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:
Last evening with BNS Iyengar in Mysore. I feel so fortunate to have been there. Somebody asked how to practice ahimsa while doing asanas, but then guruji immediately put asanas in the right place. "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." Later he said, "Ramakrishna Paramahansa, how many asanas did he know? Then how has he become great? By conquering the mind." Priceless!
"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.
|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?