My teacher made me work for it!
Today’s dispatch from abroad is by our favorite little Ashtangi, St. Petersburg’s own Jade Skinner. She’s been studying in Mysore, India. We’re looking forward to her return to teaching this month!
When you come to the shala to practice there are rules to follow as there should be. Studios in the west I find are too lax. Students bring in cell phones, big water bottles, wear shoes on the shala floor and talk really loudly before class. Listen, that shit don’t fly in India! Leave your shoes outside, turn your phones OFF, leave your water in the locker room, and KEEP SILENCE! The shala is a sacred place where we come to learn the knowledge of yoga, dive deeper into our practice, and we should respect that. All of us are given a specific time to practice and are expected to be there 10 minutes before. Here’s the tricky part… shala time is 15 minutes fast, so this means we need to be there about 30 minutes early. I think they do this to see if you’re paying attention. If you are late it shows that you are not dedicated, not devoted to the practice. You lack respect for the teacher who has taken his time to be there for you and the students who are there to learn.
I’ve watched as Sharath has scolded students for showing up late. He says “What is your time? What time does the clock say? Why are you late? You should really think about what is important to you. If you don’t want to be here, then don’t waste my time and your money!” I’m sure we all can come up with a whole bunch of excuses as to “why?” The answer to the “why?” is about respect. We can have a discussion about that when I return in February. By the way, I was always way early and never late for class!
In the West we do yoga in small classes that we think are too packed. We have the attention of our teacher to help us when we’re looking a little lost or uncomfortable. You don’t have this luxury when you’re practicing at the Shala during the busiest time of the year! Yes, there are assistants in the room and Sharath is walking around giving out new poses, helping a student here, talking to another there, but the adjustments are few and far between.
It’s Tuesday, 22nd of January 2013 and I’m on my mat. I was in Janu Sirsāsana C when I came to the realization that my Mysore (self-guided) practice is like doing math homework, learning to play a musical instrument, or speaking a foreign language. You can pretty much relate it to anything that you’ve done that was enjoyable, but challenging enough that you kept coming back for more. I’m going to go with math since it was not one of my strong subjects, but it rattled my brain enough to keep my attention. Now if you remember in math class the equations get tougher the further you get along. Math equations work two ways: 1.) You have the answer and are trying to figure out the formula; or 2.) you have the formula and are trying to figure out the answer. Mysore practice is in a sense somewhat the same. This doesn’t mean find the fastest way in and out of a pose or even skipping one because you don’t like it. It’s about showing up and putting the work in. Here’s my experience and maybe you can find some relation…
I was given a new pose, Paśāsana (the first pose of second series), about three days ago. I asked Simon, one of the assistants, if he could help me find the missing connection. I said to Simon, “I can’t seem to keep my heels down and stay in the bind at the same time. What am I doing wrong?” In the middle of his own demo Sharath, very directly, said “No demonstration! Let her figure it out on her own!” For a moment I was upset that he wouldn’t help. In my head I was like, “WTF? Does he not see me struggling over here? He has no idea how long I’ve been wrestling with this pose. It’s been over a F*N year!” It left me questioning. “Why am I here if he won’t give me any assistance? What’s the lesson he wants me to learn? Maybe I should just not put in any effort then!” Total mental breakdown.
Next day I’m up against the same wall trying really hard to make friends with Paśāsana. I’m striving to figure out how to stay in the bind with my heels down and not bust my ass. Fear of past injury starts resurfacing in my head. Frustration and doubt set in. Binding or not I’ve managed to find the quickest way in and out. I wanted an answer; no one would give me one, so I didn’t really give it my all. I let my ego take over. Practice was tough, and I learned nothing! Later that night, I watched a clip of one of my teachers, Kino MacGregor, from the film Mysore Magic. In it she says,
Yoga is not an escape. It’s not gonna take away your problems or make you think, ‘Oh, everything’s perfect.’ When I’m practicing, everything that presents itself is an opportunity to use the physical practice as a mirror to look within. The thoughts that come up during practice I find are often indicative of the most repetitive psychological patterns that we have….
