As I went down to the shala today…

Gokulam, MysoreI walk out of my apartment into the fierce late morning sunshine, my mat bag slung over my shoulder. I’ve been up for 4 hours already so it’s a very different feeling to the 5.30am starts and cold, dark walks to the shala I was used to back in Brighton. Due to the sheer number of students here this January, Sharath our teacher and guru, has had to provide more and more time slots, meaning he has to teach later and later into the day.

My start time is 10.30am, which is incredibly late for Sharath, considering he gets up around 1am to do his own practice and starts teaching at 4.30am. No wonder his wife has been bringing his breakfast (or should that be lunch?) into the shala for him each day.

I walk past the little park with its parched yellow grass, where an old man is hanging his washing over the railings. Some locals are milling around outside the small provision shop and 2 little Indian boys grin at me and say “Hi!” like it’s the funniest thing in the world. More washing hangs over the railings of a scruffy patch of land where kids play on a climbing frame, a man sits under a tree, and cats, goats and chickens strut about looking for food. I wonder if that’s the delightful cockerel I can hear from my apartment at 4am every morning…?

1st Main, Gokulam, MysoreI reach the main road and instantly become more alert. Buses, motorbikes and rickshaws whizz past me as I navigate my way around pedestrians, fruit sellers, lines of parked bikes and rickshaws and of course the odd cow here and there. There are rarely any pavements in India so there’s a constant battle for territory as to where the actual road ends and the side of the road begins. I spot a gap in the traffic and cross over with purposeful determination, as I now know that hesitation is generally a bad idea in India.

I pass the coconut stand where yogis are hanging out, drinking coconut water through straws and “complaining about their practice” as Sharath joked in last week’s conference. As I pass the rickshaw stand on the corner I hear the familiar “Madam, rickshaw?” I feel like calling his bluff and getting him to drop me at the KPJAYI shala, which is all of 2 minutes away.

Outside the shala more coconuts are being consumed and more tales of people’s practices are being recounted. I walk through the big black gate and add my sandals to the growing pile of Birkenstocks, Havaianas, Merrells and other traveller staples strewn around the entranceway. Climbing the steps to the familiar wooden doorway, the anticipation begins to rise as I feel the yogic energy emanating from the building.

KPJAYI, MysoreI open the door and the prana hits me like a wall of heat. And when I say prana I mean hot, humid, sweaty energy filled with the physical exertion of asana practice and the promise of something more. A tribe of yogis (can you think of a better collective noun?!) look up at me from where they sit cross legged on the floor of the foyer, eagerly awaiting their turn. A few familiar faces smile or give me a knowing nod and I smile back, feeling a satisfied glow of appreciation for being part of the global Ashtanga community. I join them on the floor, noting my place in the queue, and gaze through the doors of the shala trying to catch a glimpse of the other practitioners – the only time you get to watch other people’s asana practice.

Sharath’s familiar call of “One more!” breaks through the silence and another yogi jumps up to enter the shala, keen to get on their mat and start their practice. Sometimes he calls “One more back!” or “One more small!” and you know you’ll be at the back of the room or at the front on the stage.

He comes over to the doorway looking for a small person to fill the gap and asks 2 people to stand up so he can assess their height. “You” he instructs. Then to the rest of the tribe he asks “10.30?” and a few people put their hands up. “10.45?” and more people raise their hands. Then he looks over at a line of us at the back and asks “11?” (I was initially given 11am but got bumped up to 10.30am.) We nod and he lets out a little laugh. “You had breakfast?” he asks, looking at me. I nod uncertainly and he scolds “No. No breakfast.” I protest that it was only very small. Well, you can hardly call a tiny banana and a few nuts breakfast, now, can you? And it was 3 hours ago. I’m sure I’d keel over if I didn’t eat something before such a late practice time, so I make a mental note to keep schtum about breakfast in future.

KPJAYI Registration CardFinally, my turn comes and I leap up at Sharath’s call. I step into the shala and look over at him as he points to a girl being pressed in a forward bend – the last posture before the finishing sequence. I pick my way across the mats, trying to avoid people’s heads and limbs as I go. I estimate there are around 80 people in the room, all in different states of asana and vinyasa. And the only sound is their breath. Just one collective, deep, yogic breath. It feels so unifying.

