Vipassana: Taming the Monkey Mind

Pagoda containing meditation cells

Pagoda containing meditation cells

Ever since I heard about Vipassana meditation I’ve wanted to try it out. The introductory courses consist of meditating ten hours a day for ten days at a time, in complete silence, with no reading, writing, physical exercise, contact with the outside world or even eye contact allowed. I relished the challenge and wanted to see how I’d cope, not only with the physical pain, but with the mental discipline too (or should that be anguish, or even torture?!)

I’d never gotten around to it in England, so when the opportunity arose to take a course in India – where Vipassana originates from – I jumped on it. The only dates I could find that matched my schedule were at a centre called Dhammalaya, near Kolhapur in Maharashtra, which just happened to be the same centre a fellow traveller had told me about, so I took this as a sign and applied straight away. She said the place was lovely, and she wasn’t wrong.

Exploring Dhammalaya

Prison cell block aka our rooms!

Prison cell block aka our rooms!

The Deccan Vipassana Research Centre, or Dhammalaya, is in a lovely rural setting surrounded by trees and hills. All the communal areas – the meditation hall, the dining hall, and even the arched stone structures housing the drinking water – are covered in colourful mosaic tiling, which is so simple and yet so beautiful. In the middle stands a stunning gold-spired pagoda full of meditation ‘cells’, which again is tiled in colourful mosaic work.

A small wooded area lies to one side, where I started taking short walks in the breaks and managed to spot peacocks, monkeys, bunny rabbits, bats and numerous species of birds – that is, until I got told off as it’s apparently out of bounds and full of snakes! Turns out the ‘walking track’ that appeared to lead into the woods just referred to a patch of gravel, and after doing gentle laps of it every day it started to feel a lot like a prison exercise yard! In fact, considering you’re not supposed to leave until the ten days are up, and the tiny individual meditation rooms are called ‘cells’, the prison analogy seems quite apt.

Daily Routine

Our strict daily schedule

Our strict daily schedule

Our days were super structured and there were lots of rules to follow. The morning bell would go at 4am and we’d be on our cushions by 4.30am ready for our first two-hour sit of the day. Then it was time for breakfast (much to the delight of our rumbling tums), which was usually some spicy local dish made from rice, pulses or grains (and occasionally idli as a special treat), plus strong, milky Indian tea (thankfully they offered a sugar-free version, otherwise my teeth would not have lasted) and a piece of fruit. Now, strictly speaking, only the old students are meant to have fruit at breakfast, with only the new students being allowed fruit at tea-time, but they seemed to bend the rules where this was concerned – which suited me just fine!

After breakfast we’d have about an hour’s rest when we could shower (Indian style, i.e. a bucket and scoop), do washing, go for a short walk (with the snakes, ahem) or just rest. I often took this opportunity to do a few stretches to ease my poor muscles, or else just do absolutely nothing at all – which is a very good practice for me I’ve found. The next three hours would be group or individual sittings and, from the third day, was the start of our adhittana (strong determination) sittings, where we’d have to sit in the same posture for one hour without moving or opening our eyes. I was amazed that I was able to do this straight away simply by following the method we’d been taught, which is based on observing all bodily sensations objectively and not thinking of them as pain or pleasure.

Women’s meditation hall

Lunch was at 11am – usually a substantial, delicious thali – followed by an hour and a half’s rest time. We then had another one hour adhittana session plus a further three hours of group or individual sittings. For me these were the hardest sessions, as I’d feel hot and sleepy after lunch and I often found it really hard to concentrate. The afternoons could really drag, but the light at the end of the tunnel was looking forward to the delicious tea-time snacks at 5pm! You don’t get dinner on a Vipassana retreat, but as new students we’d get tea, fruit and lots of delicious churmuri, a mixture of slightly curried puffed rice, chickpeas, peanuts, curry leaves and black mustard seeds. I’m not sure I would have survived without it!

Our third and final adhittana session of each day would be 6-7pm, after which we’d divide into different rooms to watch a videotaped discourse by the guru, S N Goenka, himself. These were provided in Hindi, English and even Russian, as there seemed to be quite a group of Russian-speaking students on the retreat. This type of division was very prominent throughout the course, as they made distinctions between men and women (who are always separated on Vipassana retreats to avoid distraction); old and new students (different rules apply to each); and locals and foreigners (different registration processes and language divisions).

I found Goenka to be a very gentle but determined, very inspiring and very lovely man, and was sad to discover he’d only passed away some six months before. His discourses were very thought provoking, often moving, and usually made complete sense. The technique of Vipassana meditation is actually very scientific, based on the science of mind and matter. I had no idea what to expect before I took the course, and was surprised to discover that it’s all based on bodily sensations. If we train our mind to observe first our breath and then all our bodily sensations objectively, with equanimity, we can learn to live without craving, aversion or ignorance.

Drinking water

Drinking water

As the Buddha realised, cravings and aversions are at the root of all our problems, as they create desire, greed, anger, frustration, fear and a whole host of other strong, unnecessary emotions. All our misery essentially comes from desire – desire for wanted things to happen or for unwanted things not to happen. If we can control this desire, by controlling our cravings and aversions, then we can be free from this misery. This is just the tip of the iceberg and the teachings obviously go into a lot more detail, but this is the essence of Vipassana, with a strong focus on anicca (impermanence), i.e. the natural law that everything changes. Nothing ever stays the same and we can experience this by observing our bodily sensations.

