Saturday, January 29, 2011

Quicken, Ode to Saraswathi


My pulse quickens as she approaches. I try, oh God, I try to breathe. Slowly. Deep, even breaths. But I can't help it, I can't help the stress from racing my pulse.

It is part anxiety, part excitement when I see her in front of me--well, actually, from behind me--well, actually, both. I peek at her from behind my heels, her colorful pajama pants hiding what people say are fine looking legs.

Ok, so breathe. There is no escaping it now. I see her feet wait. I inhale and heave myself up into standing, where she is before me, a head shorter than myself. She places her hands behind my hips. Her fingers are light, but her hold is steady.

Oh, God. Here it comes. I wish she would smile. When she smiles, the entire shala lights up. And her eyes are kind, easing away my fear of her, of her folding and unfolding me like a piece of sheet cloth in the wind. Mamma. Saraswathi.

--This piece was written during one of the writing circles conducted by Deborah Crooks and fellow shala student writers Benji, Leena, Dorota, and Alex (who joined once), I miss you guys. I miss exchanging words with you all!

Some words on Mamma...

I've spoken at great lengths about Sharath since he was my teacher those months in Mysore. But Saraswathi too has a strong presence in the shala. I would always hear her towards the end of my practice, her soft voice echoing ethereally over the pulsating bodies as she chanted, sometimes she sounded like she was humming.

She's an incredibly strong yet tiny woman, who can with total ease drop back a man over twice her size. She is beyond sturdy, an immovable force from which you can anchor yourself to.

I would often see her hovering over friends with very open backs, she would always magically turn up as they entered that crucial moment. (Saraswathi was once a great back bender--and apparently takes great pleasure in helping others attain such heights--with hands on their thighs that is!)

During my time at the shala, my feelings for her went through several phases. The first was fear and anxiety. I'd heard that she was a toughie when it came to adjustments. Over an email my friend Stacey reminded me before I left for India, when she comes to you, just breath, relax, she's incredibly strong. Gulp, I thought!

I remember my first with her. It was so fast, I didn't quite know what hit me. And then paschimatanasana! I'll never forget the force in which she pressed me. It felt like she had made a running start because I lurched forward so strikingly. And when she released me, I actually bounced back from the delayed inertia.

Eventually, the fear did pass. And I started to enjoy her terribly efficient quick as lightning drop backs. 1, 2, 3. Wham bam, thank you, mam! "One More," she would yell to the foyer as I quickly rolled up my mat to finish in the locker room. It was a welcome break from the depth in which Sharath was asking me to go, walking me closer and closer to my ankles.

Then at some point, I actually enjoyed the deep back bending and would note with some sorrow when Saraswathi would be before me. She sped through me. And it would be done too quickly.

Then towards my last three weeks, I started to struggle less and less in back bending. I started to relax in the pose. My breathing was deeper. I could grab my heels (with Sharath's help) and it ceased to be a horrifying experience. Time would stop and all would be well.

By my last week, I was surprised to find myself hovering as I dipped backward. It was a new experience to go slowly. And for the last two times of the trip that Saraswathi appeared before me, she guided my hands to my ankles as I came down. The first time I felt her hand on my wrist, I remembered what Stacey said and I simply surrendered. I think that was the moment I really began to trust her, just days before my final departure.

For me, it was a special gift, an acknowledgement of how far I'd come. The following day, she was there again. I had more difficulty the second time, but when I came up she smiled her famous smile and gave me some advice, the first words she'd actually spoken to me the entire trip.

In the end, I didn't get to say goodbye. But I know that I will see her again. And who knows what combination of feelings she will inspire. Whatever they may be, I definitely look forward to it.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Mysore Extracuricular: Crochet Club

At Anu's with Rich, Jenn and Harish. Jun Pe snuck in.
The itty bitty hat I'm holding is my first hat--
which is obviously too small for my head.
At Anouki's. With Rich, Katherine and Alin.

