How My Body Became My Guru- Part One: Why I Hated Mysore

Via on Mar 12, 2011

Hauling Myself to Mysore

When I was going to India, after 5 or 6 years of practicing Ashtanga Vinyasa, I felt like it would seal the deal of me not being a real Asthangi if I skipped out on Mysore. Basically I felt like I would officially be a half-assed Ashtangi, or worse yet, an insincere seeker, if I did not make a pilgrimage to Mysore to practice.

generations of yogis
Pattabhi Jois and Sharath, his grandson

My teacher, Richard Freeman, was going to be there for Pattabhi Jois’ 89th birthday, and I was attracted to the idea of being together with my teacher and his teacher and to be drinking from the fount. I imagined the power of practicing in the city where Krishnamacharya first taught both Pattabhi Jois and BKS Iyengar.

I thought my doubts (or what could retrospectively be labeled intuition) about Mysore not being a good fit for me were based on weakness and fear.

Why I Hated It

Exiting the Bangalore airport, I was astonished not to be haggled in the North Indian fashion, and got a cab to Mysore. The interim details are not that important.

I hated Mysore. It was one of the most challenging months of my life. Any Ashtangi reading this will say,“exactly, you did not stay long enough. To get anything out of Mysore you have to stay for at least three months.”   Or “”You were cleansing your nadis and left in the middle of the process.” Or “you did not see the process through and you just don’t get it.”

Because anyone who doesn’t have a good experience in Mysore is presumed to just not get it- to be

Mysore Palace- where Krishnamacharya taught the Maharaj

weak, avoiding, in denial or afraid.

I will say that my ego was severely dismantled and so was my body.

Getting injured in Mysore does not an interesting article make. Few have gone to Mysore and have not gotten injured. I left Mysore without being able to walk, which is only one of the reasons I hated it.  I was surrounded with a lot of people who were there to escape their lives. No one had much to do except practice and take a Gita or chanting class. Those two things take about 3 hours max. So the rest of the day seemed to be about shopping, and anti-inflammatories (prescription-grade conveniently sold over the counter in India). I have never been around so many people medicating in order to practice. The shop talk was all about what pose you got to in the series, what adjustments you got, and then what weird diet you were on. (like did you drink your own urine?)

Anyway, a lot of people love Mysore.  I know that it can be a powerful and transformative place.

Is Your Body Real?

Ramana Maharshi

I’m writing because part of the cult of injury is that the body is just a transitory object and not real.  Pattabhi Jois is from the Shankaracharya lineage of Vedanta that believes that nothing as we see it is Real.  What’s Real is defined by what does not change. Since the body changes, it is not real- it is a manifestation and projection of the mind.  Therefore, feeling bad (injury) is no more important, interesting, or noteworthy than feeling good.  None of this is real, so why have preference for injury or non-injury.

A month after my arrival to India, I limped into the Ramana Ashram questioning everything. I spent the first two days reading books and trying to understand what I was supposed to do if there was nothing to do. (It felt kind of like the first time I read Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind and then tried to sit).  Each day I felt more disconnected and depressed and confused. Then one evening I walked by two men talking and one asked me if I wanted to try the first mango off the ashram tree. Before I knew it we were connecting over American jazz, I was chanting all the Sanskrit I knew, and getting schooled in the subtleties of the yoga sutra.  And he was explaining the philosophy to me in a practical way. Things were already starting to make sense.

Sort of.

Go here for Part Two- I Slept with My Guru

About Kimberly Johnson

Kimberly Johnson is a yogini nomad who recently put the earth boots on for motherhood. After a lengthy love affair with India, she was relieved to fall in love with Brazil, a Brazilian and now lives in Rio de Janeiro with her 5 year old Brazilian daughter. She leads retreats on the most beautiful place on earth- Ilha Grande, an island with 100 beaches and no cars, leads teacher trainings, and tries not to pronounce Sanskrit with a Portuguese accent. Rearranged by childbirth in every way, she travels, teaches and learns about what yoga has to do with womanhood. She just released a CD of mantra Saudades da India. and recently hosted her first online course, Yoga for Back and Neck care.

