Mysore then versus Mysore now

Note: This is an edited re-post of a piece I accidentally published on Monday. It’s substantially different, though. So read on…

Following both the Confluence and then Bobbie’s week-long adjustment clinic with Nancy Gilgoff, we’ve had lots of stories of Guruji on our minds.

From these senior teachers, one theme emerges strongly: the direct and intimate relationship that they all had, and felt, with Guruji and Amma.

As I’ve been reflecting on this, I have come to realize just how fundamental the close teacher/student (dare I say guru/shishya?) relationship is to my Ashtanga practice.

It started, and continues, with Tim Miller. I think it is safe to say that the old adage, “When the student is ready the teacher appears” applies aptly here. I wasn’t ready before. (I sure wish I had been. A decade’s less stiffness to work through would be glorious.)

It’s in practice, daily, with Jörgen Christiansson. This one is a very physical relationship (and, no, I’m not intending to conjure up anything inappropriate). As I’ve written before, Jörgen is wailing on me because I need wailing upon. Slowly, the body is loosening up, and as it does, I’m discovering different aspects to the practice. (It has something to do with “locks” or the “expression” of the pose. I’m still ruminating on it.)

Without both of these relationships, my practice wouldn’t be moving forward. I very well still might be practicing, but it wouldn’t have the same currency and import.

I think of both relationships as being a true example of the parampara of Ashtanga.

It’s why — to raise the issue again, even if we may have promised not to — practicing in Mysore doesn’t hold a great pull for me.

Mysore is just too big these days. Reports from this year talk about 300 or so people practicing there. That sounds like the exact opposite of what the first waves of foreigners / Westerners / non-Indians experienced when practicing with Guruji.

It also sounds like the exact opposite of what kept bringing them back, and specifically, bringing them back to Guruji.

There are stories of Western students staying with Guruji in his home, of practicing with him for months, with at most a handful of other students. Some of the Western students were there by themselves, practicing one-on-one with Guruji.

Guruji was the reason to be in Mysore. The point, now, of being in Mysore seems to be something else. I understand, and appreciate, that there is an amazing array of experiences to be had today in Mysore. I’m not discounting them or downplaying them. But I don’t see how one of the fundamental experiences of the senior Ashtanga students is possible anymore.

I’m also not discounting Sharath’s teaching, including his ability to be there, present, with students for those moments when he’s adjusting them.

I guess what I’m saying is: Mysore is a victim of its own success. (And it’s great it has that success.) Guruji himself wouldn’t be able to forge the same relationships with students in the current environment. (OK, maybe he could have. But he was Guruji.)

And so, to find and develop that kind of relationship, I think: A few weeks in Maui? Yes. Time in Boulder? I hope. A week down in Encinitas this summer? It’s on the calendar. Getting to New York? I’m trying to figure it out.

But going to Mysore among the masses? That’s not really my picture of practicing Ashtanga.

Posted by Steve

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Two Ashtangis write about their practice and their teachers.

9 thoughts on “Mysore then versus Mysore now”

  1. There are numerous problems with is piece. the most fundamental is that you neither met or practiced with Guruji OR Sharath (you never mentioned Guruji’s daughter and Sharath’s mother, the great Saraswathi who also continues to teach in Mysore and does so expertly) In the interest of full disclosure, i want to mention that i never studied with Guruji either but then again, i don’t make assumptions or comparisons based on mere hearsay: an entirely unyogic activity. I did, however practice with Sharath and Saraswathi for two months in 2011 and am finishing up my second 2-month stint here in Mysore in a few days. Your assumption that personal attention isn’t possible with a workload of 300+ students in the Shala is simply untrue. I have never seen someone work as hard and with as much dedication, expertise, foresight and humor as Sharath and Saraswathi. It’s almost frightening how well they know each student’s practice level and how efficiently they work the work. That being said, the new assistant system (3-5 authorized students who are in the room every day and give adjustments) works extremely well and ensures that everyone gets the help they need especially in important gateway poses including but obviously not limited to Marichasana D, Supta Kurmasana, Kapotasana, Karandavasana, etc, etc. Sharath works tirelessly every day without so much as a hint of stress dropping back student after student, encouraging and monitoring practitioners at all levels from half primary to 4th series and beyond. His weekly conferences are inspiring, full knowledge, humor and laughter. Times change and Ashtanga has become much more popular in the world so many more people are drawn to the source of the practice and want to study with the person whom Guruji trained for more than 20 years and appointed as his successor. THAT is parampara. Who could be more “senior” than Sharath? Who studied this long and intimately with Guruji? Who was woken up every morning at 1:30 am, had to practice under his supervision and then helped him with students for the rest of the day? As much as i love and admire all the early American students, none of them did. Does that make them lesser teachers? No. But the romantic, sentimental notion about being at the old Shala and being instructed with a few other practitioners or staying at Guruji’s house etc. is misguided and frankly irrelevant. these times are over: Guruji is no longer with us. The time is always now. The practice that Sri K. Pattabhi Jois created is genius in its purity and complex power and as long as people practice with the right intention and devotion, it will always be. It’s up to you what you make of it. I understand that some old students had a very close relationship with Guruji which defined the way they shaped their practice so maybe present day Mysore isn’t compatible with their philosophy and comfort zone but that need not concern anyone else. If you don’t want to go, don’t but i think it’s unskillful and judgmental (to say the very least) to write an opinion piece on this subject based on mere conjecture and assumption.