I roll out my mat, remembering to place my registration card underneath, then pick my way over to the changing rooms where there are more yogis in various states of finishing postures or taking rest. I find my way back to my mat, chant the opening mantra under my breath, begin my ujjayi breathing and start my practice. Ekam inhale… dve exhale…

Sharath can be heard periodically as he moves around the room, giving instructions and providing adjustments. “Take shoulder stand inside.” “Whose bag is this? Take inside.” “One more!” “Walk. Walk your hands.” “One more 10.45.” “Change your place.” “You, Japanese, change your place.” “Touch your chin.” “Straight legs.” “One more small!” “You, stop, I told you to stop.” “Two more!”

And all the while I try to keep my dristi, to not get involved, to remain focussed on my practice alone. The only people I’m aware of are those next to me, as we negotiate our way through the asana sequence, making allowances for walls, the stage, bumpy carpet terrain, and each other as we encroach onto our neighbours’ mats. The man in front of me, however, seems oblivious to anyone around him and takes Chakrasana (backward roll) without moving forward at all or looking to see where he’s going. He rolls halfway down my mat and luckily I’m able to move out of the way as his rear end comes hurtling towards me. If I’d been in a different posture I swear he would have rolled right over me! He repeats this for the next Chakrasana and I laugh inwardly to myself, thinking “Welcome to my mat, please come on in, perhaps you’d like some chai?!”

Drinking a coconut By the time I finish there are only a handful of people left in the room – one of the nice things about practising so late. I touch the earth to give thanks, roll up my mat and head to the changing rooms. As I step back outside into the glaring sunshine and head to the coconut man, I pinch myself as I remember I’m in India. In Mysore no less. How did I get here again…? All I know is: right here, right now, at this moment in time, I can’t think of anywhere on earth I’d rather be.

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The Long Bumpy Road to Mysore

Bangalore AirportAs I exit through the arrivals gate at Bengalaru (Bangalore) airport, I feel a surge of nervous anticipation. I don’t think I’ve ever been met by someone holding up my name as you so often see at arrivals gates.

I push my trolley over to the line of Indian men behind the barrier and walk along the line, scanning the names they’re holding up. My heart sinks as I realise my name’s not there. I go along the line a second time to double check. Nope.

I consider my options. I could just get a taxi but I’d probably have to haggle over the price and they might not know the place I’m trying to get to. I double checked with the Mystic School before I left – the place I would call home for the next 3 months – and they confirmed a car would definitely be here to collect me. I decide to try and call them, even though it would probably cost an arm and a leg from my English phone. I have 2 numbers: a landline and a mobile. I try the landline a couple of times but it doesn’t seem to work. I’m not sure if I’m meant to dial a code or not so I go over to an information desk and the lady says the mobile number should work fine. I dial it and thankfully get through first time (but at what cost?!)

Shashi, the owner of the Mystic School, informs me that his driver should be there holding up my name. I hang up and push my trolley down the line again, scouring the list of names. Some of them have changed but my name’s still not there, and some of the men are starting to laugh at me. I keep my cool and wait over to one side again. Luckily I have my hand on my backpack as I feel my silenced phone vibrating. It’s Shashi saying his driver is just parking and will be 5 minutes. I feel reassured and wait in a spot where I can scan the crowd for new arrivals.

My name sign5 minutes go by. 10 minutes. 15. It’s after 8pm, I’m tired and just want to get on the road as I know we have a 3-4 hour drive ahead of us. I text Shashi saying he still hasn’t turned up. Then, just as I’m about to call him again, a slightly plump and harrassed-looking Indian man comes puffing towards me out of the crowd. We make eye contact and he holds up a sign saying “Mystic School – Hannah Moss”. Hurrah! My saviour! We both smile and he comes over to pick up my big rucksack. It’s one of those hybrid bags where you can zip the straps away so it’s currently more like a holdall and quite cumbersome to carry. I apologise for it being so heavy but he struggles on and I follow him over to the car park, wondering why we didn’t just keep the trolley.

After a few minutes he gives up, dropping my bag by the side of the road and telling me to wait there while he gets the car. As I stand there watching the numerous cars and buses negotiating their way around the airport roads, I’m suddenly hit by the unmistakable stench of shit. I look down and see a hole in the tarmac right next to me, which presumably leads directly to the sewers below. I imagine a cartoon scene where wafts of vapour rise out and flies are buzzing around the hole. I can’t exactly say I’ve missed that smell but there’s something very Indian about it that makes me feel like I’ve definitely arrived!

Ravi, my driver, pulls up in a very smart, large, air conditioned car that looks brand new and I later find out how lucky I am compared to some of the old bangers my fellow yogis travelled in – some didn’t even have seat belts! I discover that it’s taken Ravi nearly 5 hours to get here from Mysore and now he has to turn around and go all the way back again. I later discover that he hasn’t just made this journey once today but twice! Two 9-hour round trips in one day! No wonder he’s got a bit of a sweat on. He switches on the aircon and I’m extra grateful for having been reunited with my possum fur poncho in the Delhi airport toilets.

