November 7, 2012

A Mysore Virgin. ~ Genny Wilkinson

Survival Tips and Hints for the Uninitiated.

For an ashtangi who’s practiced daily for nearly 11 years, it’s pretty shameful.

Until a couple months ago, I possessed a dirty little secret: I’d never been to Mysore, India—a pilgrimage for serious practitioners of Ashtanga Yoga.

Hard-core ashtangis aren’t worth their weight in salt unless they’ve been to “the source” where the KPJ Ashtanga Yoga Institute is situated. I’ve been ridiculed, marginalized and ignored when the truth comes out. Not by everyone, mind you, but the judgment that I wasn’t to be taken seriously as a practitioner, or a teacher, was always lurking in the background.

So why hadn’t I gone?

Simple, really. Four children in six years, three intercontinental moves and three career jumps. I simply didn’t have the time, or money to abandon four babies for a month-long jaunt in India.

But gradually the babies grew into boys and became less dependent on me, and I became more financially secure. And this summer, finally, I did it.

A Mysore virgin.

For those of you who have yet to take the leap, below I’ve offered some hints and tips revolving around the entire Mysore experience to help you navigate the unknown. Consider this a version of the “mother-daughter/father-son” talk.

It’s All about the Practice.

Photo courtesy Virginia Zuluaga

When you’re in Mysore life revolves around practice, and everything you do throughout the day and evening is mere preparation for the next morning: what you eat and drink, how you spend your leisure time, what you read, how you speak, what time you go to bed—it all has consequences on the mat.

Every action is taken with the next day’s practice in mind.

Such obsession is single-minded, yes. But this is one of the benefits of practicing in Mysore. At home, there are so many distractions: the school run, returning work emails, getting to the bank to pay bills, shopping, etc.

We never have time to be aware, and to focus on something—anything—so exclusively.

The Discipline of the Practice is Intensified in Mysore.

Repetition is a key feature of the Asthanga system in that you do the same poses every day, only occasionally “getting” a new one.

Repetition also comes in the form of Sharath Jois’ teachings. Many of his sayings come straight from his grandfather, Guruji, who I’d heard say the same things when he would come to London on tour.

“Why you hurrying?”

This saying was particularly popular during the led Friday and Sunday classes. We were scolded most frequently when shortening a full breath in the vinyasas, going too quickly into the next pose, or coming out early from navasana. Translation: “I’m going to make you do this properly, whether you have it in you or not.”

“No fear.”

This usually came when people are first learning drop-backs. Translation: “You will likely whack your head when bending backwards to the floor. But don’t worry. Everyone learns this way. So suck it up.”

“One more!”

Shouted from the practice room to the foyer in which a disorderly queue of a couple dozen eager yogis wait for a space to open up. Translation: “There’s a tiny sliver of a space for someone to lay their mat and begin practice. Decide amongst yourselves who’s next even though you have no idea who came in first. Don’t argue. It’s not good for your karma.”

“Show me. Again!”

Just when you thought you got through dwi pada sirsasana without Sharath noticing you crossed toes as well as your ankles, he’ll appear out of nowhere and demand you do the pose again. Translation: “I know you didn’t do that pose properly. You’re going to do it again while I watch you inevitably screw it up.”

“Why you no practice?”

Sharath would often single out people in the Sunday conference, or if he bumped into them on the street on the day they couldn’t get out of bed at 4 am. Translation: “There may be hundreds of yogis practicing in my shala a day, but I know when any one of you skip a day. Don’t do it!” (An effective retort for the female of the species is that it’s a lady’s holiday. Then watch Sharath back away in thinly veiled disgust.)

“You too fat. No more dosas.”

Usually directed after you fail to bind in pasasana because of the normal bit of flesh most people carry around the middle. Translation: “Lose weight if you want another posture.”

“Breathing. With sound.”

A reminder to use ujjayi breath at all times with an inhale of equal length to the exhale. Especially when you find a pose challenging. Translation: “This room should sound like a Star Wars convention. So get your Darth Vader on.”

Shala Etiquette.

In the month I spent there, I compiled a list of Do’s and Don’ts when it came to practice. They were:

1. Cheat: there are ways to make practice a little easier if it’s one of those days when you’re stiff, tired or just can’t be bothered. Saraswati, Sharath’s mom, brings the papers at 7:45 each morning. Sharath will sit in his chair on the elevated stage, catching up on the cricket scores. Take this opportunity, when his nose is in the paper, to pretend you’re binding in marichyasana D. Or do three rounds of navasana (knees bent) instead of five. Or skip utpluthih altogether.