This is a seriously inappropriate hobby to have in the tropics, I think to myself as I make tidy little balls from yards and yards of thick woolly yarn, no doubt the strangest thing I brought back from India (in pale pink, purple, green and gray).

In the first stages of my "Mysoresickness," I even insisted on wearing the leg warmers I made (1/3 of a set of triplets, Ursula in Osaka and Deva in Mysore have the other two, Heidi in Helsinki owns their cousin--all of them have the right to be wearing theirs) to practice. Sure, it was cool for the Philippines. It was 5:45am cool in the Philippines. But who am I kidding? It is not only hot, it is humid, and I've totally missed the two week period in December when there's an ever-so-slight chill in the air mostly in the evenings only warranting a long sleeve shirt or a shawl. Otherwise, it is plain old hot and humid.

After my second day of forcing the issue, my friend Christina when boarding the car saw the thick cold-weather leg warmers on the passenger seat, pointed at the them and asked with concern, "Were you wearing these?" Christina, a model slash DJ and my most fashionable friend, looked horrified. The fluffy, cozy winter-warmers have no place here, she might as well said.

I haven't worn them since, though I've been tempted to blast the AC on high in order to make use of them in the morning on the way to the yoga studio. I'm still crocheting, however. I just can't stop myself. I'm finishing a hat for my niece in Singapore. Again, tropical weather, inappropriate present.

Still I continue. I feel calm doing it. And it reminds me of Mysore.

When I first arrived in late October, crochet was all the rage. Everyone seemed to know how. Guys and girls. You could find diligent enthusiasts at the shala gates whiling away the waiting by hooking and pulling, hooking and pulling their string of yarn into homemade creations. There were pockets of the crochet community everywhere, meeting in private homes and in public cafes.

I started over chocolate almond smoothies at Anu's cafe, where a group met to crochet in the afternoons over their evening tea and smoothies. Richard from England, along with Alin from So Cal was almost always frenetically at it. Jenn from Canada was all pro and was knitting. Katherine was doing a refressher. Juliana was a natural. Me, not so.

Richard's enthusiasm for the sport was catchy. Before long I had purchased my own yarn and and crochet needle and was knotted up and stumbling on my fingers. Richard was patient. And many others helped give me little tips along the way.

The Odanadi Fundraiser in late November was
the crochet event. Many an amateur craftsman and craftswoman donated their creations to sell for the benefit of the Odanadi street children. In all it was a testament of the shala students' commitment to helping the local community AND their love for crochet!

I was a total newbie at the time and was still on my first hat, which though was meant for me appeared to be shrinking in size. In the end I had produced a rather small hat suited for a baby. Such was my learning curve. My second hat completed by Christmas was a perfect elf hat--quite by accident.

But I kept at it. At home. In front of the shala gates at 4 in the morning. At practically any dead moment.

In a way, it's become a sort of sitting meditation. Something positive and creative to keep my vata self occupied. It's been good to learn something new, to see my own progression, to improve with each project--much like life at the shala, practice and patience, practice and patience.


The view from my plane, from Singapore to Manila.
Reminds me of that phrase "sky's the limit."

It is nearly two weeks since I left Mysore. And the place continues to work on me. As with asana practice, I try to relax, inhale and exhale deeply, allowing it to do its magic, resisting as little as possible. It is a challenge to remain flexible, especially back in the real world.

I quite ignorantly said, before I ever left home, that I would not change. Though in essence I am the same person, it was not a realistic promise (and I am sorry for making it). Change is constant. And if you spend a long enough time in Mysore, if you surrender to your yoga practice, if you willingly allow yourself to go down the rabbit hole, change will be inevitable. It might be subtle, drastic, physical, emotional, spiritual, or more likely a crazy combination of all the above--so wide is the scope of this deep yoga practice, so deep is its reach, so sneaky too--I barely noticed myself until wham! here I am.

Since Mysore, I continue to feel these "shifts." They are these little tremors, aftershocks that typically follow a big quake. Mysore was that for me, groundbreaking.

