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Mysore Diary 2008

No Sleep Til Mysore: Kali Om’s Fifth Trip to Study Ashtanga in India, Part One

Read the Yoga Chicago version (with photos) here.

Click here for Part II.

I felt like I had to go to Mysore after seeing Pattabhi Jois at the opening of his new Florida shala last May. The 93-year-old looked frail after his long illness, and I wanted to see him one last time in India. I had a small window between coursework and graduation from Dharma Mittra’s teacher training, and I decided to go for a month this summer.

Day one

I arrived on my birthday at the brand-new Benglaru International Airport. The plane was delayed because of the nine explosions in Bangalore yesterday. Before undertaking the four-hour drive to Mysore, my local friend Ammu and I had breakfast with Chicago Ashtanga teacher Terri Smith, who is completing the long process of adopting a baby from Mysore.

While driving to Mysore, we picked up a garland of fresh jasmine. I wanted to place it around the Ganesh statue on the dashboard, but it was too late. “You have already smelled the flowers,” said Ammu. Already I am doing things wrong here.

In Mysore there was more traffic than ever, and my room at the Kaveri Lodge now has a TV. I was in a jetlagged fog when I got a text message from Ammu: “Pls see towards chamundi hil rainbow u can see.” I went to the roof and looked towards Chamundi Hill. There was indeed a HUGE rainbow. What a lovely birthday gift.

In the evening, I called down to the lobby to ask for a top sheet. The manager frowned with worry as he handed it to me.

“Why looking so dull today, Madame?”

No birthday could possibly have been more complete.

Day two

This morning I awakened disoriented. Why am I here? Isn’t it selfish to keep coming back to Mysore? But then I called down for chai and drank some lemon water and sniffed the air and realized that I'm exactly where I should be right now.

At 4 p.m. I went to the shala to register. Guruji (Pattabhi Jois) was behind his desk, glowing. I tried to chat with him as I answered Guruji’s grandson Sharath’s questions about when I sent in my application letter (you must now mail it two months ahead) and handed him 27,530 rupees (around $650). It’s been raining all day, and Guruji laughed when I said, “Jasti malay” (“Lots of rain”). It was so good to see him.

Afterwards there was a conference led by Sharath (Guruji was nowhere to be seen). Here’s some of what he said:

When you do this practice, you build strength. But it’s not like the strength you build at the gym. It’s internal strength. The body becomes very light, but strong. It purifies the system, healing the body and mind. The mind is very important. If the mind is not healthy, you cannot do anything.

If your teacher does not have the correct foundation, how is he able to teach students? Faith is important. Some people come for six years, create their own kind of yoga and put their name on it. The shastras (ancient Hindu texts) do not say that. It’s important to follow the yamas and niyamas (ethical roots). You practice yoga as a spiritual practice, not in order to become a teacher. Yoga should be like eating every day; it should be like. . . without yoga you cannot survive.

There is only one goal of yoga--to realize what we are, to become enlightened, to connect with the supreme god, the supreme self. If not in this lifetime, then maybe the next if the karma is good. The body is like a set of clothes, but the soul does not die. Do good in this life so the quality of your next life is better.

Then he spoke about the Sri K. Pattabhi Jois Charitable Trust, which raised 170,000 rupees at Guruji’s birthday party last week.

Day three

Everything hurt when I awakened at 4 a.m.--everything.

I rode to the shala in a downpour and parked the scooter.

After a half hour wait in the lobby, I entered the shala--which has that mildewy, overripe monsoon smell.

I was like the Tin Man working his way through the primary series. I haven’t had a practice like this in eons. But I did it.

I did not see Guruji.

After five rickety backbends, I did the counterpose and made my way to the frigid ladies room to do the closing sequence.

Seen in and around the shala: Zoe-from-NY, Peter and Jude-from-New Zealand, Eddie Stern and family, Wendy and Chris-from-Florida and their girls and David and Simi Roche.

I was driving home in a jetlagged haze after breakfast when I saw a policeman in khakis and white cowboy hat gesturing towards me. “Oh no,” I thought. “Ticket time.”

Apparently you can no longer use your home driver’s license (DL) in Mysore but now must have an international DL. The fine was Rs 300 (around $7.50)--and they can pull me over every day until I leave.

After lunch I went down for a nap--and ended up sleeping until 7 p.m. The body felt like crap; there was no energy, and the stomach was not happy.

Day four

Today the body was more flexible during practice, although the stomach was a mess. All students do primary series during their first week at the shala, and since it consists almost entirely of forward bends, I worked hard in each upward-facing dog. It paid off during backbends. After the fifth, Sharath came over to adjust the person next to me, and I did three fairly smooth (for me) dropbacks on my own. Sharath helped me with the final sequence.

After practice I had two tender coconuts. Beck, the coconut wallah, says there are 200 people here.

Later I did some final shopping at Loyal World--where I fell while going up the stairs. I must remember to slow down here--especially during Jet Lag Week.

In the evening I showed some local friends pictures of Guruji at the new Florida shala. It was fun until one of them said, “Forgive me for asking, but if you are single and have no children, who will take care of you when you grow old?”

