“What’s Mysore?”

Literally: Mysore, India. Via Google.

My first Mysore-style Ashtanga class was at Tim Miller’s. I was petrified, even though I’d been practicing in led classes for quite a while. Over the years since, I’ve had friends make the leap (Steve was one of them), and I always sympathize.

Eventually, I wrote out a crib sheet for friends going for the first time (handouts are my thing—I am a writing teacher, after all). I find myself encouraging my new Ashtanga students to move from my led class over to the morning Mysore. “What’s ‘Mysore’?” I was asked last night. “You come any time during that time period, roll out your mat, and do your practice. The teacher adjusts you while you practice.” She looked at me with a combination of disbelief and freaked-outness. So, in an attempt to allay those fears. . .

Everything You Always Wanted to Know about Mysore Practice But Were Afraid to Ask

What’s in a name? It’s called “Mysore” after the city in India where Sri K. Pattabhi Jois taught the Ashtanga method. The first “Mysore” classes were in Mysore, so it’s really just short for “Mysore-style Ashtanga.” It’s expected that you, like all those who preceded you, will at some point make the bad joke, “Boy, am MY-SORE.” (Heartfelt groans ensue here.)

Don’t be stinky. Shower before you go, avoid perfumes, and make sure your gear is funk-free. You are expected to be clean for practice, as someone you respect will be twisting you into shape. You’ll also be inches away from a fellow mortal, and smells get magnified in a hot, moist room.

Shhh! Enter (and leave) the room quietly so you don’t disturb the concentration of those around you. Although in theory I’m supposed to be practicing non-reaction, why tempt fate with your loud SMACK as you roll out your Manduka inches away from my ears?

About face! Each Mysore instructor has different preferences on which way to orient the room. Some face all one direction. Some face each other in rows. Very often this has to do with space logistics so teachers can move about. Follow your fellow students on mat placement.

Speaking of space. Remember there’s lots of adjusting in Mysore-style practice. Keep floor clutter to a minimum (bags, clothing, etc.) so teachers don’t trip.

Liquid faux pas. Do not take a water bottle into the room. You’re expected to hydrate before you come. If you think about it, there is no “break” in the practice in which to take a drink, so leave it outside.

Thank Pantanjali. Before you begin, it’s traditional to come to the front of your mat and recite the opening prayer. You can say it quietly, or silently, to yourself. Your instructor will begin the entire Mysore session with the prayer before he/she starts adjusting, but you’re still expected to begin your personal practice with it (same with the closing prayer at the end).

Don’t know it yet? Bad man/lady! There are a number of online resources (including iTunes). Download an MP3 and sing along until you get it.

Love thy neighbor. As you practice, be aware of others close to you. Show space courtesy. In a crowded room, this may mean modifying a pose (such as raising your arms in front of you instead of out to the side in the suryanamaskars) or even changing your routine (if there’s no room for chakrasana, then don’t do it; if you can’t swear you won’t hit anybody in the eye if you try it, think twice).

Move it on over. Be prepared to move your mat during practice to make room for others. Be cool about it!

Um… If you forget which pose is next, come to the front of your mat and wait for the instructor to see you so you can ask (quietly). It helps if you have a befuddled look on your face.

What’d he say? It may be that when you ask, your instructor will tell you the next pose’s name—in Sanskrit. Yes, you are expected to learn the names of the poses you do. Eventually. But in that moment when you have forgotten what comes after ardha baddha padma paschimattanasana, and you catch your teacher’s eye and ask, “What’s next?” and he replies, “Tiriangmukhaekapada paschimattanasana” and you know what to do, you’ll thank me.

Magic hands. Adjustments are made in relative silence. Tell your instructor if an adjustment is going too far (quietly—don’t wait until you have to scream), but keep talking to a minimum. Ask questions quietly and minimally. When the adjustment happening, stay focused on your breath, bandhas and drishti. (You are not expected to look at the teacher or thank him/her for the adjustment. Just keep breathing.)

What now? Your teacher will adjust you in both sides of the pose. Don’t rush, but don’t delay, either. It’s helpful to hold the adjustment for a breath once the teacher releases you (to help the body “remember”).

No dinking around! Avoid the temptation to rest (also known as “stalling” and/or “avoiding”). The goal of Mysore practice is to move consistently, but at the pace of your own (controlled) breath. Stopping, towel-wiping, etc. operates as a sort of flag on the play, since you are supposed to be practicing the “mala” of Ashtanga without pause.

The honor system. If you forget a pose, and suddenly remember, it’s quietly expected that you will go back to it, do it, then continue with the sequence from there. This may mean you have to repeat a few poses. Or quite a few. But that’s what you get for your flagging attention, isn’t it?

Greed is not good. You should always stop at the pose that ends your normal practice (if you’re not sure, stop after navasana). Do not presume to continue past that pose, and do not ask for more poses. Once your teacher feels you are ready for the next pose, she/he will teach you the pose.

