Movie time this week in Mysore, and realizing one’s own guru

This week there is plenty of blog coverage of Sharath’s Sunday conference.

It’s probably because it featured the showing of a 22-minute movie about Ashtanga in Mysore: “Mysore Magic: Yoga at the Source.” The film was shot earlier this year and turned around quickly. (I suppose the art of digital filmmaking at work.)

It seems to be on one of the platforms that WordPress isn’t supporting at this point. Here’s a link to the webpage for it. You can get a nearly 2 minute preview. It looks like they are charging $4.99 to stream it or $9.99 to download it.

I have to admit that the preview fails to do two things for me:

1. Make me want to watch the whole film. I feel like I know what students are going to say about being in Mysore and what Sharath is going to say about the practice.

2. Make me want to go to Mysore to practice. The first reason why it fails on this account is purely my own self-limitations and what I suppose borders on fear. The practitioners shows are so far advanced from me — in the purely physical, limber sense — that I can’t imagine getting much out of time spent there.

The second reason is the growing crowds it shows. I know we all read — again, via all the blogs from Mysore — about personal attention, but I find it hard to imagine getting much, especially as a “newbie.”

The third reason goes to the title of the film, or one word in it: “source.” On that point, here’s a quick recap of part of Sunday’s conference from the blog “Bird in the Tree“:

Later today, at the 10am conference, which featured a viewing of the new documentary ‘Mysore Magic,’ created and directed by Certified Ashtanga teacher Alex Medin and a small crew of filmmakers during the first couple of weeks of the New Year, Sharath talked at length about parampara. It’s a major reason why learning Ashtanga at the source is as special as it is: the importance of lineage cannot be overemphasized in an age that has many, many versions of yoga being propagated. Likewise, a guru who calls himself a guru can’t really be a guru! ‘Only the student can call a teacher his guru,’ Sharath emphasized. And it is only by surrendering to the guru that one can truly glean the knowledge he (or she) has to offer. This is a very personal choice. The new documentary, a lovely portrait of the Ashtanga Yoga Community today, features many students talking about what has led them to here to practice as well as interviews with Sharath.

Well, I’ve got my “source” and my “guru,” and he’s about 100 miles away at the Ashtanga Yoga Center. (What the movie does make me want to do is go to India and experience the spiritual source of things.)

I understand why others are drawn to Mysore. It’s why I have been “obsessing via blog” about Mysore and a trip there. But, as I’ve reflected this morning, I realize once and for all: I’m just not.

And I think I may be lucky or even blessed by what I am drawn to, instead.

Posted by Steve

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Two Ashtangis write about their practice and their teachers.

13 thoughts on “Movie time this week in Mysore, and realizing one’s own guru”

  1. As my husband wisely said to me, “Is someone considered “less” Catholic because they haven’t been to Rome to visit the Pope?”

    I’ve been told by more than one person: “You should just go to Mysore, to India. It’s amazing and will change your life.” “You need to go to the source (Mysore) in order to “understand” what this yoga is about.” “You should go, but don’t expect to get any attention there. Your practice isn’t good enough/too average.” “You should go, but Sharath seems to be authorizing only folks under 40 now, and you aren’t young enough.”

    I’ve wanted to go to Mysore for the past 12 years. I have never had the time or the ability to leave my responsibilities (to my work, to my family, to my three children) for a month+ pursue something that, on the surface, can seem somewhat selfish to someone who never does this practice.

    At the risk of sounding pretentious, my teacher has had to be daily practice and study – by myself, with the occasional “tune up” from authorized teachers in the U.S.

    I no longer feel the need to visit Mysore now that Guruji has passed, no disrespect to Sharath intended. Nor does this digital short incline me to go. No – there are many highly qualified, excellent teachers with just as many years of practice and teaching experience that can provide insight and knowledge – that can be the light for their students and who embody parampara – without the need for me to burden my family just to be part of the herd of aspirants at Mysore for a month every year.