2. Don’t cheat: Sharath may appear to be distracted, but he’s not. He’ll bust your cheating ass every time. I have no idea how he sees a shortcut with a newspaper blocking his view, but he does. Cue humiliation as he shouts at you to do it again. Properly.

3. Don’t eat a big dinner. Better yet, don’t eat dinner at all. Anything you put in your stomach after 5 pm is going to interfere with your practice.

4. Don’t wait for Sharath to adjust your backbends. He makes you walk in toward your heels, or pulls your hands in to grab your ankles. It literally takes your breath away and hurts if you’re not focusing on breath and bandha.

5. Do wait for Sharath. Because it hurts a whole lot more if his mother, or one of the assistants do it.

6. Don’t practice on the stage. Unless you have a beautiful practice, avoid placing your mat on the stage at all costs. One hundred yogis will be watching you, and inevitably you’ll topple over in utthita hasta padangusthasana.

7. Do follow the count in the Friday and Sunday led class. Sharath doesn’t like it when you rush. It might be difficult, but it’ll make your self-practice so much better. Oh, remember in these led classes to pace yourself. If you jump back on the very first surya namaskar, you’ll never make it to utpluthih an hour-and-a-half later.

8. Don’t ask for a new posture. I saw people ask for the next posture in many different ways. Some people asked flat out. Some people delayed starting their backbends in the hope Sharath will bestow upon them pasasana, and the start of second series. Others got up off their mat, walked across the Shala to Sharath, and demand kapotasana. The answer is always the same: No. Sharath gives a new posture only when he deems you’re ready.

Practiced Finished. Now What?

Practice in Mysore starts as early as 4:30 (yes, a.m.) with staggered practices that begin every hour, wrapping up at around 9 a.m. That leaves the rest of the day to . . . well yes, therein lies the rub.

Breakfast is a very social event. Sort of like cocktail hour, only without the vodka. Ergo less fun, especially when it’s vegan Muesli on the menu.

Luckily, I stayed at Anokhi Gardens, which is renowned for its breakfasts. There are spinach omelettes, a coconut-dusted fruit salad, homemade porridge and more. It’s all really quite good (aside from the absence of sausage on the menu, which infuriated my 3-year-old: “What about bacon? Is there bacon?”)

After a leisurely breakfast it was always a tough choice between swimming at a hotel pool, reading your Kindle, napping off the early start or watching a movie on the iPads that almost everyone carried around.

Several afternoons I ventured to the Regalis where the real yoga happens.

There was a cohort of hot, young Russians who liked to clamber up on the fountain ledge of the hotel pool and throw some shapes. Specifically yoga shapes, done wearing skimpy bikinis. I saw trikonasana, parsvakonasana, (partner) navasana, gomukhasana and virabhadrasana. Not particularly advanced postures, (well they were practicing on a wet, narrow ledge), but then it’s not about the yoga for them.

It’s about looking hot. They knew they were hot, so much so that they would take pictures of their hotness. (It seemed only polite that I take a photo of one Russian hottie taking a photo of the other Russian hottie.)

When the young and beautiful tire of topping off their tans, they head to the Coconut Stand—a dump located on the corner of the Gokulum high street.

And yet the Coconut Stand is not without its charms. In the late afternoon it heaves with yogis, rebalancing their electrolytes for 15 rupees (less than 50 cents). People sip coconut juice straight from the source, hacked open with impressive precision. They trade shala gossip. They talk about who got a new pose. Who has recently been authorized. How far Sharath pulled them into a backbend.

So while there’s not much choice when it comes to things to do in Mysore, there is even less choice when it comes to topic of conversation.



And yoga.

You find yourself going slightly mad in Mysore—one old-timer told me that if I recognized that, then the yoga was really working. But stay too long, and you find yourself saying neurotic sh*t like:

What colour leggings should I wear tomorrow for the most auspicious practice?

I grabbed ankles with Sharath today. It was so awesome.

I just can’t aspirate my Sanskrit consonants properly.

My mat is my sacred space. Please don’t step on it.

If I have any hope of binding in pasasana tomorrow morning, I’m not eating anything after 3 pm today.

My practice is less asana-based these days, and more meditation-based.

I find I get maximum rotation of my hip joint when my femur is bent between 80 and 83 degrees in janu sirsasana A.

I’ve been here four weeks and still haven’t gotten a new pose!”



Genny has been practicing yoga since 2000, and started teaching it when the births of four boys in six years side-swiped her career as a journalist for the likes of Reuters and Time Magazine. She teaches Ashtanga and Vinyasa Flow, and recently started the charity “CalmaKid” which brings yoga to children in underprivileged London schools.



Editor: Thaddeus Haas

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