On my way to Mysore
I had been practicing Yoga sporadically for a few years in my hometown of Los Angeles but always felt there was a vital component missing in the prevailing teaching style. The focus on purely physical aspects of the practice were not able to satiate my spiritual needs. One fine day, I found myself halfway around the world, in the charming city of Mysore, located in the southern Indian state of Karnataka.
Over time I had picked up snippets about the highly demanding ‘Mysore style’ or Ashtanga Vinyasa system, which I had been meaning to explore for a while. Ashtanga yoga literally means “eight-limbed yoga,” as postulated by the sage Patanjali in the Yoga Sutras. According to Patanjali, the path of Tattwa Shuddhi or internal purification for accessing the Oversoul, Universal Consciousness or Brahman, consists of the following eight Sadhanas or spiritual practices:
Yama (moral codes), Niyama (self-purification and study), Asana (posture), Pranayama (breath control), Pratyahara (sense control), Dharana (concentration), Dhyana (meditation) and Samadhi (absorption into Brahman).
The man responsible for the worldwide dissemination of the Ashtanga system was the late Krishna Pattabhi Jois or Guruji, as he was affectionately called by thousands of acolytes all over the world. He belonged to an immaculate unbroken spiritual lineage that originated in hoary antiquity with Rishi Vamana, passed through eighth century Mahayogi Nathamuni and culminated in his 19th century descendant, the legendary Vidwan Thirumalai Krishnamacharya, who had been initiated into asana practice by Himalayan master Rama Mohan Bhrahmachari.
The rapidly proliferating phenomenon of modern yoga owes a huge debt to Krishnamacharya and his two original disciples, Sri K.Pattabhi Jois and B.K.S Iyengar. Every style, technique and school of Yoga existing today has descended from these towering personalities.
Soon after arriving, I found myself a simple, sparse and sunny room in the peaceful suburb of Lakshmipuram. The next day I was to commence studies under Yogavisharda B.N.S Iyengar (not to be confused with BKS), 86 year old protégé of Krishnamacharya and contemporary of Pattabhi Jois. BNS, as he was fondly referred to, was the enfant terrible of the Ashtanga community.
Steeped in Vedic wisdom, able to recite verbatim any Sutra and deconstruct its esoteric meaning for a layperson, BNS was brilliant and luminous, but also possessed of a mercurial temperament that would often see him yelling at a nonplussed pupil for not being adequately prepared in class. I had enrolled to learn Vedic Philosophy, Bandha, Kriya, Mudra and advanced Pranayama under him.
The oral tradition passed on through Guru to Shishya or student, is the only authentic modality for the accurate transmission of ‘revealed wisdom’ or Shruti. Learning from books, DVDs and semi-literate instructors can actually be detrimental to genuine progress along the path.
BNS could always unerringly sense when I was distracted. He once pointedly remarked that Yoga was akin to driving a car on a busy highway. I could not afford to let my mind wander or it could result in heinous injury or worse, death. He would then recite a corresponding Sutra on the nature of consciousness and launch into impassioned explication of Samkhya philosophy. I gazed in wonderment at this virile octogenarian, who was able to run circles around people one-third his age, a gleaming testimonial to the ancient science he propagated.
According to Rishi Patanjali, the penultimate goal of yoga is Chitta Vritti Nirodhah or cessation of fluctuations in the mind-field. Chitta is a Sanskrit term that can loosely be understood as the psychophysical hierarchy of Manas, Ahamkara and Buddhi. Ahamkara is the ‘I-maker’ or tendency of mind to identify with the gross body and sense objects. Manas corresponds with the sense oriented mind and Buddhi with higher intellect.
The following weeks were an intense succession of vigorous Asana practice at six a.m., followed by Pranayama and later, Philosophy class with BNS.
Initially, the process of peeling away accumulated layers of escapism, denial, neuroses, old fears and traumas can be agonizing for anyone. I could feel my cognitive filters and sensory apparatus being cleansed of the primordial filth. The downside of catharsis is the tendency of the mind to repeatedly return to wallow in old murky waters due to sheer conditioning or force of habit.
These embedded behavior patterns or subliminal activators are known as samskaras in Sanskrit and are said to be stored in various parts of the physical body—hips, chest, hamstrings etc, thereby blocking the free flow of prana (energy). The practice of yoga is designed to burn through accumulated samskaras.
With the passage of time, glimpses of clarity and insight appeared more frequently and without bidding. Occasionally, walking through the teeming marketplace or sipping hot chai with the neighborhood rickshaw wallahs and coconut sellers, I would experience unconditional waves of joy at the raw sensation of being alive. I realized that the state of bliss was not predicated on any external factors at all.
The Vinyasa system or Mysore style for which people flocked here from all over the world, was based on the Yoga Kurunta, an ancient manuscript penned in antiquity by Rishi Vamana, which had been discovered in its original state bound together with the Yoga Sutras and a commentary by Sage Ved Vyasa.
The ultimate goal of Ashtanga Vinyasa is the state of Trishtana or a union of Drishti (focused gaze between the eyebrows or tip of nose), Vinyasa (synchronization of the breath with the flow of Asanas) and Bandha (Energy/Prana ‘lock’ or seal).
The three Bandhas, Mula, Uddiyana and Jalandhara, corresponding with the perineum, navel and throat respectively, are deployed to seal the prana or life force within the body during the practice of Yoga, thereby causing the Kundalini Shakti, lying dormant at the base of the spine, to rise up the Sushumna Nadi (central energetic channel) through the five Chakras and elements to unite with Shiva seated on the thousand petal lotus or Sahasrara on the crown of the head.
Pattabhi Jois had codified Krishnamacharya’s teachings into six sequential series, designed for cumulative effect. Each series, beginning with Primary or Yoga Chikitsa took an average practitioner anywhere from five to ten years to master. The second and third series are called Nadi Shodhana (purification of subtle meridians) and Sthira Bhaga (strength and grace) respectively. The sixth is shrouded in mystery, possibly known only to Guruji’s grandson Sharath and daughter Saraswati.
By the time one reached that rarified level, the heart could be stopped for indefinite periods of time, blood could be transferred at will to any part of the body and food and water were no longer prerequisites for survival. One was now finally ready for intense prolonged Sadhana in the deep Himalayas.
My practice continues unabated till present day, bringing with it periods of deep abiding calm and a growing appreciation of renunciation or Vairagya. In times when the inner light is dimmed, I remember Guruji’s favorite expression:
“Practice, practice, practice and all is coming.”
Vikram Zutshi is a documentary filmmaker, writer, photojournalist, scuba diver and yogi based out of Los Angeles. When he’s not submerged underwater circling a sunken galleon or at twenty thousand feet above sea level filming the Himalayan snow leopard, he can be found contemplating the infinite while unsuccessfully trying to unwrap himself from the perfect Garbhapindasana. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Editor: Tanya L. Markul