Mysore Fridays are a dream within the dream. The will is worn out, as is the body, so you just let the vinyasa carry you through.
The alarm (which is not a sound, but a portable full-spectrum light) goes at 3, and I stare in to it for 60 seconds. Nauli, neti, kapalabhati, two kumbhakas, one body scan, and 2 minutes of solo dance party, puts the clock at 3:17 and the nervous system ready to roll. That leaves 20 minutes to wash and dress and gather the gear.
Double-turning the bolt on the front door, I put on God’s Symphony – the iPod my brother curates for every Mysore trip. Next in the queue is something hilarious: Daft Punk’s score for TRON. I smile to him through the planet because this is so corny and epic and exactly right.
There’s a 3 minute Overture – horns and cymbals and more than a little of Beethoven’s Fifth, with a quiet track of nervous breathing mixed under everything else. That’s long enough to descend the stairs in the dark, unlock the motorbike, and set it coasting down the hill. At the bottom, I touch the ignition and the score switches to a minute of spoken word before giving over to an hour of epic electronica. The Gokulam streets are dark at 4am except for lights on in single second-floor rooms at the backs of middle class homes – a Lite Brite landscape of ashtangis’ apartments. Bats dip down out of the trees. I shift my hips back to arch my spine over the chassis, and watch for the dogs who sleep in the road.
Jeff Bridges on the second track of TRON speaks in my ears: The grid, a digital frontier. I tried to picture clusters of information as they moved through the computer. What did they look like? Ships, motorcycles? Were the circuits like freeways? I kept dreaming of a world I thought I’d never see. And then one day, I got in.
Yeah, you got in allright. What does it look like? An email confirmation from KPJAYI. It looks like your nadis glittering after pranayama, and like 80 ashtangis on motorbikes sliding through 4am Gokulam toward a nerve plexus. It looks like the lot of them practicing on one breath, beyond discipline, beyond badassery, just well limned channels of tapas- svadyaya- ishvarapranidhana.
Most in that room have been through primary series 1,000 times at least, and maybe that’s enough to give up trying to make something happen, trying to be somebody, or minding the 6 extra limbs on your mat as if they were other from your own. I’m not saying some of us here are not on a separateness trip. Separateness happens because (student-)body parts in extreme pain imagine they are different from the whole. But usually by Fridays the ahamkara is exhausted and we can just let the vinyasas do their thing. The closing mantra is full and loud – may all beings in all worlds be blessed; may I not cling to the results of these actions but let the practice just be a part of the world.
And then we pour back into the dark outside the shala, almost an hour before sunrise. Bumping coconuts, someone always says to the others, “Wait, what just happened?” And then the early crew is back to bed, to dream again with the channels a little more clear.
Half a day later I drive to town for a weekly appointment with the Three Sisters. Down Hunsur Road past the Southern Star, right, past Devaraj URS and the Rotary, then left toward Pattabhi Enterprises, then right at the electronics shop, continue past cows, chickens and children to tiny blue door on the right, beneath the low awning, with a simple white rangoli off to the side. Nagaratna, listening for my bike, opens the door, leads me past some tarps and a water tank, and asks if I’ll have fresh beet juice or carrot after (both please, with ginger). She drops her chin and beams shyly even though she’s the senior sister, and says to Harini in Kaanada that she loves the sound of my voice even though the words I say are meaningless.
Harini tells me that later, while she is walking on my spine with feet dipped in warm, fresh castor oil (a friend boils the beans for a day in a giant pot, then skims off the oil). She tells me that and so many jokes, so many stories, about the old days and my own teachers. She has a memory for sweet things, and the Epics, so I ask her to talk to me about Krishna or about days in the old shala, while one, two or three of them work their toes into my hamstrings. When I zone out, they carry on in Kaanada, light, funny and gracious, their voices so much more beautiful than sounds English can make.
It’s all very proper, there in a dim concrete room on a piece of red cracked vinyl, supervised by a huge yellowed TV set and an occasional mouse. The wood ceiling is 6.5 feet high, and the twin babies cry down the corridors in a way that is somehow comforting. I am wearing a loincloth of string and a narrow strip of cotton (they measure my waist and fashion a little drop cloth as I undress). The oil is always applied in the same way, body parts worked with their feet only in the same order as they flip me this way and that, always with the same division of labor for what Sister gets which of my limbs.
And then we walk down a low, damp concrete passage to a room where three of us can barely stand. There is an open window up high, covered in a grill that is laced with cobwebs. It’s always cold because the oil has pulled the heat out of my liver, my intenstines, my muscles, and out through the crown of my head. (Yes, you cynic, it has.) There is a concrete box built into the wall, with a hole on top, and a metal lid on top of the hole. An opening at the bottom of the box is filled with smouldering firewood – something almost like mesquite – and although the smoke is exiting on the other side of the box the smell of the wood fills the cold room.
One of them asks me to “please sit” on a wood bench. I see a silver bowl of soap nut paste on top of the box. I see a Sister lift the metal lid, and steam rise from inside. Castor oil starts to drip into my eyes so I close them and listen to water mixing from the basin into a bucket. Then there is a hand on my brow and two voices saying “exhaaale” and warm water flows over the crown of my head.
