Monday, April 3, 2017

Yoga in Mysore: What I Love about It, What I Hate about It.

Mysore, top destination to practice yoga in India

I've just spend four amazing months in Mysore, one of the top destinations to practice yoga in India. I feel I've learned much more compared to my previous visits, but to be honest, although I'm already thinking about coming back, there are still things about Mysore that sometimes gets me a bit irritated.

Let's not talk about asanas, please.

When I hear some of my friends talking about their marīchyāsana, their bhuja pīdāsana or "their jump back and jump through," I just feel like covering my ears and say at loud, "Please stop, my ears hurt!" Even if we don't want to talk about asanas sometimes the conversation will inevitably end there.

It's that obsession over the asanas, the physical yoga postures, that frustrates me and confuses me, as if this is what is important in yoga. Of course, everybody in Mysore knows this, yoga is not about body postures, yet we all seem to constantly forget about it.

I know I'm perhaps a bit too traditional or conservative. Before visiting Mysore I had spend a lot of time in different ashrams in India practicing every aspect of yoga, not just asanas. Even when I first started to practice yoga in Ecuador it was like this. I started my path at an ashram where the focus was meditation.

It was after visiting Mysore for the first time that I became familiar with the Western style of yoga, where the emphasis is mainly on the body postures. I had no idea it was like that, but as I continued researching more about asanas it became obvious to me.

I was very naive. When I thought of yoga before, the body postures was the last thing that would come to my mind. Instead I would think only of the life of the Himalayan yogis. Now, even when I search for other yoga blogs I realize that they all talk mainly about asanas.

After my first long visit to Mysore back in 2013 I wrote in, "Yoga in Mysore, it's Madness!" that Mysore doesn't feel like a spiritual place to me. This is just my perception of course, but I still feel in the same way.

I explained in my blog:

"Why is that I wonder? My guess is that it is because of the nature of the practice. Most people come here for the physical aspects of yoga, and in particularly to practice the ashtanga vinyasa yoga method, which in my perspective is a very activating and stimulating practice, a solar practice.

While in other places that I've been in India the energy feels as if it is directed within, in Mysore I felt that it is directed outside, instead of introversion there is extroversion, instead becoming calm and peaceful there is more agitation, more restlessness."

I'm not saying this is a bad thing, actually this is one of the reasons why I love to be in Mysore. I love that extroversion, I love that social yoga. I've met in Mysore some of the most beautiful people in the world, friends with whom we share so much in common.

There is so much love, so much openness, so many great friendships to be discovered in Mysore. I feel so grateful for all those beautiful connections and for the countless unforgettable experiences. I think this is also really important in the yogic path.

What I find irritating is that obsession for the yoga postures. Why is it so important to be able to do a perfect vinyasa or to put your leg behind your head?

Learning real yoga at the feet of the masters

However this last visit has been much more profound for me compared to my previous visits. I feel I have learned so much through different experiences, specially through the new interviews that I did recently with some of the local yoga teachers.

I've realized that although we, the yoga students, might sometimes forget about the goal, or perhaps confuse the vehicle with the goal, the teachers do remember it constantly.

In the interview that I had with Masterji he said that modern day ashtanga yoga has no meaning at all. When I asked him what is missing, he replied:

"Everything of yoga is missing. Basically when you want to do yoga mind should be controlled. Where is the control of the mind? And it is an internal experience. We have to experience what is happening. It is not a show business.

It is not a show, "Oh I'm doing this, I can do that, I can do this. How he is learning I should also do." This is not in yoga. People think that this is yoga."

Later on when talking about hatha yoga he said:

"Hatha is not body. It is not the vigorous movement of the body. Hatha means that you achieve without caring for the obstacles, or facing the obstacles you keep practicing until you achieve your goal. We have that determination. That determination comes under hatha.

Understand? There is a very strong determination. You want to do one thing but you cannot do smoothly. There are so many obstacles. Somebody brings a thought disturbance, he will be distracted. Conquering all those things, what you want to do you keep doing. That is hatha."

I find Masterji's words so refreshing and inspiring.

