Let me first be honest with you, I am new to Ashtanga yoga. And by new I mean I have known of its existence for a long time, but have only began to seriously focus my practice on this lineage for less than a year collectively. Prior to that, my personal practice including the initial 200-hour Teacher’s Training were somewhat influenced by Ashtanga but the true form of this practice itself was a huge mystery to me.
In mid-2014, Saraswathi Jois, the daughter of the late Shri K. Pattabhi Jois who created the systemic sequences of Ashtanga yoga came to Malaysia for a visit. It was in the Temple of Fine Arts in Brickfields that I first met this warm luminous woman whom I now respectfully identify as my teacher. That single encounter kick-started my plans of visiting India, a place I always knew I would be visiting but could not quite decide on which yoga school or lineage of yoga practice that I would commit to.
India, being the ‘motherland’ and birthplace of Yoga has also hundreds and thousands of well-established yoga schools and this can turn out to be a very confusing ordeal when deciding on a yoga school to deepen my yoga practice. Eventually, at the end of September I found myself at the steps of Shri K. Pattabhi Jois Ashtanga Yoga Institute (KPJAYI) in Mysore where I was to spend a month practicing Ashtanga yoga under the watchful eyes of Saraswathi 6 times a week.
Mysore City & Gokulam
A lot of people I spoke to prior to my flight to India seem to have their own reservations towards the country especially around the topic of hygiene and safety. The only ones that do have positive things to say were those who have been to the country before.
“Please boil the water there before you even do anything with it, my mom told me her friend’s son came back with a fungal infection because of the water”, was the wise advice of a close friend right before I left for the airport.
The cacophony of colors, people, unique culture and local habits certainly can be a huge surprise to the uninitiated. Mysore city is the third largest city in the state of Karnataka located South of India. With a population of just under 1 million, Mysore is well known for its grand Mysore palace and exquisite heirloom Mysore silk.
Within this town sits a peaceful neighbourhood known as Gokulam. Endless streams of serious Ashtanga practitioners arrive each year since 2002 (the school was previously located in Lakshmipuram, a nearby neighbourhood) to study under the watchful eye of Shri K Pattabhi Jois, or Guruji as he was fondly known amongst his students then. Upon his passing in 2009, his grandson Sharath Jois and daughter, Saraswathi Jois continued teaching his method of yoga.
The Ashtanga lineage consists of Mysore and Led type of classes. Mysore classes are practiced typically 4 to 5 times a week. It involves the student arriving at the shala or school at a designated time, rolling out his or her mat and practicing the sequences that the teacher has given them at their own pace. From the perspective of an outsider, an ongoing session can appear to be chaotic as everyone is performing different poses at any given time without a teacher at the front of the class to guide them along.
As a beginner, you would start with Sun Salutations A & B after which you will move through the Primary series (there are 6 series in total within the Ashtanga practice) according to the poses that are given to you by your teacher. You are supposed to memorise the poses and to repeat this sequence daily until the teacher feels you are ready for the next pose as each movement performed helps to build the necessary strength and flexibility for subsequent poses.
In Saraswathi’s Mysore classes, she can be seen weaving in between the mats together with her assistant helping the students into a specific pose that each of them may be working on. Students begin to arrive from 4:30 am with the last few trickling in around 7 am. At any point of time, there are easily 30 – 40 students practicing at the same time. The room is completely silent except for the audible sound of students breathing through their asanas. Occasionally Saraswathi can be heard calling out to a student from across the room “You, wait!” as she finishes adjusting one student and moves on to the next one. Or on the rare times she will ask “You, what you do??” referring to the last asana that the student has performed in their practice. She would only ever ask this if she intends to give you a new pose in your next class.
There is a certain kind of energy that can be felt from living and practicing close to your teacher for an extended period of time. Additionally, being surrounded by others who are as committed to the practice as you are brings a different perspective to your own practice. Intense discussions of how to get into a certain postures can easily be heard in restaurants and cafes frequented by KPJAYI students, though this is certainly not a daily occurrence.