After watching the discourse we’d have one more short sit, a chance to speak to the teacher in private to ask questions about our practice, and then we’d finally collapse into bed at 9.30pm, ready to start all over again just six and a half hours later. For me the routine wasn’t that different to what I’m used to: getting up before sunrise to practice yoga, only having two main meals per day, and going to bed early – but I know some people found it very difficult to get used to. One thing I continued to find amusing every day was the ‘salad’ that one of the workers had mentioned at the time of registration, saying they’d included it as they know how us Westerners like to eat salad. I nearly burst out laughing when I discovered this meant a few old dried-up chunks of cabbage, carrot and cucumber! Whenever I ate it I could hear one of my friends back home saying sarcastically “Mmm, delicious salad!”

Female residential quarters

Female residential quarters

During the actual meditation sessions we’d hear the most wonderful sounds, especially at dawn and dusk – peacocks mewling to each other across the valley, geckos cackling both inside and outside the hall, bats screeching and all sorts of birds tweeting, chattering and cawing. There was also lots of chanting, gongs and bell-ringing coming from another temple nearby (which got rather confusing at times), and even some pumping dance music from the same temple! One afternoon there was a mini storm going on with thunder, lightning and deafening wind and rain on the roof of the hall, but by the time we got outside again it had completely passed over, everything was bone dry and there was no sign it had ever happened!

We’d also hear audio recordings at the beginning of many of the sessions, with Goenka chanting and giving us instructions and reminders about the techniques we should be practising. At times his voice became unbearably irritating but at others I found it incredibly reassuring and motivating. The chanting became so familiar and I can still hear his repetitive, melodious voice in my head… Anicca… Anicca… Anicca…!

Bringing the Practice to a Close

The beautiful main gong

The beautiful main gong

On the last day we were able to break the vow of silence, which is something I found very odd and don’t think I was quite ready for. The retreat centre suddenly became a very different place and I felt like I was just another traveller again, sharing stories and experiences with others. It had been a very intense experience, which I’d shared with these 25 other women – both Indians and foreigners – but I could see how easy it would be to lose everything we’d just been learning and practising. Trying to use words to describe our experiences seemed futile and meaningless and by the end of the day I was amazed at how exhausted I felt from all the excitement, commotion and verbal activity.

Travelling back to the city of Kolhapur the following day was another level of weirdness for me. Suddenly we were back to the traffic, the busyness, the noise and the smells of typical India and I felt very discombobulated indeed. Some of my fellow Vipassana students were saying how different they felt – calmer, more peaceful, less stressed – but I seemed to be having the opposite experience. I’d been feeling very happy and contented when I started the retreat, after leaving the cosy bubble of Mysore; but when I came out I felt agitated and harassed and had to hide away in my hotel room for most of the day to recharge my batteries and come back to myself. Maybe the ‘recovery period’ that so many people seem to go through after leaving Mysore had been put on hold when I started the retreat and was only just showing itself now.

A gentle daily reminder

A gentle daily reminder

In any case, two and a half weeks later I just about feel ‘normal’ again, after two days of travelling from Kolhapur > Pune > Delhi > Bangkok > Chiang Mai; recovering from a hideous bout of food poisoning as soon as I got to Delhi (Delhi Belly quite literally); getting used to a new city, let alone a new country; and then getting immediately stuck into a five-week Thai massage course in Chiang Mai. Phew! The Vipassana feels a long time ago already, but I’m hoping I can retain some of the stillness and serenity and start to incorporate the practice into my daily life once things settle down. I have no doubt that a consistent daily practice would be incredibly beneficial both for myself and all those around me.

My Observations

These are some of the key things that struck me during the retreat:

  • Personalised plates, cups & spoons

    There are many similarities between Vipassana and Ashtanga Yoga: the five Buddhist precepts are pretty much the same as Patanjali’s five yamas; you need a committed daily practice in order to start really noticing and appreciating the benefits of the practice; the practice will start changing your perspective and priorities in life; you have absolutely no idea what experience you’ll have each practice session until you get on the meditation cushion or yoga mat.

  • With no men around, all the women covered in modest clothing and no scantily-clad yogis around, i.e. with no-one to compare myself to, I discovered a new-found love and appreciation for my own body.
  • We weren’t allowed to wear any jewellery and had to dress modestly, covering our shoulders and knees as is customary for Indian women. I realised how much my jewellery is an expression of my personality, but not being able to wear it meant there were fewer differences between each of us and I started caring less about what other people thought of me. Not being able to speak to each other was also instrumental in this: without hearing anyone else’s words, tone of voice, or opinions, it became irrelevant what they thought as I was never going to know!
  • One of the things I was most worried about was the physical pain of sitting in meditation for ten hours a day, but I was amazed at how quickly the numbness and pins & needles disappeared. I’m sure my daily yoga practice helped, and I’m not saying I didn’t have any pain at all, but it was much more manageable that I’d thought. The mental pain on the other hand….
  • The passing of time became a very strange concept indeed. Days of the week and calendar dates no longer existed, there was just Day 1, Day 2, etc. Sometimes during meditation an hour would feel like an eternity and I’d be willing it to end; other times two hours would breeze by and suddenly we were heading towards the end of the course.
  • Breaking the noble silence

    Breaking the noble silence

    I found it fascinating watching my emotions, which were often very unexpected. One minute something hilarious would pop into my mind and I’d have to stop myself bursting into laughter; the next minute a wave of sadness would rise up from within me and I’d burst into sobs. Luckily this only happened in the cells but it was still a job to keep from disturbing anyone.