Physically, I see the changes. Having had no full-length mirror for the last one and a half months in Mysore (I bought a round little thing, 6 inches in diameter to braid my hair in the morning), I am totally amazed to see myself, whole self, so healthy. I feel some changes too in my stamina, flexibility and strength. Ursula told me that I would be surprised with my own practice after I returned from Mysore. That has yet to happen, but I believe it will. Everything in good time.

Mentally, there are shifts too. I feel like I am thinking with more clarity. I feel more aware of my own thought processes. I caught myself today thinking as I was being asked by the bank guard to move my car, I was already out in the rain, "Don't be upset, he's right, he's only doing his job, you'll only get a little wet." Within a second I'd got over the inconvenience. I've been driving in Manila for a week now and I've noted at least a half dozen moments that could have transformed into road rage, I thoughtfully let it pass along with the haphazard drivers of buses and jeepneys that dominate these streets.

Emotionally, I feel more FULL STOP. My friend Alena, once accused me of over using the word "surrender" while teaching yoga. And she's right. I love to say it. I know the importance of it in ashtanga and in life. And to some degree, here and there I have surrendered. But that whole-hearted surrender happened in Mysore, a little each day at practice (all this crazy back-bending perhaps?) and finally culminating around New Year's at the Shiva temple in Chamundi Hill. Since then, I can physically feel my cruddy little heart opening. Untold emotions have since eeked out and continues to do so. It is inconvenient and there seems to be no end to it. It is also incredibly beautiful to feel so...alive.

Some changes will take some getting used to like my renewed commitment to psuedo-vegetarianism. I've been eating fish post-Mysore. Though, I'll probably get used to it faster than my family will. I feel more sensitive to my environment and to the people around me. I quietly wigged out the two times my family and I went to the mall, which is a real shift because I usually love the mall. There was something unsettling about the energy, the bright artificial lights, the buzzing shoppers and excessive retail.

Then there are the changes that I choose to make. Changes that are motivated by both my newly-gotten mental clarity and this spooky heart-opening. These, I think, will be the hardest to go through because it will be me (not Mysore) who will have to be the master of change. They are pesky decisions that disrupt the status quo. They won't always be easy. They might hurt a little, sometimes a lot. But they are necessary and they are honest.

Everyday, I revel in the mystery of Mysore and it's transformative powers. Everyday, I remind myself that change is good.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Missing Mysore

Hutch and Alex and I at KL airport.

Cutie pie Amelie, my niece, and I in front of Year of the Rabbit display in Singapore.

The fabulous Filipino ashtangis feasting after practice for B-day potluck.

So far, the hardest thing to write about is the journey home.

I definitely have Mysore withdrawal symptoms. It isn’t as bad as I thought it would be. It’s not like I get the shakes or anything. Missing Mysore is subtler than that.

My body misses the routine, morning practice and shala energy. It has been lonely and uncooperative over the last few self-practices.

My mind misses the concentration, input of Sharath during conference and interactions with fellow students, the talks of yoga and the talks you have when you have had enough of talks of yoga.

My heart misses India.

The first few days, I was in a daze, head cloudy of recent Mysore memories, which I am blessed to take home with me. I would smile and try to be present, as I continuously let the intensity of the last 2 and half months wash over me. I was sleepwalking. I couldn’t quite vocalize how I felt. I couldn’t explain. Not at the start anyway.

In many ways, luck has been on my side. I’ve not jumped directly back into the matrix of my “real life.” I’ve taken a slow route, visiting family in Singapore and Manila (where I am now as I write this) before heading back to my own little island nation, Boracay.

And at every stop, there seems to be a reminder that the world outside Mysore is a friendly place. In the airport at Kuala Lampur, when faced with about 6 hours of waiting between flights, I quite shockingly bumped into two Filipino friends Hutch and Alex, who were en route to India. I impart some India wisdom and they keep me company until my morning flight.

