The last two months I’ve spent studying yoga asana, pranayama, philosophy and sanskrit at Mandala Yoga Shala in Lakshmipuram, Mysore. Mysore is a proud heritage city dominated by the Maharaja’s palace where Krishnamacharya, the ‘father of modern yoga’, used to teach. Lakshmipuram is a leafy neighbourhood full of mansions from the Maharaja’s time. Walking the quiet streets, here and there you’ll spot little yoga shalas started by (students of) students of Krishnamacharya. They mostly teach non-Indians who are keen to sample the traditional Mysore style of Ashtanga yoga.
So among the kurtas, cows and coconuts, you’ll spot one or two foreigners carrying yoga mats. They come from Europe, America, Asia and they live across the neighbourhood in rooms and apartments rented out by Indian families. They hang out in a couple of places and talk about adjustments, anatomy, pranayama, healthy food, ayurveda. Some live here, many come back every year.
There’s also the K. Patthabi Jois Ashtanga Yoga Research Institute in Gokulam, the Beverly Hills of Mysore where Patthabi Jois moved his shala after the one in Lakshmipuram became too small. The ‘main shala’ is considered something of a fad by the cool Lakshmipuram crowd. Why spend so much money for maybe one adjustment a day if you’re lucky? Those in the early slot have to get up in the middle of the night to secure a space; if you don’t, you can practice in the changing rooms. I’ve heard nothing beats the energy at the main shala, but not everyone appreciates the business empire that Sharath has built. He is the grandson of Pattabhi Jois, founder of Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga and together with B.K.S. Iyengar the most famous of Krishnamacharya’s pupils.
So we’re good here in Lakshmipuram. The classes are small, the teachers genuine and the people dedicated to this intense physical style of yoga. My Taiwanese classmate moans and groans as my teacher lifts up his leg to almost 180 degrees in a standing balance pose (utthita hasta padangustasana, see picture). The corrections are pretty severe so you have to listen to your body and tell your teacher when to stop, else you risk straining a muscle. Everyone seems to get injured at some point and there’s a lot of talk about the yama principle of ahimsa, non-violence, against yourself as well as others. Ashtanga practitioners can be fiery people with a competitive edge so it’s important to stay with your own body’s pace and not want to advance too quickly.
I’ve been very careful not to injure myself because to me this is the opposite of why we do yoga – for spiritual growth, for meditation in movement, for being present in your body, breathing and purifying it for 2 hours every day. And yet, it also happened to me. I was working very hard on extending my hamstrings, which in London had seemed impossible. I had become used to bending my knees a little in all forward bends and focusing on opening the hips. Instead, on the very first day here my teacher told me after a few asanas that he’d seen enough. We were going to start from scratch. We were going to lengthen my hamstrings and I wasn’t to bend my legs in any posture. As long as my hamstrings stretched no further, we wouldn’t go beyond sun salutations and standing postures, only a quarter of my normal practice. Ouch. That hurt my ego, but at the same time – wasn’t this a unique opportunity to allow my body to really open up, now that I finally had all the time in the world? Why rush ahead when the whole point is to take life as it comes? If my body has stored up years of office work and stress and cycling and running, then why not now take the time to purify it?
So I did, and it hurt massively. My teacher told me to persevere, not to mind others who were going ahead much faster through the sequence, and to breathe through the pain – after all this is what is called ‘good pain’ in Mysore. ‘Bad pain’ is when knees or other ligaments hurt; ‘good pain’ is when muscles scream ‘stop torturing me’. I didn’t stop, I kept breathing and discovered another benefit of the practice. You learn to stay calm and keep breathing under tough circumstances. It makes a difference.
So after a month of painful practice, I suddenly felt a lengthening. When I walked my strides seemed longer, my feet more extended and my hips were turning backwards more. I could now hold my leg straight in most poses and even clasp my hand around my wrist and put my chin on my knee in seated forward bends. Well, for a couple of days, until my teacher pushed me forward a little more, and I didn’t tell him to stop and my right hamstring was stretched just a little too much. Ouch.
‘Don’t worry, this is normal, just take some pain killers and keep practicing.’ I decided not to be upset with myself, for after all, I’d taken all the care in the world to avoid an injury, and yet, there it was, it seemed inevitable. And I know how much I learnt from previous injuries about how to heal the body and the effect of asanas on different parts of your body. So I went practicing again the next day, testing which poses I could and couldn’t do. I just kept breathing and maintained a gentle practice. Until I hit Janusirsasana A, when my body suddenly remembered that this was the pose in which it all happened, and wham, I couldn’t stop crying. My muscles screamed, ‘How could you have done this to us??’ But the led class went on, and amazingly, in Janusirsana B and C, I was all fine again. It was as if my body had retained the memory of the injury and then had let go. Of course it was still painful, but bearable and not emotional.
I think this is one of the most beautiful things about the daily Ashtanga practice – the continuous cleansing makes one not only very sensitised to the needs of all parts of your body, but also able to flow through life much easier. After a meditation in movement, things don’t stick so much and we rest in the more stable rhythm of the universe. Every day we feel different in our body, but whether we’re ecstatic or sad, the breathing and focus wash out any extremes. Fewer emotions hook themselves in your body. We get a glimpse of the peacefulness and bliss beyond Maya, our perceived reality of form. This is Brahman, the land of Samadhi, where the ego is dissolved in flames and objective truth shines its formless glory.
All yoga pictures are by Christine Love-Hewitt. Check out her site http://www.yogicphotos.com so you can book your own photo shoot at Mysore!