    1. Hi Nick.

      A few things:

      1. Thanks for taking the time to respond, especially from Mysore.

      2. I don’t think we are disagreeing on much. Yes, it’s an opinion piece — mine — but I’d argue it isn’t based on assumptions. It’s based on my experience with many of these teachers and the many stories of Mysore from the past — and from the present. And in just comes down to that, for me, I find the inspiration and dedication to do Ashtanga in a different setting than the big crowds of Mysore. The Confluence was a great experience, but I doubt I’d want to practice in a big, full room everyday. As I note, it is great that it is having that success. It’s a testament to the practice Guruji taught.

      3. As I noted, I’m not discounting Sharath’s teaching at all. And I have practiced once with him. He seemed very dedicated. I don’t mention Saraswathi because I haven’t practiced with her and I haven’t heard as much about her as I have about Sharath. What I’ve heard has been positive. That said, there does seem to be plenty of reports of being “anonymous” during the first weeks or even months of being in Mysore. Perhaps I’m trying to suggest that there is a difference between the relationship beyond the mat that’s possible now. I have no doubt practicing in the shala there is a wonderful experience. There are other places to have wonderful experiences, too.

      4. I suppose where we might differ is on parampara. My thinking here is that the parampara Guruji passed on was some spark or ability to hold students close — that seems to be a common theme of stories of him and of his best students.

      Hope the rest of your time in Mysore is terrific, and save travels home.


  2. Steve,

    Thanks for sharing a bit of your inner process.

    It’s weird that the Confluence occurred around the same time as the Anusara meltdown (Anusgate?), which generated a lot of interesting discussion from those quarters with regards to teaching yoga — the role of a teacher, the role of the student, and economies of scale.

    I know I’m shouting it from the roof-tops, but I really liked Matthew Remski’s 3-part series “Grounding Anusara,” as well as the first part of Carlos Pomeda’s essay, “The Future of Yoga in the Modern World.”

    There seems to be great thematic echoes to the conversations that took place at the Confluence; ironically, we had these “conversations” delivered to 350 of us from a raised stage!

    My understanding, based on conversation with many students of Pattabhi Jois, was that long-time students felt they had established a guru-shishya relationship with him.

    This relationship was an intimacy of sorts, and it’s one that quite frankly is no longer available to them to the same level and degree in Mysore.

    As Nick points out though, he definitely feels a sense of connection there.

    I think Sharath in many ways embodies some of the best of Guruji’s teachings with few of his shortcomings.

    What seems to me vital to keep in mind, however, is that lineage and tradition — parampara — is not rooted in time spent with Guruji, as though understanding was accruable like frequent-flier miles.

    Deeper understanding is also not a heritable trait, passed down in the blood.

    As Guruji said time and again, it is rooted in and based on one’s own practice.

    It’s my understanding that many long-time teachers have had this understanding to varying degrees and depths.

    Which then brings to mind another important question: is this understanding different, better, or deeper depending on where it’s received, and from whom?

    In other words, is there then more than one understanding of One-ness? Would that not mean it’s not One-ness?

    Anyway, so times have changed.

    I think Nick’s understanding of personal attention in Mysore really illustrates how it’s changed.

    As he pointed out, it’s now several teachers, who are on-hand to most usually help your “gatekeeper” poses.

    We can contrast this with “personal attention” from Jois, which used to be adjustments in many postures.

    Or as David remarked, “He was all over us.”

    This is related to another of Nick’s points, which I felt was the danger of romanticizing the “good old days” with Guruji.

    The fact that Guruji was “all over people” was not necessarily always a good thing, nor was it always received positively.

    The Confluence teachers are among those who chose to continue to practice with Guruji.

    There are other long-timers who practiced with him in the ‘70’s and ‘80’s (and ‘90’s and 00’s) who did not.

    I think, too, when one begins considering traveling to Mysore, the Mysore-as-Mecca meme suffers a bit from the echo chamber effect, as the people who value journeys to Mysore continue to share the considerable influence and power it has on their lives.

    But there is, as Taleb calls it, a “graveyard of silent evidence”: there are those who had a negative experience, or are simply ambivalent about the place. Neither choose not to return there.

