. Practice at 6am .Finding simple joys in the cool breeze and scent of jasmine in the air as I walk to the shala. Breakfast at home. Laundry then heading out for coffee with some friends. And then it’s back at home. Reading. Writing. Brainstorming on the next project. Connecting with potential business partners. Appreciating the clear clear blue sky and the view of coconut trees against it (when it’s not raining of course). Cooking dinner or looking for dinner in one of the many nearby places. Soaking in the Mysore environment. The life of a KPJAYI student. And truly just beginning to understand the magic this place holds that has many dedicated practitioners returning annually for decades after. I may not entirely grasp the full understanding of parampara or teacher-student relationship just yet though by all means I fully acknowledge its importance, I feel like I am beginning to experience the tiny buds of practicing and being close to a guru.
The learning doesn’t come so obviously like how one would expect by attending a workshop. There are no lengthy explanations during those Mysore practice. All discussions were saved for conference time. There are no complicated demonstrations. Just the occasional “You, what you do?”, “Tomorrow/or another specific day, you do [insert next pose]’, ‘You, wait”, “You, stop” and “Very good”. The first 2 weeks I was here, my mind struggled with this method of learning. I didn’t feel like I was learning anything new. I didn’t feel like I was progressing, what more the benefits of practicing so close to and under the direct guidance of a globally recognised guru. “What’s the big deal??” and “WHY am I here again??” kept returning to my head, especially on those days when I felt like I didn’t give my 100% to the practice or that my practice was just NOT as I had wanted it to be.
If there was one thing that I could do over, was to allow myself to stay open without judgments to the motions that I was going through. To allow myself to be distracted by the awe of practicing in a packed shala, by the next person with the most graceful jumpthroughs and by that lady behind me who is doing her chaturrangas incorrectly. To allow all this without chastising myself for not being focused. Because this is what it means to see things with a brand new pair of eyes. If there is a next year for me to return, my experience and I am sure of this would be entirely different.
A lot of what we admire or dislike in other people are merely the reflection of what we yearn or dislike within ourselves. Without even knowing it, we are already what we yearn for even if it is not executed so obviously in its physical form. Just today, I was practicing next to this amazing soft spoken girl who was a former Wall Street Investment banker. I remembered in my first few weeks here hearing her cries as she dropback and assisted into catching her feet. I remembered Saraswathi saying to her (and in a room so quiet like that, everything she says sounds loud) “breathe, no cry”. I remembered feeling “oh man, no dropbacks for me anytime soon!” as I felt some of her discomfort being in that position. Today her entire Primary practice seemed effortless, graceful and one that left me amazed at how much persistent practice and patience can manifest itself eventually in the physical world. And it occurred to me, the lessons I have learned from being this close to her are subtle, one that doesn’t need formal words to explain, and one that hits right home in an instant.
There are many things that attract me initially to this practice, and as I spend more time dedicating and focusing my own practice on just Ashtanga , I see more of its beauty. I love the way the practice demands at most 2 hours of your time in a day and for the rest of the day you are to live your life as any other human being. Families, friends, relationships and careers are all given equal attention. The pace of life in Mysore may be slower than normal, but if you know how to utilise the rest of the hours in a day after your practice, it actually mimics a regular day you would have back at home. To me, this has not felt or was intended to be a holiday. When some people responded to my statement of coming to Mysore as “oh you mean like a yoga retreat??” I honestly did not know what to say and chose instead to smile and keep silent.
I have been humbled, surprised and tickled by the many different facets of people that I have met. Mostly I am thankful for the few special ones that I got to know better in the last few weeks. The incredible energy that each person exudes and share. The stories told and the perspective gained from these. And the people these people remind me of, the people whom I have missed. It is amazing how we differentiate ourselves from the rest of the world, by race, ethnicity, skin color, nationality, political preference and god knows what else, but that at the end of the day there is a common thread that binds us all together. It is this very thread I believe that makes me feel like I have known these people whom I have just met, for a very very long time. A wise person once wrote ” Divinity is right here, right now, inside you, inside me, there is no separation, we are one, but we are definitely not the same, and that is the beauty and complexity of the multiplicity of one”.
Has it really been 3 weeks already??
I was looking at the calendar yesterday and realised that I have only 2 Sundays more before I board that plane back home. Although, this little town right here has always feel like a second home to me the minute I arrived at the doorstep of my landlord’s (ok ok fine, if we were strictly speaking factual stuff, it took me a few hours after that arrival and some sleep before I actually felt like it’s second home to me).