A typical day for someone who is enrolled to study with Sharath or Saraswathi Jois would start very early in the morning. Depending on the time slot that you are given during registration (earliest is 4:30am and latest is around 7:30am) one would wake up about 1 hour before to prepare for class. There is this thing called ‘shala time’ which I learned on the day that I arrived. In his effort to ensure students arrive on time for their practice, Sharath has purposely set the clock to be 15 minutes earlier than normal. So if you were given a practice slot of 4:30am you are expected to be standing outside of the practice hall by 4:15am. Failure to do so would normally result in that poor student being questioned about his or her tardiness. In a room where only the breath of other practicing students can be heard, you do not want to be the one on the receiving end of those questions.
A Mysore style practice can range anywhere from 1 hour to 2 hours. This again depends on the person’s practice. The beauty of a Mysore style Ashtanga practice is that it allows the student to practice as his or her own pace with no concerns about what the next person in front of them is doing. Personally, I feel this has taught me to draw all my attention to what is happening on my own mat rather than being busy looking at what other people are doing on theirs.
Students of Sharath and Saraswathi practice at different shalas, which are really Indian style houses with a large hall. Outside of each shalas, there is an Indian man waiting beside a heap of young coconuts. He would expertly whack away with his machete to reveal the sweet, fresh and heavenly coconut water. After being in a room packed with other breathing, sweaty ashtangis, being out in the cool morning air and enjoying nature’s sweet gift really makes you feel like life is as perfect as it can be right there at that very moment.
For the rest of the day, you are free to do as you please. During this time, some would choose to continue working on their daily job off-site away from home, while others would choose to spend it as they are on a vacation, relaxing by a hidden swimming pool in a resort of a neighbouring location or visiting temples around the area. Apart from the 1-2 hours spent in the morning, life goes on as normal. Irrespective of how anyone chooses to spend their day, there is one thing that is true of Mysore, time slows down to a pleasant pace that is rarely felt when you are so used to living in a busy city like Kuala Lumpur.
The day ends early for almost all serious ashtangis. Because many who come here arrive with the purpose to solely focus on deepening their existing yoga practice, they plan their life in such a way that ensures a strong practice on their mat the next morning. Those with an early shala time would retire to bed by 7:30pm (the sun sets around 5:30pm in this town during the time I was there). The houses around Gokulam usually assumes a quiet and almost eery silence by 8pm.
When I first decided on spending a month practicing with Saraswathi in Mysore, my only intentions were to deepen my own Ashtanga practice and experience the ‘Mysore magic’ that many Ashtangis speak or write about before. I had no expectations beyond that. I wanted to see and live amongst the people in this celebrated town and find out what the big deal was all about.
Before I left, I had read a post from a well-known Ashtangi who mentioned the feeling of practicing so close to your teacher, in the town where it all first started leaves her pain free. Existing aches and physical pain that were present in her practice back at home seems to disappear in Mysore. Your practice advances must faster than when you are anywhere else. And I had subsequently wondered if I would be feeling these differences too.
Now that I am back home, I can vouch to the same exact feelings. It is not that there was any apparent magic that occurs while I am there and certainly, neither I nor anyone else that practiced alongside me in the shala ever levitated and flew off their mat either. What I can vouch for was the feeling of lightness as each posture takes its form and transition into the next. Yes there were still challenges, and physical limitations but it was rarely coupled with any sort of discomfort which promptly returns now that I am home. I attribute this to the energy shared by practicing alongside those who attend the shala and their sincere commitment to the practice.
There is definitely a kind of magic to be experienced here, the kind that pulls those who practices Ashtanga yoga back to this place every single year. It gives life to the neighborhood and vibrancy to the town, without which I believe, would make Gokulam and even Mysore an entirely different place to what it is today. As for me, well let’s just I am making my own plans to return for a longer stay next year.