  • I discovered I have something of a split personality. I seem to have these two voices in my head; one is like an unruly child, always talking, commentating or even singing along to whatever’s happening; the other is like a patient parent constantly trying to ‘sshhh’ it and calm it down. Is that normal or is it just me…?!
  • I realised how much of a stickler I am for rules. If rules have been set there must be a reason for them, so I believe they should be followed, particularly somewhere that deserves the utmost respect, like on a meditation retreat. So it was interesting to notice my frustration when people turned up late for a sit, left the hall before the gong, or wore inappropriate clothing (much to the distaste of some of the Indian women I noticed). However, I didn’t seem to mind the disregard for the no-morning-fruit-for-new-students rule at all!
  • The most important thing I think I’ll take away from the experience is something that I knew already on an intellectual level, but which somehow seemed to get driven home and made so much more sense to me during the course:

All our misery and happiness is created inside of us; it has nothing to do with anything or anyone outside of ourselves. We cannot control other people, we can only control how we react to them. 

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Searching for the Unsearchable

candle_lit_heart_by_prometheus_nike-d4it3woThis week it’s time to go deeper. I could tell you about the last kirtan of the season that descended into a surreal open mic session. Or about finally discovering the actual, official Cauvery government arts and crafts emporium, not just the fake ones spelt with a ‘K’. Or even about the insane amount of dosas I shared with a friend one evening whilst sampling a ‘sharing platter’, which turned out to be 7 actual separate dosas – we were literally dosa drunk by the end of it!

I could tell you about all those things, but I won’t. Because I’d feel like a fraud. I’d feel like I’m missing the bigger picture. Or perhaps hiding from the bigger picture behind all the nice, fluffy, easy bits of everyday life here in Mysore. Which is easily done. In fact most of us do it every day of our lives. It’s much easier to live on the surface of life where things are clear, practical, rational and straightforward (at least most of the time). Why would we want to dive into ourselves where it’s dark, scary and we can’t reach the bottom? As Sharath said in conference recently, “Many people get scared: ‘Oh, I still the mind, I go crazy!’” It’s the same principle here. What if I don’t like what I find? What if I can’t control my inner self? What if I go searching and find there’s nothing really there?

But, to turn that on its head, what if there is something so beautiful and divine inside you that its light could brighten your entire world? What if you spent your whole life never really knowing or being in touch with your soul essence, your soul purpose? What if you spent your whole life feeling like there was something missing, like there must be more to life than this, like something just doesn’t feel quite right – and all because you never looked within, never looked deep enough to find out?

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Completing Angelic Reiki levels 1&2

I’ve heard it said many times that Ashtanga is not the kind of practice that attracts people who are happy in their lives; people who are content with what they have and aren’t interested in finding deeper meaning. Most of the people who come to this practice seem to be searching for something. Perhaps for deeper meaning to their lives. Perhaps for more of a spiritual connection. Perhaps for their soul purpose. Perhaps for enlightenment. We get on the mat day after day after day, practising asana after asana, focussing on our breath, practising mindfulness, studying ancient texts and trying to be a better person. We wonder where all this is going to lead us and continually remind ourselves of Guruji‘s mantra “Practice, practice and all is coming”.

Sometimes this search is exhausting so we seek refuge in the lighter side of life: hanging out with friends; treating ourselves to nice food; and doing things we love that make us feel good. But for me, the last couple of weeks have been a time of going deeper, of allowing space for this search to continue. I had a Vedic astrology reading, then I went for a tarot reading, then I was drawn to an Angelic Reiki course, and most recently I decided to take an Intuitive Living & Psychic Development course. The momentum has been building and I’ve recently had some very intense experiences.

IMG_2699_SmallThe messages are coming through loud and clear for me, as the same themes keep coming up again and again throughout these different exploratory mediums. Intellectually speaking, my rational mind knows what the issues are and how they impact me on a day-to-day basis, but I still struggle with how to resolve them, how to let them go, how to get over them and move on. One very poignant moment for me was during the intuition course. We were doing a meditative exercise where we were focussing on our deepest inner selves and I had this sudden feeling of dropping, as if I was literally dropping into my body, or into my soul. And then a message appeared, as clear as day, that said “You already have all the answers. You can stop searching now.”

I felt a sense of release and a brief lifting. Oh what a relief! Ok, so there’s nothing to do, nothing to look for any more. But then of course my ego or rational mind kicks in and starts with the “Yes, but what does that mean? You don’t really have all the answers do you? Where are they then? What are they? How come you still feel so confused? If you stop searching, what then?”

