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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8 thoughts on “As I went down to the shala today…

  1. Fiona you write so beautifully. I feel quite tearful.
    I’m very proud of you and miss you and love you very much.
    Lots and lots of love,
    Your big sis, xXx

  2. Everything is fine, the blog is written neatly with all the description, but I get a sense of racism. Particularly with “Indian boys said ‘hi!'” If you guys dont like India, then dont come, and dont do yoga as well, because its not yours at all..its Indias tradition. If you cant embrace diversity then get out ! India is just not girls, its also boys. How long do we Indian boys have to keep quite against you people? How would you react when eastern european, brazilian, south american, thai girls say “ah sex mongering whites, gringos, shit as if thats the best thing in the world”
    You guys would never learn. Habit of racism is in your blood.

    • Hi Naveen.

      Thank you for reading my blog and for your comment. I’m sorry you feel this way, but I don’t consider anything I’ve written to be racist. I’m merely observing and reporting the facts. Many children, both boys and girls, often say ‘Hi’ or ‘Hello’ as I pass them on the street, but on this occasion they happened to by boys. They often find it funny and giggle together afterwards, but this isn’t because they’re Indian necessarily; merely because they’re children.

      As for the yoga, again I’m sorry you feel this way. My guru is Indian and his grandfather brought his teachings to the West a long time ago. He teaches us that yoga is for everyone; it’s not a possession that can be owned; it’s a spiritual practice and I believe that if everyone practised yoga, the world would be a better place.

      Hannah

  3. Why is it for everyone? Because we always had the tradition to welcome everyone. Indian religions are respectful for everyone, and not exclusive like you westners culture and religion is.

    Yoga teaches accepting yourself as you are and accepting others along the way too! It teaches respect towards others and embracing different cultures, but you guys dont do that, then how come you are Yogis!? I could report several incidences of you guys being prejudiced against us Indians. So, if Yoga comes from India, why are you guys so intolerant and disrespectful that it is India’s tradition and a gift to others! I am pretty sure if Yoga had been a american thing or a western thing coming from any white-superiority-attitude country, they wouldnt have let any others do it freely or adapt it. What about Jivamukti yoga..why those people patented it then if its for everyone, it clearly proves my theory that if something is in westerners hands they would not allow it to be adapted or practiced freely. Yoga is India’s tradition and its of Indians period!

    India is a very forgiving country for anyone, its my mother, I have lived there for 26 years before moving to embrace west, but what I see is lack of respect towards other cultures and specially for India because we are soft people, we dont retaliate back. I think its high time and people are getting aware of your deeds both from past and present. You guys feel pride in India bashing as if its your birth right, and as if you come from a very respected society. I know how pure western societies are and how they try to hide the truth. We see those hatred everyday here against us. Snobbish societies always collapse and look for something else in the end to find the peace.

  4. The problem is, you guys would never ever understand what yoga or what spirituality is for that matter. You will never understand that that by not treating every society as perfect or even imperfect or by not seeing things through advaitas angle, there could be no moksha, which I am sure you guys are not looking for. The main concentration is to bash one culture but to grasp every possible last drop of it, and then in guise of liberalism, free speech write or talk stuff about India and Indians. They say kind words go a long way, and so do words of hate.
    Well, I am sure it doesnt matter to you as your main objective is to get certified and to sell Indianess, just like others!
    Carry on doing it, but we are a very resilient race, many tried to wipe us out, but couldnt succeed, just keep that in mind.

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