And so begins our 4-hour drive to Mysore. Now, if you’ve never driven on Indian roads, or any roads in Asia for that matter, it may be difficult to fully grasp the picture I’m about to paint, but I’ll do my best.

Indian roadsAs we hurtle out of the airport we find ourselves on a 3-lane highway that has very clear road markings dividing the lanes. This doesn’t make a blind bit of difference though, as nobody pays any attention to them. There are cars, buses and trucks veering all over the place, weaving in and out of each other and cutting each other up. Ravi gets straight in there, straddling 2 lanes, honking his horn and driving like a pro. Streams of men and women  walk up the side of the highway, practically in the middle of the lane, without a care in the world.

As the road turns into more of a track, full of bumps and potholes, it almost seems more appropriate that there are no road markings. With no lane divisions it doesn’t matter where you drive and it turns into a complete free-for-all. For 4 hours we continue like this: swerving, cutting in, getting cut up, overtaking willy-nilly this side or that, driving up each other’s rear ends and sometimes even driving off road in the dirt and dust to get round queues of beautifully decorated trucks waiting at junctions or level crossings. There are people everywhere: in cars and buses, hanging off trucks, 3 or 4 straddling each motorbike, wandering across roads and junctions. Dogs amble into the road making us swerve around them, or else chase after motorbikes until they can no longer keep up.

I wonder how Ravi manages it. He seems like a very experienced driver for which I’m eternally grateful, but it must take such a huge amount of concentration and he’s been driving for about 13 hours already today! I see a sign reading “Follow lane discipline. Please drive carefully” and nearly burst out laughing.

Horn OK PleaseAs you quickly realise on Indian roads, it is customary to use your horn as a driving tool. Most of the trucks have signs on the back saying “Blow horn” or “Sound horn ok” and some even say “Use dippers at night”. I notice that Ravi is doing this a lot – flashing people with his lights. I ask him why he does this and he replies in his best broken English “Means I am going going. Going fast. You stay left, I stay right.”

At first glance (or rather sound) you might be forgiven for thinking that constantly blowing your horn means you’re letting people in, signifying that they can go in front of you. But, oh no. Not in India. In India you quickly discover it’s every man for himself. British politeness just doesn’t exist. If you want something you have to take it. I’m not saying Indians are rude, it’s just they have a certain assertiveness that a shy, retiring English wallflower might find very difficult to get used to.

Other vehicles constantly cut us up and almost clip the front of our car. I’m glad I’m not a nervous passenger and have faith in Ravi’s driving; I wonder if anything more than my occasional sharp intake of breath might be considered rude. At one point someone cuts us up badly and we very nearly have a nasty collision, despite the constant horn blowing. Ravi has to brake sharply, then laughs and says “He is coming”. No shit. On another occasion a man staggers across the road, right in our path. Ravi slams on his brakes again and honks the horn fiercely at him. He doesn’t seem to take much notice and Ravi mutters something about too much drinking.

Indian decorated truckNow there’s just one last thing I need to mention about the drive from Bangalore to Mysore, and that’s the speed bumps. It seems bizarre that they should have such things given the sheer amount of traffic on the roads, which hinders any hope of travelling above about 50mph. But have them they do. In abundance. Sometimes they’re just a gentle bump in the road so we have to gently slow down to go over them. But other times there are 6 sharp ridges in a row. Yes, 6. The front wheels go over: bumpety, bumpety, bumpety, bumpety, bumpety, bump. Then the back wheels go over: bumpety, bumpety, bumpety, bumpety, bumpety, bump. And if you happen to be drifting off to sleep at this point, I can guarantee you won’t be asleep for long.

I’m just wondering how Ravi even sees when the bumps are coming, when one of them sneaks up on him unexpectedly. He doesn’t have time to slow down and slams on the brakes as we career over the bump, banging the bottom of the car as we go. He makes some sort of gentle exclamation but this is the loudest reaction I’ve heard from him during the entire journey.

Despite the alarmingly chaotic car ride, I find myself smiling inwardly to myself the whole way. I’m feeling so happy and calm and can’t believe I’m actually here. Everything seems so familiar somehow. Same same but different. And as we pull up outside the Mystic School in Mysore just after midnight, I feel so grateful to be here: to have the means to be able to get here in the first place; to have had a safe (for the most part) and comfortable journey; to have arrived in one piece. And, as we wake up Ravi’s colleague to let us in, I step through the doors of the Mystic School, intrigued to see the place I’ll be calling home for the next 3 months.