Tradition! In some Mysore rooms, students move their mats for the closing sequence. This also came from Mysore, India, where there were so many students waiting in a line outside that practitioners had to make room for others by doing the closing poses upstairs. Some instructors (somewhat dogmatically, if you ask me) have students move their mats to the back even in a small or mostly empty room with no students waiting. Some folks just do this automatically. Ask the instructor if you’re uncertain.

Namaste. When you are finished with your practice, you can quietly thank your teacher and assistants if it won’t interrupt them as they teach others.

Sweat. Rinse. Repeat. Come back tomorrow! Ideally, you practice six days a week. Take Saturday off, and check for Moon Days—Ashtangis don’t practice on the new or full moon. But that’s another story…

Posted by Bobbie

A view of Mysore from seven years ago

I seriously doubt I’ll ever get to Mysore. I’m sure, if I do, it will be a short, pass-through visit at most.

India holds many allures. But Mysore, after Guruji’s passing, doesn’t. The Guru is gone, and while there is a lineage being carried on there, for me, that lineage lives at least as much in Tim Miller, the other Confluence teachers and — thankfully for those of us in Los Angeles — Jörgen Christiansson.

That’s not to say I wouldn’t welcome the opportunity to halt life for a month or two and follow Guruji’s advice: “Practice, practice, practice.” And I get why doing that in Mysore calls to people.  (And it isn’t just because, once you get there, life becomes cheaper than, say, trying to spend a month living in Encinitas.)

I get it especially after reading back through the tales from Mysore by Jason, at Leaping Lanka. These are back in 2004, when he dropped everything and went from Encinitas and Tim’s shala to Mysore.

It’s pretty great stuff, if you have never come across it. (Ashtanga-Yoga-Gainsville reminded me of them.) This link will drop you right in the middle.

Posted by Steve

This week’s Tuesday with Timji comes with some jealousy

Why jealousy? Here’s how it starts:

Greetings from Roma.  I could fill you in on what a great cultural experience it is to be here, soaking up all the architecture, history, art, food, wine and espresso, but that might seem like gloating, so I’ll write about something else.

That’s right. Tim is in Rome, in the days ahead of his October retreat in Tuscany. Wine and Ashtanga, indeed.

Here’s a little more to whet your appetite — and thirst:

Wednesday September 28th is the first day of Navaratri—nine nights of celebration of the Goddess.  The buffalo demon, Mahishasura, had grown so powerful that he was threatening the supremacy of the Devas.  Out of the mouths of Brahman, Vishnu, and Shiva came streams of lightening that coalesced to form the Goddess Durga.  Durga was fashioned with ten arms, each hand holding a weapon designed to kill Mahishasura.  A mighty battle ensued and Mahishasura was slain on Chamundi Hill in Mysore, which is now the site of the famous Chamundeswari (Durga) Temple.  The name Mysore is derived from Mahishasura.  Needless to say, this festival is very important in Mysore, where it is also known as Dassera, from the sanskrit dasha hara, which means remover of bad fate.

Tim is a great teller of these stories, by the way. I hope he manages to include some during the Confluence.

Posted by Steve

Ashtanga vs. Bikram: There’s no contest, Ashtanga wins

There’s a piece over at the venerable elephant journal titled, “Ashtanga vs. Bikram: Which is Elitist?”

You can check it out via this link. The bottom-line, according to the author, is that it is Astanga that’s elitist and too difficult for many people. He also thinks the sequence — he emphasizes the Primary — is not well-rounded and that adds to its being unsuited to “most people,” aka people who aren’t very flexible.

Well, you know if you’ve been reading us here that that strikes a chord with me.

(First, though, a quick side track: Some of the commenters have jumped on the use of the word “elitist,” which obviously is intended to incite people as it is “not yogic.” Arguing about it makes sense, except that it clearly is what the author wants his readers to do. The more compelling arguments, from my perspective, is that yoga isn’t about asana — or at least, it’s only one-eighth about asana.)

Tim Miller doing his best to make Steve's down dog part of the canine species.

Aside from all the mis-characterizations of Ashtanga (it doesn’t take 3.5 hours, for instance, and you can balance the different series in a bunch of ways, as noted here), the piece misses one key item — from my experience, at least.

I found Bikram so rigid — even militant — about how to do the poses correctly (“our way or the highway”) that I got little out of it, other than a lot of sweat. I found it very unwelcoming. As a result, I’ll admit I haven’t taken more than a few handful of Bikram classes.

By comparison, and perhaps it is thanks to the Ashtanga teachers I’ve had, I have found Ashtanga much more flexible in allowing me to modify poses — even the Marichyasanas that the author of the elephant journal piece particularly seems to dislike.

The ability to guide my own practice — certainly in a Mysore room but also during a Led class — is the key difference and what makes Ashtanga work, in my opinion. (I also think Ashtanga’s focus on dristi, bandhas and breath puts it more in line with Patangali’s eight limbs of yoga. My experience with Bikram was not a spiritual one, at all. I suppose this gets us back to the yoga vs. asana question.)