This battle between the mind/the ego/the external self and the intuition/the inner wisdom/the internal self can be a very challenging one to resolve. The ego can be very clever and manipulative and often speaks much louder than the inner voice of wisdom. I say this from experience, having spent a 4 year period suppressing my intuition and believing my ego was the real me. Eventually, thankfully, my inner voice broke free and started screaming so loudly that I couldn’t ignore it any more. I had to take action, turning my whole life, and the lives of those closest to me, upside down in a heartbeat. But the one thing that kept me going through all the heartache, all the pain and the guilt, was the knowledge, the absolutely clear and unquestionable knowledge, that I was doing the right thing.

And that’s happening for me again right now. Most of the messages I’m getting at the moment are telling me that I’m on the right path, that I’m heading in the right direction. And for someone who’s never had much direction in their life, this is a very positive and reaffirming thing.

InnerselfMany people feel a strong connection when they visit Eastern or Asian countries, and consider places like India to be their spiritual home. I have a similar feeling after living in Mysore for 3 months. But I also feel like I’ve found my spiritual mother and father here. There are two people I’ve met who I’ve felt such a strong affinity with. You know sometimes when you meet someone you feel like you want to talk to them, to spend time with them, to just be near them or maybe to touch them, hug them and feel close to them? Well, that’s what I’ve experienced here. They both happen to be westerners who’ve spent a lot of time in India, and they’re both very inspirational teachers, speakers and healers. I’m so grateful to have met them, to have had the opportunity to spend time with them and learn from them, and I know I’ll be seeing them again sometime soon, somewhere in the world.

And so, as I continue on my journey of self-discovery and self-transformation, I know I will continue searching for the unsearchable. And maybe, gradually, I’ll get closer to finding acceptance. Acceptance of myself, acceptance that I already have all the answers and acceptance of all that is.

In the meantime I’ll continue to practice gratitude. For all that I am and all that I have. And maybe, by sharing my experiences, others might feel encouraged – even inspired – to start looking a little deeper, into that scary place within. That scary, but immensely beautiful and wondrously divine place within ourselves we don’t want to go. And maybe, just maybe, we might catch a glimpse of the eternally glowing light of wisdom and love that we’ve been searching for, for so long, that shines so brightly inside each of us.

“Aṣṭāṅga Yoga Anuṣṭhāna”: 1st vs. 2nd Edition

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1st Edition: March 2013

Last year R. Sharath Jois published his first book, Aṣṭāṅga Yoga Anuṣṭhāna. It’s a very detailed Aṣṭāṅga practice manual, which sets out the entire sequence of Primary Series, including the correct vinyāsa count (flow of breath and movement) and dṛṣṭi (gazing point) for each āsana (posture), as well as a section on the yamas and niyamas (behaviours and principles), some practice notes and mantrāḥs (chants).

The book was published in March 2013 and wasn’t widely available to purchase outside of India, so many people queued up at the shala shop in Mysore this season to purchase a copy.

However, in January 2014 he released a 2nd edition. Shock, horror! He announced this at conference one Sunday, so lots of students promptly hurried to the shop to get their updated copy, many asking if they could have a refund on the 1st edition. As I suspected, this was met with a resounding “No”! Best to just accept it and call it a collector’s edition I reckon.

So, the question on everyone’s lips now is: “What’s the difference between the two editions?” Well, you’re in luck because that’s exactly what I’ve taken the trouble to find out. Lakshmish told us in Saṁskṛta (Sanskrit) class one day that much of the Sanskrit text was grammatically incorrect, so he painstakingly checked through the entire book again to make the necessary corrections.

2nd Edition: January 2014

2nd Edition: January 2014

I thought I’d do the same thing, comparing the editions to determine exactly how they differ. “Why on earth would you do that?” I hear you cry. Well, maybe because I love proofreading and ‘spot the difference’ competitions, maybe because I’m an anal retentive, or maybe because I just wanted to show some empathy for Lakshmish.

Whatever the reason, I’ve done it (and thoroughly enjoyed it I might add), so if you’d like to see for yourself what the differences are, just click below to open the PDF.

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Aṣṭāṅga Yoga Anuṣṭhāna Comparison

Incidentally, Lakshmish also mentioned that many mistakes are commonly made in writing the asana names in Sanskrit, including in many well-known books by senior teachers. Some of the most common spelling mistakes include: marīcāsana (not marichyasana); paścimattānāsana (not pashimottanasana); pūrvattānāsana (not purvottanasana). If in doubt, refer to Lakshmish’s chanting sheet or p.26 of the 2nd edition of Aṣṭāṅga Yoga Anuṣṭhāna (there are in fact some slight differences between these two sources but they’re largely the same).

I hope you’ve found this guide useful and if you ever need a proof-reader, give me a shout!

Sharath’s Mysore Conferences

As it was the last conference of the season this week, I thought I’d share my favourite quotes and ‘Sharathisms’ from my time here in Mysore.