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37 Responses to “How My Body Became My Guru- Part One: Why I Hated Mysore”

  1. Please welcome new contributor Kimberly Johnson to Elephant Journal.

    In addition to articles about Yoga, like the one above, Kimberly is also going to open up the burgeoning Brazilian yoga scene to Elephant readers, and introduce Elephant to Brazil.

    It's great to have you here, Kimberly. We look forward to hearing more from you.

    Posting to Elephant Yoga on Facebook and Twitter.

    Bob W.
    Yoga Editor

  2. Just posted to "Featured Today" on the new Elephant Yoga homepage and to the Elephant main Facebook page.

  3. Jason Gan says:

    Practice X3

    • I should have added "Practice, Practice, Practice" and "Practice and all is coming" to the expected responses.

      For me the question is not more practice. But what practice and to what end? Can we be sure that one practice is right for all people? Is repetitive injury a necessary outcome?

      • Yogini5 says:

        Almost never.

        Did you like getting your knees skinned when you were a child?

        Did you feel you were not your body then?

  4. Carol Horton says:

    Having always thought of (and experienced) yoga as a healing practice, I find the idea that students were routinely injured in Mysore and that this was accepted as unimportant shocking. Really?! What happened to "the wisdom of the body" and all that??

  5. Martine says:

    Loved this article! Looking forward to Part Two.

  6. Andy says:

    I'm just curious what sorts of injuries are being sustained in Mysore that are so common?

    • kajyoga says:

      Hamstring tears and SI displacement and pain are the most common.
      Also a lot of knee pain and rotator cuff injuries.

  7. rhonda green says:

    i too have been to mysore. i spent three months with guruji. and yes, i saw a lot. some things were definitely disconcerting. i can empathize with you. in short, however, i chose not to throw out the baby with the bath water.

    thanks to richard freeman, mary taylor, and my own experience with the practice, i truly believe and teach a more contemporary interpretation of ashtanga vinyasa yoga. one based on the middle-path, mindfulness, alignment and internal form. an approach that teaches the practice in levels, free of dogma and ego. an approach that embraces and honors the body and its strengths and limitations.

    please keep an open mind on how the interpretations of ashtanga vinyasa are good and deserve respect.

  8. boulderwind says:

    I love the ashtanga practice, have been practicing for almost 17 years now, yet I have never been to Mysore (though did spend about 1 month with Guruji all told doing led primary). I probably would not do so well there either. As one gets closer to the epicenter of spiritual practices, groups, ashrams, etc., I personally have found some of the most narcissistic people in the world, along with some true seekers, (and sometimes the act of seeking can be tinged with narcissism when the "goal" of enlightenment trumps being a decent, honest, polite, socialized, responsible human being…. .). Practicing in the west has been very good for me as there seems to be more balance and acceptance of the limitations of the body, work schedules, family life, etc, etc, etc. I have also learned that the service of raising a family has done more for my personal evolution than all the years of asana and meditation combined… though I would also say that the meditation and yoga has certainly helped my parenting abilities.

    • kajyoga says:

      I would love to know more about how meditation and yoga have helped your parenting abilities. I can't tell from your post if you are a man or a woman, but if you are a woman, would love to know if you think yoga helped you during childbirth. I am interested in how women who already have a developed spiritual practice before giving birth, how it evolves for them through birth and the post-partum period.

      • boulderwind says:

        I am a woman. I do think the udjayii pranayama helped me through labor and the "strong sensations" of labor are analogous to the strong sensations one gets in asana practice and how one learns to breathe through. Now some women are probably rolling their eyes at me comparing labor pains to, say the stretch you get in pashimotanasana… but I think the skill of breathing through the stretch is adaptable to other circumstances… And learning to be present in the moment…. And personally, I am a much nicer, more even keeled person thanks to my yoga and meditation practice and that transfers into being a calmer , more patient parent (most of the time, anyway).

        • boulderwind says:

          But I also want to add that my homebirth went extremely well and was relatively short. Was that due to yoga, genetics or the bodywork I received during pregnancy? I do not know. I know several more advanced ashtangis who had to have C-sections or could not get pregnant at all…. so maybe it does not work across the board….

