A still river spirit
“Do you know what the word “yoga” means?” my teacher asks me, sitting directly across from me in the Yogashala hall, in the lively crowded part of Mysore. Old Mysore, close to the famous palace.
There are no trendy-yoga-pants-wearing, starbucks-in-hand, gucci-handbag-toting ladies here. For our evening session, 6-8 women come after work, wearing their saris. Donning our sweatpants and t-shirts, we begin the evening practice.
On Saturdays, the ladies don’t come. It’s a coveted time of spending time with their children, resting from work. But Kanchen, my teacher, kindly meets with me one-on-one. I’m glad she does, because this whole Ashtanga yoga thing is very new to me.
The first day when I try to follow along with the other women, I make a lot of mistakes. Something crunches in my tailbone area, the sharp jolt of pain reminding me that I can harm myself trying to keep up with everyone else.
I’ll need to ease into this new practice, my 22-year old body an old soul, more akin to that of a 50-year old human.
To answer Kanchen’s question, I spout out something I’ve heard before: “yoga is a practice that unites the body, mind, and spirit.”
“And…?” she questions. I’m drawing a blank. “And a higher power? The universe?” No, she laughs. I like this teaching method. It feels like I’m being shown up by a wise guru who easily dispatches of me in a martial-arts battle of words. Not in a hurtful way, but in a way that teaches me humility, and more importantly, curiosity.
What is the point of asanas (yoga postures) anyway? What is the point of yoga? First thing that came to my mind was physical health, but our discussion quickly leads me to see that this is just a by-product of yoga practice. It’s not the point.
Yoga, Kanchen explained, means “link.” It links four things: breathing, posture, gaze, and stamina (being able to hold position with comfortable stability). In sitting meditation, we focus on our breathing. Yoga is a form of meditation in which you pay attention to these four elements together. Definitely not an easy task!
So the purpose? The same as meditation. Kanchen referred to it as learning to recognize the “super soul” present within each of us. The higher power isn’t outside of us, it is simply within. We are already enlightened, we just have to realize this, a Zen Buddhist might say.
Yoga, with all of its various branches, is but a means to an end. The ultimate end, then, is for us to connect with our “super soul,” our inner Buddha, the God of Love within us. Humans have many words and guises for this phenomenon, but in the end, it is all the same experience, I believe. The mystic experience can’t be divided by the boundaries of religions.
It’s now been almost two weeks since I’ve moved to Mysore. Serendipitously, a friend I made at the Dr. Alan Wallace conference in Bangalore had introduced me to one of her dear friends in Mysore. This kind and loving family has taken me in, and I’ve been staying with them ever since leaving Cochin.
Each morning, Dolly and I get off to an early start at 5:30 am. We take an early morning moped ride to Audrey’s home (Dolly’s sister), moving quickly through the still-dark and crisp morning air.
Though the building’s stairwell is dark, an inviting warm light emanating from under Audrey’s door greets us. Inside, Audrey and Paul (a kind and wise yoga teacher friend from Ireland) have already taken their places on yoga mats. Sneaking in a few minutes late, we sheepishly sit down and Paul begins to lead our 6 am yoga class.
The early morning Yoga team: Paul, Audrey, little Ava, me (+Dolly)
After a restorative cup of green tea, Paul and I leave to travel to the Yogashala, yoga mats and multiple bags somehow tucked onto a moped already carrying two people.
I love the early morning hours marking the beginning of a new day in India. Lots of people commute to work on their mopeds and motorcycles, children dressed in school uniforms laugh together in small groups, street vendors prepare their vegetable and fruit carts, cows nonchalantly walk on the roads, grazing on grass and (unfortunately) some piles of garbage. Once, I saw a small group of monkeys making their way along the street.
A small street in the old Mysore neighborhood near my Yogashala
The Yogashala’s garden
I’ve convinced Kanchen, my yoga teacher, to meet with me one-on-one in the mornings, as the evening session turned out to be too advanced for a beginner like me. Kanchen is very knowledgeable and shares insights into yoga philosophy with me in addition to introducing me to the asanas.
Later, at 11, I join the students enrolled in the teacher training course at the Yogashala for Pranayama lessons. Pranayama is a practice of controlling the breath. Deep, controlled, very slow breathing stimulates the body to produce more red blood cells – Kanchen’s scientific explanation for the practice. More blood cells means more oxygen delivered to all of the body’s tissues, which results in increased strength and health.
Chant studies with Jayashree and Narasimhan (last row, middle). My yoga teachers, Kanchen and Paul (front row, woman wearing purple sari, man wearing white).
The course in Pranayama is taught by Guruji BNS Iyengar, a revered teacher.
Once the Pranayama course ends, I catch an auto rickshaw to ‘I Can’ – a wonderful and ambitious Montessori school founded by Audrey and Dolly. In addition to yoga, I’m also volunteering as a teacher. I’ve started working with the 40 lively young souls in I Can’s kindergarten class – an exhilarating, rewarding, and exhausting experience.
This deserves a post all to itself, and I hope to share with you how my efforts at integrating mindfulness games into the classroom go! For now, I’ve shared what a typical day in Mysore is like for me. Not to say there is anything like a typical day here, but just to share a glimpse. 🙂
“I Can” kindergarten learns about Rome, dresses as the most adorable army of Roman soldiers you’ve ever seen