Wednesday, July 28, 2004

More Random Mysore Nonsense

Some recollection from Sunday's conference. Take as gospel at your own risk.

Jalandhara bandha is only to be engaged during pranayama, not during asana practice.

Savasana is one of the most advanced postures from sixth series; it is not the pose we take at the end of practice. That is called sukhasana. Savasana involves engaging and stiffening every muscle in the body, so that one could be lifted from the floor as stiff as a board. Guruji does not, and has never had, a student who has advanced to this posture.

Someone asked Guruji if he has, or has ever had, a student who practices this posture. We all looked expectantly at Sharath. Guruji and Sharath both laughed and shook their heads no.

In addition to not practicing during the menstrual cycle, female teachers should refrain from teaching during their cycle.

"Ahimsa" means non-violence (technically, non-wounding) in thoughts, words, and deeds.

Someone asked what is meant by dharma. You'll have to look this one up one your own.

As an aside, I do love how people will ask questions about asanas during conference---for example, someone asked Guruji, "How should I approach ardha-sirsasana? I don't have the strength yet to stay up. Should I come down half-way and hold as long as possible, even if it's only a few seconds, or should I not come down as far?"

Guruji talked about reversing the flow of amrita, and elaborated on the correct movement of heat generated during the pose. I think he ignores, misunderstands, or intentionally misunderstands these questions. But after 60 years, how often can you tell someone, "Practice, practice, practice"? Because that's where every physical-related question ends up: practice, practice, practice. If you do something every day, you'll get better at it.

On reflection, I realize that Guruji still manages to say, "Practice, practice, practice" at least four to five times during every conference.  

Sharath Sories:

Sharath is a very funny guy, and these little anecdotes probably don't do him justice. He has this dry and lively sense of humor that betrays his perceptivity and intelligence. He'll punctuate his comments and asides with his little staccato laugh, "huh huh huh!" and a smile that reaches into his eyes.

---Guruji was travelling to his village to perform puja for his late wife, so there was to be a single led class at 5 AM on Sunday. "Class begins at 5, or at 5:30?" a guy in the front row asked. "Five," said Sharath.

The same guy asked, "Should we be here at 4:30?"

"Yes, 4:30."

"So we should be in class at 4:30? The class begins at 5?"

"Yes, yes." Sharath said to him. "But you come Saturday night."

---I was practicing next to a friend who had just been given all of primary series, and who had just begun practicing backbends---and he was struggling. On the mat next to us, Sharath was adjusting someone in kapotasana, an intense and advanced backbend. He was pulling the girl's hands onto her ankles. She was leaking sweat, her breathing was ragged, and she was grunting with exertion.

My friend was staring wide-eyed at the spectacle. Sharath noticed him, and nodded down to the girl he was helping. "Tomorrow, you do."

---I'm not particularly gifted with spinal flexibility. Today I thanked Sharath for helping me with backbends. He made a hammer-and-chisel gesture. "Tomorrow, you bring your own hammer!"

Tuesday, July 27, 2004

I slid into my twenty-ninth birthday two weeks ago, the event made more significant because it took place in Mysore. There were festivities: We collected a posse and saddled up in a rented mini-van. First stop: the bar at the Lalith Majal, a posh palace/hotel throwback to the era of the Raj. A Swedish friend described the interior as looking like "the inside of a huge wedding cake," and perhaps 10 or 15 of the staff crowded around the door to the bar to peer in at the kooky Westerners.

After cocktails, we headed to the foothills of Chamundi Hill to the Olive Garden for dinner. No, not the American restaurant chain world-famous for its simulacrum of Italian food; the US Olive Garden serves "virtual" Italian food.

We ate decent food, and the mosquitoes ate us. The piped-in music alternated between US hip-hop hits and Christmas carols, and a family of swans walked by the table. It was very strange and very grand. Who goes for the food, anyway? It's the company that counts.

So I turned 29. On Monday my body splurged and get me a special gift. When was the last time I'd torn/injured/strained an intercostal muscle? it asked me. It had been a while. So during Monday practice my left rib exploded in fierce agony. I took the following day off, then persisted for the rest of the week. I'll tell you, backbending was an experience.