Does this mean I think Bikram is somehow worse or more elitist than Ashtanga? No, it just means that Bikram didn’t work for my body. That doesn’t mean I would generalize from my own experience. (Doing so, in my opinion, is the real problem with the elephant journal piece. “Ashtanga didn’t work for me, therefore it doesn’t work for most people” is not a very valid argument.) It does mean that I’m surprised that in a “which style is better for someone who is stiff” contest, Bikram would ever win. But, again, that’s my experience.

And I will defend Ashtanga. Especially because I’ll put my stiffness up against the elephant journal author’s “relatively stiff dude gym-rat body.” Seriously, if I can keep doing Ashtanga, truly anyone can. (For one really good reason to do so, check this earlier post.) And I think that is because the practitioner has control of the situation and not the teacher wandering around (with a microphone, no less!).

That said, Ashtanga is not without its limitations. I’m on the Primary Series and as a result, I don’t get much stretching of my quads. Solution? I am working on adding in — I know, shocker! — Virasana in certain parts of my practice and trying to sit in Virasana when I can. It’s helping a lot.

There’s also that criticism about a lack of backbends. Another easy answer: Make sure you focus on your Urdhva Mukha Svanasana. If done right, the Primary Series has as many backbends as anyone needs.

In the end, everyone who practices yoga is going to find a particular style (or styles) that suits him or her best. I say I’m proof that Ashtanga can be that style for just about anyone.

Posted by Steve

The ‘yoga capital of the world’?

Statue of Shiva, in Rishikesh, via the Seattle Times.

A trip to India is, not surprisingly, on Bobbie and my itinerary. Nothing solid yet, but the call of that country grows louder and louder with each Shavasana.

We don’t really have a sense of where, precisely, we will go. Mysore? Sounds like an obvious one, but we all know that things are different there since Guruji’s passing, and we have our teachers here in Encinitas and Los Angeles.

Plus, one of Bobbie’s students in her writing classes at our not-so-local University of California campus, who is from India, perhaps gave us pause with this comment when she mentioned that Mysore was where the Guru was.

“Mysore,” he sneered (according to the version of the story I’ve heard), “that’s like the Arkansas of India.”

So, noted.

What may be the pull, then, is less the yoga — or, precisely, the Ashtanga — and more the spiritual heritage of the country. Does that, then, mean we have to go to Rishikesh?

According to this Seattle Times piece, maybe:

TUCKED INTO a town in India’s Himalaya foothills sits a statue of Lord Shiva, one of Hinduism’s most venerated deities.

Shiva’s legs are crossed as he peacefully meditates, unlike the eager yoga students who clamber up and around the bigger-than-life statue to drape him with garlands.

Yoga and spiritual devotees of every nationality flock to this northern Indian town of Rishikesh along the banks of the Ganges, India’s holy river. The Beatles set off the flow of Western spiritual seekers after their stay in an ashram here in the 1960s.

Now billing itself “the yoga capital of the world,” Rishikesh brims with ashrams, temples and yoga schools, mixing New Age trappings such as juice bars and healing crystals with ancient Hindu teachings.

Actually, that sounds a little like Mt. Shasta, truth be told.

But, we’re very open to suggestions, if anyone has them. (And, if you have specific thoughts on travel agents/guides/etc., we’ll take any comments there, too!)

I assume the Confluence will have “vendors” who will be all about this kind of trip.

Posted by Steve

Which camp are you in? Mysore vs Led classes

Fridays in our shala — and I suppose likely yours — means Led primary. It’s a chance for you advanced practitioners to remember your roots and do the full primary series (I know not always popular) and a chance for those of us still exploring (shall we say) the first set of poses to … to… well, to do what we always do. Only led.

From Aug. 12 Led class at Omkar 108. Photo via Jorgen Christiansson's Facebook page

Count me in the “I like Led” class, although I wouldn’t as much if I did it every day.

What works for me on these Fridays is that I’m able to let go just a little bit more because I don’t have to think so much. I hear “ekam,” and I move. I hear “dve,” I move again. (Yes, I’m breathing. Deeply. I get reminded of that, too.) Instead of thinking about how many breaths I’ve been in Prasarita Parsvottanasana C — and how it feels like five breaths too many — I can just focus on my nose and on trying to bring my shoulders together a little bit more, bring my hands a little more forward.

This morning, there was a stretch from the last Suryanamaskara A through the second B when, looking back, I realize I probably was about as close to maintaining my dristi, my mula bandha and my breath all at once as I have ever been. OK, by “looking back,” I mean I realized it in that third B and everything went to hell. But that’s looking on the wrong side of things, no?

Instead, let’s say I now can recall those three poses and the feeling I had, and maybe that will help me recapture it. It all felt deeper and smoother and more in union.

Huh. In union? That’s related somehow to this yoga stuff, right?

I’m not surprised it happened in a Led class, when I was able to let my thoughts go more and just “be here now,” to steal a phrase. My looking bird was at the helm, and the eating bird was in the passenger’s seat, for those familiar with that allusion.

It was pretty nice, I’ll tell you.

Posted by Steve