It’s Thursday morning and Paśāsana is already on my mind as well as drop backs (that’s a whole other topic). Look, we all have our days and yesterday was one of mine. Today my attitude has shifted to a more positive outlook. My focus is on being fully present, so I can immerse myself more deeply in every asana. As I approached Paśāsana I paused for a moment to sit with my thoughts. I took a rewind in my mind to which asanas (formulas) are preparatory for Paśāsana. Ahhh, lo and behold my favorite of the primary series…Maricāsana C & D. I set myself up for acceptance of whatever was to come and let go of any expectations of what I thought should happen. “Letting go” I find is a precious tool to have in your yoga toolbox.
Paśāsana on the first attempt is almost a success, but lacking a little heart and stability of mind. So I go for it again, and this time with steady breath…BAM..it’s like magic. I nailed it on one side! Finally, perfection (stability of mind and body) of Paśāsana is here! At least on one side that is. Inner glory is going off like church bells! As I wrestle a bit with the opposite side I can feel triumph is on it’s way… “I just have to give a little more effort and it will come” is what I’m telling myself. I have it, but my heels are about an inch away from the floor. I’m driving to hold on and trying to maintain my breath at the same time. Some serious Nadi Shodhana (nerve cleansing) is going on here!! In my head I’m screaming “will somebody please help me for crying out loud!” Right as I’m about to relinquish, panting my ass off like a dog in heat, Sharath steps in to give a little assistance. I almost gave up on hope there for a minute.
Today is Wednesday, the 30th of January 2013. It’s my last day at the shala. I’m on my mat flowing through Primary series with contentment in my heart. No expectations as I arrive at Paśāsana…yay!!!. Once again the struggle to hold on to the bind with my heels down is starting in my mind. My approach this time is more in-depth. Taking the easy road is out of the question! Breathing deeply I took a few moments prepping myself. With concentration I master the connection and nail the left side. “Right side isn’t going to be so easy” is what I’m telling myself. So, I go for it once, twice and I’m already defeated. I didn’t even look around to see if Sharath was watching me. Since three is my favorite number I thought I’d give it one more go. My thoughts were “you can do this! suck in your stomach, twist, grab your hand and lift your ass!” Inching toward Paśāsana for the last time today I did exactly that! And for the first time in over a year I’ve finally perfected Paśāsana all on my own!!!
Exhausted from the many attempts, I plopped on my bum and released myself from the pose only to look up and see Sharath there with a smile. Trust me when I say “he made me work for it!” Laughing a little, he commends me with words of hope “good, very good…now do Krounchāsana and finish.” At that moment, I came to appreciate his teachings. It’s like this: My classmates and I are attending the same school. We’ve all been given homework with the same guidelines to follow. Now we have to show that we’ve been doing our homework. If you really want to figure out that math equation you will! With a little determination and effort the solution will come, right? You’ve got to be dedicated and willing to learn. It’s the same with YOGA! Sometimes you just have to go deeper than you ever have before. If the teacher always gives us the solution to the formula then what good is it doing you? “You’re just bending the body” is what Sharath says. Advancing further in your practice means working harder, contending a bit with what comes up and simply figuring it out. This doesn’t mean don’t ask for help or dwell on it. Dig a little deeper and give it all you’ve got. Later down the road you’ll need that same formula in one or more challenging asanas. In the end you see, I really didn’t need the demonstration after all.
What it means to practice yoga is to have faith, let go, trust in yourself, and work hard. The āsana practice of yoga is to bring stability to the mind and body. All the rest will follow. Yoga is that opportunity for us to become the observer, to feel every bit of comfort and discomfort that arises. Not to escape, but to be fully present with our breath, body, and mind. Sometimes we have to face ourselves on the mat and ask “what do I want out of my practice? What do I want in life?” Do the inner work and you will find the answer. Yoga is lifelong and goes much deeper than the physical. Sharath says that Yoga should be practiced 365 days, 24 hours a day.
I’ll leave you with this quote from “Giving up the Green Bitch” by Graham Hancock.
To live is to bring insight and give us the chance to change our behavior in the future, to be more nurturing and less toxic, to be more considerate of others and to be more aware than we were before of the incredible privilege the universe has given us by allowing us to be born in a human body – an opportunity for growth and improvement of the soul that we absolutely must not waste.
~ Jade Skinner