My rib was sore but better by Friday, which is when Guruji fires us through first series at a festive rate---from first sun salutation to shoulderstand was exactly 60 minutes. The saving grace was that there were only three backbends, and all from the floor. My whimpering was reduced.

Fridays at the shala are a damned interesting time, as all the students arrive to practice at 5 AM. Normally the 60-plus students are dispersed between 5 and 6 AM start times. Not on Fridays, though. This makes for close quarters and frayed nerves. While walking to class that morning, my flatmates and I had fallen in with a New Zealander. I was worried I might have to practice out in the hall. "Why," he said, "haven't you pissed on your share of the carpet by now?" 

Actually, I have pissed on my mat-space, but it's true: we come all this way for what can be a profound spiritual practice, and there's a lot of talk about non-attachment, but students still get short, snippy and downright ugly with each other when it comes to unfurling their mat in the same location every morning. "Sorry! Excuse me! But that's my spot you're in, can you move? I'm so sorry!" Heaven forbid you slide someone's mat over to make room for someone else---"Who moved me? This isn't my spot!" Yip yip yip.

On Fridays, everyone packs the main room, and it becomes a real petri dish of human interaction---it's 5 AM, it's the end of a long week, and the shala is filled with strong, determined---some might even say obsessive---personalities. Sparks can and do sometimes fly.
By Sharath's class on Sunday, the rib thing had faded from a sharp lung-piercing to a dull ache ,  aided and abetted by over-the-counter muscle relaxers, or what's called better yoga through chemistry.

But hold on, my body wasn't finished delivering gifts. On Monday, somewhere in my first sun salutation, my low back went out. "Went out" is a euphemism for "skull-cracking tendrils of pain," "explosive glass shards of agony," or "doused in napalm and set ablaze."

I've never had back problems in my life. Ever. So it was quite a new sensation. I made it to seated postures and couldn't even reach my toes, so I went to the finishing room and took rest. It was at this point that I realized my Mysore Meltdown would not be from beggars, rickshaw drivers, greedy landlords, or even from the veiled mat-space infighting. No, injuries would be the cause of my Meltdown.

As a fiercely macho American male, I'm not sure my waterworks even function---tear duct, what's that? I sat in the finishing room and realized that another injury, in a month filled with sickness and injuries, could call forth big lusty man-tears. It wouldn't be crying in the traditional sense. It'll be weeping in fine high-drama tradition, whereby gallons of water stream forth from my eyes and down my upturned face, and I peer into the heavens, demanding of God, "Why? Why?" 

Yesterday I went to practice and everything was normal. In fact, I had a fantastic practice, with no hint of searing back pain. At this point, all I can say is: "What the fuck?"

I like to believe the pain corresponded to an "opening," because my backbending the last two days has been incredible. I'm a newly-minted 29, and the best gift of all has been the realization that maybe my spine isn't as calcified as I've believed. In fact, it's yet more proof---of which I've had a lot---that maybe this ashtanga thing actually works.  


Monday, July 12, 2004

It would not be wrong to say that I am incredibly happy here.

Two months into my journey and I've settled into a dream-like routine that, in all honesty, involves not doing too much, a fact that still conflicts with my ingrained capitalist values---Good Lord, I should be at a job! Working! Working hard!

I get up at 3:30, which is ridiculously early, at least by the standards of my non-yogic peers. I do pranayama, then I sit in baddha konasana. (Ah, asana talk! It's been absent from here for too long.)

My two flat-mates get up around 4, leave for the shala at 4:45, and finish the practice by 7 AM. Usually there is some congregating in front of the shala as everyone sucks down a coconut or three.

(I personally do not either like or dislike drinking coconuts---I can take 'em or leave 'em. Usually I leave 'em.)

I get home, potter about, then head to one of three breakfast spots: Tina's, Holly's and Tony's, or my living room. A leisurely breakfast follows. Afternoon plans are often formulated over fresh fruit bowls at Tina's or the omelettes at Holly's and Tony's.