She suggested I marry and have just one child.

“But I'm too old,” I protested.

“A woman who is 64 just gave birth. You can too.”

Her sister chimed in, “Madonna had hers at 44, 45.”

I love India.

Here anything is possible.

Day six

Yesterday I got some magic loose motion tablets from the pharmacist, and today I felt better during led primary series practice. Sharath’s count was slow and even, but I did not recognize a single other student. Either the place is full of newbies, or I'm out of the loop.

Sharath did part of the class while sitting in a small chair behind Guruji’s thronelike chair on the center of the stage. It was oddly symbolic; the empty chair, the small one behind it. Then Sharath’s daughter came in, hugged him and plopped down in Guruji’s chair.

After coconuts, Kathy and I researched the Balaji Temple we want to visit. She’s staying in Saraswati’s old house, which now has wireless Internet.

Janice, Stephen and I went to Sandhya’s for lunch in the old neighborhood. Afterwards we went for a walk. The old shala looks abandoned--although Guruji’s pujari (priest) and his family live there.

Day eight

Today Janice, Stephen and I went to the Tibetan settlement, Bylakuppe. Both times I’ve gone before, we’d gotten a flat tire. Now, the road is like new.

There were many signs protesting the Beijing Olympics and very few visitors. We spent most of our time in the temples, sitting and soaking in the devotional ambience.

Back in Mysore, the restaurants were closed. So I ended up going to the upscale Southern Star Hotel and reading in the newspaper about today’s solar eclipse. Apparently it’s inauspicious to eat or go out during one. No wonder everything’s deserted.

Day ten

I’ve been trying to visit a temple a day--usually the Ramakrishna Temple or the small Venkateswara Temple behind the Kaveri Lodge.

Day 11

Before led class today, Sharath rearranged the chairs on the stage and led the opening chant. Then Saraswati (Guruji’s daughter, Sharath’s mother) stepped up and began leading the class. She sat on Guruji’s throne, just inches from my mat.

Later I went to conference, where some recipients of Guruji’s foundation talked about their work. Midway through their talk, Guruji appeared. He seemed rather spry, and looked out over the group and smiled. I kept sneaking glances at him and doing the guru mantra in my head--and smiling.

Later we were able to go up to him and pay our respects. THIS is what I came to Mysore for.

After touching his feet, I said “Toomba santosh,” which means something like “I’m so happy.”

He seemed to recognize me. “Your birthday?” he asked.

“Last week,” I said. “26 July.” (Guruji was also born on July 26, 1915, a full moon, and celebrates on the moon day rather than the date.) “Same as you. Same-same.”

Guruji smiled widely. “Oh, good good,” he replied.

I was smiling so hard my face hurt.

Day 12

Today was my first day of doing intermediate poses at the shala. I finish with kapotasana, an intense kneeling backbend where the hands are meant to clasp the heels. My hands have yet to touch the feet without assistance. Today Sharath told me to keep straightening my arms as he brought them towards my feet. Next thing I knew, they were grabbing my arches.

“Wow,” I said when I came up.

“Now stretching,” he replied.

Indeed. Parts of the body that haven’t moved since birth are now waking up.

Then I slapped my left arm a few times. It was numb.

And I thought, This is what I came to Mysore for.

Day 13

As Sharath was helping me in kapotasana, I realized I could use the fingers to get a better grip on the feet, so the hands don’t slip. Later Saraswati tried to help me in backbends, but Sharath shooed her away.

In the afternoon I went to see Sachin, the tailor. As he was taking my measurements he said, “You have lost some kilos since last year.” Now that's what I came to India for.

Day 14

Today the hotel’s former night manager took me to lunch. He now has a car and a moustache and a wife and a son. We ran into his swami, who pointed at my neck and said, “Krishna.” I thought he was referring to my “Om” pendant. Later I realized he was referring to my tulsi (sacred basil leaf) mala, which is worn by followers of Krishna.

Day 15

Before practice I went to hear the 7 a.m. chanting at the Ramakrishna Temple.

During practice, Saraswati got to me first in kapotasana. My hands touched the toes for a bit, and then jumped off. Oh, well.

Day 16

I went again to hear the chanting before class.

When I arrived at the shala, Saraswati was on the steps. “Five minutes rest,” she explained. “Only five minutes?” I asked. She works hard--especially when you consider that she is nearly 67. I also caught a glimpse of Sharath’s young son.

Today there were even fewer students in the waiting area, which means that more people are leaving. Sharath switched me to 6 a.m. for self-practice, and 4:45 p.m. for led class.

On my second solo attempt at kapotasana, my right fingertips touched something soft and strange. Then the left fingertips experienced a similar sensation. I was touching my own toes! Without help. For the first time ever.

Then I heard Sharath say, “Straight arms.” He got the hands almost to the heels. Almost.

Afterwards, I smiled broadly and told him “First time catching toes.” There was no sensation in either arm.

He said, “You take heels.”

“Coming,” I said.

Because here, sometimes, anything seems possible.

Click here for Part II.