    I have met over the years many people (some Certified and Authorized), who have practiced for 10, 20, 30 years, and who simply have chosen for a host of reasons to expend their prana (internal and external) in other directions.

    There’s also a larger and more important conversation to be had: is one’s experience of depth and validity of Yoga contingent on the hands adjusting you, or the person “giving” postures?

    That is, is it more authentic or better if it’s the “guru,” his successor, or the successor’s recognized students?

    What role do our expectations and projections play in this relationship, knowing as we do that often we tend to see our own agendas in other people and places?

    I think, too, one aspect of Mysore that is forgotten is that quite often the experience there for many people is much more accomplished, focused and intense than the practice environment they have available at home.

    I know that Steve, on the other hand, has spent and continues to seek out quality one-on-one time with Tim et al, which, as I have discovered over the course of years, is quite a luxury.

    Thanks again for the inspiring comments.


    1. Thanks jason, for the thoughtful and, dare I say, wise words. (By the way, I hope the trip back north was uneventful, or at least full of good events!)

      I’ll leave it at that, as — per my latest post — I’m forswearing anymore discussion of issues that are “beyond me.” I’m not advanced enough in my practice not to get caught in the samskaras of these debates! 🙂

      Maybe in a few more lifetimes, or a few more iterations of a blog.


  3. Anonymous said…
    ‘I attended the Confluence. It was a profound experience. I was in a haze for a week following.
    The lobby and vendor booths made me uncomfortable and claustrophobic. But stuffing yourself sardine-style into the Mysore room was liberating on a different level – I felt like I was wholly anonymous. Perhaps 2% of the people in that room would recognize me, and only one of the teachers would. So in a sense, it was more pure than practicing alone, where I am focusing very much on my self. A huge crowd let me slip into something a little more detached from myself and that iteration of my practice’.
    ‘…So in a sense, it was more pure than practicing alone, where I am focusing very much on myself. A huge crowd let me slip into something a little more detached from myself and that iteration of my practice’.

    There’s people here in Mysore that seek the “personal time” that you talk of with Sharath and Saraswati too. It can appear a little self serving.
    My understanding of guru-shishya paramparā is that it does not place the disciple in a position of being special, favored or even noticed. That kind of being the point.
    The residential aspect of the transmission is not offered by the senior teachers at confluence.
    Any split within Ashtanga creates division, which is contrary to the direct undiluted transmission inherent in the guru-shishya paramparā tradition.
    I will jump at any chance I get to practice with any of the teachers who were at Confluence.
    Ashtanga comes alive in Mysore. I am currently on my 8th trip and I intend to return later this year for my 9th.

    1. Hi Chris. I’m not sure I totally understand your comment. Are you quoting someone to start? From where?

      I do think your comment about the “self serving” nature of talking with S & S gets at the point Jason made. The nature of things in Mysore have changed; it also was my point in suggesting that Mysore is a “victim” of its welcome success. I’m sure there was some jockeying for Guruji’s attention, but among a handful of people, there probably wasn’t as much.

      Enjoy your trips!


  4. I pretty much agree wholeheartedly with Nick above. I also studied in Mysore in Nov and Dec of 2011 with Sharath and I was thoroughly impressed with the guy. He makes it a point to get to know each students practice (and NAME!) even though he has about 300 students (and different ones coming in and out each month). I don’t know how he remembers everything. In addition, there are helpers there who are fully qualified to help with adjustments and answer questions. I have never seen anyone light up a room the way Sharath does — he works so hard and lifts so many bodies (many that are MUCH bigger than his) for hours and hours in a hot, sweaty room, all because he wants as many people as possible to benefit from this practice and to change their lives for the better. That guy would totally have it made and could retire at any time a very rich man. Still, he keeps on working hard and making each person who enters his shala feel special. And if you don’t get individual attention there, it’s very good for your ego – yoga isn’t about feeling special, it’s about feeling oneness with the crowd, and that’s a feeling I only ever received while in Mysore.

    Also, it is such an interesting experience to live in India that it is totally worth it, even if you end up hating the shala! And the interesting and wonderful people that travel there make the trip so worthwhile. I wouldn’t take back my days there for anything and all I can think about since I’ve been back in the U.S. is going back to India. If anyone is ever compelled to go there, DO IT. You won’t regret it. I made excuses for a long time of why I couldn’t go to India, and my biggest regret in life is not going 8 years ago when I had the chance.

    But thanks for bringing up your perspective — to each their own!

  5. Another point I’d like to make is that while I’ve heard David Williams say how much Guruji hurt him physically (his back for years after learning some of the last series was messed up), I’ve never heard anyone say that Sharath has — he’s pretty gentle and aware of people’s body types and how far they can go. I HAVE heard of other teachers pushing too hard in Mysore, but not Sharath.

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