    And, while I know that my comments will seem disparaging of those who have been to Mysore, that’s not my intent. I am very happy for these folks, and smile on their ability and good fortune to have the opportunity to study “at the source.” For me, the reality has been different – a marriage of 20+ years kept (through much hard work) happy and strong, three kids brought to the brink of adulthood, and myriad other responsibilities to work and family that go beyond my daily practice. I am not less dedicated to, nor less understanding, of the Ashtanga practice because my path has been one of caregiving to others first, and to my self second.

    If I sound self-righteous, it’s because, frankly, I’m tired of being told I don’t fully “get it” because I haven’t been to Mysore, and that I will only finally “understand” it if I go there.

    There many paths, one Truth, folks.

  2. The pope/Vatican analogy is a great one. Michelle, please keep practicing.

    If the deepening ‘realization’ that Ashtanga Yoga offers can best be experienced at its ‘source’ — Mysore — then how universal is that understanding or realization?

    Is my experience of samadhi contingent on my practice of this yoga in Mysore?

    Meaning, are there different degrees and depths of the experience of this Yoga and the residue of its practice?

    If yes, that suggests that this experience — and Brahman — is therefore limited and conditional, and not universal.

    I think we all realize this to be a lesser understanding of this Yoga.

    This is a living, evolving tradition (eight ‘limbs,’ not eight steps/stairs/rungs or other inorganic and lifeless metaphors).

    As such, there are now several ‘sources’ of Ashtanga Vinyasa.

    We also ought to ask ourselves: what determines whether a practice or tradition or place is the ‘source’?

    I also find implicit in this rationale the belief that time spent with Guruji means that Guruji’s experience was heritable — as though one could simply soak up his understanding without practicing. I don’t believe Guruji himself would agree with this.

    I am personally curious and questioning about claims to authority based on inheritance — the result of empty ritual and practice is a Waste Land, as TS Eliot wrote: “Lips that would kiss/form prayers to broken stone.”

    Also, I think nested within the idea of Mysore-as-Holy-Land is that Guruji had a special, unique or extraordinary understanding of this Yoga.

    But if Guruji’s understanding was beyond or more than what you and I and everyone else practicing this Yoga are able to have — what is the use of practicing this Yoga?

    What’s more, does that then mean there are not just One, but many Ones, of which Guruji’s was better and more complete?

    Suddenly this whole Brahman/non-duality idea is shot to hell.

    I had a wonderful, expansive, heart-opening times in Mysore, to be sure — and I will confess, when I returned, it was with some difficulty that I got Guruji and Sharath off my mat!

  3. Thank you, Jason. It was really difficult for me to post that comment. I appreciate your support and candor in your response. And I agree wholeheartedly with what you say.

    The practice itself fosters – no, requires – self-inquiry, self-discovery. This discovery cannot only be bequeathed through the luck of time, space, circumstance or proximity. It has to be sought, for a long time, correctly and with reverence by each of us, using what has been given to us in the time allotted.

    Patanjali said right knowledge comes (first) from our own senses, our own experience (and, yes, also logic and the words/testimony of authority. But, as Patanjali generally put the most important element first in his list-making, I believe he intended us to rely on our own experience foremost.)

    I think Guruji would agree.

  4. Thanks to you both for the comments, and, Michelle to you for your honesty. You summed up my feelings.

    Strangely enough — or not — not long after I wrote this post, Carol Miller sent out an email about Tim’s Shasta retreats. Coincidence?

    I’d tell you right off that of course we’re going back to Shasta, but we might be trying to be in Encinitas instead. We’ll decide in the next month, or sooner.

    It is hard not to go to Shasta.


    1. Tim is wonderful – a truly generous teacher. I got to spend a few mornings in his Mysore class last January on a trip to San Diego with my family.

      I don’t blame you for wanting to go to Shasta! I would love to go, too…ahhh, so much yoga, so little time.

      1. I had the fortune to assist Tim at Shasta in 2010 — it is a wonderful time, and I hope we can go back.

        Mysore can be a wonderful experience; a pilgrimage, an escape, a holiday, all of those and more.

        I have been thinking about this the last few weeks — will write more. Intention + attention are how much of a yoga practice?

      2. It was the second series week … it was a lovely experience, despite all the nature.

        I expect that at this point my feelings towards the Big Guy are pretty transparent.