          Maybe, since despite having practiced ashtanga for many many years now, I am not what one would call an "advanced" practitioner…. maybe that worked in my favor? I will never really know the answers, but am still grateful for the practice and what it continues to give me…

  9. matthew says:

    Great post, Kimberly. One question: given that injuries-through-adjustments at Mysore are so common, at what point should or can it become a malpractice issue, as it would here? If there was a shala in San Francisco or New York that routinely injured clients, it would be shut down very quickly, and it's owners would be in court for a long and painful stint.

    I know that my question is simplifying a complex terrain of cross-cultural expectation and legality, but do you have any general thoughts on this?

  10. I had a hard time also in Mysore (see my post about it somewhere on EJ: "how i was humiliated by yoga". But ultimately I appreciated several things:
    A) studying with such great practitioners
    B) having Saraswati and Sharath as teachers. they are the best in the world so always a pleasure to see that kind of passion in action.
    C) sweating so much. I sweated like a pig in each session and I hated every moment of it. But now I appreciate what that sweat did for me.
    D) meeting friends outside of my normal workspace. People who were interested in health and spirituality. Its rare for me to come by that in my normal day.

    I understand completely why you hated it. For myself, I went back and forth on it. But I'm looking forward to going back.

  11. Paula Self says:

    Obrigada Kimberly pela sua voz. Lembrando a todos a pensar … e acreditar no que sentimos. Com saudade.

  12. Just posted to "Popular Lately" on the new Elephant Yoga homepage.

  13. kajyoga says:

    Thanks for chiming in instantkarms and sorry for the generalization that did not include your experience.
    Did you not like it because you didn't get as much out of your practice there as you do in New York?
    Do you enjoy India in general?

  14. [...] I first started doing Mysore, the self-guided version of Ashtanga yoga, I could barely do low cobra without back pain while [...]

  15. great post — honest and raw just like mother kali. xoxo

  16. [...] I Slept with My Guru (How My Body Became My Guru- Part 2) (click here for Part One) [...]

  17. [...] How My Body Became My Guru- Part One: Why I Hated Mysore [...]

  18. [...] How My Body Became My Guru- Part One: Why I Hated Mysore [...]

  19. [...] my eyes to the intertwining functions of the 2nd chakra and its practical application in life, as a sadhaka (yogic practitioner on the path of liberation) and as a counselor of yogic [...]

  20. [...] Here in Brazil I have been called Kimberland, Kimbee, Kimber-lie, King. There have been many more blank stares where mispronunciations might have been. My own daughter pronounces my name Kim-barrrrrr-lee. I have traveled with some spiritual folk in the ashram scene. Hell, I even had a guru. [...]

  21. kajyoga says:

    The problem is that pronouncing Sanskrit incorrectly changes its meaning.
    In Portuguese, "t" is pronounced "ch"- so people say "shaktchi" instead of "shakti" and a whole lot of other strange variations. I prided myself on my refined palate and find it challenging to go back and forth from portuguese to sanskrit, more so than English.

    Will get back to you on the yoga in Brazil shortly!!

  22. Carol Horton says:

    Kimberly: Wow, thanks for such a long and detailed reply. I have to say though that my initial reaction remains. Let me try to explain . . .

    First – any yoga culture that starts finding it routine to take painkillers before practice is off base as far as I'm concerned. When I initially read the post I automatically assumed that the drugs in question were to deal with intestinal problems from simply being in India, which seemed unfortunate but understandable, certainly. But wide use of painkillers because of what's happening in yoga class? NO. No, no, no, no, no!!!

    Second, discomfort versus pain – yes, totally agree, you need to get out of your comfort zone to have yoga work deeply. But I don't agree that it's simply trial and error about what's going too far into injury. MOST OF THE TIME – certainly not 100% of the time, but most of the time – I think that if you are practicing in a way that is attuned to and listening to your body, you will not get injured. And certainly, if the same types of injuries are occurring routinely in the class, then the class itself seems to be problematic.

    I know that when I trained with Ana Forrest we were told to be prepared for all the Ashtanga students who "would come limping in with hamstring injuries." So clearly you are not the only person who's seen a pattern here.

    I am NOT interested in attacking Ashtanga – I did it regularly for a year, learned the primary series (though probably not up to par for a really serious practitioner, it was good enough for my class – and for me), and practiced it at home quite a bit on and off for awhile longer before switching to other methods. I got a lot out of it; I know lots of people love this method. But this whole thing about injuries and pain killers is a red flag to me that something is really off here.