For the next 20 minutes my body is washed in the most gentle exfoliating soap nut circles, while so many cups of warm water are poured over each limb, down the spine, and over my weary head. Every single cup of water is precious. I thank god for it, and I thank this stream of experience for enveloping me.
This is why I am here. To be bathed by the women who know all our bodies and our stories, to walk through the grounds of the University of Mysore in the golden evening light, to lie on the floor of the old shala in Lakshmipuram, to practice next to the old timers, to register the looks and laughs Sharath gives me as we watch each other work in the shala. This is an experience stream, one belonging to a life-world and a line in time, and to the particular spaces that so many of us have passed through. I am here to absorb this stream of experience, and to be absorbed.
I am of the (probably wrong) opinion that 90% of bodywork and spa stuff is very bad news. One trades temporary escape or relief for enduring beliefs in her own brokenness (whatever dire “problems” the therapist has defined and thus solidified in the client’s receptive bodymind). Moreover, in a state of relaxation it’s easy pick up whatever negativity is going on in some apparently beautiful massage space, without ever knowing that’s happened. This probably wrong opinion leads me to avoid the relaxation industry. The Sisters scoff at relaxation too – castor oil bath isn’t about “feel good”: it is a practice. But nevermind all of these biases in my mind. There is nothing more luxurious, more wonderful, more consistently full of grace, than being bathed in abrasive paste, in a cold concrete room, after oil bath, at the end of a Friday, at the end of an ashtanga practice and teaching week, in Mysore.
Still here? This space is nothing but writing practice for someone who wants public accountability to put together some paragraphs once a month. In the rare cases I have actual content, it will be here, at the end of a long post, so that only those people with a bit of an attention span read it. If you have some concentration, I wager you also have some compassion; and I am not interested in readers who lack the latter.
The reason I’ve only written about Fridays is that the other days I’m assisting Sharath in the shala here. This is not something to talk about (she says, at the beginning of a 5-paragrph spiel of talking about it). Not because it’s secret, but because the transmission of this method is non-conceptual. The only way to learn to teach ashtanga is by practical, embodied, in-person experience. The word I use for this is apprenticeship, because it’s the best word this former economic sociologist can find to describe an unmediated, practical transmission-of-being from one bodymind to another.
The essence isn’t technique or dogma or perfect rules (you can put that transient information in a book which any robot can regurgitate). What endures (because it is alive) is inflection, culture, shared emotion, trust, timing, gut sense, tacit knowledge, and finally being blessed to pass on what one has come to embody. This body of knowledge doesn’t reduce to a syllabus.
In direct experience of embodied, person-to-person transmission, a thick layer of self-awareness, awkwardness, and sense of separation is called forth in order that it might die, gradually, as we are pulled in to a stream of expertise that is beyond cognition. Book-knowledge can be thrown up as a shield from this breaking down of the would-be teachers’ separateness, cleverness, agenda; of his needs to dominate, or to be an expert, or to take students’ power, or to be impressive.
What’s the use of conceptual knowledge if one has no real feel for the way her own teacher occupies (and alters) time and space? Conceptual, planned, canned, paid-for training doesn’t lead to embodied experience of surrender to a process, to the activity of teaching.
I arrived to Mysore spent: I had been teaching at home for nearly three years without much break. The emotional and energetic outlay required of me to begin a shala at home had constituted the best and hardest work of my life. While I had often reminded myself of Sharath’s devotion and his hard work, because his existence gave me courage, I am only beginning to appreciate how deep his reserves go, and how skilled he is in action in the Mysore room. Now, after a month assisting him, the work-life I’ve led the past three years, and the life I’ll return to, has become to my mind full of ease. What a boon. Yet I still don’t understand much more than before about how Sharath teaches, or how he understands the practice or his own role. This is because the 40-odd hours of time I’ve put in at his side this month are just so little. I don’t know much.
But I can comment that this work is humble, and gritty, and intimate/impersonal, and absorbing (therefore wonderful), and fully sacred to me, and in no way cool. The central goal of the yoga industry is to glamorize the role of yoga teacher, so that the people with the headsets naming postures take on some sheen of charisma and so that hordes of hopefuls get sucked into the cheap labor pool created by teacher trainings. That’s not real. It’s an advertisement.
Yesterday, at the end of a month of assisting, he said to come back next week. “You are not yet finished.” There is no point in asking why. Why-questions in this rarefied context are vritti fodder, as they are in asana practice. (Ask how instead. It’s empirical instead of magical.) For a moment, the assignment messed with my exhausted mind. And then I found underneath the resistance, because resistance is futile these days, an enthusiasm for even an extra hour in the space that I regard as sacred, letting the stream of experience there condition me a little more.
The last three years, I have engaged teaching practice as seva, dedicated every class to the furthering of my own practice of yoga through service, and used the Bhagavad Gita for guidance in discerning a role in this crazy industry. Up until now, I was able to set my own boundaries – about which calls I answered, what time I went home, which students I dismissed, and which extra travel I took on. Today, I think there is a level of surrender into service that I’m only just beginning to get.
Not only is service not glamorous, it is not on my terms; it is not something my planning mind can control. It is not convenient.
So, this being Friday afternoon, now I am off to to be oiled and walked on and scrubbed in soap nut. And then February begins.