Every Sunday afternoon, all the students currently practising at KPJAYI with both Sharath and Saraswathi (his mother), cram themselves into the main shala for Sharath’s weekly conference. There’s always a hushed silence as he walks out of his office onto the stage and sits cross legged on his throne (ok, chair). We hold our hands in prayer position while he utters a brief prayer under his breath, then we eagerly await his words of wisdom to begin.

There’s usually a pregnant pause filled with anticipation while he surveys the room, gazing at the faces of all his students. I get the impression he doesn’t plan what he’s going to say and still doesn’t necessarily know, even once he’s sat down in front of us. It almost feels like he’s some kind of channel and the teachings merely come through him. Once he starts speaking I find I’m completely mesmerised and he holds my attention like no other speaker I’ve met.

photo 1-3His son, Sambhav, often joins him on stage, either mimicking his father by sitting cross legged on a chair beside him, or playing with toy cars and aeroplanes before picking his way through the seated crowd, much to the amusement of his captive audience. After Sharath has spoken for a while on some aspect of daily practice or yogic philosophy, he’ll invite questions from his students and answer them as best he can, often talking at length on a particular topic in order to ensure we’ve fully grasped the concept or understood the message.

The following are some of my favourite conference quotes from the last 3 months (direct quotes in blue).

Yoga is like terrain management. This was in reference to the Land Cruiser’s new feature, Terrain Management. The road can be sometimes smooth, often rough or bumpy, and can have lots of twists and turns, like Lombard Street in San Francisco. Yoga helps you navigate through it.

Yoga is like a knife. If you know how to use it, it has many benefits but if you don’t it can hurt you. 

Fear is dominating you; you should dominate the fear. Work out how to let go the fear. A little fear is good. No fear no fun! Everything comes too easily then. But fear will make you weak. Yoga practitioners have to be a little bit brave. He also said that there’s no asana you won’t get, even if it takes many years. It’s just your mind, e.g. fear, stopping you.

Shouldn’t do teacher trainings, just practice for 15 years, that’s your teacher training. Doing asanas all day destroys your body; destroys your mind. In 500 hours you become a yogi? Definitely not! Takes 500 lives.

Where is the sadhana [practice]? Sadhana is very important, not only to make a good teacher, but for personal transformation. A yogi will do sadhana his whole life, regardless of the number of students. If you don’t have sadhana how can you teach others? He added that you need sadhana for progress in spiritual practice.

Sharath explained that bhakti [devotion] doesn’t happen initially but develops as you get deeper into your practice. Yoga is like going to a church, temple or mosque. Initially you only go because someone, e.g. your parents, encourages you to, then the devotion comes. Something inside you will take you to the temple. Something in you is drawing you. Practice should be like a puja; like a prayer.

Karma is like garlic – it doesn’t go away. By doing good things we should get rid of all bad karma.

I can’t say yoga is because of me. I’m because of yoga.

Mother is the first guru, the No.1 guru. Who teaches you to walk, to crawl, to talk? Your mother. Then your schoolteachers become your gurus and so on. We have different gurus at different stages of our life, but we should always be gaining knowledge.

We made some sutras: “No pain, no gain.” “No coffee, no prana.” “No chapatis, no strength.” 

IMG_2868-Edit_SmallIn reference to hot yoga: This type of sweating is not good, it’ll make you weak – because it’s gained effortlessly, rather than being created yourself, like the prana [energy, life force] we generate during Ashtanga asana practice. Not good for your heart; heart will get weaker. Breathing hot air, someone else’s exhalation, will make you sick physically and mentally – as body is controlled by mind and mind is controlled by breath. Here he gave the example of being able to control an emotion such as anger by using the breath to calm ourselves down.

Without asana, mind won’t be stable. Try stopping for 15 days and see how you feel. Mind becomes sharper, body becomes strong and active.

Mind is like monkey, jumping here and there. How to still that mind is called yoga. Many people get scared. “Oh, I still the mind, I go crazy!”

We have a saying in Kannada: “A guru will never forget; some students will never learn.” It should come within you to learn yoga. A guru awakens you, makes you capable to handle anything.

Problem with many students is they get confused. Think if they try all different systems, go to different teachers, will gain more knowledge. But doesn’t work like that. You have to follow one system.

Whenever the rain falls, ultimately it has to go to the ocean. This was in reference to all deities ultimately being the same; the divine. It’s important to devote to one God. Indians are brought up on faith. Even very poor people still have faith which gives them internal strength. It’s important to trust in one deity. You should know each God’s part. Jesus is the greatest yogi. Jesus, Shiva, Ganesh, Parvati – all come from Isvara [God, supreme being]. All the same. Just energy. There’s only one God.

Knowing only asana is like having a vehicle but not knowing how to drive it. In other words, you need to know the other 7 limbs of yoga, not just the physical aspect of asana practice. He also said that your teacher can show you where the coconut tree is and give you some tips on how to climb it, but ultimately you have to climb the tree yourself.

photo 2-3Sharath explained that spirituality means having a good heart and that a spiritual person works for the benefit of all humanity and cares for every living being. Everybody’s heart is good. Good heart, disturbed mind, i.e. if someone is not leading a good life or has bad karma, it’s not the heart that is disturbed; only the mind.