Reflecting on my experience so far, it felt like the first 2 weeks was spent feeling like I don’t want the 1 month to end. Which is kinda self defeating because that felt like I had wasted the initial 2 weeks worrying about the inevitable, which is going to come anyway. It was only towards the tip end of the 2 weeks that my highly strung “oh my god this wholesome awesome goodness is going to end SOON” mind began to relax and accepted the fact. I think it had mainly to do with allowing my mind to soak in and process everything that is happening. Even if from the outside, a person who has no idea of the Ashtanga practice much less the daily in and outs of being a KPJAYI student might feel like there is not much going on aside from the 6 times weekly practice, there is a LOT that is happening within that short space of 1.5-2 hours in the shala every single day and that alone was enough to keep me overwhelmed for the rest of the day, on some days.
In my first 2 weeks of arrival, my challenge was merely trying my hardest to draw in all my senses inwards during practice. In a downward dog, I’m easily distracted by that girl with the splaying arms in her chaturranga. My mind was kept busy thinking “oh girl, you are going to hurt yourself if you keep doing that”. It took me a while to be able to remove and humbly place down my ‘teacher’s’ cap. Here I am the student. 100%. And my perspective needed to change as observer without a wanting to correct, change or share my opinions about someone else’s practice. Because frankly, as a student, it is not my place. And then there was the constant instructions coming from Saraswathi, calling out to the next student, “you catching?” referring to Marichyasana D more often than not, or “you, what are you doing?” and that “you” was always enough to make feel “is she talking to me??” followed by that 50/50 indecision of whether I should look up and towards where her voice was coming from, risking altogether looking like the distracted, kaypohchi student that I was or not looking up at all and just continuing with whatever I was doing like as if the comment might’ve been for someone else.
9 out of 10 times it was meant for someone else. The one time I decided to continue, the girl on the next mat had to turn around and nudge me whispering ‘I think she’s talking to you’ which of course resulted me in sitting up as quickly as I could (the correct term would most probably be popping up) followed by a meek ‘sorry?’. Because truth be told, my level of respect for her is deep enough that she actually infers some sort of a mixture of respect/fear/awe towards me. It turns out, I got my next pose on that day. “Tomorrow, you do Garbha”.
I have been doing Garbha a few times in my Mysore practice back in KL. So it wasn’t an entirely new thing for me. But just that feeling of being handed the next pose by this respected woman, I felt like I wanted to go skipping down those stairs pumping my fist in the air crying out WOOHOO to the coconut man standing outside.
I love it here, There is no doubt about that. But I also have a life back home. And that can’t possibly stop while I am here. And so after practice, there are days where H and I will be locked in intense discussions about where we are taking this little “baby” of ours, or I will be sorting out my November teaching schedule, or answering someone’s Whatsapp about an upcoming class.
And it occurred to me, my biggest 2 challenges became so crystal clear while I am here. Allowing myself to be entirely present in the moment (without thinking about tomorrow, next month, or WHEN I am coming back here), and secondly, practicing non judgement when I finally get into the zone of the present moment. Like when I am finally paying attention to the group’s conversation and it veers to a specific pose, a specific something about the practice, and I think “practice, practice, practice, why is everyone talking about their practice again?”
Sometimes I believe, these are just the knee-jerk reaction to cope with new environments. new people and new experiences. I do believe the mind in some ways need to be able to link back an experience to an understanding which already exist, it demands new things to be categorised neatly in a box so that it doesn’t become too overwhelmed. And because of this, more than ever, it is a time which demands keen observation of the mind.
Life in Mysore has been gentle. Like a warm cradling arm of a mother to a child. The days melt and blend into one another that somedays you forget what day or date it is. Most days that doesn’t really matter. It allows me to truly pin point the things that I needed to focus on. 2 weeks is a long time to allow the mind to settle in, even if from day 1 physically I fit right into the place. But it is what it is, and it is a nice feeling to finally accept that as with all things, this too shall pass..
Part of what made me fell in love with the practice was the idea of commitment, consistency and perseverance which Ashtanga demands before you are rewarded with the fruits of your labour. These fruits come in the form of self-accomplishment, and a deeper understanding and acceptance of your own possibilities.
Guruji was known to have said this to his students when he was alive, “practice, practice, practice and all is coming”.
I was excited when I saw glimpses of this truth manifesting in my practice when I begin my daily Mysore classes at Upward. From Navasana (boat pose), I was given, and this I am describing in my own words and perception, the notorious Bhujapidasana (shoulder pressure pose). One of the gate or ‘peak’ poses in the Ashtanga Primary Series. I lost count of the number of times I had to awkwardly untangle myself from the pose because my body just could not register the level of strength required to pull myself out of it into a Bakasana (crow pose) AND jump back from there.
