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Recollections of an Ashtanga Yoga Practice in Mysore, India

By November 3, 2013 Yoga Shala

Standing in the Middle without Getting Kicked in the Face (Lisa in India blog entry Fall 2011) by Lisa Santa

At 5:30am Monday through Saturday, I meet my auto-rikshaw driver, Chikana, out by the back entrance. At 5:30am the traffic is pretty calm and we enjoy a nice ride to the KPYAI where I begin my asana practice in the shala. Students are given different start times for what I’m guessing is a variety of reasons, most likely so that everyone doesn’t arrive at the need for posture assists at the same time. (The teacher will only assist you if she thinks you can’t work something out on your own. This morning she actually said firmly to someone in her thick Indian accent, “I know… you want me to come over there…but I’m not going to.” I silently smiled.) The first students begin at 5pm. Dr. Jayashree helped to arrange a 6am start time for me (originally it was 5am) because it seemed impossible to get an auto-rikshaw driver at 4:30…plus it’s still quite dark out at 4:30 and going a bit later from here to Gokulum is safer. I did’t complain.

Today when I arrived the only open practice spaces were in the middle row. There are three long rows that accommodate about 10-12 people each. The front row seems to be occupied by the most advanced practitioners. I think people must set up on the back row to allow for visual and physical space between themselves and the front row. I’m not sure if Saraswati has them set up there on purpose or if that’s just where people tend to migrate. Because of my later arrival the only spaces left were behind several of the advanced practitioners, so I chose a spot, spread out my mat and went off to put my things in a locker.

On a side note, I find it very inspiring to be surrounded by such dedicated practitioners. I know some that feel intimidated by it because they see the “advanced” progress of others as something unattainable themselves. I remember hearing a performance by a very young and gifted flutist and an older observer saying something like, “Well, I should just quit.” Rather than being discouraged by the accomplishments of others, regardless of their age, isn’t it possible that we can find something in their skill and progress to inspire our own? I’m definitely one of the older people in the class, though there are several practitioners in their 30s. I doubt (but I never say never) that my body will ever let me attain some of the remarkable physical feats that I see and feel surrounding me in morning practice. But, I’m Ok with that. Hey, I’m in Mysore studying yoga!! Isn’t that cool enough!

When I came back, I stood at the front of my mat and began suyra namaskar (sun salutations). As I was moving through this warm up, I became very distracted by the person practicing in front of me. I wasn’t distracted by what he was doing as much as I was distracted by the proximity of it. Granted, he was tall, and probably needed to use more room than what his mat provided, but when I happened to be in uttanasana (standing forward bend) his heels were often right in front of my face (and significantly off of his mat) . I would see his feet and then suddenly, they would spring up into the air, swiping past my nose. Needless to say, this triggered a bit of concern around getting kicked in the face. I was doing my best to stay focused but all the way through suyra namaskar and the standing sequence I was quite distracted, so much to the point that I forgot the order of the standing sequence (its not that complicated) and was patiently corrected several times by Saraswati. But…what a perfect analogy for life.

We are often faced (no pun intended) with situations where others may make us uncomfortable on some level, whether it’s physically or emotionally. The “what ifs” come up to distract us from being fully present. “What if he kicks me in the face?” “What if she thinks I’m not smart enough?” “What if he doesn’t like me?” … and on and on. How can we allow ourselves to be among others who could potentially trigger our various fears and yet retain our ability to stay focused, present, and at ease without losing our awareness of real dangers so that we can move out of the way if need be? I think this is why the Hathayogapradipika (the guidebook for the physical practice of yoga) states: “He who practices hatha-yoga should…(be) situated in a place free from rocks, water and fire to the extent of a bow’s length and in a virtuous, well-ruled kingdom, which is prosperous and free of disturbances.” Perhaps I need a least a bow’s length between my mat and the mat of the practitioner in front of me. How big were bows in those days?

After a while, I finally decided that in order for this guy to be as advanced as he is in this particular style of yoga, he must have practiced in crowded asana classes for years. He knows exactly how much space he needs in order to facilitate his own experience and not injure those around him. I recognized that I was safe. Now admittedly, there were a lot of thoughts going on in my mind that had nothing to do with the Ashtanga sequence…thus, I made several mistakes. But the practice (abhyasah) involves developing the awareness to watch your thoughts in the present moment and to use discernment around how they affect your actions. If your thoughts aren’t going to move your practice forward, let them go. If your thoughts are telling you that you are about to be hit by a car (or kicked in the face) get out of the way!

Today Dr. Narasimhan was talking to us about vairaga (non-attachment) in the morning Sutras class. He said that those of us who had come from America to India to study are more practiced in non-attachment than he is. After all, we are living in a culture that constantly thrives on sensual attachment – luxurious homes, huge plates of food, fancy cars, designer labels, etc., and our choice to come to India to study yoga demonstrates that we are “letting go” of attachment. Dr. Narasimhan, as a spiritual teacher in India, is removed from all of those distractions. No doubt, this enhances his practice in other ways, but I think there are advantages to living right “in the middle” of it all, just like I was in the middle row of asana practice this morning amidst the energies of all those around me.

Living in “the middle” offers endless opportunities to practice focused awareness when faced with life’s potential physical and emotional distractions. And the result is a developed equanimity toward the constantly changing circumstances of our lives (happy or sad, success or failure, etc.). It’s what the Buddhists call the “Middle Way.”