On the question of vegetarianism: Just look at our teeth. Our teeth are like cows’ teeth – we don’t have canines like lions and tigers. We’re not born as carnivores; we’re natural vegetarians.

Sharath explained there’s an Indian saying that’s used when referring to people with large bellies: Ever pregnant; never delivery!

Yoga will take you deeper and deeper and make you a different person. Then your perception and attitude will change.

Spirituality has to grow within you, like a banyan tree. A banyan tree called yoga should grow slowly in each of us.

Namaste.

Weekly Mysore Musings: Sun 16 Mar

The cutest 4-year-old ever: my rickshaw driver's son

The cutest 4-year-old ever: my rickshaw driver’s son

This week my practice got serious. Sharath gave me Ustrasana and Laghu Vajrasana at the end of last week but I only got to practice them a couple of times as I missed 2 days due to a brief period of yoga/heat/general life exhaustion.

He said I should show him Laghu, so on Monday I was trying to catch his attention from the other side of the room, but he was a tad busy as you can imagine. I felt like a bit of a lemon as it was, without waving my arms around wildly to call him over. So I just carried on and thought I’d show him the next day instead.

When I left the practice room he was sitting on his ‘throne’ on the stage (it’s just an ordinary chair but there’s something quite throne-like about the way he sits up there). He called me over and asked if I’d done Laghu Vajrasana. When I said I had but couldn’t catch his attention, he told me to show him tomorrow. On Tuesday he was nearby when I got to it, so he said “Show me”. It was definitely not the best Laghu I’ve ever done and I haven’t yet mastered staying down for 5 breaths AND coming up using only my legs. Nevertheless he said “Tomorrow Kapotasana . I was shocked and felt like saying “Are you sure?” but who am I to argue with the boss!

Enjoying a well-earned day at the pool

Enjoying a well-earned day at the pool

Now, although I’ve practiced Kapotasana before, this was only briefly about 2 years ago, as I had to scale back and rebuild my practice, plus I changed teachers. But suddenly, here I was, about to start a brand new asana in the main shala – and on my first trip to Mysore! I didn’t really think anything of this until a couple of people remarked how uncommon it is to get Kapotasana on your first visit. One of them was my teacher who suggested it must be down to his brilliant teaching!

Back in January I was actually craving a bit more intensity. I think for many of us there’s a desire to go deeper while we’re studying here – we have come to the source after all. Before I came several people told me it’s not a holiday but after a few weeks of being here I felt inclined to disagree. I was doing fewer postures than back home, I was practising much later than usual, I didn’t have to go to work every day, and I could swan about doing fun things like shopping, sightseeing and lounging by the pool. Sounds like a holiday to me!

Kirtan with the brilliant James Boag

Kirtan with the brilliant James Boag

Well, all I can say is January is long gone. In fact even February seems a long time ago now. This feels like the real deal. My weekday practice just got moved to 6am, with Friday and Sunday led classes both at 4.30am. So I’m going to the shala in the dark, practising for the full 90 minutes, and then trying to fit in chanting classes, Sanskrit lessons, philosophy talks, kirtans and massages. Not to mention all the blog writing, self-study, leaving lunches and all-important shopping that needs to be done (mostly for presents I might add).

So the most important thing I need to remember right now is to go easy on myself. It can be tough and this practice can take it out of you sometimes. Generally it’s because you’re going through an opening or you need a reminder of something, so it’s good to just stop and listen once in a while. To just be on your own with your thoughts and listen to what your body and heart are telling you (don’t listen to your mind though – that usually talks rubbish). I have a tendency to be too hard on myself sometimes so this is a great opportunity for me to practice ahimsa (non-violence) towards myself.

The obligatory food shot: lunch at Janaki

The obligatory food shot: lunch at Janaki

I also find it helpful to stay organised, which luckily for me is something I’m pretty good at! Sharath actually said during last week’s conference that you should have a schedule for each day – when to eat, sleep, practice, study, etc. – because sadhana (practice) requires tapas (discipline). So for the first time in weeks I’ve started planning again. I think I had an aversion to it before because it felt too much like work, but recently I’ve found that planning when and how to fit in all the things I want and need to do has actually been fun, as well as kept me focussed, disciplined and organised. For the first time in ages I feel productive, energised and engaged, which is a great feeling – especially in this heat!

Now that I’m going deeper into my backbending, Sharath seems more hellbent than ever on trying to get me to reach my ankles during dropbacks. The day he gave me Kapotasana he did dropbacks with me and, after telling me to “Walk! Walk! Walk!” with my hands, my fingers happened upon some toes. When I came up he said “That was my feet, I cheated you!” Ha ha! Sometimes he’s the most hilarious person in the world 🙂

No, I’m not a yoga teacher

Urdhva Dhanurasana*

Urdhva Dhanurasana*

Like so many other yoga students in Mysore, I’m in a transitionary period in my life. I quit my job, left my flat and put all my stuff into storage (thanks for the barn space Granny).

So the big question is: what do I do with my life now? I’ll be 40 in a few years (gulp), have no professional qualifications, and no idea what I want to be when I grow up. But then I also have no significant other, no children and no property. So, theoretically speaking, I can do whatever the heck I like. But that’s just it: what do I want to do?