India, How I’ve Missed You!

Mysore MagicOne of the hottest topics of conversation on any Ashtangi’s lips is Mysore. Have you been to Mysore yet? When are you next going to Mysore? What’s it like in Mysore?

Mysore is the equivalent of Mecca for Ashtangis. It’s the global hub of the Ashtanga community because it’s the home of our Guru, R Sharath Jois, grandson of the late great Sri K Pattabhi Jois, who founded the Ashtanga Yoga Research Institute in Mysore in 1948. Each year thousands of people come from all over the world to practice with Sharath and his mother Saraswathi.

I’d been practicing over four and a half years before I finally made the trip to Mysore. The minimum you can practice for is 1 month, with 3 months being the maximum. So if you work full-time it can be a difficult thing to organise, particularly if you’re keen to follow the almost obligatory one-trip-a-year suggestion. I was in the middle of a life-changing process at the time so I decided to go the whole hog. I quit my job, left my rented flat and left the UK for 6 months, planning to spend the first 3 in Mysore.

So once I’d planned my itinerary, registered at the shala, booked my flights, applied for my visas and got my vaccinations (amazing how simple it all sounds now!), I said my goodbyes and stepped on a plane to India. My journey was fairly uneventful – until I arrived on Indian soil of course!

My Mum had told me about the brand new airport at Delhi and that you no longer had to travel to the domestic terminal, which was a relief after remembering my very first challenging experience of arriving in India with a friend 19 years ago. Still, as I emerged into the bustling departure area I wasn’t sure exactly what had changed! There was the same confusing signage everywhere, the same groups of men idly hanging around and the same general chaos and disorder. I headed towards the Thomas Cook money exchange, as I knew I’d need some cash and was taken in by the sign warning “Last point to change money”. An American woman with her son in the queue in front of me seemed more than a little harassed. After sending him off to do something and shouting after him, she turned to me and said something conspiratorially about the typical frustrations of Indian bureaucracy: they were slow, disorganised and making us fill out some stupid form. I smiled and nodded, thinking it had actually been remarkably quick and smooth, and feeling proud of my patience and calmness. I wonder how much of that is down to my yoga practice…?

I changed £50 and only got Rs4500 at a rate of 95, which of course I later found out was daylight robbery. If I’d waited until I got into the domestic terminal I’d find an exchange rate of 109 rupees to the pound!

Domestic DeparturesBut first I had to find the domestic terminal. Aha! My first challenge. I asked the money exchange man and he told me to exit the building, turn left and go up one level. Seemed simple enough. I exited, turned left and found myself in a bus station. Hmm, that didn’t seem quite right. I asked someone else and he pointed the other way. Aah so he had meant the other left! After following some very confusing signs, I eventually found the domestic terminal, which basically consists of 8 arrival gates. Err, what about departures? There are signs to 2 ‘Airport Ticket Desks’ at either end of the concourse so maybe that’s them. I check the display screens, find my flight and head towards Airport Ticket Desks B at the other end.

Through the foyer area I head towards the only doorway, which I assume is the entrance to the airport, even though the sign reads ‘Visitors Lounge’. A female official asks to see my ticket and passport so I show her my STA e-ticket clearly stating the Sahara Airlines flight number, time and destination: Bangalore. She looks confused and asks “What is this?”, pointing to the airline name, “There is no Sahara Airlines”. I explain that I’ve seen the flight details on the screen outside. She says something to a colleague in an Indian language (there are so many I don’t like to assume it was Hindi) and then repeats “There is no Sahara Airlines from this airport, you cannot use this ticket”. I explain again that I’ve seen the flight on the screen and suggest maybe it’s Sahara in conjunction with another airline or something. I start getting mildly anxious and ask “Well what am I supposed to do?” She replies “I’m sorry Madam” and dismisses me.

Departure Display Screens Right. Fine. I feel a lump appearing in my throat and mild panic rising in my chest. But miraculously I manage to find my calm. I’m sure there’s a rational explanation. I go back out to the display screens and double check the details. Now I see the airline is listed as ‘JetKonnect’. Aha! Something to do with Jet Airlines I cunningly deduce. Turning on my heel with a renewed sense of purpose, I head back to the female official and smugly inform her of this news. See? I wasn’t making it up! She offhandedly tells me to speak to the JetKonnect staff and waves me away. I turn back to the ticket desks in the small entrance foyer but none of them say JetKonnect so I ask at the Air India desk as it’s the only one that’s manned. The lady there tells me to go to Airport Ticket Desks A, right at the other end of the concourse.

