Paramparā, lineage, the direct transmission of knowledge from teacher to student: this is what draws me to this special little neighborhood called Gokulam in the city of Mysore, three hours from Bangalore in the state of Karnataka in south India. Yoga is a sadhana which requires many years of practice following one method and one teacher. It is a great privilege to be here at the source of Ashtānga yoga. How many yoga lineages are still living? This is one of the very few. We don’t have much respect for lineage in the West, but in the East, there is a recognition that everything of value stems from it: be it your own family line or any great art or science (think of martial arts, tea ceremonies, Chinese medicine) or wise tradition (such as Buddhism) or spiritual text (consider the vast Hindu epics or even the Bible) are passed down, hopefully with no changes and intact, exactly as they were first transmitted. There is resistance to this in the West because we like to change things and mix them up to suit ourselves, despite the wisdom being centuries old. In this way we ruin things, water them down, lose knowledge and break lineages. This is why I am so grateful for the existence of Sharath Jois, who totally recognizes how fragile this Ashtānga paramparā has become. He often uses the analogy of the south Indian masala dosa dish: if you change even one ingredient, it is no longer a masala dosa. Same thing with Ashtānga Yoga. This foundation of having just one practice, one method, one teacher (which is really more than enough and is so simple) is difficult for those of us who live in a society where we are spoilt for choice, where we have agreed to acquire postures we do not yet understand or have no business doing, where we prefer to dig many shallow wells rather than steadily digging until the one source of water and of life is found. Coming to Mysore being reminded of the precision of this method, I always return with greater clarity, hope, and faith in this wonderful practice and with a promise in my heart to safeguard this paramparā and not change a thing, to teach as is taught at KPJAYI (Sri K Pattabhi Jois Ashtanga Yoga Institute).
Doing this practice in Mysore can be very intense. There is the teaching that goes on inside the shala, that magical space that holds so much prāna… and then there is India the teacher.
Although Gokulam is a lovely neighborhood (pleasant, relatively clean and green) and comfortable enough for those of us who have made wandering our mode of life, for many it is challenging. Certainly forget tempur pedic mattresses (comfortable beds are a rarity here), forget quiet (think fireworks, shouting men, dogs barking, cows mooing, dishes clanging all day & night), forget instant gratification (it may take two weeks for your internet to work or for your cell phone to be activated, two days for drinking water to be delivered, two hours in the post office to send a card), forget late nights (most of us rise around 2.15am for class). Also let go of any kind of driving system (dodging cars, cows and all manner of man, beast and vehicle) and alter your standards of cleanliness and order (or don’t, just be amazed). Yet somehow in this culture, the yoga seed sprouts. Maybe because we have to learn to wait, to sweat, to have patience, to be equanimous “sukha duhkha” amidst the great pleasures, pains and sicknesses, the poverty and wealth. We also learn flexibility of mind within this chaos (driving a scooter safely is testament to this). We cannot avoid the uncomfortable here, we have to endure it. Just like we have to learn to be uncomfortable if we are ever going to understand and persist in yoga asana. Our teacher is always reminding us of the yamas and niyamas and the need to adhere to them 24 hours a day. India teaches this too: we need to be clean, disciplined, study ourselves, surrender to our Guru and to God and find happiness in it all. Truly find the beauty and wonder in this craziness and colour! If you don’t learn to let go and surrender in India, you will cause yourself so much suffering. The oft used rhetorical question “what to do?” (which usually means “nothing can be done”) sums it all up…
I cherish the disorder in India, I am delighted by the cows and goats in the street, that there are temples and shrines around every corner with mystical early morning pujas where I might whisper my desires into Nandi’s ear and be blessed by a fire ceremony. I adore the fluffy idlis, supersweet chai and secret Indian breakfast spots. As much as I can be frustrated sometimes, I am more often than not ecstatic because indeed anything can happen. There is incredible inefficiency, but then wondrous efficiency too: for instance when I had no change to pay a delivery driver, he simply asked if I needed anything from the store and returned five minutes later with change and groceries…I love that I can feed all my leftovers to the cow outside. Not so fond of the thug monkeys, but accepting the good with the bad is part of our practice. Somehow India manages to accelerate all the lessons we need. In addition, being away from home, transplanted into an environment where our primary purpose is to practice and nothing else, helps with the transformative process that is this yoga. The shala is packed, there are quarrels over pushing, over mat space, over the eagerness of everyone to be here and to be assisted by Sharath. But it is also packed with prāna, with history, with the weight of this paramparā…and that outweighs everything, outweighs whatever discomforts we might encounter and is our sole reason for making this journey and the sacrifices many of us have to endure to be here.
Sharath likes to remind us too that if everything were easy and effortless, we would not appreciate it and there would be no fun. Maybe in the real world as relatively wealthy westerners we can avoid discomfort by paying to be comfortable, but as Sharath says, you cannot buy kapotāsana. To progress in the series you have to face some uncomfortable āsana and emotions.
On the sides of the street here there are mechanic stands everywhere that can fix your tyre when you get a puncture on your scooter or when your car breaks down. These mechanics may not have engineering degrees, but they have spent years working on vehicles and are very speedy in providing almost instant repairs. Sharath advised us to “be the mechanic, not the engineer” : practical experience is more useful than mere book knowledge. Being able to quote the texts and write Sanskrit is useless if you cannot apply it to your life and live in a good way. So our practice is about learning to breathe, looking within and becoming okay with being uncomfortable, being kind and good despite it all, without thinking too much or over-intellectualizing…both on our mats and when navigating life outside the shala.
What I usually find is that in the madness of India and the intensity of the practice, that it is only afterwards when I have left and returned to my daily existence back in Los Angeles that I see the transformations in my body and mind. That’s Ashtānga yoga for you: one does not often see it when it is happening, but the change happens within you slowly and you only notice it later. Sharath said recently at conference “Do you really think that doing these āsanas with breath and drsti, that nothing is happening?” It might appear that way sometimes, but over time a lot happens.
As many of us set off on our journeys homeward, Sharath told us to be our own temples, to remember the temple is within and to allow time for our practice to settle, distill and transform us (probably in ways unimaginable). I feel so blessed and grateful for the months I get to spend time in the same room as Sharath and in the powerful energy of the shala and experience this direct passing of knowledge from him to us…jai jai jai paramparā.