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.