Right. Fine. Well at least we seem to be getting somewhere. I get to the other end and see the JetKonnect desk which has a lady behind it and a sign saying “Closed”. Great. I ask a man at the Jet Airways desk next door. He takes my e-ticket and shows it to two colleagues. I hear the word “JetKonnect” a couple of times and something about my ticket seems to amuse them. When I hand him my passport in its pink and white spotty cover with embossed flip flops, he’s even more amused and has a little play with the flowers stitched onto the flip flops. Then, finally, he hands me the piece of paper I need to get through to the next level of this hilarious check-in game.

Oh India how I’ve missed you! I do love you so!

I’m allowed through the visitors lounge and have to show my documents to another official to get out again. I’m 4 hours early but I check in anyway, expecting to pay Rs1250 for my excess baggage, as this internal flight only permits 15kg per person. I was going to take the luggage label off my backpack but I’m glad I left it on, as the check-in man spots it and asks if I’ve come straight from London today. He makes a phone call, taps on his computer and hands me my boarding pass. “It’s ok?” I ask. He explains that international passengers travelling on the same airline get the same allowance for the domestic flight. Result! Thank goodness it was Jet Airways and thank goodness I left the luggage label on.

I knew the Angels were looking out for me – again. But what with leaving my poncho in the loo (more on this below) and dropping my padlock keys in the queue at Heathrow, I think they’re gently reminding me to be more vigilant and aware.

I head through security and into the modern departure lounge full of shops, restaurants and laptop charging stations: a far cry from the domestic terminal I remember. After a quick comfort break I head upstairs to the food court and weigh up my options. Should I get into the spirit of things and order a curry or make the most of the Western food while I can? I spot a Costa Coffee and check it out, more out of intrigue than anything else. Most of the food items seem very familiar but with an Indian twist. Same same but different. I order a ‘Roasted Paneer Hunger Wrap’ and peach iced tea and sit at a table overlooking the lounge below, as far as I can get from the blaring TV screen.

My thoughts turn to the iced tea I’m drinking and I’m suddenly aware that I’m drinking ice. I wonder if it’s made from filtered water? I make a mental note to be more careful in future. Then I remember I haven’t taken my probiotics or vitamins since I left home, which makes me reach for my water bottle. Hang on, where is my water bottle? Oh no! I realise the carrier bag containing my water bottle plus my beautiful (and very expensive) possum fur poncho that my sister had shipped all the way from New Zealand was missing! I must have left it in the ladies. I finish the last mouthful of my wrap, guzzle down the iced tea and head back to the toilets. Thankfully the toilet attendant had found it and put it to one side. I breathe a huge sigh of relief and make another mental note to be more vigilant.

Surya NamaskarAs I head towards the gate I come across an enormous sculpture that appears at first glance to be several male athletes in different sporting positions. But as I get closer I realise they’re doing yoga. It’s the Surya Namaskar, or sun salutation, sequence. I take some photos and remark how things have changed since I was last here 14 years ago, and how everyone seems to be cashing in on the growing global phenomenon of yoga.

On the internal flight to Bengalaru (Bangalore) I realise you have to pay for food and the menu reminds me of an Easyjet flight, but again with an Indian twist. Same same but different. I ask for a spinach & creamed corn sandwich but the flight attendant informs me they’ve run out. “How about this one?” I ask, pointing to something called ‘Bhutte De’, the only other option under Vegetarian Sandwiches. He apologises and offers a chicken sandwich, so I explain that I’m vegetarian. He seems surprised and says “Oh, are you into yoga or something?” I laugh and say well, yes, as a matter of fact. He explains that he saw me taking a photo of the Surya Namaskar sculpture in the airport.

Surya NamaskarAnd in that moment I don’t think I’ve ever felt more like a statistic. Just another Western vegetarian yogi coming to India to practice, to become spiritually awakened and to ‘find myself’. But I don’t mind. No matter how cliched it sounds, for the first time in a long time I feel truly content. I already feel like I belong. Ok, I’m currently only sitting in a plane flying over India, but I know I’m heading to a place where I’m meant to be. And that’s a great feeling to have.

However, before I can get to Mysore I have to endure a 4-hour taxi journey, so I know that more fun and games are on their way! In my next post I’ll share the delights of driving on India’s insane roads. Deathtrap doesn’t even cover it!