Mysore, the home of Ashtanga yoga.
The Authorised Teacher.
The Mysore Magic
If Sharath sees it, it must be OK.
Stability, patience and the counting
Chip on your shoulder
Learning how to teach
Support of a community. Also, restriction of belonging to a community.
For years I think I had a chip on my shoulder about the whole Mysore thing. I hadn’t been and the problem is, the longer you leave it before going the harder it is to go.
Inevitably, you will be taken back to the beginning. It will be Primary Series and not much else for your first trip, at least. You can forget your intermediate and advanced when you get to the shala. That can be hard for the ego, even for one accustomed to doing a certain thing every day.
Habits are hard to drop as well as the need to feel one is making consistent progress.
These things I feel are the deepest challenges of our first trip to Mysore. Both of which are profoundly useful to encounter in oneself to better encounter the mechanisms – emotions and thinking, lying behind our instinctual tendency to get so identified with our practise as it is.
The First Trip to Mysore
So, the first trip is on this level often the hardest. Which means that many people never get through this first time. They may be too afraid to face up to it and letting go of something they’ve worked so hard at to the judgment of another.
Similarly, it’s easy to take something which was about freeing oneself from the need for definitions and other types of received value in the world. This makes it only one more tool in which we can prove our value back to ourselves and others.
Putting our practice in the hands of another then can be incredibly frightening. We risk losing our definition and in this our value. And we risk being told we aren’t good enough. This is an instinctual fear that never lurks far from the surface for most.
More Trips to Mysore
Later trips can also be incredibly challenging, but usually in other ways. For, there is no investment in Mysore in holding a student back. Therefore soon enough one will reach ones’ edge and struggle to supersede this, which will also be tough.
Because, there is also no room for half-measures; kind of half-doing something or skipping it doesn’t fly. This can be hard, seem unfair if you are struggling with certain natural limitations. However, it can also bring qualities and effort out in many who otherwise would have glossed over vital technique that they were not focused or patient enough to learn.
This was certainly my case for example, with Karandavasana; a very tough posture which you can either do or not – you can either take lotus position whilst balancing on your forearms, lower it onto the backs of your arms, wait there for (at least – much more in a counted class!) five breaths and then take it back up, or, you can’t. One day I was caught not coming down and resting on the arms, essentially pretending to myself really – and this pretence was stripped away for the rest of my trip, where each day I was remembered and scrutinised in my progress with this movement.
Not Going to Mysore
Indeed, all this does sound potentially off-putting to one debating the relative merits of going. Therefore, lets discuss the other option; always having people tell you what it’s like and how it’s done in Mysore. In which conversation, albeit you may have practiced for twenty-years you can say very little having not had this experience.
As a first-base then, I would suggest, if you’re committed to the Ashtanga practise in its traditional form (which means keeping to the sequences and practices regularly – potentially daily – with a teacher), at least one trip to the birthplace and source of the teaching is worthwhile.
After this, we can decide whether to go back or not. Which, is a wholly different question having experienced what we may have potentially only denied in theory previously as ‘not for us’.
Returning to Mysore
On this point, there are many valid reasons why we may not return as well as why so many people love it in Mysore. The difference is, we have done it now, so it’s not something we have to justify not having done, or feel in any way a lesser practitioner than those that have gone. It’s no longer lurking in the back of our mind – it’s done, marking a new chapter or the closing of a book.
Besides, anything else, I feel, if at all possible, it’s at least a mark of respect to go one time; almost in the same way we follow the sequences that, perhaps, could feel more comfortable or would be preferred to be changed around to suit our fancy much of the time.
If yoga is an effort at stability and humility, I think this trip does act as a kind of pilgrimage, and to that end, and however it goes, at least one trip is always worthwhile and I doubt will be regretted even if its chalked-up to posterity.
Even if this is the case, and we don’t return, something in at least hearing the count in the led-class and doing the class in a room with so many other fairly-committed practitioners is hardly likely not to leave some kind of mark on us.
The Mysore Energy
Moreover, although I am usually careful to steer clear of ambiguities; talk of energy and so forth, it is hard not to admit that it is not quite a different experience than doing the same thing in London, for example, with or without Sharath. There is ‘something’ about the place itself. Whether it’s the other students dedication, Sharathji, or India, generally. It may be a combination of all of these factors, that it is hard to not be touched by.
For me, personally, in hearing the count my first trip was defined by the revelation that the yoga method was a lot more methodical, more particular and almost staccato. Less poetic or dance-like than the way I had taken my yoga practise. It was, more of a science and less about me than I had thought.