On another occasion I had the opportunity to attend a conference with the living legend BNS Iyengar. I love the answer that guruji gave to one of the students questions, which I shared in my Instagram:


"Asanas are just there to purify the body. You gotta go to the goal, God. The body is like the cooking vessel. First you wash the vessel, but then you still need to cook the vegetables, and then eat the food. After you discard the vessel. Clean the vessel with asanas and then cook the vegetables with pranayama, and go towards the goal." BNS Iyengar

That says it all. Doesn't it?


Transformation only happens when we struggle

Even during my ashtanga vinyasa yoga practice with my teacher Vijay Kumar I've been learning so much, and I'm not talking just about body postures.

I've been dealing with body inflammation for almost two years, which causes me sometimes a lot of pain in my joints and muscles, and it makes me feel very weak.

Many times I've felt like giving up, and a few times I did, when I didn't come to practice because of my pains. Vijay however has never stopped encouraging me to continue practicing. I will never forget his words:

"Transformation doesn't happen when we are comfortable, it happens only when we experience discomfort. You have to go through the pain. Don't skip practice, do what you can."

He is not talking about ignoring the pain but rather working with it and through it, as he has repeatedly told me.

One thing that I love about Vijay is that he has not even for a moment suggested that the cause of my physical problems is physical.

He has being very clear that body conditions are always related to the mental state. In a conversation that I had with him by text message, while I was once more ready to give up, he wrote to me (this is very personal but I feel it is important to share it):

"Dear Marco, I understand your condition, and I do feel it. But always there are two ways to overcome it, stopping completely or going through it. I do not advice any of these, I let you choose. But if I was in your situation I would go through, because I know before the pain leaves it becomes more. But of course, different people different perspective. It always works according to individual mental status."

Believe me, it's not been easy at all. Sometimes my body feel as if I were a complete beginner, and 90 years old! Many times I wouldn't even been able to walk to do a vinyasa. I had instead to crawl.

Yoga without mindfulness is not yoga

But this experience is also teaching me to go deeper within during my practice, feeling every corner of my body, observing the physical pains while maintaining a slow and steady breath, remaining completely relaxed and using some visualization techniques.

This kind of mindfulness during the practice is not new to me, since I have a classical hatha yoga formation. Right from the beginning my teachers has always made emphasis on mindfulness of the body, mind and breath, remembering that the movements start with the breath.

Indeed, yoga without mindfulness is not yoga, and anything practiced with mindfulness becomes yoga. This body pains are just teaching me to practice with a lot more mindfulness like I never did before.

Vijay has also encouraged me to practice with more awareness, and more recently also Yogacharya Venkatesha, with whom I was able to practice three weeks just before he left to Europe.

I felt really inspired during the interview with Yogacharya Venkatesha, a classical hatha yoga teacher in Mysore. He also knows by personal experience that true transformation happens only when we struggle.

I was lucky that things worked out in a way that I had the chance to practice yoga at least three weeks with him before he left. I learned a lot during these three weeks but I realized that my yoga practice was already influenced by him just by talking with him during the interview.

I liked what he said to me in one class, "That kind of strength last for a day or two if you stop training, but I want you to develop that strength that stays with you no matter what." I asked him, "But, how do I get that strength?" and he replied, "That's what I'm training you for."

Connecting with the roots of yoga

Another wonderful experience that I had during this visit which really enriched my stay in Mysore, and made it feel more "spiritual" like never before, was listening during the day to the audiobook of the Mahabharata (Amazon affiliate link).

The Mahabharata is one of India's greatest Epic. It's like the bible for Hinduism, but please don't think that this is a religious book. There is a lot of symbolism and a lot of yoga teachings included in the many stories in the book.

The Mahabharata tells the story of the Kuru dynasty and the great Kurukshetra (the mind-body field) war that took place between the Kauravas (the negative tendencies of the mind) and the Pandavas (the positive tendencies of the mind).

Right before the war started, right in the middle of the battlefield, Sri Krishna (the Supreme Consciousness) taught Arjuna (the individual consciousness) the real meaning of yoga. This dialogue that Krishna had with Arjuna, which is all about yoga, is called the Bhagavad Gita.