Thus far, I've tried to shy away from shopping. I try to make sure I'm not out spending money (i.e., shopping) as an end unto itself. I'd rather it were a utilitarian function. Not that I'm averse to shopping---I've been known to freak a bookstore for hours---it's just that while I'm in India, the money is essentially following a one-way path: out. There's nothing coming in. So every penny I save could mean another month at the main shala.

Today a group of us gathered at Gita's house for a brilliant lunch. Gita lives up the street from the main shala, and rents out two rooms to yoga students. She also makes incredible lunches. Afterwards, we scooter-rallied over to Lakshmipuram to the Three Sisters for the best lassis in Mysore.

(Don't sit on the bed-rolls. There are bed-bugs and/or fleas.)

Now I'm at iWay, the Internet cafe of choice. Quite a few people have laptops, so for tonight there are tentative plans to watch a movie at a friend's house. Tonight's bill might be Kill Bill 2 or Fahrenheit 9/11, depending on the concensus.

Yesterday after practice we had a double feature: the pre-conference movie was The Terminal (Shockingly bad. And that ending!), the post-conference movie was Spiderman 2 (A shockingly bad bootleg, with a quarter of the screen cropped).

"Where does the time go!" is a common refrain here, because as I mentioned, time just drifts. I've not been very inspired to take many of the classes that other yoga students use to fill their days. It seems like many people arrive in Mysore, relax for a week, and then recreate many of the same frenzied, hectic aspects of the lives they've left behind.

(This doesn't hold true for everyone, though---there are many full-time travellers/yogis/expats, who have decelerated off the "fast lane.")

So I've been whiling away the time by devouring books, and by napping, and by rediscovering a social life, one that revolves around yoga. And the time has truly whiled away---this Wednesday marks my official two-month mark!

Thursday, July 8, 2004

Pattabhi Jois was born on July 16, in either 1915 or 1916; I can't remember which. According to the Indian custom, however, he celebrates his birthday on the first full moon in July, whatever day that may fall; this year it was Friday, July 2.

I've never been to an Indian birthday party before, let alone one for a Brahmin vidvan and internationally renowned yoga teacher. The party was held in the main shala, and the birthday boy was positioned on his customary chair/throne, which sits on the foot-high stage at the front of the room. Shala doors opened at 11 AM. Students trickled inside in groups of twos and threes.

Many of the ladies went all-out for the festivities, and arrived resplendant in saris. Many had to seek the help of landlords and neighbors for instruction on how to put their saris on, a long, involved wrapping process.

Everyone sat down and faced Guruji as though he was going to produce rabbits from his lungi. A group of musicians performed, stage-right; otherwise, the room buzzed with the muted sound of conversation.

At one point, another much older and much thinner Brahmin was led into the room to join a third aged Brahmin. I found out later the older men were Guruji's younger and older brothers; they'd made the trip from the family village especially for the occasion. The Jois family must be made of hardy stock, because how often do you hear of an 89-year-old man having both a younger and older brother?

The extended Jois family and the various people who orbit the shala were also on-hand for the festivities. We all watched Guruji for perhaps an hour-and-a-half. He watched us from his vantage point on the stage, smiling and nodding.

The students from chant class had been working on a chant to the guru, and they recited it. A cake was brought in, and Sharath helped his grandfather cut the first piece. The spectacle broke up and the darshan/photo-op line formed.

Everyone had lunch in the parking garage downstairs. All the partygoers filtered in and wedged themselves behind long, thin tables, which were topped by banana leaves. The food was catered by a Brahmin catering company, so the servers wore only lungis and their threads.

The food was South Indian thali. It was brought out course-by-course in large steel pails, with the portions troweled on the banana leaves and eaten by hand.

It was the first time in seven days that I had eaten anything besides toast or curd---but that's another story. As I'm also a giant wussy, I found the food ridiculously spicy. My face reddened, tears squirted from my eyes, and I started hiccuping immediately.

I wished Guruji a happy birthday. Sharath pulled Sherrie and I aside to say that Tim had called earlier to wish his guru a happy birthday. He'd also told Sharath to say hello to us. It was a heart-string moment.