This is a question I’ve struggled with all my life, as I’ve never found anything I’m really passionate about. I’ve had lots of hobbies: from learning languages to playing piano, clarinet and sax; from trampolining to singing; from mountain biking to card making. But none of them have ever grabbed me enough to make me want to go deeper. Or to try and make a profession out of them for that matter.

Until now.

Around 5 years ago I was introduced to a practice that would change my life in ways I could never imagine. A practice that would impact my lifestyle, my diet, my health, my sleep, my confidence, my relationships and my general perspective on life, love and the universe. A practice that keeps my mind strong as well as my body; that keeps me focussed, steady, calm and purposeful; and that helps me feel connected – to those around me, to my guru and to the divine.

I am of course talking about Ashtanga Yoga. I’ve practised a lot of yoga over the years, since I was at Uni, but mostly Hatha and Iyengar. It wasn’t until I tried Ashtanga that I knew I’d found the thing I didn’t even know I was looking for.

I started practising the day before Sri K Pattabhi Jois died, and all I knew of him was what my then-boyfriend had told me. At that point I could hardly call him my guru, however, after a few months of daily practice, watching various videos and talks and reading people’s accounts and experiences of him, I soon began to feel a connection with Guruji and a great sadness that he had passed away. I instantly felt great respect for his grandson Sharath and wanted to support and share in the legacy of the Jois family. I believe in parampara and learning from the original lineage, so it wasn’t long before I was talking about going to Mysore, to practice at the source, where Sharath now runs the main shala.

For various reasons that didn’t happen until now. I’m so grateful to be here but the original question still remains. In fact it’s now louder than ever: what do I want to do with my life? And, yes, there is one answer that keeps popping up from time to time: teach yoga. I remember wanting to be a yoga teacher when I was about 19, my first Ashtanga teacher told me I’d make a great teacher one day and I was even told I should be teaching during a recent Vedic astrology reading. So why aren’t I?

Utthita Hasta Padangusthasana (sort of)*

Utthita Hasta Padangusthasana (sort of)*

One thing that’s struck me since being in Mysore is that I seem to be just about the only student here who doesn’t have any teaching experience. Well, unless you can count showing the Surya Namaskaras (sun salutations) to a couple of friends on holiday once. So many people I’ve met here, even if they’ve been practising fewer years than me and are further back in the asana series than me (not that it’s about that, but you get the point), seem to be teaching already. And I’m not quite sure how I feel about that.

So why haven’t I started teaching yet? Fear? Lack of opportunity? Lack of motivation? Being stuck in a full-time job? Too busy practising? Or is it to do with the whole Ashtanga teacher training debate? According to tradition, Ashtanga Yoga should only be taught via parampara, i.e. handed down from the guru to each of his students. Students are given the next asana in the series only when their guru thinks they’re ready and they’re not permitted to teach until they have their guru’s official authorisation. But in reality this isn’t always strictly the case and many students pay for teacher training courses. Even if these are offered by senior teachers who were taught directly by Guruji himself, according to tradition this isn’t the way it should be done.

During his weekly conferences, Sharath continuously reminds us that we shouldn’t be doing teacher trainings. He says “Doing asanas all day destroys your body; destroys your mind.” “Shouldn’t do teacher trainings, just practice for 15 years. That’s your teacher training.” “In 500 hours you become a yogi? Definitely not! Takes 500 lives.”

So how do I reconcile this very clear instruction given by my guru with the desire to teach? Should I stick to tradition and keep coming back to Mysore each year in the hopes that one day I’ll get authorised? That’s the way my teacher has done it after all and I have great respect for him. Or do I jump on the bandwagon and sign up for a teacher training course?

Suryanamaskara A*

Suryanamaskara A*

I can’t see how I would be able to teach without knowing at least some basic anatomy. Oh, hang on, I’m currently studying an Anatomy & Physiology correspondence course, so I guess that’s not much of an excuse. Ok, what about adjustments then? Surely you can’t be expected to get authorised and then step into the shala as an assistant without ever having adjusted anyone in your life?

And that’s where the boundaries start to get a bit blurry. I wholeheartedly agree with the traditional way and want to follow it as fully as I can. But it’s based on a time when there were very few students, when Guruji could provide individual attention and would give people particular asanas based on their individual capabilities and physiological limitations. Nowadays thousands of people flock to Mysore every year and my best estimate tells me there are roughly 80-100 people practising in the shala at any one time. Sharath does an amazing job of keeping track of everyone and must have a photographic memory, but I wonder how long tradition will be able to reign in the face of increasing popularity and sheer numbers of people wanting to practice and teach. More to the point, is there enough room for all these teachers or will supply start to outdo demand?

In the meantime, my dilemma continues. Should I just sit it out and wait? Just keep practising, gain more experience and wait until the right time or opportunity presents itself? Or should I take action and seek out opportunities to teach, even if it’s primarily to deepen my own practice, but going directly against my own guru’s instruction?