I've read the Bhagavad Gita multiple times, but listening to the Mahabharata really expended my understanding and appreciation of this sacred text.

I felt really inspired to listen to the stories of the Mahabharata during the day. I mainly listened to it while I was cooking my meals, or sometimes in the evenings when I would go for a walk in a park nearby.

Then the next mornings, while I would be practicing ashtanga yoga at Vijay's shala, I would practice right in front or rather at the feet of the portrait of Krishna. So I was feeling pretty much inspired during the whole day.

Vijay Kumar Yoga Shala
My favorite sport at Vijay Kumar's yoga shala


As I was doing my ashtanga practice some days I was able to feel as if each sun salutation was a prostration to Krishna, the Supreme Consciousness present within each one of us. My whole practice was dedicated to Krishna.

So beautiful, so powerful. I wasn't able to keep that kind of awareness everyday, but when I did it felt so good.

All these experiences have helped me to connect more with my sadhana, my spiritual practice, to return to my path, something that I felt I had taken some distance from since the first time I came to Mysore. I guess I've also become a bit too obsessed with asanas.

Can one place be more spiritual than another?

I know that if I feel irritated by that obsession for the yoga asanas that I sometimes come across in Mysore, or if I feel empty by the lack of a spiritual connection, it is mainly because of my own perception, and it also depends on what I do with my time.

I should perhaps remember more often Swami Satyananda's words:

"There is no noise in the world, there is no peace in the Himalayas, both are within you."

But I can't ignore my own personal experience. Throughout my travels I've many times become aware of the influence that the energy of any particular place can have in my mental and emotional state.

I felt an undeniable strong connection last year when I visited Kolkata for a couple of weeks to volunteer at Mother Theresa's Mission, and I think anybody who has been in Tiruvanamalai will agree that this is one of the most powerful places in India.

What do you think?

Yoga asanas are just the tip of the iceberg

I do feel inspired by the dedication of all the yogis who come to Mysore from all around the world to practice ashtanga yoga, me included.

People in Mysore wake up religiously way before the sunrise, six days a week, to practice yoga intensively for about two hours, regardless of how tired they might feel, regardless of the weather, regardless of their aches and pains.

That discipline, that dedication, that fire, that is also yoga.

Yoga asanas are just the tip of the iceberg, there is much more to yoga than just asanas. To me yoga is to be practiced 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year.

But I'll keep practicing yoga asanas regularly not only because it feels great, but also because it is through discipline that we can develop a strong will.

Yoga is mental training, not body training, but we can use the gross manifestation of prana, the body, to train the subtlest manifestation of prana, the mind.

Making the body strong and flexible is actually making the mind strong and flexible. Purifying and freeing the body from toxins is purifying the mind.

I don't need to put the leg behind my head to say that I'm doing yoga, but I'll keep trying because by overcoming the limitations of the body one can overcome the limitations of the mind.

And let's not forget that yoga is a moving meditation.

By moving the body from one pose to the next with full awareness and concentration, finding those moments of stillness in between poses, the mind itself becomes quiet and still. It is through these moments of complete focus and inner stillness that we enter a meditative state.

So this has been my personal experience in Mysore during these four months.

There was actually a lot more going on within. Besides practicing ashtanga yoga and enjoying some social yoga, I've also spent a lot of time in introspection and contemplation with the help of my spiritual journal.

One of the reasons why I'm writing this blog post is to express what was in my head during this time, so that I can let go of judgement, and also as a reminder to myself: Yoga is not about the body, it's all about mastering the mind.

What is your opinion?

11 comments:

  1. It's beautifully written. I once came across a passage written by BNS Iyengar that always struck me as critical to the practice. I was browsing in a bookstore in Mysore and opened a book with the first passage on the first page stating:

    "Practice as if you do not have a body."

    I really had to think about that and re-read it several times. The contradiction of this line is what hit me the most. How do you practice as if you are not a body? I think, most of us come to yoga practicing yoga with all our various pains, injuries, set-backs and such and are looking for that one remedy to fix the problem of our body. However, as you learn to practice more often and consistently, you find that yes, it is not about the body alone. The body is one small part of it.