In Singapore’s Budget Terminal, I board the taxicab of Mr. Ali, who asks me out of healthy curiosity why I practice yoga. This is an interesting question to get soon after departing from Mysore and I am surprised at how easily I answer, “I feel closer to God.” I explain in brief ishvarapranidhanadva, which animates, Mr. Ali, a Muslim who says that in Islam they don’t use the word surrender but instead submission. A liberal man, he philosophizes about how he doesn’t understand those who claim their religion without studying, without practicing. I tell him it is just like yoga.

This first conversation in Singapore was comforting, that somehow it was a reminder that the spirit of yoga that I saw so alive and well in Mysore lives and breathes outside of India. It comes in different packages, but the essence is somehow preserved.

The unobtrusive comforting ways of family also played a role in my reintegration back into reality, as they ushered me through Singapore's extremely clean environs, mostly from one meal to the other (that's what Filipino families do, eat), a welcome activity since I just realized I have lost 7 kilos over this trip, interspersed with shopping (a trip to Ikea and the giant Konikuya bookstore was a total shock to the system).

Today, in my first full day back in Manila, I went to practice at a local ashtanga studio called Stillpoint in Makati. It was interesting to participate in a different energy, to be adjusted quite liberally, sometimes by two teachers at a time. It was great but odd. I appreciated the intimate numbers and wonderful help with alignment, but I also missed being swallowed in the powerful anonymity of the shala, seemingly forgotten but silently being worked on.

It was a great yoga homecoming too as we gathered for a triple birthday potluck after wards. This was yoga Filipino style, a hard morning’s practice followed by an opulent feast (We Filipinos know how to live it up!). And after eating, I started to talk about Mysore to those that asked about it. Once I got started, it was as if I couldn’t stop. I wanted to share and vocalize my experience. I wanted to repeat the words “Mysore” and “shala” and “Sharath,” as a means of remembering and celebrating my time there.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Last Practice

Shots from that last Anouki's farewell breakfast, with the October-Novemebr-December peeps!

Today's practice was bittersweet. Never have I been more tuned in to the sights and sounds of the shala. Never have I been more conscious that it would be a while before I would experience them again. It would be my last here at Mysore for a while.

I wasn't alone. The knowing smiles at the gate, the sympathetic squeezes from friends at the ladies locker room, Pedro--who I have been consistently in the row behind me most of the trip--saying goodbye. I had to face it. My time was up!

There was nothing left to do but simply enjoy it despite being so tired.

I was utterly pooped from the long goodbye. Ursula and I started it off with a joint casual farewell breaky at Anouki's garden on Saturday. A head start, we thought. And it just never stopped. The days since were filled with little gatherings and intimate get-togethers, solidifying the bonds formed over the last 2 and a half months. Then Ursula left. I was next in line.

I looked around me before I started practicing. I saw the familiar faces of now friends who are near my own mat, each beautifully focused on his or her own practice. I thought about what a wonderful support they have been, whether they know it or not. How amazing it was to be in their presence, each having something spectacular to share about themselves. How inspiring they are to me, their love and their commitment.

As I practiced, I listened to the cumulative breath, the whole room in continuous motion, inhaling and exhaling. Though not in unison, the discord in breath reminded me of the ocean. I imagined letting the waves of breath wash over me. I was soaking in it.

I dove in, tired or not, trying to enjoy the presentness of the practice. I fetl alive when I practiced. And connected. Connected to myself. To the shala. To the people sharing the room. To the practice itself.

I broke from this amazing flow as I neared backbends. I wondered who would drop me back on my last day at the shala. Would it be an assistant? And if so, would I have the hutzpa to hold out? Would it be Saraswathi, who has ceased to scare me? Or would it be Sharath. I really hoped for Sharath.

And there he was as I came up from my last backbend.

"Last day?" he asked and grinned as I nod and say yes.

He gently bobbed me up and down, encouraged my hands to my heels, then hoisted them around my ankles. It all went by so quickly. Before I knew it, I was tugged back up. He said "Good" quietly before pressing me into paschimatanasana.

