Wednesday, January 25, 2012

WHITHER GOEST THOU: ASHTANGA IN MYSORE


It is not a bad idea to articulate some reasons to travel to Mysore.

Is it as a yoga tourist? In the novel Sheltering Sky Paul Bowles makes the distinction between a tourist and a traveler: “[A]nother important difference between tourist and traveler is that the former accepts his own civilization without question; not so the traveler, who compares it with the others, and rejects those elements he finds not to his liking.”

For example, Chef in Apocalypse Now is a tourist. His mantra becomes "Never get off the boat — there are fucking tigers out there."

Bowles’ idea of a traveler dovetails with Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s reinterpretation/revival of Baudelaire’s “flaneur,” a derived meaning of the French word fl├óneur — that of “a person who walks the city in order to experience it.”

(From here we move to the Situationists. Christ, that’s a lot of name-dropping.)

I am compelled by the idea of traveling to India and walking the streets of Mysore, not to consume Indian exoticism or escape my own self back “home,” but to purely and simply let yoga in Mysore wash over and through me. Some kind of yogi flaneur.

That said, my understanding of Ashtanga Yoga specifically and Yoga generally is this: it began in India, has greatly developed in the West, and part of its practice is continually reaffirming its relevance in my daily life.

With that understanding in mind, I think it can be said there are now many “hearts” of Ashtanga yoga. But of course I am biased: five years ago this April my wife and I were married by a guy we consider a “heart” (at least a ventricle) of this tradition.

Where are these hearts? Well, the big ones of course: Encinitas, Boulder, Lower East Side … then there’s Hawaii, Los Angeles, Vancouver, Toronto, London, Tokyo, Barcelona … again, you get the picture.

How is the practice of Ashtanga Yoga different depending on geographical location? I have been to Mysore and other places in India (and I tell you, practice with Rolf and Marci in Goa will blow you out of your socks). It is magical to practice there, yes, but no less magical than anywhere else on earth.
  
In a large part this "magic" arises as an aspect of pilgrimage. Someone travels to Mysore and makes a pilgrimage marked by sacrifices big and small — financial, personal, familial, work-related — that are required in order to undergo the journey.

Then there’s the often tremendous distance, discomfort, and cost experienced en route.

Meaning, by the time you get there, you've seen things. The familiar has long since disappeared out the back of the rickshaw window.

During a pilgrimage you’re subtracted from well-grooved responsibilities and roles within family, work, and culture.

Once in Mysore you become part of the coming together of hundreds of like-minded travelers, all practicing together in one room. The shala breathes and pulses with a tidal hum that you can feel in your bones. It’s intense.

Given this understanding, there is nothing intrinsically magical about the Jois Shala or Mysore at all. The walls are not made of candy canes and gum-drops, and Sharath bless him does not levitate into the room and shoot lightning bolts out of his eyes.

(In 2005 he was fatigued and in pain due to back injury, yet still with light touch and quick humor. That is, he was warmly human.)

You can’t cut a piece of the rug off the shala floor, take it home, and expect it to confer the same experience. No saints’ fingerbones or virgin’s tears to collect. 

(You can however purchase logo T-shirts to commemorate your experience and communicate to others your journey.)

Rather, it is the collective endeavor and communal undertaking of practice together that makes it special. The intention of the practitioners and teachers — the sankalpa — is paramount.
  
Danger and trouble appear when the pilgrimage becomes enshrined as the Grail through which all that is unpleasant in your life will magically disappear: the death of a loved one or family member, the bitter break-up, recent job loss, eating disorder, alienating/alienated parents … perhaps even the mundane disquiet or dissatisfaction with current choices in life.

(See: Trungpa’s Spiritual Materialism)

I did one time hear Sharath say, jokingly (half-jokingly), “Do the yoga — now go home!”

There's also a "big" Sanskrit word bandied about as justification of such a pilgrimage: parampara.

"Parampara" generally means lineage, and in Sanskrit takes the flavor of "order" or "succession."

It's often suggested that Mysore is the location of this parampara, which of course begs several questions: I can only receive or take part in this parampara in Mysore? Is my experience of this parampara greater in Mysore than on my home yoga mat?

The experience of taking part in the living, breathing tradition as expressed through its community is very much a vibrant aspect of practicing Yoga in Mysore, so in that regard there is a healthy experience of parampara available there.

Wedded to this idea of parampara is the Vaidika idea of purity (and pollution). From within this perspective, as a practitioner I want to practice the purest form of Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga, and to do that, I have to participate in parampara, which, I am assured, is an unchanging (and therefore eternal) system of techniques handed down from time immemorial. In this case, from an ancient text called the Yoga Korunta by Vamana. The Indian tendency, as has been noted, is to whenever possible push the dates of teachings, systems and texts as far back in history as possible, as the older (and more unchanged), the better.

Setting aside the issue of whether the Korunta is apocryphal, this idea of the purity of Ashtanga Vinyasa is important because it's what determines value and meaning in this system — by agreeing on behaviors, attitudes, techniques, sequences of asanas performed like this (and not that) (foot to the side, not in front, etc.) value and meaning are created, and following from those agreed-upon values, what naturally follows are notions of identity and place in society, family, and culture (dharma).

I think it's also useful (cynical?) to observe the idea of parampara from a power dynamic perspective. That is, lineage holders often do just that: hold or maintain the lineage. In order to do so and for reasons altruistic or otherwise (see: Bikram), it's in their interests to maintain control over their system or school of Yoga. This expresses itself through maintenance of purity, authenticity, values, etc.

This is an obvious observation; the corollary that follows is that those who receive their authority from this authority then have a vested interest in maintaining the parampara — a byproduct or residue of fostering the importance of purity and authenticity also insures their authority (and often prosperity).

As someone who teaches Mysore style Ashtanga Vinyasa, I try to be very transparent when it comes to the presentation of this system. It's had a tremendous impact on my life (to it I owe my wife, daughter, and current peace of mind), so I try to be cognizant of what I understand to be the tradition, why it works the way it does, and most importantly, when it needs to flex (and when to remain firm) to meet the needs of the person on the mat in front of me.

I also hope to invite conversation on the subject, too (that is, I'm too blabby). These sequences and techniques aren't tablets handed down from the mount. But they work, they work for me and they'll work for you.

To return to the issue of parampara: to paraphrase Del The Funky Homosapien, what is my parampara, and how do I know if I'm shaking it? What does it mean, really, to take part in parampara?

For my part, it means to quite simply have a heart connection with a teacher who has a teacher within the Ashtanga Vinyasa tradition; in this case, Tim considers Pattabhi Jois his teacher and I consider Tim my teacher. I'm lucky in that I know Tim, and more importantly, Tim knows me. There's something vital about that relationship and conversation. It's at once intimate yet politely distant.

Finally, do I think you should go to Mysore? It depends largely on the context — I wish I could just give an orthodox answer (yes or no) but I really think it depends on a person's situation in life, such as your family obligations, work commitments ... even your interest in travel generally and travel to Asia specifically.

I know for example Tara had a great time in Mysore but doesn't really care to go back. She had a great time at the shala and she liked Sharath, but she's just not compelled to visit India — she'd rather see Europe (we still haven't been together).

More t importantly, many years ago she "came home" to the idea of Tim as her teacher. The interest to find other teachers is just not there. For her, taking part in the parampara occurs in our bedroom every morning when she practices and in Encinitas.

When I told Tim I planned to visit Mysore on my first trip, I asked if he had any advice. All he said was, "Go, and have a great time." He was pretty laid back about it.

Still: India will blow your fucking mind. Just don't run away from your life. Be a yogi flaneur.