While I wait to see how this quandary plays out inside my head (and heart), I’ll continue to get on my mat every day with utter devotion and total gratitude – that I’ve found a practice which brings meaning to my life, provides a continually changing perspective and, ultimately, completes me. Whether it becomes my profession or not.

* These photos were taken during a recent photo shoot, which I decided to do partly just for fun and partly because I have no photos of myself doing asana practice. Plus, they might come in handy if I want to teach one day 😉

Weekly Mysore Musings: Sun 9 Mar

This week I’d like to share some fascinating facts I’ve picked up during my last 2 months in Mysore. But first a quick overview of my week….

Best thali so far at Hotel Dasaprakash

Best thali so far at Hotel Dasaprakash

We’ve been having freak storms here: plenty of rain, thunder and lightning,with trees down, debris washed all over the roads and lots of power outages (but then that’s nothing new in India). One such storm happened while I was in the cinema watching a romcom called Shaadi Ke Side Effects (The Side Effects of Marriage). We came out into the pouring rain and experienced a very wet and hairy rickshaw ride home, with no streetlights, several trees blocking the way and lots of new potholes to dodge. With the storms having occurred almost daily for about a week, everyone’s wondering if the monsoon has come early this year.

I had a vedic astrology reading this week, which was fascinating as it accurately told the story of various events in my past, including a very shocking moment when the exact date of a particularly important event showed up in my chart. Even the astrologer was shocked as it’s not usually quite that precise! It also provided some much needed reassurance about my future and windows of time where certain things are more likely to occur, so I have some positive things to look forward to.

A beautiful elephant painted on a rock outside the Sri Krishna temple

A beautiful elephant painted on a rock outside the Sri Krishna temple

On Saturday I attended an inspiring yogic philosophy session by James Boag, which included a very accessible and down-to-earth talk on the yamas followed by an exploration of their application via the means of contact improvisation. I felt very grateful to everyone for sharing such an intimate experience and it provided me with a much-needed reconnection to others via the means of physical contact. We all need a regular dose of human touch and I realised I’d begun to crave it. I think there’s probably a cultural aspect here, as there’s something very British about keeping one’s distance and not being overly tactile towards others.

In terms of my practice this week, my start times have changed again, I was given 2 more postures, I fell into my neighbour during Setu Bhandasana (don’t ask me how when I was only a few inches off the ground) and I had a major wig out when I was completely drained of energy, too exhausted to carry on and ended up in a heap of tears on the toilet floor (which stank of wee I hasten to add). I also videoed myself for the first time and discovered I’m not straight in headstand, I’m too high in half bend and too low in Chaturanga. So an eye-opening experience all round. But that’s one thing that’s guaranteed in Ashtanga – we will forever continue to learn, to adapt, to be amazed and to be challenged in this lifelong practice of self-transformation.

Did you know…?

Mysore and its environs 

  • If it wasn’t for the Western Ghats the whole of South India would be a desert.
  • The Western Ghats, although referred to as a mountain range, are actually the side of a plateau.
  • The Cauvery river is thought of as the Ganges of the south.
  • Mysore is named after Mahasuraheshwara, a demon who was killed by the goddess Chamundeshwara, a form of Parvati; hence Chamundi Hill.

Flora and fauna

  • Coffee flowers

    Coffee flowers

    Coffee plants produce beautiful white flowers that smell very similar to jasmine.

  • Coffee berries need lots of shade to grow, as do black peppercorns, so you often find them planted together.
  • Eating groundnuts straight off the plant takes forever!
  • There are 7 leopards living on Chamundi Hill. Yes, real live wild leopards.
  • There are about 3,500 tigers left on the planet. Approximately 1,500 of them are in India, with roughly 50 in Nagarhole National Park.
  • Mosquitoes only buzz or sing when they’re looking for a mate. The male and female both sing and try to match each other’s pitch in perfect harmony, which will indicate they’re a good match for mating.

Food and drink 

  • Traditional heritage food: didn't look like much at first... until the rice arrived!

    Traditional heritage food: didn’t look like much at first… until the rice arrived!

    According to Ayurveda you should never heat honey, as it destroys the enzymes. So you shouldn’t cook with it or put it in boiling hot drinks (only warm).

  • In India if you order Chai you get normal black tea with milk and sugar. If you order Masala Chai you get the spiced sweet milky tea we call chai in the west.
  • If you mix chai with rum you get a delicious drink called GoRumli (named after the tour company we were with, GoMowgli)!
  • In traditional South Indian cooking you often eat the rice last after other foods. Meals usually start with a spicy tomato soup called Rasam.
  • Ragi is a type of millet which can be used to make bread, pancakes, dosas, rotis, etc.

Sanskrit

  • ‘Gu’ means darkness or spiritual ignorance; ‘ru’ means one who removes; therefore ‘guru’ means the one who removes spiritual ignorance.
  • There are 15 vowels in Sanskrit.
  • The difference between a sage and a monk is a sage can have a family whereas a monk cannot.
  • Technically speaking the word ‘Ashtanga’ should be pronounced the American way with the second ‘a’ as a long vowel, as in ‘Ashtarnga’. This is because in Sanskrit it is written with a dash above the second ‘a’ indicating that it’s a long vowel, pronounced ‘aah’.