"One more," he said.

It was over. I felt a cloud of emotions filming over my eyes. I choked back tears and took myself to the ladies locker room where I sniffled through a longer lingering paschimatanasana.

That's was when it hit me: I would miss my teacher. For that is what Sharath is to me now. I wanted to cry because I am going to miss him, his steady presence and gentle but confident assistance. I'm going to miss his subtle, quiet guidance. I am going to miss Mysore. The practice, the fellow practitioners, the cows, everything.

Still all good things must come to the end. And it's no small comfort knowing that all ends are beginnings.


I have left Gokulam now. And am making my way slowly to the little island where I live in the Philippines. However, this process, what I call "Realizing Mysore" is far from over. It continues to work beneath the surface and it's surprises, I feel, will continue to bubble forth. In this respect, I will continue to write this blog. Plus, there are somethings about Mysore I still haven't been able to share. I hope all who read this will indulge me further as I continue to share my observations. Namaste!

Friday, January 7, 2011

New Year’s Eve, A Ritual Surrendering

Despite the multitude of non-yoga related activities that made the 31st very special, from sunning by the pool, drinks (ok, one drink! We didn’t go too crazy!) at the Metropole, ringing in 2011 with a raging kerosene induced bonfire at The Green Hotel, finding an after midnight rooftop party with dancing, and capping the early morning off with singing Bob Marley and Lennon standards to guitar playing and a rather unorthodox music sheet filing system, my favorite was the post-sunset trip to Chamundi Hill, where I squeezed into a rickshaw with three lovely ladies to make a New Year’s offering to the Goddess Chamundeswari.

It was Deva’s idea. We would go to the temple, bring puja, and have a little private ceremony to discard the old and make affirmations for the new year. Deborah and myself took to it right away and committed ourselves to the pre-party endeavor as an auspicious way to start the New Year. At the last moment, we bullied Ursula into our rickshaw and she became the fourth member in out trek up to Chamundi.

We might have missed the sunset, but the early night sky was nice too. It was a cool night. And it had a feel of possibility, as the lights from the city started to twinkle below.

Deva, ever a beautiful devi herself, made sure we each had a wicker basket of temple puja. As I stared down at mine, a colorful cartoon face stared back at me, two coconuts for eyes, banana nose and a wicker smile. The flower topping the pretty offering sprung up between the coconuts—like an ornate bindi, we’re in India after all.

When we got to the temple, however, the great goddess was closed for another half an hour. We decided to then make our way to the smaller Shiva temple just a little walk from the temple of Chamundeswari. It seemed apt, to burn our past cycles in the home of the great destroyer. Every beginning has an end, and ours would start here at the temple of Lord Shiva, the god of yoga.

The moment we entered the small enclave, we all knew we had made the right decision. There was none of the people that crowded the entrance of Chamundi’s main temple. Instead, there was peace and quiet. The temple looked ethereal, lit up against the night sky. I was struck with a new appreciation for these structures made out of these massive stones. They seemed much holier in the moonlight.

We were the only ones there. The temple priests ushered us in the coconut breaking area, there was even a sign that designated it so. One attendant took each of our cocos, cracking them open against the metal sharp edge at the center of the massive container that caught all the coconut water.

In the temple, they took the puja baskets to the priests within, it was returned short half a coconut. Shiva’s share. We were told to draw a short chalky line across our foreheads, which we did for each other. Having had finished our obligation to Shiva, we found a serene spot behind the temple where we sat and started our own little ritual of letting go and starting anew.

We each had two sheets of paper, one for the things we want to let go of and another for the things we want to let in. We wrote and wrote and wrote, each filling our sheets with our hang-ups and our heart’s desires, a personal reminder of our intentions for the fast approaching new year.

The things we wanted to let go, we burnt. We watched it crumple and disappear into ash, our lit incense sticks stoking the miniature fire, fueled by the toxins of the things that no longer served us.