A few days later, I figured out how to come up without untangling myself. But I kept falling on my bum. And believe me, with my bony frame, it was literally bones against the mat over and over again. Thank God for those well padded Black Pro Manduka mats. My head would come up and I would move to the instruction of either of my teachers (“straighten your legs, pick up your bum, straighten those legggsss”) and BOOM I would fall. And there are days when doing one of those was enough and I would much rather lie flat on my mat after and she would smile slightly and say, “try, 3 more times”.
THREE more times?! My wrists felt like it was about to detach itself and run away to be the understudy for Idle Hands movie.
But I did. Grunting. Breathing like my life depended on it. There was no ease in that pose. Definitely no sukham in those few long minutes. A little over a week later, I came up. Bum up. Stayed up. And I eased (or at least tried to channel some ‘ease’) into something that resembled a Bakasana, and stepped back. All in a little over a week of 6 times a week practice, plus a few more moon days in between.
And so I had thought, by coming here, and being so close to the source itself would help me progress faster. I am coming into week 2 of my 1 month stay. At the back of my head I am filled with a slight but very real pressure of returning home having completed the entire Primary series. But my practice seemed to be just at Supta Kurmasana and everyday I am hoping Saraswathi would say “Tomorrow you try Garbha” which is the next pose in the series. Everyday I approach my Shirshasana (headstand) with a deep resentment and a splinter of hope because I know how it will be. Halfway and I am stuck. That hope is mostly a little bit of courage to try to balance on my own. But mostly it fizzles out as soon as I am on the tip of my toes. Or these days, I catch the attention of David, her assistant, and he kindly helps me with the full headstand and the pike headstand. Supporting me and ensuring I don’t go flipping backwards and shock the entire room with a big bang. I feel like I could write a whole entire book about my journey into trying to stand and balance on my head. It has been 2 years and I can’t help but feel that typical ‘dang! is there something inherently wrong in my physiology that it’s taking me this long? When is it coming already??”. What took others a few days to learn (I have seen this happening personally), I am still struggling with. 2 years later and I have progressed forward at the rate of a very sleepy tortoise. Maybe that is the challenge that I have to face. To detach myself of the desire to progress at MY own timeframe, but rather allowing it to happen on its own. Perhaps.
These past few days feels like the upheaval of feelings which I never knew existed within me. An intense and focused practice coupled with the new environment and being away from home has a tendency to do so to almost any yoga practitioners I know. I had expected this, but I hadn’t thought it would come so soon.
So many different thoughts crossed through my mind since I started practicing here in Mysore. From “I feel like I could progress faster at home, why am I here again??” to “I don’t think I’m going to learn anything new here” to “So ok now it seems pretty much real that my spine is not as normal as everyone else, right, now that headstand seems like lightyears away from me”.
Amazing how easily the ego takes over of all sensibility, clouds the clarity of my initial intentions of coming here and deciding to study with Saraswathi (to deepen my practice, to be closer to the source of origin, to the lineage of Ashtanga). Saraswathi is the daughter to Shri K Pattabhi Jois who founded the system of Ashtanga Yoga as it is known today. He passed away in 2009. Certainly, I could not get any much more closer to the source than this. It doesn’t help either that there are common conversational topics surrounding authorizations and certifications which can only be given to you by Guruji’s grandson and director of KPJAYI, Sharath. And this is only likely if you were to be studying directly with him.
It doesn’t matter if my initial intentions of coming to Mysore does not include getting an authorization, it doesn’t matter all that I ever want by coming here is to remove myself from my hectic daily schedule and focus entirely on my practice, it seems like NOW I should be focusing my efforts on getting an authorization too.
So much for independent thinking.
I do understand these struggles are minor, though very real in its essence. I realise it is one of those things that I will need to face and work through one way or the other. Whether it’s through having a sudden desire to ‘get authorized’ or the full acceptance of my physiology and working my practice to support rather than worsen the situation. I am lucky in that I am surrounded by people who understands these challenges that may clearly appear extremely trivial to others. H here has been straight up with her advice, kind but straightforward nevertheless. It seemed like a prophecy when she told me on the first day we arrived “Be clear on your intentions of being here because as the days roll by, it is very easy to forget why you are here in the first place”. I had no idea what she was referring to then, but heck I think I’m starting to understand now.
D, I suppose picked up on the vibes from our chats that he decided to call today to tell me of his own yoga journey. I hadn’t heard his voice since his last visit in August and what a breath of fresh air it felt like. “Just remember that you are there to reset and refocus on your own intentions to teach, so that you can come back and share these with others. Don’t worry what others are doing”.
And that was precisely the root of all these busy thoughts. Distractions. Which then clouds my own clarity. When I was telling H today about my observation of another Ashtangi, her amused reaction was “you notice a LOT of things around you during your practice! I wonder where your drishti is!”. Ah. Exactly. My drishti, my point of focus has been everywhere but on the point I should be focusing on. It is the reason why I noticed other people’s practice but manage to forget 4 full standing poses from my own. It is the reason why I feel scattered and not grounded in my own practice. And it is precisely the reason why I am wanting things that I never really actually want in the first place.