For this reason, the question of further trips is a totally different ball-game. We know what it’s like now, and for most people, this has been, to degrees, a bit of a watershed. For some a baptism of fire, for some a disappointment. In fact, for many like me, perhaps, both; my yoga could never enter the realm of my own imaginings and fantasy in the same way as it had before. I had now seen the prescribed way it was taught, as well as a whole number of people a whole lot better than I was.
It’s Not Easy
This is not at all an easy experience to have, but it certainly does help to take yoga out of the sphere of something we do simply to feel good about ourselves and into another territory. One that may be more likely circumscribed by the honest inquiry that Patanjali originally conceived. Before it was most widely converted into a kind of exotic gymanastics with a pinch of new-age philosophy thrown in.
On the other hand, talking like this one would assume I quite universally recommend further trips. The spending years of ones’ life in Mysore overall, like me and so many other teachers did. This is not the case. There are a whole range of reasons why this might not suit, not least, the fact that logistically it can put too much of a strain on ones’ own life and that of the people – family, that one cares about.
Many people sacrifice the best part of their lives to practice in Mysore, their families and relationships; and I don’t this is necessary, nor appropriate. It can be too much of an easy trap to fall into; whereby we gain a little comfort, confidence, definition, through an experience which is quite all-consuming, therefore, feels like enough.
However, it is not, not for a student, nor even a teacher. At some point the ‘crutch’ must be put down. We must look independently at our practise again outside the received dogma of the huge politic we may have inadvertently fallen into. One in which to question things from ones’ own standpoint is a kind of heresy which will quickly make our position in the club quite untenable.
I would suggest this crossroads ought to come later for those wishing to teach. There is certainly more reason to spend extended trips to learn our practice in Mysore if this is the case. For there are small details as well as quite often a level of stability, which may otherwise be lacking. There is definitely a benchmark in Mysore for our postures, and this is unvaryingly high. Mysore, it is true, is sometimes painfully, honest.
Does Going to Mysore Make You a Good Teacher?
But, if the question is whether going to Mysore makes you a good teacher, I would say this is quite a redundant one. Simply going to Mysore will not make one a good teacher. Nor, indeed will being authorised to teach. I may go further to say even certified to teach.
Firstly, we need to understand the pretty subtle technique involved in the yoga-method of ashtanga. Now, as I mentioned at the beginning, this may be done through perseverance and sheer frustration at being stuck at a particular posture, but is just as likely won’t.
We can easily crash through ‘doing’ the shape with brute-force. Whilst not understanding the real technique that renders yoga a ‘steady and comfortable position’. Indeed, having so many others around us to compare ourselves to, competition can all too easily corrupt our practice. Towards the former taking the former attitude where the postures are taken visually – as symbols of what we can do and little more.
For this reason, I would generally disregard authorisation as well as certification as much of a source of guidance as to a teacher. I suppose it shows a degree of commitment and discipline. But this can equally be a mark of rigidity, obsession and dogmatism.
Instead, I would suggest we spent time with a few different teachers over our years of learning the practise. Where, at least one of them, gives clear instructions of the aim of each posture that make reasonable sense. Both rationally, but more importantly physically. Yoga, it must be remembered ought to feel comfortable, therapeutic and not punitive for our bodies, spirit, daily-lives.
Continuing this discussion, yoga is more than just physical ability if we are planning to teach it. This is not touched upon whatsoever, however many trips to Mysore we make. In contrast, Mysore all too often biases our perspective of how the practice might be conceived as an ideal and how it may be taken in practice.
Outside of Mysore and in the normal world, most people are not able to holistically (without injury and strain) achieve the idealised version of the practice that the one-percent of very dedicated as well as, more often than not, young and genetically blessed students in Mysore can.
A hefty dose of realism is needed by one planning to teach ‘normal’ people, which, outside Mysore will always be the majority of students we come across, who do not, nor do not want to, make yoga all of their lives.
In conclusion, maturation in teaching doesn’t come from time spent doing Ashtanga yoga in Mysore. Neither does maturation in practice. Mysore may help, but it’s all about what we bring to it, how we relate to it. And how willing we are to keep some perspective regarding the world and yoga outside of Mysore. Indeed, time here can certainly profoundly help, but, by the same token, can equally affect us negatively.
Keeping the context of yoga in mind (ie. The ashtanga yoga that Patanjali talked of) as well as a balanced and nuanced attitude to what we are doing makes all the difference.
For some people Ashtanga in Mysore is indeed magic, for others it must be acknowledged underwhelming, even disillusioning. Both ought to be allowed to be true; Mysore isn’t the whole of Ashtanga yoga, it is, after all, just where it came from.