        People have this connection with Sharath, to be sure, and they also have it with Tim, and Richard, and Eddie, and Nancy (and John and Hamish and Lino and Rolf, etc, etc) …

        Guruji did a fantastic job spreading and teaching this yoga — there are many hearts of Ashtanga Vinyasa!

  5. Felt the need to make a few comments as someone who is now in Mysore practicing with Sharath for the past 4 months.

    I watched the film with everyone on Sunday conference: it was a predictable, rose-tinted view of Mysore. It only shows the intermediate class practice, despite filming in the shala on a typical days practice, where there is a range of abilities and levels of practice. Believe me I shared your fears of being inadequate in my practice – heading out to Mysore unable to bind Marichyasana D and do headstand. However contary to all the talk of lack of attention, I would say as a ‘newbie’ and as someone less advanced, you actually receive MORE attention and adjustments, simply because you need them more! I have gone from being stopped at Marichy D to doing a full primary practice with guidance from Sharath every step of the way.

    But no one should ever tell you that you have to go to Mysore. True the experience is unique and I would not change my decision for the world. Yet it is not for everyone and is not an indicator of your dedication to ashtanga practice. Nor of course is it possible for all. Those here in Mysore who are not yoga teachers themselves, have mostly quit their jobs and used all their life savings to come here (myself I quit a PhD, and a job, and am living off my dwindling savings). Unfortunately there is a lot of BS spoken by people (afraid to say) and snobbery involved. Yet it must be clarified that first Sharath never claims to be anyone’s Guru. He always maintains that if people call him Guru then fine, but he never demands it. Rather Sharath encourages people to find their own Guru, and their own teacher. This is even more apparent in the change in shala rules allowing people to only practice for 3 months at a time – another teacher is thus necessary. And all the talk of source, I have always interpreted this not necessarily as a specific place but more the way in which ashtanga is taught and practiced and whether it coheres to the way it was originally taught by Guruji. That is why teachers are authorised/certified, to spread this message. Sharath has never said people have to come to Mysore to appreciate the lineage of Ashtanga, he does however make fun of the different types of yoga that are constantly cropping in the West and also with India (e.g. ‘hot’ yoga etc). His mention of lineage is therefore only to emphasise the importance of understanding the origins of yoga, and how ashtanga is grounded in a history, distinguishing it from mere gymnastics or an exercise class.

    Sorry just had to say my piece, so much stuff said about Mysore, even here in Mysore, and it is hard to get the truth heard amongst all the rumours!

  6. Caroline,

    I feel compelled to mention that no one above is saying that Sharath says, “You must travel to Mysore,” or “You must call me your guru.” This is classic straw man. Michelle in her first post very clearly says she felt pressured to go by other people with whom she practiced.

    What I think is more important is what usually goes undiscussed among many Ashtanga people: the implicit structural insistence on the importance of travel to Mysore (as well as other systemic blindspots) — often quite simply guised as the maintenance of purity, or importance of participation in parampara.

    This doesn’t come so much from the Jois Shala as it does from the students who are vested in traveling and returning to Mysore. It’s quite natural they want to share their devotion to Sharath.

    Regardless of motive, however, what can arise is a culture of perpetual pilgrimage.

    As the presence of Guruji fades, memories fade a bit, too. It’s easy to forget that he was fiercely insistent on ‘correct’ and ‘incorrect’ method: “Who is teaching this method?!” he would shout, then say, “Yes, this is correct.”

    How could this then not give rise to the intimation that one could be sure one learned the ‘correct’ method with him?

    Also, while you interpret Sharath’s meaning of ‘source’ as ‘correct tradition,’ it’s been my experience that people do take the concept of Mysore-as-source quite literally.

    As for the guru issue, people have made wonderful and profound connections with Sharath. He has a light touch, he’s quick to smile, and he seems to be handling it all with (mostly) grace and aplomb.

    However, this is something to consider: telling people to call you guru and allowing people to call you one are differences of degrees and not kinds.

    I hope you enjoy the remainder of your trip; I also wish you a smooth re-entry … !


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