And so tomorrow, I shall begin Day 8 with 2 things in mind. Drishti and mindfulness. I am hoping for the best.
What are your distraction? And what are your initial intentions that you felt is now lost beneath all the distractions?
I had been planning to make this trip to India for the longest time. It was one of those things I knew I had to do as soon as my TTC in Vikasa was done in 2012. Since I am no longer bound by the rules of corporate annual leaves, the decision to go was made a tad bit easier without having to apply through the necessary approvals. Having dabbled with Ashtanga practice before, and participated in a few Ashtanga related workshops, it felt like a natural inclination to deepen my own practice and knowledge in this type of yoga. Many things, if you begin to pay attention to, happens to prepare you for your next experience. And the sequence to whatever I went through in the last year or so certainly conspired to help me get to this point right now – sitting in an apartment that is 2 minutes walk away from KPJAYI (Shri K. Pattabhi Jois Ashtanga Yoga Institute) with a whole month ahead of me intended to deepen and progress my own practice in the Primary Series with Saraswathi, who is the daughter to the late Shri K. Pattabhi Jois.
I would be lying to say the journey to finally arrive to this place is smooth sailing. The flight to Bangalore was a night flight, and I am generally a terrible sleeper in planes. That plus the back area of the entire plane felt like an orchestra of snoring people which would have been nice had I known how to appreciate such musical notes escaping from the throats of the passengers.
From Bangalore we made the 3.5 hour car trip down south to the town of Mysore. That was a nice change. It had been raining and the air outside was cool. So I nodded off in between little chats with H, my travel partner who had been here a year before. Once during the ride the driver stopped, and I thought we had arrived only to be told by the driver that he is stopping for a cup of chai as a brief break during the long ride. That was a first, but I certainly didn’t mind.
A lot of what I had encountered so far from the locals and the town itself reminds me of my time in Vietnam. Perhaps it was experiencing the town of Da Nang on my own and immersing myself with the locals there that made it feel like a natural transition into this town. It was a feeling of familiarity like returning to a warm embrace of a very dear friend. The driver who stopped for chai, it could easily be a Vietnamese driver stopping for a cup of drip coffee.
We arrived at 3 in the morning. It felt like a haze in between being woken up, the need to immediately reorientate myself of where I am, and the fact that I had to lug 23 kgs worth of luggage up 2 flight of stairs at such an ungodly hour with an existing injury on my shoulder. I remembered crawling into bed mumbling a sorry to H for not showering because I am just too tired to even think of anything else but sleep.
Monday was spent walking and riding the tuk tuk around town. And paying KPJAYI a visit only to find out registration time for both Saraswathi and Sharath was on that day. Earlier in May, I had the chance to practice a LED class with Saraswathi during one of her trips to KL. I loved her gentle motherly energy and decided soon after to make this trip to study with her for a month. During the application period in early August, I knew generally the differences between practicing with Saraswathi and with her son, Sharath based on my conversations with others but arriving here, it occurred to me each of them attracts their own specific types of students. It is only my first day practicing at the shala today, perhaps drawing my observations now could be a little premature, perhaps at the end of my one month here I would have a different perception, but at least for today this seems to be about right.
I walked out of the shala this morning from what seems to be the shortest and fastest Mysore practice I had ever done before. I saw a group of men and women huddled together next to a van with a man serving fresh coconut. “I saw you here yesterday! HI!” cried one girl to me. That was my initiation into the conversation. I walked over and introduced myself and was invited to Santosha for breakfast. A small house by the corner near to where I am staying. I thought to myself “it will be so easy to never forget my Yamas and Niyamas while I am here given how everything is named”.
It dawned on me this town, the mere fact that KPJAYI is here, attracts a number of people for a multitude of reasons. The searchers. The explorers. The avoiders (or those who are ‘escaping’ from something or someone). The curious. The loyals. The serious and committed practitioners. The new and searching students. There are old timers, people who make their annual visits here. They greet each other like old friends who have been apart for too long. There is a warmth in their encounters, yet a quiet reservation for those who are new.
H told me yesterday that I should come back to my real intentions why I am here as the month progresses, it would be so easy to lose sight of the main purpose she said. Indeed a good exercise to remember, even though the first 2 intentions were crystal clear to me. To deepen my practice with Saraswathi and to (erm..) buy all these cheap books I had been reading about on Amazon India and have them shipped back to KL. Now is a good time as ever to start practicing Aparigraha (non-possessiveness/ non-hoarding) don’t you think? 🙂