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Day 1 in Mysore: Doing Ashtanga in its Birth Place & Learning to Value the Why

My first night in Mysore, I took the recommendation of the hostel host and walked south toward a lake he had pointed to on a map. I wound through bustling loud-honk streets without sidewalks.

Groups of brightly dressed girls walking home from school claimed portions of the street, unphased by the rickshaws and motorcycles speeding past inches from them. I took their lead, shuffling with the crowd past cows and chai stands and fruit booths where men were slicing papayas onto small tin plates.

Crossing the street meant waiting for the prime opportunity to run—I made it half way and had to wait at the median for my next shot. My company, he less eager to make it to the other side, was a black and white lying-down cow to whom I had to stand nearly touching to still avoid getting hit.

I walked around the lake in the company of evening exercisers, most in the same clothes I’d seen people wearing on the street, bright colors, layers, long tops and big wraps. The only difference was footwear, lakeside exercise calling for sneakers instead of sandals.

The lake was bigger than I expected. It felt unlikely that there would be such a generous reprieve from the city streets right there in the middle of them. I walked half its circumference, then followed others out an exit back into the noise of it. This noise is not the noise I know, or seems to come from a different place in people. There’s no fury in it, or if there is fury it is quick to evaporate; if there is fury it doesn’t threaten my chest, doesn’t move into my body. A honk is just itself, in the air and then gone and the scooters keep moving, moving, also gone. Some people seem to honk just for the fun of it, despite nothing in their way. Maybe a just-in-case.

Back at the hostel, I pushed myself to a 7:30 bedtime and slept sweetly till nearly 4. At 6:30 I hopped on the back of the Italian’s moped and, gripping tight to its rear metal bar, let the cool morning smooth my jetlag face as he whipped us through roundabouts like someone who’d been there a while.

I was tagging along to his morning yoga session, a 2 hour self-led Ashtanga practice guided by a stoic man in a tiny, pink-walled, tile-floored room. We climbed wet tile steps up to a small apartment where the teacher was waiting at the door.

This unsmiling, mustachio’d Indian man was unimpressed. I made it through the first half of the primary series without drawing much correction (for those of you who aren’t familiar, Ashtanga's no gentle, easy yoga practice, and usually takes the form of a group self practice with a teacher to correct), but not having practiced the full series for months, I had forgotten most of the second half.

He did not hesitate to scold me for it. “You have forgotten! What you doing!” His voice echoed in the tiny room. He guided me from my fall from grace in two to three word commands: “Head to knee. Go back. Lie down. Vinyassa. Upavista. UPAVISTA.” When I misunderstood or didn’t meet his standards he sent me two to three word scoldings instead. “No, stop! Why like that. What you doing. Go back. Stand up.”

I took solace in hearing him scold the other three students a few times, too, maybe a little because it meant I wasn't the only failure, but more so because it helped me know it wasn’t personal, which seems to be one of the top few lessons Westerners tend to learn here. It’s not so serious is another one. I

’m starting to see from the eyes of local folks how comical it is, our deep attachment to being liked and feeling important. And the fluff we need to make ourselves feel this kind of special, more ok in a moment we can’t quite face. The extra words we use to cushion the space around the ones we mean. This teacher was not about to massage my head during savasana, wave essential oils in my face, or recite a quote he’d read on a yoga blog somewhere. He barely said anything all class, and I learned more about proper asana from him than I have from most of my Western teachers combined.

This is not to say there’s no place for a massage. I’m reminded here, though, especially as I start my 300 hr advanced yoga teacher training, that we (particularly white) Westerners are profoundly skilled at losing touch with the Why. We hear something and repeat. We become fixated on a way without understanding from whom, from where, it came. Both by circumstance and by training, we are largely out of touch with histories and origins, and out of practice in paying our respects.

As I think about what I am doing here, asking of myself daily the snarky question, “What are you even doing here?” and challenging myself to come up with a decent answer, I am committing to connecting to a deeper Why—to figuring out how I can serve others in their healing and connection in a way that pays attention to the root of the need, the history of the damage. This country and its people, my teachers, have so much to share if we’ll do the work to figure out how to listen.

Through yoga and Vipassana I’ve also learned the meaning of strictness as an act of compassionate love, and am starting to know it when I see it. It was there in the slight smile and bright warm eyes I caught a glimpse of when I thanked the teacher after class. He didn’t need words.

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