    I also think that as an unapologetic Western practitioner, I am just turned off by the rigidity and authoritarianism of these more "traditional" methods (which we know have evidence to show are really not all that traditional at all). It doesn't fit with my culture and values. That's not to say that it's wrong for others – in fact it may be perfect for others with a different culture and values. But there's no way that I'd accept being routinely shoved into adjustments that injured me and seeing this as a pattern; in my mind the culture that teaches students to accept this is not democratic and not empowering.

    I think I'll stop there before I get myself into even more potential trouble . . . :)

  23. Yogini5 says:

    Amen!

  24. Yogini5 says:

    I have a two-word hint for you, yoga-adan: Kino MacGregor …

    Ashtangi in heavily Hispanic, and body-conscious Miami Beach
    http://elephantbeans.wordpress.com/2011/03/01/yog

    Self-mortification could be the new plastic surgery … lol

  25. yoga-adan says:

    i guess not the type difference i was hoping for ;-)

    but i was just curious, i've learned to accept that part of myself ;-)

    thanks for the link too!

  26. kajyoga says:

    Hi Carol,

    I think I have arrived at less conclusions than you have, and maybe because I am still working my way out of some very complex relationships with authority. The thing is from a long perspective I have glimpses of understanding of "why" I was in a relationship with a guru (but this guru was not Pattabhi Jois or Sharath). I do believe in karma- in energetic bonds, some of which need to be loosened and the vasanas blown away. (This will make sense when you read the rest of this story)

    My above answer was to a question about litigation though. I think liability for injury is a ridiculous idea in yoga. You may disagree.

    Do I think I needed to get injured to learn humility? No. But was this part of my experience? Yes.
    Do I recommend Mysore for other students? Usually not. BUt ultimately each person has to answer the deep call of their own heart.
    I did not mean to say that everyone gets injured in Mysore. A lot of people do.
    It is an interesting intersection of the ethos "no pain, no gain", Prostesant work ethic "that working hard requires endurance and a little suffering to go along with it, and guru/obedience model.

    I imagine you are referring to mula bandha adjustments that have been a controversial part of the Ashtanga community criticism/ dialogue. I know a lot of people who received those adjustments, the old finger on the perineum adjustment- and here is what I know- some of my friends were outraged and told authorities organizing the yoga tour which led to a temporary ban on adjustments (which then saddened other students), some of my friends were not bothered at all, some of my friends found it humorous (saw it in the cultural perspective of curious Indians who never are really allowed to touch women). For some people it was a big, life-changing deal and for others, it barely got their attention. What this tells me is that it is about previous experience, about what we are bringing to the practice- our past histories. I know that all your red alarms are going off about past trauma, and re-traumatizing. I get it. I also see why the guru model is suspect – but I also still believe that there can be value there *especially* when from a culture that values individualism.

    What I learned from all of my teachers (gurus and otherwise) is that the learning did not come from where I expected it. Meaning it was the imperfections of my teachers that taught me just as much as the "teachings".

    Sorry if I am talking in circles, but I am still living in the questions of a lot of my experience. For me writing this article and publishing it had to do with working through shame of the experiences that I had on this particular trip, which like I said may become clearer in the next articles. I hope so anyway.

  27. kajyoga says:

    Hi Anneke,

    Wow. I am crying here as you articulate a lot that I am still working through. What I relate to is the complexity of the relationship, but the simple-ness of some of the interactions. I relate and am proud of you for your courage in standing guard to the other woman in prasarita padottanasana, and your courage in telling your story at all. I appreciate your discrimination and your bravery.

    Yes to the authority figure and transference, not so sure if it is parental related. But it is food for thought.

    And thank you. Your voice means A LOT!

  28. Anneke_Lucas says:

    Kimberley,

    Thank you so much for your empathy and encouragement. Whatever we learn from these experiences, whatever we figure out on the way to bettering our own lives through sorting out these transference issues, contributes to the shift away from the old world paradigm of power, to a better world.

    I'm so glad that we both put our first post on Elephant on the same day , back to back, with our writing. Great way to meet.

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