Three months in the Shala.
In October 2013 I embarked on another journey to India but this time I headed further South to Mysore. Here to continue my study of Ashtanga yoga and I have finally reached the source, the heart of Ashtanga KPJAYI.
I signed up at KPJAYI to practice under the guidance of Sharath who offers mysore style Ashtanga classes as he learnt from his grandfather Sri K. Pattabhi Jois. For more information on how to register to study with Sharath or Saraswathi click here, http://kpjayi.org
The Shala is a large room, with change rooms for the students, a small Shala shop and Sharath's office located on the ground floor of the Jois current residences home. You will notice the amazing new structure of Sharaths new home in the making just a few doors up.
I found Sharath to be pretty incredible, his ability to work a room full of students and continue to adjust for hours in a row and to know where you are at in your practice. If you need a new asana or if you need assistance in a certain pose, he knows. It's no wonder he sometimes sits in his chair on the stage to just observe, read the paper which I'm sure has tiny pin holes in it, or he heads to his office, but his watchful eye is never far away.
Month One: October 2013 The beginning:
Both nervous and excited I was ready to start practicing. Here I was at the main Shala in Gokulam ready to embark on three months of regular practice under the guidance of Sharath Jois. I had just spent the last few months travelling and working in Tasmania where I was still recovering from a hamstring and calf injury so I hadn't been practicing as regularly as normal.
The first month here in Mysore was going to be a challenge. I wondered how my niggling injuries would hold up and if it would matter that my back bends were not up to scratch.
I went to the Shala and registered with Sharath and pay the funds. It was a very quick meet and greet. "Have you practiced before"? Who with and do you know the primary series? "Yes". I was told how much I owed and handed over the money, which he placed in his money counter and gave me a nod of approval.
No more real information was given to me apart from a name card with my starting time that I had to bring to each class. There are a few things you will quickly work out such as the Shala time is different to normal time, it is always about 15 minutes ahead. Moon days and Saturdays are off and if a moon day falls on a Sunday, Monday is primary Led, otherwise led classes are Sunday and Friday. Chanting is on Monday, Wednesday and Friday's and the times are announced on the white board.
We would arrive at the shala at 7.15am Shala time and wait in the foyer until the call of "One more". In October there was a good amount of people practicing and more than enough space to stay in the Shala to do your finishing instead of moving to the change rooms after your back bending.
I found the Shala had incredible energy and my practice changed dramatically in my first month here. I was able to get into padmasana for the first time within just a few days. Even my back bends slowly improved. Initially I was instructed to try three back bends and just try to straighten my arms. Sharath would say, 'no crying', as I tried to breathe through the pain in my deltoids, scalenes and sternum. He made me continue to do these for two weeks before telling me to do five.
I continued to moan and grunt trying to straighten my arms and I would be exhausted. I continued doing my backbends like this for the first month. I received no help with them as the only adjustments for the primary series I really received in the Shala were Uthita hast padangustasana, Kurmasana and Supta kumasana. Drop backs and catching your heals and assisted but I was no where near this yet.
So maybe don't expect to be nurtured and adjusted very much during your time here but what you do get is experienced individually and internally, it's something that I will be forever grateful for and something that will make me continue to visit this place for years to come.
My body was pretty tired at the end of the first month but I was pretty stoked to have no signs of my old hamstring injury but pretty annoyed to notice my left poplitil inflamed and left calf very sensitive. I was wondering when I would ever experience a total pain free practice. I wonder if it is due to my body becoming more in-tune with how it feels or the fact that I put my body in fairly awkward and compromising positions or if my basketball days did nothing to help with flexibility.
Month two November 2013: Shit becomes serious.
More and more people were now coming to the Shala and it seemed to get busier by the day. We were now moving to the change rooms to do the finishing sequence and people were still in the foyer waiting to start their practice when I would leave.
I was now on the 6am led class and got to the Shala early to avoid the pushing and bumping which to my surprise happens a lot. I took the approach of arriving early to sit and wait on the stairs so I didn't have to deal with the frantic hustle and bustle to race into the Shala.
I also learnt that you even need to be extra speedy when you use the toilets. I took maybe two minutes on the toilet before one of my led classes and the next person in line was more than happy to qpush open the door as soon as I unlocked it and tell me how pissed off about it she was. She asked what I was doing in there so I happily advised her of the poo I just dropped off and gave her a big smile. :) I guess she just really needed to use the toilet.
When you put so many people from such diverse backgrounds together of course you are not going to understand some people or get along with everyone. Coming from Australia we tend to say hello or smile to everyone who closely passes us, this is something else I needed to let go of as not everyone here would smile or say hi back.
Politics aside and back to the practice.
