A version of this article appeared on Bird in the Tree blog
Seeing palm trees and coconuts beyond my toenails while in shoulder stand…
I didn’t get through one full book while I was practicing at the Ashtanga Yoga Institute in Mysore. Save for brief consultations with Yoga Mala and an evening reading selections from a borrowed copy of a David Sedaris collection, I was generally eating or sleeping when I wasn’t at practice, chanting classes, having a voice lesson or going to rehearsal. In Goa, I’ve read two and half books in as many days.
At Rock and Raaga, the music and bookstore in a little shopping complex of internet cafes, fruit stands and supermarkets, Mark Knopfler is playing on the overhead when I walk inside on my first day to peruse the stacks. I find a collection of short stories by Amy Bloom amid a collection of mysteries, romances, travel guides and other more literary titles… and I really know I’m not in Mysore anymore.
The next day, I leave the finished book on a stack of paperbacks sitting on the banister of a bungalow adjacent to the one I’m occupying for my time in Goa, and select an English language title for the next bout of reading. The guesthouse bungalows are booked with a cosmopolitan crew of German, French and at least one American yoga student.
I reserved the bungalow months ago on the recommendation of a friend, as much for its proximity to the Ashtanga studio as anything else. I wasn’t quite sure what constituted a bungalow before I arrived in Goa after three months of Mysore’s decidedly more urban, and Indian environment.
“A one-bedroom in the suburbs,” opined my American friend when I mulled the possibilities.
I’d envisioned a thatched-roof, British-esque cottage suitable for a Hobbit with a door smack in the middle of its squat shape. What I found was a single-bedroom studio apartment with a bathroom, a kitchen sink, single-burner stove and half-sized refrigerator. The front porch overlooks a small garden in a building containing three or four such dwellings. The landlord, a cheerful Indian woman with a Portuguese name and an equally amiable husband, lives next door. In the late afternoon, I smell the landlord’s Indian cooking, and the neighbor’s child runs through the yard with some other local children while one of my upstairs neighbors runs through basic guitar chords.
My practice time at Rolf and Marci Naujokat’s studio in Goa is exactly three hours later than my 4:30 a.m. Mysore call, so mornings are downright luxurious. I wake without an alarm clock, make tea, listen to music and then walk five minutes along a dirt trail, past a big Banyan tree, along a green dividing wall and through an empty lot to practice in a yoga studio that could be described as a jungle hut. Still, Rolf and Marci’s shala is a traditional Ashtanga establishment. Many students who have gone or who are going to Mysore to practice at the main studio, stop here before or after for an opportunity to practice with these senior teachers. That is to say, the room is full, the students serious, the teaching as good as it comes.
The first practitioners start at 5 a.m. I’m uncertain as to how many students are here practicing at once. Like Mysore, we all have designated start times, and there’s a wait on bamboo mats set outside the shala entrance under the palm trees to be called in. And like Sharath Rangaswamy and his grandfather Pattabhi Jois (‘Guruji’) before him (by whom Rolf was certified to teach) the signal when a spot opens up for you to start your practice is “one more.”
Inside, there are no glass windows, the dirt (or dung?) floor is covered with more bamboo mats, and a stray mosquito is bound to get you. The tone is at once devoted, casual, open and correctional. Unbalanced sides, weak legs, twisted spines and other over or under-compensations for getting into poses are called out matter-of-factly by both teachers, often across the room.
Sharath told me to work on my backbends when I asked him for some feedback before I left, but ‘otherwise, the rest is fine.’ Granted making your backbends ‘better’ is no small order. I came to the right place to do such work. Where Sharath left it for me to figure it out, here I’m offered an assessment of what muscle group is not doing an adequate job and a prescription for addressing the problem and strengthening the necessary muscles: a few modified positions involving straps and blocks.
Now, Ashtanga Yoga as taught by Pattabhi Jois is traditionally very much adverse to props. Marci is quick to say ‘if you’d like to do this while you’re here…’ when giving me my options, as the studio and most practitioners here are otherwise extremely committed to the Jois lineage. While the postures are not exactly easy—they indeed are work on my backbends— I readily sign on.
Finishing postures are practiced in the middle of the studio or outside as space allows. My first day, I closed my practice on another set of bamboo mats behind the studio along with four other students. I was reminded of the spices and chilies commonly seen drying on mats outside Indian homes, but I liked seeing palm trees and coconuts beyond my toenails while in shoulder stand.
Meanwhile, the rest of Candolim Beach (where the studio is located) is hardly all about yoga. San Franciscan’s might picture a patch of forest between Fisherman’s Wharf and North Beach to get an idea of what lies five minutes beyond the studio in both directions. Albeit, the streets are much narrower here than in California, and it’s not uncommon to have my route to the beach obstructed by a great bull or crossed by a small pack of wildish boars. And it’s beach shacks, not wharves, which line the shore of the wind-whipped Arabian Sea.
The wind isn’t fierce, if steady, and does nothing to deter vacationers from Germany, Russia, America, the UK as well as the random yogi, local or expat. The sand is lined with an expanse of sun chairs and beach shacks serving everything from Goan Curry, fresh fruit and lime soda to Continental Breakfast, Kingfisher Beer and hard liquor.
And it’s never hard to find a slightly different route to the sand, where shore-crawling vendors hawk sarongs, videos and carefully balanced stacks of more paperback novels between the chairs. A bit further north up the beach, the yoga options become more dense and plentiful. Two notable retreat centers, Purple Valley (offering a rotating cast of the world’s best Ashtanga teachers) and Satsangs Yoga retreat are oases of calm, asana, bodywork and healthy nutrition amid the gentle rolling hills sloping up from the coast.
Yoga Centers and Classes:
Ashtanga with Rolf and Marci Naujokat www.yogabones.net
Purple Valley Yoga, 142 Bairo Alto, Assagao, Bardez, Goa, India. http://www.yogagoa.com/
Satsanga Yoga Retreat, no C/93, naika vado, verla canca, bardez-goa, India http://www.satsangaretreat.com/
Sharath Rangaswamy, KPJ Ashtanga Yoga Institute, 235,8th Cross,3rd Stag, Gokula
Mysore, Karnataka 570 002 www.kpjayi.org/
Deborah Crooks is a Berkeley, CA-based writer, singer-songwriter and performer. She has practiced Ashtanga Yoga as taught by Sri. K. Pattabhi Jois for nearly 10 years, thrice traveling to Mysore, India to deepen her practice. She has studied with Jois and his grandson Sharath Rangaswamy. The former managing editor at Inside Communications in Boulder, CO, her articles have appeared in Yoga Journal, Common Ground, Bare Your Soul: The Thinking Girl’s Guide to Enlightenment and many other publications.