The things we wanted to let in went into envelopes, which would stay in Deva’s safe-keeping until the following New Year, when she would post it to us, wherever we might be.

We arranged the remaining puja at the back of the table for Shiva and, possibly, the monkeys. Thus started our celebration of New Year’s Eve, a burning followed by a celebration, a death followed by a rebirth.

At the time, we all felt moved. Speaking from my own experience, it was an important moment to really take stock as well as commit to the things I feel are currently important in my life.

And even now, especially now a week into the new year and less than a week before leaving Mysore (sadly, I have been unable to stop counting the days), I feel the potency of our new year’s eve ritual.

Every day since that night, I seem to be unraveling. The practice continues to be strong and powerful, but I feel a little bit like I’m falling apart. I’ve totally lost my voice and I am really tired. Emotions that I’ve long locked away somewhere deep within seems to be suddenly bubbling up to the surface. In private (and very occasionally in public too) there are waterworks.

The ironic thing is a week ago, I felt quite cocky that I had somehow managed to more or less make it through this entire trip emotionally and physically unscathed. Nothing major, just a little freak out. Some back pain. But otherwise, no tears shed in the shala, no panic attacks at back-bending, I was cool, perfectly happy.

And while I remain happy, there is something going on in me that I can only attribute to some inexplicable heart opening, which is a part of this incredible practice, especially here in Mysore. It is happening quite on its own and it is completely outside the range of my powers to control, which considering that I am a closet control freak, is a little hard to take.

But take it I must. With this falling apart, I see the promise of coming back together, better, more whole, more honestly me.

(Aside: Unfortunately there are no photos of our New Year antics as my camera was on a trip quite without me back from a Gurukulam at Pandeshwara--where I had originally hoped to be for the long weekend. But when I asked Sharath (apparently informing him would have been a better way to go) if it would be ok if I took the Thursday led off for the trip, his recommendation was to not go on account that the long travel would "hurt your back." As I sat there, hiding my disappointment, hmmm I thought it was the practice that was hurting my back. He added that since I had only 3 weeks to go, I should stay. What could I do? It was like him saying "you do!" in the shala. So I did -- not go. He was right, of course. The 8-hour bus journey may have done a number on my back. It's nice to know that he cares too. More than anything, though, I'm glad I stuck around to have this very special moment.)

Thursday, January 6, 2011

The New Year’s Shift

Overnight, it got busy. The first signs were over the New Year’s weekend. At every turn, there were new faces, on shala road, hanging around the coconut stand, people loitering around the entrance on Anu’s.

Then by Sunday’s led class I was met by a slew of new arrivals smart enough to arrive early at the gate. It was a packed class with students on the stage, foyer and some even in the dressing room. There was still a comfortable amount of space in between some mats. I’ve been told it only gets worse. Every day there will be new faces. The shala will continue to fill.

By 4pm conference, we filled the entire shala (more on special guest Mr. A.G. Mohan soon). The room was a buzz. The small groups talking amongst themselves collaborated into a massive sound. There was a long cue from Sharath’s office to the shop, students waiting to register. The office was closed since Friday, so there was a bit of a backlog. The new arrivals now outnumbered my self, my contemporaries and those that registered before us.

The shift in numbers don’t only affect mat space, it changes a little of everything. Gokulam is not so intimate as before. Quiet moments are less likely to be found at any of the favorite local cafes and eateries, there are more introductions and reunions.
And the energy, oh my, the energy! At this first stage of it, for newbie like me who has settled into an easy groove already, it’s a little unsettling.

Despite the sudden shift, it’s all very exciting too. The promise of seeing so many devoted students, many returning students with fine-tuned practices, of sharing the room with them all. It’s a lot to experience in my final week and a half in Mysore, but also a good one to see. Though I’ve been told by returning students that numbers are controlled this year, I am looking forward to tasting what it’s like, the fullness and energizing effect of a packed shala, the converging masses of ashtangis from around the world coming to practice at the busiest time of year.