After about 7 weeks Sharath started helping me to drop back and stand up. He assisted me in doing these for three days and on the fourth day he wanted me to drop back without any assistance. Can I say no to this? I had never tried to drop back and fear came flooding to me, my chest become heavy and my breathing quickly shortened.
He gave me one word instructions and expected me to go. I'm sure he saw the fear in my eyes but he still said, "go", "drop", "go". So I prepared, put my trust in him and thought there is no way he would let me fall, right? I prepared myself and finally I was able to drop back and without him assisting me. In shock my head was still in tacked and my arm's were able to hold me he then said, "come up". He finally got sick of waiting for me and pulled me up. Again I dropped back without injuring myself or my neighbours and again he says, "come up". I tried to come up and landed flat on my back. I was in shock, why would he not help pull me up. I am new to this. Fear came flooding back and I had one more to go. A thousand thoughts flooded my mind, why would he let me fall. What lesson will I learn here? Why wouldn't he assist me until I'm ready. I did one more and this time he assisted me in dropping back and coming up. The next couple of day's I continued to drop back unassisted but there was no way of standing up.
Three day's later I become really sick with a head cold and chest infection. How ironic, After just starting drop backs that help to open my chest, it decides to shut down on me. I had three days off practice and spent them in bed. I tried to practice on the forth day but had no energy and I was coughing and spluttering for the next week. I was here to practice so I really didn't want to have more time off. I spent the next 5 days stepping back in all my postures and taking things really easy. I didn't do any back bends and Sharath didn't come over to ask me why. This all happened at the end of my second month here.
Month three December - early January 2014: pain, opening and letting go.
A new starting time was appointed of 4.30am. My friend informed me that you should arrive at the gate at 3.30am normal time if you don't want to get pushed for Led Class and you want a good spot in the Shala. I thought she was pulling my leg. 3.30am sounds a little ridiculous to me. The first day I arrived at 3.50am and already there were about 25 people waiting, sitting in the dark on the cold concrete waiting for the gate to open. More and more people kept coming and by 4am we were over spilling onto the road.
Prakash (the guard) is awakened by his alarm and the students start to stir. By 4.10ish the lights turn on and all the students quickly take off their shoes (ready to drop them at the stairs) and group together nice and close near the gate. The flood gates open and the eager students rush up the stairs and pour into the Shala to secure their place on the mat.
The energy is rushed, excited, angry and frustrated and for a few minutes you are taken back to the way sitting in traffic for an hour can make you feel and you are reminded you are in the hectic place of India not my chilled out home of Australia. As soon as you place your mat down and settle into your spot you totally relax and wait for the opening chant.
With nearly every mat touching there are a few asana's you just can't fully extend in. Don't mind the drops of sweat on your mat that might not be yours, a bum in the face or the feet in front of you which sometimes near miss your face. Keeping your body and limbs in your mats perimeter at all times is the key to happy neighbours.
I had finally ridded my cold and I had to tackle my nemesis the back bends. An assistant came to help me in my Mysore class to help me with my drop backs and on the first two he helped me all the way. On the third time, I thought he had me but I dropped back and landed right on my head. Ouch.
He told me I needed to have straighter arms dropping back or you will land on your head. Yes I just proved that. A little rattled I got up and stumbled into the change rooms. Just when I hit savasana (the best part of practice) I hear a very sarcastic, "people in savasana might think about getting up now". I guess that was my cue to get out of there, yet I only just laid down. Not one to really be bothered I picked up my mat and allowed the impatiens of another to disturb my favourite asana.
The next day the same assistant helped me, I was still not confident enough after landing on my back and on my head so I asked for help. He didn't allow me to drop on my head again.
I guess here in the Shala you do learn quicker by just doing things and getting it done. I'm still in one piece so it's really not so bad.
Finally with the help of Sharath in coxing me and telling me I couldn't go home until I came up, I managed to get it. I came up for the couple of weeks and then went backwards and had a few days of not being able to stand up. At least I know it is in me and I will be able to do it more consistently soon enough when my backbends get deeper and my heart opens. Weeks ago I never imagined I would be standing up from back bends.
It is like a never ending story as once you get one thing another thing happens and you think that is impossible until you get it and move on to the next thing. That's the true beauty of this practice, I feel it always keeps you humble, it gives you something to always strive for yet it keeps reminding you that patience is a virtue and belief is something you should always have. I guess this practice of ashtanga really can open your mind to many new thoughts, possibilities and patience. When the body opens up so does the mind and new thought pattens and openness to new possilities can arise. All this from just moving the body, it's a powerful thing.
Yoga may not be for everyone but I thank Aaron for showing me this beautiful practice and I am so grateful for the many new avenues it has opened for me.
So let the journey continue. I can't wait to come back here to the Shala again where the Mysore magic really does happen.
Thanks for reading my longest post ever,