    But at the same time, we need the body to even begin; to take the first step along the path. To have some kind of practice (in whatever form or shape that might take) the body is essential. I think this is probably one of the most difficult things to discuss as ultimately all these experiences are beyond mere words. It is a very deep, authentic and personal to each individual on their journey. But to reach even for a second the profound feeling or understanding that indeed we are not this body, is the corner of real yoga. The teachings of yoga speak of this glimmer of hope all the time. It is up to us to practice and to believe.

    And what all those hours on the mat (whether alone or in a class) were essentially leading up to.

    Heather

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    1. Thanks so much for sharing Heather! I agree with all your words and I love that quote that you share. So powerful, isn't it? I think you were probably referring to BKS Iyengar though, instead of BNS Iyengar ;-)

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  2. I do completely agree. Have been in Mysore 3 times already, studied with BNS IYENGAR, then 2nd time with Ramesh Sheety because he is a very good asana teacher and i wanted to learn intermediate. That year he was teaching a wonderful class that was called Hatha Ashtanga, very powerful and inspiring. This practice gave me a whole new vocabulary to adapt my everyday practice to what I need, physically and spiritually. Last November I continued with Rameshji, but my real classes where I could sens joie, spirituality and deep understanding of human nature were with Jayashree and Narasimhan, sanskrit, Sutra singing and philosophie, I felt deeply grateful to this wonderful people for heir magnificent teachings. Om Shanti So long Mysore������ Eva Luna, Paris

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    1. Beautiful Eva, thanks for sharing your experience. I don't know Ramesh Sheety, maybe I should meet him next time I'm in Mysore. :-)

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  3. Marco, I had similar feelings during my stay in Mysore - but unlike you it was my first experience of studying yoga in India, and my expectations were truly different, even though I started my yoga journey with ashtanga.

    I recently saw the last interview of BKS Iyengar, and I also loved the way he put the role of asana:

    “Many people say yoga asana is not yoga at all. It is all neo philosophers who talk on easy chair sitting and giving talks. In olden days it was not so. Everybody were made to do asanas, which all the historical background will tell you that it was compulsory for everyone. So even at the age of five & seven, when they take the Sankalpa, they say: “asana, Pranayama, Dhyan. That means take a correct position, and do Pranayama, in order to do the Japa of the Gayatri. That means Asana and Pranayama were there from time immemorial without deviation or division whether they follow a Karmic path, or a Gyanic Path, or a Yogi Path, or a Bhakti Path …”

    “So now today, close your eyes, sit for meditation. Nobody knows, so whether they are doing meditation or they are going to sleep or in somatic state, semi-somatic state. Whereas in asanas, you need to bring your attention totally, with awareness to each and every cell of your part, which needs a tremendous discipline.”

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    1. Thank you Anastasia. Yes, BKS Iyengar always had a greater view of asanas, but it's so easy to forget about it. Thanks for sharing :-)

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  4. I am regular follower if your blog posts. This is one of the most inspirational post.
    Thanks for all the lovely write ups .

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  5. Great post! I love your blog, and have been reading it since years. I've found most of the information here that I needed from the time I started practicing yoga more seriously. Apart from the valuable content, I like your style of writing. It feels like it's straight from the heart. Thank you for this wonderful service on your part to the yoga community.

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    1. Oh thanks for the beautiful words Saatvika, I really appreciate that and they make a difference, it motivates me to keep sharing more and more. Thank you!

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  6. I've lived in Mysore for two winters, and studied yoga there as well. All traditions have something to offer, and provide opportunities for us to go deep within. Like any other practice, we need to seek what fits us best. For me, without a doubt, it is the lineage of Sivananda yoga, which is grounded in 5 principles: proper breathing, proper relaxation, proper exercise, proper diet and positive thinking and meditation. Living these principles has kept me on my spiritual path, regardless of what the world is doing. Check out www.sivananda.org

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    1. Hello Bethany, thanks for sharing. I'm very familiar with the Sivananda tradition. I did the TTC, ATTC and Sadhana Intensive at their ashram in Kerala and in Madurai. I love that place :-) Warm wishes.

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